THE EVERYMAN OF NIKOS KAZANTZAKIS
A basic lecture delivered before a variety of audiences
As the writer of a dozen or more plays, Kazantzakis also conforms to the allegorical mode. He places heroes like Promethous, Christ, Buddha, and Abraham in actions which bring out the kinship between man and his divinities, familiar archetypes “which shape the godlike in man and the humane in gods.”3 The following comment by Louis Broussard on the originator of expressionism, Strindberg, also applies to Kazantzakis. “For the devil, he substitutes materialism in one form or another; and for God, the life force or élan vital of Bergson.” 4 Broussard further comments that the “whole contemporary movement of allegory in art” symbolically recapitulates the theme of “journey” which began “long ago in the Odyssey and two civilizations later became the medieval morality play epitomized in Everyman.”5 Modern man’s need to know himself, his fate, and his God has grown desperate; potential answers recede as the abyss looms. Kazantzakis assumes the awesome task of finding Him in today’s spiritual wasteland. No contemporary writer surpasses him in the scope and profundity of his search, the brilliance of his language, and the boldness of his conclusions.
If he ultimately fails, as Kimon Friar affirms, he does so in the grand nineteenth century manner of Browning’s intrepid grammarian: the goal is impossible to reach in the first place. What Kazantzakis demands of his disciples is also impossible. His Everyman, as we shall see, is no ordinary man. What distills as the Kazantzakis version of Odysseus, for example, originates in the Romantic movement’s concept of the hero, “the transdental personal ego” of Coleridge, Carlyle, and Neitzsche.6 As his widow asserts, Kazantzakis loved ordinary men, but he was not impressed by them. The great heroes of the past served better to enrich his own Protean thought. Friar writes that he was dedicated to Neitzsche’s “Overman,” not to the “Superman”—to that person “who struggles to overcome man’s limitations” as they are usually defined.7 He took very seriously the Neitzschean cry, “God is dead!” As various critics have observed, Kazantzakis spent most of his life in the holy pilgrimage of recovery: to find a new God, or concept of God, capable to transcending the savage God-killing forces of modern society.
The decade of the 1920’s, when Kazantzakis wrote The Saviors of God and began his Odyssey, posed enormous problems for confirmed theists. The search for a usable past by some traditionalists was compounded for others by the equally avid search for a believable God. The publicist Bruce Barton conceived Him to be a business executive of the best Wall Street type. John Crowe Ransom deplored the liberal deity of the social scientists and called for the inscrutable Old Testament God with all His thunder intact. T.S. Eliot appeared satisfied with the inherited God of the Anglo-Catholic tradition, and he severely castigated the Neo-Humanists for allegedly trying to make a religion out of literature. Profound young theologians like Niebuhr, Tillich, and Barth began probing anew the most subtle recesses of belief and unbelief. As time passes, Kazantzakis will doubtless be seen as one of the more astute “God Saviors” of our period. It is the overwhelming theism at the center of his thought which pressures allegorical meaning upon his major characters.
Although his critics have hardly mentioned the allegorical nature of his work, Kazantzakis himself was quite aware of its presence. In the section “The Relationship Between God and Man” in The Saviors of God, he writes on our duty to “conquer mortal since, the concentration on details, the narrowness of our brains,” reiterating a favorite process of his—that of ascent and transmutation.8 Through all and beyond all charges a spirit, the élan vital which for Kazantzakis is God, the name being immaterial; man’s duty with respect to this divine force is clear.
10. We struggle to make this
Spirit visible, to give it a face, to
11. But it cannot be contained
in the twenty-six letters of an
Kimon Friar alters the metaphor of mask to say that the works of Kazantzakis, in their deepest meaning, were failing efforts to bridge that chasm. In the ever upward spiraling movement of his thought, Kazantzakis sought to transcend time. For him all evolution, whether physical, biological, social, or spiritual, was open-ended, or ended in the paradox of the negated negation. However, he inescapably wrote in time, responded to Idea and Action in time, and concretely related the present to past and future. The character of his Everyman, his Odysseus, was not so much a Platonic conception as he was a product of the manner in which Kazantzakis defined the essence of his age.
