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Nikos Kazantzakis

A Glance upon his Life

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by Niki P. Stavrou

Nikos Kazantzakis was born on a Friday, the holy ‘day of souls’. “…The old midwife clutched me in her hands, brought me close to the light, and looked at me with great care. She seemed to see some kind of mystic signs on me. Lifting me high, she said, ‘Mark my words, one day this child will become a bishop’.” (Report to Greco, transl. Bien, P., p.75) His father, Kapetan Michalis, inscribed the exact date of his son’s birth, February 18, 1883,  on the back of an icon, a tradition he kept with the birthdates of all his children, two boys and two girls. Not all of them lived; Nikos’s brother, Giorgos (b.1890), died in infancy, sinking the family in grief.

The author of Zorba the Greek perhaps was meant to launch his professional life as a lawyer, and not as author or journalist. This was certainly his father’s aspiration for him. Nikos was to excel in his legal studies, and then pursue a career in the turbulent world of Greek politics. Kapetan Michalis, the man with the leonine eyes and the heavy heart, who had vowed to never smile or laugh until his homeland was free from the Ottoman yoke, had great expectations of his son’s vocation, demanding from him no less than the very liberation of Crete. “A man – that means useful to your homeland. Too bad you were born for studies and not for arms, but unfortunately there's nothing to be done about it. That's your road; follow it. Understand? Educate yourself in order to help Crete gain her freedom. Let that be your goal. Otherwise, to the devil with education! I don't want you to become a teacher, monk, or a wise Solomon. Get that clear! I've made up my mind, now you make up yours. If you can't help Crete either through arms or letters, you'd do better to lie down and die.” (Report to Greco, p. 95)

It was to inspire in his young son a yearning for freedom, strength of spirit and abhorrence for oppression, that during the 1889 massacres in Crete, Kapetan Michalis took him firmly by the hand and led him to the Square of the Lions in Heraklion.  It was first dawn and a gruesome sight awaited little Nikos: “When we reached the main square with its lion-sculptured fountain and the huge old plane tree at the edge, my father stopped. "Look!" he said, pointing with his hand. I looked up toward the plane tree and uttered a cry. Three hanged men were swinging there, one next to the other. They were barefooted, dressed only in their nightshirts, and deep green tongues were hanging out of their mouths. Unable to endure the sight, I turned my head away and clung to my father's knees. But he grasped my head with his hand and rotated it toward the plane tree. “Look!" he ordered me again. My eyes filled with hanged men. “As long as you live—do you hear—may these hanged men never be out of your sight!" "Who killed them?" "Liberty, God bless it!"” (Report to Greco, pp. 90-91) This experience, which was forever engraved in Nikos Kazantzakis’s mind and heart, he would later transubstantiate into inspiration, strength of spirit and a steadfast quest for freedom; spiritual, political, ideological.

Nikos Kazantzakis demonstrated his spiritual nature from an early age. He was enthralled by the idea of the hero-saint, the man who forsakes all earthly pleasures and possessions to pursue higher ideals. “Selling all my toys to my friends, I purchased the lives of the saints in popular, pamphlet-sized editions. Each evening I sat on my little stool amid the basil and marigolds of our courtyard and read out loud all the various ordeals the saints had endured in order to save their souls. The neighbors congregated around me with their sewing or work –some knitted socks, others ground coffee or cleaned mustard stalks. They listened, and little by little our courtyard began to ring with lamentations for the saints’ sufferings and torments. […] Passers-by hesitated and said to themselves, someone has died in there. They went to my father to bring him the sad news, but he shook his head and told them, "It's nothing. Just my son trying to convert the neighbors."”(Report to Greco, pp. 72-73)

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As a teenager, his idea of dignity and justice led him to formulate a secret society which would “…make uncompromising war on falsehood, servitude, and injustice until the day we died. The world seemed false, unjust, and dishonest to us. We undertook to save it –we three.” (Report to Greco, pp. 72-73) The three youngsters named their noble group “Friendly Society” after the 19th century secret organization “Filiki Etairia”, which had been established by prominent Greeks in order to overthrow Ottoman rule, and to facilitate the establishment of an independent Greek state. “We drew up plans how to achieve our goal, and distributed to each his battle sector. I was supposed to write plays, my friend would become an actor and perform them, and the third, who had a mania for mathematics, would study engineering and produce a great invention in order to swell the society’s treasury and thus enable us to aid the poor and oppressed.” (Report to Greco, pp. 72-73) The “Friendly Society” was short-lived, however, since real life insinuated itself in the young visionaries’ path.

