A glance upon his life and works
Nikos Kazantzakis was born on February 18, 1883, in Ottoman-occupied Crete. He received his basic schooling in Heraklion, and in 1897 he attended the Catholic School of Trade on the island of Naxos, where he vigorously studied Western Literature, and the French and Italian languages. In 1899, Nikos returned to Crete with his family, and three years later, he graduated from Heraklion High School, top of his class. Between the years 1902 and 1906, Nikos studied at the School of Law of the University of Athens, from where he graduated with the highest honors and a doctoral degree in Law. The year 1906 was marked by Nikos Kazantzakis’s first appearance in Greek letters with an essay titled “The Disease of our Century” under the pseudonym, Karma Nirvami. There was another publication that same year; a romantic novella titled Serpent and the Lily which revealed the masterful literary touch of a future classical author.
Nikos Kazantzakis spent the years 1907-1908 in Paris as a graduate student in Literature and Philosophy, under French philosopher Henri Bergson, who was a great influence in Kazantzakis’s world view. Nikos Kazantzakis completed his dissertation in 1908, titled Friedrich Nietzsche and the Philosophy of Law and the State while in Paris. In 1911, what started as a fiery and tender union with Galatea Alexiou, ended up in divorce in 1926. Eventually, Nikos Kazantzakis found happiness and marital bliss in his second wife and life companion, Eleni Samiou, the woman who afforded him the peace and support he needed to create some of his greatest works.
A man of tender heroism, Nikos Kazantzakis, assumed a responsibility of great national and humanitarian importance in July, 1919, shortly after Eleftherios Venizelos, Prime Minister of Greece, appointed him Director, and subsequently General Director, of the newly established Ministry of Care. He was bestowed with the mission of heading a task force that traveled to Caucasus, in order to organize the process of repatriation for thousands of persecuted Greeks, after the establishment of communism in Russia in 1917.
Kazantzakis, after a grueling and arduous journey, led approximately 150,000 deracinated Greeks to Macedonia and Thrace, where they resettled into a new life. One of his companions during this mission was Giorgis Zorbas, the man who was to offer his name and vibrant personality to Nikos Kazantzakis’s legendary character, Alexis Zorbas. Kazantzakis was actively involved in civic affairs, in the tumultuous political arena of mid-20th century Greece. In 1945, he served as ‘Minister without portfolio’ during the administration of Prime Minister Themistocles Sofoulis. He resigned after roughly forty days, unable to bear the multitude of requests for “special favours” that plagued the public services of Greece at the time. He also served as city councilor in the Municipality of Athens, and as Department Head of UNESCO in Paris (1947-1948) he long-headed the facilitation of translations of the world’s classics “in order to build bridges between cultures, especially between East and West” (Bien, P. Kazantzakis, Volume 1: Politics of the Spirit). Kazantzakis resigned before completing a full year in this position, despite the substantial political and financial advantages accompanying it, so that he might devote himself completely to his pure, albeit less profitable, intellectual endeavors.
During the Nazi occupation of Greece, a time when almost 300,000 Greeks died of starvation, he was living on Aegina Island off the coast of Piraeus. He and his wife, along with the other inhabitants of the island, suffered from extreme starvation. As Eleni revealed: “There were days that we had nothing, absolutely nothing to eat; on some days we were lucky enough to have some edible plants which I gathered from the fields nearby.” During his life, Kazantzakis lived in Crete, Athens, on the island of Aegina, Vienna, Verne, London, Assisi, Berlin, Paris, Russia, and, during the final years of his life, in Antibes in South France, an ancient Greek colony named Antipolis, which bore a Mediterranean-style resemblance to his native island, Crete.
Nikos Kazantzakis’s luminous pen produced all genres of Literature; poetry (The Odyssey, of 33.333 verses and Tertsinae), novels (Christ Recrucified, Zorba the Greek, Captain Michalis - Freedom or Death, The Last Temptation of Christ, God’s Pauper, The Fratricides, The Rock Garden, Toda Raba, Alexander the Great, At the Palaces of Knossos, Report to Greco), theatrical plays and tragedies (Prometheus Firebearer, Prometheus Bound, Prometheus Unbound, Kouros, Odysseus, Melissa, Christ, Julian the Apostate, Nikiforos Fokas, Constantine Palaeologus, Kapodistrias, Christopher Columbus, Sodom and Gomorra, Buddha, Fasga, The Day is Breaking, Othello Returns, Comedy, etc.), philosophical works (Saviors of God and Symposium). His exceptional gift for languages allowed him access to Ancient Greek, Latin, Italian, French, English, German, Russian and Spanish texts, and broadened his vista of World Literature. His numerous translations, which demonstrate his incredible agility to leap from text to text, always acknowledging and respecting the author’s tone and purpose, include Nietzsche, Bergson, James, Darwin, Goethe, Dante, Plato, Homer, but also Vern, Dickens, Swift, et. al. His traveling books refer to Peloponnesus, Italy, Egypt, Sinai, Palestine, Spain, England, Russia, Japan, China and Cyprus. Several of Nikos Kazantzakis’s plays are frequently being adapted and staged for the theater in Greece and all around the world, in Europe, Australia, the United States, Asia, and Africa.
Three of his novels were adapted and made into successful films. Zorba the Greek, directed by Michael Cacoyiannis, won three Oscars in 1964 and made its central character a household name across the world. The Last Temptation of Christ, directed by Martin Scorsese, was nominated for an Oscar for Best Director in 1988, and two Golden Globes. His novel Christ Recrucified, which exemplified his profound love for Jesus Christ, was adapted into film by Jules Dassin, and premiered in 1957 at the Cannes Film Festival, with the title: Celui qui doit mourir (He Who Must Die).