An erudite scholar, he echoed many central idea clusters of the early twentieth century. Matthew Arnold had very clearly stated what Kazantzakis almost word for word echoes in The Saviors of God: “We are living in a critical, violent moment of history; an entire world is crashing down, another has not yet been born.”10 Man in such a transitional era is of necessity a more dynamic and imperiled being than his counterpart in a placid period. With the World War and Russian Revolution just ended, Kazantzakis had somewhat more reason to speak of violence than did Arnold. The world dying was capitalism, the world being born was communism. Modern Everyman had to seek his God (the invisible spirit, the élan vital during and after this epochal death struggle. The Odysseus of Kazantzakis was also caught between two contending worlds, as Pandelis Prevelakis notes: between the Bronze Age and the Iron, with all the attendant uncertainties and existential choices facing the hero in pursuit of his divine purpose.11 Odysseus is the quintessential hero. He combines in one the allegorical symbolism which the lesser heroes embody in part, or at an earlier stage of development. Only one other personage, Kazantzakis himself, can be identified with Odysseus in terms of spiraling total significance.
A theist despised by the official Orthodox Church, Kazantzakis had an unusual bi-level view of the Russian Revolution. On various occasions he declared that bourgeois civilization had outlived its usefulness and had to disappear, taking its customs, laws, and gods with it to the graveyard of history. The Communists were the necessary barbarians bearing the pure flame of spirit, the élan vital. This view infuriated the Right, especially in Greece. On the other hand, Kazantzakis repeatedly declared that he was not a Marxist. He was too much of a mystic, too dedicated a theist. His ample contact with the Soviet Union, which he traveled from end to end, only confirmed his belief that it had to transform its materialism into spirit or suffer the doom of all previous cultures. He fully accepted the liberating force of Lenin; but the guns of civil war had hardly cooled when he was already looking beyond the era of world communism. He conceived his book on what he called Meta-Communism, The Saviors of God, with the prospect of bequeathing mankind a time-bomb to rekindle the flame that materialism would presumably extinguish.
This obscurantist un-Marxist view sullied whatever confidence the Left might have had in him for the more immediately revolutionary content of his thought. Conceivably, the Bergsonian energy flowing through matter had no consciousness of class and could therefore do as much damage as good to the fortunes of the proletariat. It transcended class discipline. Furthermore, the mysticism needed for belief in élan vital seemed to contradict a basic premise of Marxist humanism, or of any humanism for that matter, i.e., that man has supreme value as he is, without any special sanction from the divine.
In Toda Raba, a novel inspired by his Soviet journeys, Kazantzakis has a Cretan named Geranos exclaim: “We must love not human beings, but the inhuman flame that devours them. We must fight not for humanity, but for this flame which makes fire out of the damp, crawling, nauseating straw that goes by the name of Humanity.”12 Man is a worm whose only real glory, achieved through a struggle to ascend, lies in becoming metamorphosed into a butterfly.13 From Kiev in 1928 he writes to Eleni Samios: “I love the first descent of the Spirit, the violent event that brings the fire. The rest of it, the way that the dread moment gets channeled into prudent, everyday necessity, does not interest me very much. My deepest joy is to see how the mysterious force seizes hold of man and shakes him like a lover, an epileptic, or a creator. Because, as you know, what interests me is not a man himself, but the being that I so imperfectly designate as ‘God’…14 Man as such is important, Kimon Friar observes, only “in his struggle with the material elements of his nature” whereby he “might be the Savior of God and bring Him to more and more spiritual essence.”15 One might logically expect that the author’s favorite hero, Odysseus, would have something to say on the subject, and he does: “I don’t love man, I only love the flame that eats him!”16