Between the years 1890-96, Nikos Kazantzakis received his basic schooling in Heraklion and in 1897, after the new Cretan Revolution against the Turks, he was registered by his father in the Catholic School of Trade on the island of Naxos, where he vigorously studied Western Literature, French and Italian. He was an outstanding student, industrious and conscientious, laboring over his courses as if his life or dignity rested upon his academic performance. “This French school had students gathered from the whole of Greece. Since I was a Cretan and Crete was at that time fighting the Turks, I considered it my duty not to disgrace my homeland. I had a responsibility to be first in my class. This conviction, which I believe sprang not from individual pride but from a sense of national obligation, increased my powers.” (Report to Greco, p. 97)

His departure from Naxos is described colorfully in his autobiographical novel Report to Greco, as an organized abduction by Kapetan Michalis, who intervened to rescue him from the “clutches” of the Catholic Fathers who, acknowledging his scholarly potential and high intellect, had promised him a lofty position in the Vatican. “In my imagination I had already departed, crossed the sea, reached the Holy City, and finished my studies. I was wearing a broad scarlet biretta with a silk fringe, and as I looked at the middle finger of my right hand, I spied the mystic amethyst glimmering in the darkness. [...] At that point, however, destiny suddenly stirred, reached out its hand, and blocked my way. Someone whispered in my father's ear, "The Catholics are taking your son!" It was at night. The fierce Cretan jumped out of bed and roused several boatmen and fishermen he knew. Lighting torches and taking along a can of gasoline, as well as crowbars and pickaxes, they ascended the road to the citadel. There they began to beat on the school door, howling that they would set the place on fire. The monks were panic-stricken. Père Laurent, wearing his nightcap, stuck his head out of the window and shouted and implored, half in French, half in Greek. "My boy," called my father, waving the lighted torch, "My boy, you papist dogs, or else it's fire and the axe!" They woke me up. I dressed as fast as I could, they lowered me from the window in a basket, and I fell into my father's arms. He seized me by the nape of the neck and banged me against the ground three times. Then he turned to his companions. "Out with the torches. Let's go!"”(Report to Greco, pp. 104-105)

In 1899 Nikos returned to Crete with his family, and three years later, he graduated from Heraklion high school. Between the years 1902 and 1906 he 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 “The Disease of our Century” under the pseudonym, Karma Nirvami, published by ‘Pinakothiki’ literary journal.

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The publication of his first novel Serpent and Lily1 in Athens in 1905 (bearing the date 1906), is veiled in mystery, as the information surrounding its publication reveals that Nikos Kazantzakis had never wished it to be published, or at least, did not mean, at first, to publish it. The book bears the dedication: “Στη(ν) Τοτώ μου” [sic] which translates: “To my Toto”. ‘Toto’ was an affectionate pet name, for his first wife, Galatea. The confusion most probably arose when Galatea’s sister, Ellie, in a defamatory book about Kazantzakis, wrote that his first literary endeavor, Serpent and Lily, was inspired by and written for her sister, Galatea. The truth is that the book was inspired by none other than Kathleen Forde, the English teacher of his youth, the Irish lass, his first love, and with whom he experienced a brief but definitional love affair. Nikos Kazantzakis describes his relationship with Kathleen in chapter 14, entitled “The Irish Lass” in his autobiographical novel Report to Greco.

Nikos Kazantzakis spent the years 1907-1908 in Paris as a graduate student in Literature and Philosophy, under French philosopher Henri Bergson, a prominent thinker of the 19th and 20th centuries. “[Bergson] disburdened me from irresolvable agonies which tormented my early youth” he writes. “From Bergson”, states Kimon Friar, Kazantzakis’s friend and translator, “he learned that all of nature, all the pluriverse, all of life was the expression of an evolutionary drive, an élan vital, an inconceivable energy which ceaselessly renews itself, a continual creativity, a leap upward, not toward a fixed, predetermined, final end, but within a teleology immanent in the life force itself, which was creating its own perfectibility as it evolved eternally.” (Friar, p.37)

In Paris in 1908, and early 1909, Nikos Kazantzakis completed his dissertation, entitled: Friedrich Nietzsche and the Philosophy of Law and the State for the position of Lecturer at the University of Athens, which was published in 1909 in Heraklion, and was re-printed and published with a rich commentary and relevant information in February 1998 by the Kazantzakis Publications in Athens.  

In 1911, what started as a fiery and loving union with Galatea Alexiou, ended up in divorce in 1926. While married, they published literary texts under the pseudonyms Petros and Petroula Psilorites, they mingled with the intelligentsia of the time, but ultimately their common life proved sorrowful and unfulfilling for both. Eventually, Nikos Kazantzakis found happiness and marital bliss in his second wife and life partner, Eleni Samiou, the woman who afforded him the peace and support he needed to create some of his greatest works. On May 4, 1957, approximately six months before his death, Kazantzakis wrote to his friend Pantelis Prevelakis: “What can I say about Eleni? We met on a field-trip to Penteli in 1924. We were married on November 11, 1945. To Eleni I owe the entire daily happiness of my life; without her I would have surely died many years ago. A courageous companion, devoted, proud, ready for any action that requires love.” (400 Letters of Nikos Kazantzakis to Prevelakis2, pp. 723-724)

Nikos Kazantzakis never confined himself to a deskbound life, limited to reading and writing. In concert with his studies and his infinite knowledge of books, his numerous journeys nurtured his wanderer’s soul and fulfilled his spirit. He traveled extensively within Greece, on the mainland and the islands, to gain intimate knowledge of Greek nature and culture, to find himself close to its people, and to discover its history, myths and tradition. The Earth itself was an ever-replenishing source of inspiration for his writing, and his symbology reflects a profound, mystical bond with Nature. The Odysseus inside of him also guided him to many European countries, to the Middle East, to Siberia, China, Japan, etc.