Nikos Kazantzakis’s exquisite mind allowed him to view the material world with sophisticated lucidity and sober insight, yet at the same time, to be able to discern the ineffable forces that move the Universe: “God, the Great Ecstatic, struggles to speak in every way He can, with seas and with fires, with colors, with wings, with horns, with claws, with constellations and butterflies, so that he may establish His ecstasy.” (Saviors of God). The basic axis of Kazantzakis's work is dignity, social justice, inner freedom and courage pure and strong enough to allow an ephemeral human being to stare fearlessly into the abyss and to not recoil; this is “the Cretan Glance” of Nikos Kazantzakis, a constant struggle towards the fulfillment of the human soul, a soul starved and unsatisfied, which annihilates, mortifies and devours the flesh, so that it may accomplish transcendence and salvation.
The fervor with which this timid and kindhearted man was persecuted by both the Greek Orthodox Church and the Greek State is unwarranted. Government officials intervened so that he would not be awarded the Nobel Prize he so rightfully deserved. Nobel Laureate Albert Camus, to whom Kazantzakis lost the Nobel Prize in 1957 (by one vote), wrote to Eleni expressing his deep admiration for Nikos Kazantzakis and concluding: “[Nikos] deserved [the Nobel] a hundred times more than I did”. Other government officials ensured that Nikos Kazantzakis would be denied the validation of his passport on the grounds of being a “communist”, at a time when most of his books were banned in Communist Russia for their content.
As Nikos Kazantzakis searched for God, Church officials searched his books for phrases which strayed from doctrine. They always found something, on one occasion, without even having to open one of his books. In 1954, the Greek Orthodox Church of America convened to condemn The Last Temptation of Christ as “indecent, atheistic and treasonable”. They also condemned Nikos Kazantzakis's book titled: “Kapetan Michalis Mavrides”, a book which never existed. It seems that the Holy Fathers, having never read Nikos Kazantzakis’s Kapetan Michalis and basing their case exclusively on newspaper articles – as they later admitted – in their haste to condemn him, had merged the book’s title with the name of the Publisher (Mavrides). The title and the publisher’s name had been inscribed somewhat close on the cover, thus endowing Kapetan Michalis with a new surname and Nikos Kazantzakis’s novel with a brand new title!
Almost thirty years later, the Greek Orthodox Church of America, printed an educational textbook with excerpts taken from Nikos Kazantzakis’s Kapetan Michalis, so that the Greek children of America would learn the Greek language through Kapetan Michalis’s noble spirit.
In April 1954, The Last Temptation of Christ was included in the notorious and widely dreaded Index of forbidden books of the Vatican, the Index Librorum Prohibitorum. Kazantzakis responded with a letter to the Index Committee of the Vatican City with a quote by Tertullian: “Ad tuum, Domine, tribunal appello” (“At Your court, Lord, I make my appeal”).
The Greek Orthodox Church had already launched its own relentless persecution against him long before that, since 1927, with the publication of his Saviors of God. The rumors that Nikos Kazantzakis has been excommunicated endure to this day. Nikos Kazantzakis was vilified, called an “atheist,” accused of heresy, blasphemy and irreverence, but was never excommunicated by the Greek Orthodox Church. In a letter to the Holy Synod, Nikos Kazantzakis replied to these allegations with these words: “You have execrated me, Holy Fathers; bless your souls. I pray that your conscience may be as clean as mine and that you may be as moral and as religious as I am”.
In 1968, the Ecumenical Patriarch Athinagoras stated that “Nikos Kazantzakis’s books adorn the Patriarchal Library”.
What was Kazantzakis's political dogma or religion? In the words of Kimon Friar, scholar, friend of Nikos Kazantzakis and translator of Saviors of God and The Odyssey: A Modern Sequel in English: “No religious dogma, no political ideology may claim Nikos Kazantzakis. His works will always be a heresy to any political or religious faith which exists today or which may be formulated in the future, for in the heart of his spiritual exercises lies a bomb, timed to explode all visions which are betrayed into the petrification of ritual, constitution, or dogma. His works are not solid land where a pilgrim might stake his claim, but the ephemeral stopping stations of a moment where the traveler might catch his breath before he abandons them also, and again strives upward on the steep ascent, leaving behind him the bloody trail of his endeavor.”
Nikos Kazantzakis died on October 26, 1957 at the University Clinic in Freiburg, on his way back to Antibes, from his journey to China and Japan. It was 10:20 pm when he left his last breath in the warm embrace of Eleni, his wife and life companion. On November 4, his body was escorted to Heraklion by his grieving widow and a few bosom friends, and was then laid out in the Metropolitan Church for public viewing. On November 5, 1957 he was buried at Martinengo Bastion, on the Venetian Walls of Heraklion. On his tombstone, which today is a destination of spiritual pilgrimages from across the world, the words that he had chosen have been engraved:
I fear nothing
I hope for nothing
I am free
Nikos Kazantzakis’s works are now considered classics and he, an ecumenical author. Any film based on any work by Nikos Kazantzakis becomes a box office hit almost immediately. The same goes for any theatrical adaptation of any of his works with sold out performances, and all of his novels have become incontestable best sellers. The translations of his masterpieces solidify the cultural bridges that connect all the countries of the world with Greece and the spirit of Hellenism.
On a small Catholic church in the United States some years ago, a banner was raised; it was made with deep blue silk and was embroidered with branches of an almond tree. On it, with golden letters, one could read the words of Nikos Kazantzakis: “I asked the almond tree: Sister, speak to me of God. And the almond tree blossomed…”