The thought of Kazantzakis sours into the mystical aura of Spiritus Mundi when he writes in Toda Raba that Russia is controlled by “the dark, intemperate, ruthless Spirit of our age.”17 Time and again, in one way or another, he claims that man serves mysterious forces beyond humanity. In another letter to Eleni Samios he admits to suspecting that there is something inhuman in his nature. The Saviors of God was meant to satisfy the spiritual needs of a post-communist age. However, a book’s living influence does not await the millennium; in the author’s own time, in between capitalism and communism, The Saviors appeared as an anti-communist attack on dialectical materialism. Kazantzakis, of course, did not arrive at his spiritually transposed matter within the given self-generating premises of the Marxian dialectic, which can say that mind (or spirit or soul, if one wishes) constitutes the highest form of matter. For Kazantzakis this idea only vulgarizes the élan vital; it turns soul into flesh, rather than flesh into Spirit. In any case, the Greek Left rejected Kazantzakis, as his widow writes in her recent biography. During the German Occupation of Greece, he offered to join the Resistance, but the Resistance leaders turned him down “and treated him as a secret agent of the Intelligence Service.”18
After the civil war and
the Varkiza Agreement the “fascists,” as Mrs. Kazantzakis
calls them, won out in Greece. For the last 22 years of his life, this
prophet without honor, this
The major heroes of Kazantzakis, regarded as allegorical figures, express the essential values of his world view. The vast majority of them take the form of symbolic personages rather than personified abstractions. According to Dorothy L. Sayers, the latter are required for “full-blown allegories.”19 Kazantzakis’ greatest use of this type occurs in The Odyssey: A Modern Sequel, where we find such characters as Granite, Hardihood, and Death. In the Prologue of the tragedy Sodom and Gomorrah, God appears as a voice offstage. Toda Raba, which means “Thank you” in Hebrew, is an African who personified the revolutionary spirit of Lenin that one day will awaken the dark continent. “He (Toda Raba) strode across Moscow, bounded over the plains of the Ukraine, cleared the Dneiper in one leap, and arrived at the Black Sea.”20 To his friend “Borje Knos, Kazantzakis projected a tragedy with four clearly symbolic characters: Minos, Theseus, the Minotaur, and Ariadne. Minos would stand for the last fruit of a great civilization, Theseus the first flower of a new. “The Minotaur, the dark sub-conscious, wherein the three great branches (Animal, Man, God) have not yet become separated; this is the primitive, dark Essence containing everything. Ariadne, “he wrote,” is Love.”21
In reviewing Report to Greco, Philip Deane suggests that the ferocious energy of the Kazantzakis hero derives from the author’s Cretan heritage. “To be Cretan,” he says, “is a distinct, intense state of being.”22 Those Cretans who survived the cyclical Turkish massacres had to be stern, cunning, ruthless, merciless, and treacherous. They were what Greeks call pallikaria, epic folk heroes. “And the pallikaria overwhelmed Kazantzakis. He never wrote about any others.”23 The élan vital, the saviors of God, the Cretan pallikaria—little wonder that his characters have so much bounce and appetite, so much added dimension. Deane divides them into two categories: the hero-warriors Zorba, Captain Michales, Judas, the gaunt priest of the fleeing Greeks in The Greek Passion (Father Fotis); and in the same books, the hero-martyrs, such as the Buddha-oriented writer in Zorba, Christ in The Last Temptation of Christ, and the young shepherd boy Manolios.24 The most all-inclusive, of course, is Odysseus.
Both major types of hero
have potent allegorical meaning. The archetypal warrior represents the
violent path whereby the hero transcends himself and, as Kazantzakis
so frequently affirms, changes matter into spirit. The martyr type achieves
the same mysterious goal by being more acted upon than acting. To support
the validity of the first type, Kazantzakis time and again stresses
the need of man to be committed to struggle, to burn with flame, to
seek the freedom based on total negation of hope. “If you are
a warrior,” he writes in The Saviors of God, “be pitiless;
compassion is not in the periphery of your duty. Kill the foe mercilessly.”25
Thus may God be freed from your enemy’s body. The kind of self-liberation
demanded by Kazantzakis involves peril and pain.