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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, had appointed him Director, and subsequently General Director, of the newly established Ministry of Care. He was bestowed with the great task of heading the Mission which would travel to Caucasus, 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.

Even though Kazantzakis was an ascetic at heart, he was actively involved in civic affairs, all the more so, 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 served as city councilor in the Municipality of Athens and as Department Head of UNESCO in Paris (1947-1948), from where he also resigned, despite the substantial political and financial advantages accompanying the position, so that he might devote himself wholly to his pure, albeit less profitable, intellectual endeavors.

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. 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, also suffered from 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.”

Nikos Kazantzakis, despite hunger, poverty or his increasingly failing health, worked hard and incessantly. His pen produced all genres of literature. He wrote 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, The Palaces of Knossos, Report to Greco), theatrical plays, 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, 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.

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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. For the island of Cyprus, Kazantzakis bore a special affinity, since its trials and tribulations reminded him of his own island’s struggle for freedom. At his acceptance speech for the Peace Prize in Vienna on June 28, 1956, he spoke at length, and from a kinsman’s aching heart, about the Cypriot cause. 

Several of Nikos Kazantzakis’s plays were performed in the theater in Greece and around the world. Three of his novels were adapted and made into 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, with Willem Dafoe as Christ, Harvey Keitel as Judas, Barbara Hershey as Mary Magdalene and David Bowie as Pilate. The film, which has been characterized as one of the most brilliant feats in cinematic history, roused quite a stir among various Christian groups – even before its official release – and raids were organized and carried out against the Movie Theaters where it was being played. According to Mary Pat Kelly’s book entitled: Martin Scorsese, A Journey,3 Martin Scorsese stated that making this film had been for him like praying. Nikos Kazantzakis revealed that he was so deeply moved while writing the book that his tears soaked the paper, making it difficult to continue writing. Another novel which exemplified his profound love for Christ is Christ Recrucified, which was adapted into film by Jules Dassin, and which premiered in 1957 at the Cannes Film Festival, under the title: Celui qui doit mourir (He Who Must Die) with Jean Servais as Photis, Carl Möhner as Aghas and Pierre Vaneck as Manolios.

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 so delicately enciphered in Nature’s manifold expressions. “God, the Great Ecstatic, […] speaks and 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, that he may establish His ecstasy.” (Saviors of God, Introduction, Friar, p. 95)4 The basic axis of his work is dignity, social justice, inner freedom and courage, pure enough, 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 Church and State is unwarranted. Government officials intervened so that he would not be awarded the Nobel Prize he so rightfully deserved.

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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 concluded: “He deserved it [the Nobel] a hundred times more than I did”. Other government officers 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 (Friar, p. 21).

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”. Their disapproval, however, was also directed or, rather, misdirected to another book titled: “Kapetan Michalis Mavrides”. 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 nonetheless, 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 Christ5 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 God6. The rumors that Nikos Kazantzakis has been excommunicated endure and propagate to this day. Nikos Kazantzakis was indeed vilified, called an “atheist,” accused of heresy, of blasphemy and irreverence, but was never excommunicated by the Greek Orthodox Church. (In essence, the terms ‘blasphemy’ and ‘heresy’ are too broad for a single comprehensive definition and certainly cannot be substantiated by the close reading of one’s work; any one phrase which vaguely deviates from a particular religious schema may be considered blasphemous and heretical by the advocates of the rest.) In a letter to the Holy Synod Nikos Kazantzakis replied to these allegations: “You have execrated me, Holy Fathers; I bless you. 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”.

Furthermore, in the words of Kimon Friar, scholar, friend of Nikos Kazantzakis and translator of Saviors of God and The Odyssey: A Modern Sequel7 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.”8 (Friar, p. 39)

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Nikos Kazantzakis’s love for God was profound, infinite and universal. He believed that all roads lead to God: “Two prophets were once traveling in the desert and disputing. One claimed that God was fire, the other that He was a honeycomb. Though they shouted themselves hoarse, neither was able to bring the other over to his side. Finally, the first pointed in exasperation to the mountain opposite them. ‘If I am telling the truth, the mountain will begin to shake.’ And even as he said this, the mountain began to shake. ‘That's no proof!’ answered the second prophet scornfully. ‘If I am telling the truth, an angel will descend from heaven and wash my feet.’ And even as he said this, an angel descended from heaven, crouched, and began to wash his feet. But the other shrugged his shoulders. ‘That is no proof,’ he said. ‘If I am telling the truth, God will call out, “It is true!” ‘And even as he said this, a voice sounded from the heavens: “It is true!” But the second prophet only shrugged his shoulders again. ‘That is no proof,’ he said. At that exact instant Elijah was passing by heaven. Seeing God laughing, he approached and asked: ‘Why are you laughing, Lord?’ God answered: ‘Because I am pleased, Elijah. Down below on earth I see two men talking, and they are my true sons.’ ” (Report to Greco, p. 273)

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

        Today, Nikos Kazantzakis’s works are considered classics and he, an ecumenical author. 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…

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