Nothing had to come. Exiled
from his homeland, Kazantzakis at Antibes continued to write the impressive
novels that helped make him a world celebrity and serious candidate
for the Nobel Prize in literature. He had already written Zorba the
Greek. Of this most popular of his heroes he writes: “He taught
me to love life and not fear death.”28 The time of the action,
1917, reflected the young author’s interest in Neitzsche, Bergson,
and Buddhism. Scholars like Friar have based the central conflict on
the famous Neitzschean duality: Dionysian versus Apollonian, flesh and
mind, action and ascetic denial. Noting Zorba’s essentially allegorical
character, the Time reviewer said of him: “He is Everyman with
a Greek accent. He is Sinbad crossed with Sancho Panza. He is the Shavian
Life Force poured into a long, lean, fierce-mustached Greek whose 65
years have neither dimmed his hawk eyes nor dulled his pagan laughter.”29
Whoever evaluates Zorba’s actions pragmatically or logically misses
the point. It is irrelevant whether or not he and his “boss”
can make the lignite mine produce for profit. The mine is merely a prop,
an excuse, a catalyst, a formal means of providing an extended action
whereby the Neitzschean dualities mentioned above can unite in an explosive
synthesis. They do so in the ritual dance which Zorba and his Buddha-haunted
friend perform on the pure sands of
Another hero-warrior who transcends rationality and “matter” to become flame and “spirit” is Captain Michales in Freedom or Death. He too is based on a real person, the author’s own father; every word in the book, Kazantzakis has stated, is authentic fact. The plot stems from the abortive Cretan rebellion of 1889 when Kazantzakis as a boy witnessed acts of incredible brutality. In The Odyssey: A Modern Sequel, he uses a hero already enlarged by myth and makes him larger still. In both Zorba and Captain Michales he takes real people and proceeds to mythologize them. They are his own special acts of creation—symbolic figures enriched by sensuous detail lovingly recalled. The struggle for freedom typified by Captain Michales is multi-leveled; it is political, personal, and physical. In his blood are certain demons who tyrannize, torment, distort his nature. He burns because he is Cretan, with a Cretan’s primordial thirst for freedom. Therefore he quite naturally reflects the archetype of the rebel, the revolutionary leader of his people against the Turks. The second demon takes the form of love for a woman, the archetypal Temptress, the Circassian girl Emine, whose debilitating power affects both the wild Michales and the more practical Captain Polyxigis. Michales kills her in order to exorcize himself, to free his blood, that he and his friend may better serve the greater need, freedom for Crete. Finally, after the military disaster that his love has encouraged, Captain Michales leaves for the ultimate freedom, to die heroically fighting alone against impossible odds. By his sacrifice he becomes a new and instant legend in the Greek patriotic tradition.
Of the author’s eight novels (not counting Report to Greco which he termed a novel), the most thoroughly allegorical is The Greek Passion. This work represents Kazantzakis’ ideal of the hero-martyr. The theism shown in his religious figures was a deep vein in his nature. Quite apart from his intellectual commitment to the Bergsonian élan vital as “god,” there was an emotional and psychological commitment to a spiritual conception of himself in the universe. No other proof of his religiosity is needed, perhaps, beyond the content of his work. Yet two of the people who knew him best make his compulsion explicit. “To found a religion, to found a religion at all costs, this was the obsession haunting Kazantzakis over a long span of years,” writes his widow.30 Kimon Friar, who translated The Odyssey: A Modern Sequel into English, observes in a review of Report to Greco: “Ever since in early childhood Kazantzakis read with tears and delight the penny-dreadful Lives of the Saints, he thirsted for sainthood with its martyrdom and tortures.”31 The time he spent meditating with the monks on Mount Athos was not a quixotic act of alienation; it was a stern need of his soul, a need to spiritualize his Ego.
A person oriented toward
the saintly looks for signs, and Kazantzakis received his in Vienna
in 1922. A virulent case of eczema attacked his face. “My entire
The Greek Passion is all allegory. In Lycovrissi, under the watchful eye of the cruel Agha, the elders select the members of the Passion Play cast: Manolios, the Christ; Yannakos, the apostle Peter; Michelis, the apostle Jon; Kostandis, the apostle James; Panayotaros, the apostle Judas; and the widow Katerina, Mary Magdalene. The elders themselves stand for various important sins: Priest Grigoris, the sin of pride; old Ladas, avarice; the archon Patriarcheas, gluttony; and the schoolmaster Hadji Nicolas, cowardice. These characters swiftly assume the reality of their symbolism; they become what they have been chosen to represent. With a sensuous richness of detail Kazantzakis brilliantly and inexorably propels his players forward until they achieve their allegorical meaning. Manolios illustrates well the author’s perennial concern with the ascent, the turning of matter into spirit. Soon after being selected to play Christ, he is Christ, in the context of Lycovrissi; and the Turks are the evil Romans against whom Manolios, the once humble shepherd, now proclaims a revolutionary war of liberation. From matter, Manolios turns into flame, into spirit. In the gothic climax, the “Judas” Panayotaros kills this new Christ. The play has dramatized its terrible truth.
In The Greek Passion, where
the allegory makes categorical demands upon the writer, the character
of Judas (not to mention the others) is forced upon Kazantzakis by the
Christian tradition. Judas is the traitor who betrays Christ. In another
novel, however, The Last Temptation of Christ, Kazantzakis is under
no such restraint. The character of Christ is traditional enough when
stripped, as the author desires, of all ecclesiastical gloss and claptrap.
But the portrayal of Judas undergoes a drastic change. Kazantzakis makes
That the Tempter loses in a struggle with a superior will make Christ a foremost example of what Kazantzakis means be freedom, the ability to negate everything material for the sake of the spiritual. Buddha was another example, the “last man” of Neitzsche who stands naked and unafraid before the Abyss of nothingness. As we have seen, Kazantzakis strongly believed that he lived during the death throes of Western civilization. The translator of The Last Temptation, P.A. Bien, says of the author’s purpose that he wanted “to lift Christ out of the Church altogether, and--since in the twentieth century the old era was dead or dying—to rise to the occasion and exercise man’s right (and duty) to fashion a new saviour and thereby rescue himself from a moral and spiritual void.”36 Christ, Buddha, Saint Francis, Neitzsche, Lenin, Spengler, Freud—these and other “Overmen” fructified Kazantzakis’ vision of man and God in the universe. He was absorbed in the achievements of heroic minds because they rose above all petty concerns and succeeded in modifying the essence of things. They all added something vital to man’s spiraling journey to the spiritually sublime. One other figure needs to be examined in the light of his allegorical significance. That figure is Odysseus.
Kazantzakis spent fourteen years in writing and rewriting The Odyssey: A Modern Sequel. The epic scope of his labor is well known. To further elucidate the meaning of the vast poem, Kimon Friar provides an informative Introduction, a Synopsis, and Notes. For some time now the interpreters of Kazantzakis have been assessing the multifold influences on his works. He made his literary enthusiasms very apparent; the great minds he admired were his treasured companions on the most desperate pilgrimage of all time: to find a believable God in this most convulsive and perilous age. For himself, as John Arthos notes, the way of Christ was “inaccessible.”37 His mentor Neitzsche, who had declared that God was dead, also fumed that Christianity was the religion of common slaves. Kazantzakis finally abandoned the ascetisicm of Buddha; and Zorba, though admirable for hedonists, tended by his sensuous appetites to turn spirit into matter rather than the reverse. All his life, Kazantzakis declared, he fought the constant battle between the spirit and the flesh. Lenin represented the “flame” of Russia but also the materialism which Kazantzakis sought to transmute in The Saviors of God. All the great heroes whom he had to “exorcize” from his blood (demons he labeled some of them) enriched his total vision. There remained Odysseus, whom he did not have to exorcize; if anyone could be said to be the author’s alter ego, it was he.
For his lesser heroes whom he designated with the important title of “saviors” of God, Kazantzakis wrote a series of over twenty poems in terza rima. He named his heroes the “Bodyguards” of The Odyssey after the example, no doubt, of the Tibetan Buddhists whose masked guardian deities serve as Protectors of the Faith. Friar explains why Odysseus looms so centrally in the Greek writer’s thought.
Kazantzakis told me that
these bodyguards of ten appeared in
They also both exemplify the archetype of the Searcher; insofar as their identity coincides, they have similar allegorical significance as symbolic figures. What Odysseus the character accomplishes in heroic action, Kazantzakis does as the inspired creator of both the hero and his action. The idea of ascending search remained constant throughout his life; of his fictional heroes Odysseus is the most Protean in his going from role to role and cycle to cycle. References to Odysseus and to the theme of journey abound in the writings of Kazantzakis. In The Saviors of God he says: “We are a humble letter, a single syllable, one word out of a gigantic Odyssey.”39 Geranos in Toda Raba, speaking for the author, declares that he is a follower of Don Ulysses as one of his sailors.40 While writing his epic sequel, Kazantzakis tells Eleni Samios: “My heart is a ship with a yellow sail, from prow to stern filled with Odysseus. He has set off on his second and last journey—passing through Crete, Africa, the Mediterranean. He encounters the ideas and women and labors he has longed for. He transcends human limits and goes on—creating God with the prow of his ship.”41 Long after he completed his task, Miss Samios, now his widow, refers to the fourteen years it took him to model his Odysseus, the “future man.” She then states that “Odysseus in his turn had allotted fourteen years to model the future Kazantzakis.”42
It is Pandelis Prevelakis, however, who most completely to date identifies the author with his hero. He prefaces his listing of common traits by stating that the whole world view of Odysseus is contained in The Saviors of God. In his book Prevelakis points out stage by stage where in The Odyssey this world view is made explicit. His listing of the traits held in common by author and hero may be summarized as follows.
They are both molded more by their own thoughts than by outside events. They hate being conscripted, and rarely are. They sacrifice human happiness to their “higher destiny.” They constantly identify God with the primordial force which “drives man to surpass himself.” They burn with desire for action and “suffer from the irony of things.” They have a mania for far places and wish to taste all earth’s fruits. They are inspired by the heroes of the past, are jealous of them, live at times like hermits, and search for a satisfactory world view. They regard poetic creation as a principal “means of deliverance.” They undertake tasks beyond their powers. They know logic cannot solve the “mystery of the universe” and yet worship Mind, the Master Mason. They seek to reach their limits and leave only the lees to death. They absorb the ideas of their time with a personal intellectual discipline. They apply rigid standards even to friends, affirm opposites, despise cowards and conformists, spurn social conventions, transcend the erotic instinct, and “dissolve sensible reality itself” with their thought. They attribute mystic meaning to dreams and waking premonitions, and train themselves in solitude—the “fundamental passion of their being.” They are worldly but consider nature indifferent if not hostile, they are heartened by pessimism, they pose a lust for life against the absurdity of death. They grasp sensible and abstract things as a unity. They go beyond the finite, professing a fire-worshiping theory that reconciles pessimism with heroism. They measure themselves against the great spiritual leaders in their search for absolute freedom. Prevelakis concludes his comparison of Odysseus and Kazantzakis: “They struggle without God, and gaze haughtily at the ultimate Nothing, but often they behave like desperadoes.”43
The author as a human being
cannot escape his limitations; as for his recreated Odysseus, only such
concepts as aesthetic form and probability (the logic inherent in poetic
license) can modify his imagined exploits. For example, Odysseus develops
a third eye to symbolize the added vision he gets from the power of
his “Cretan Glance.” The power of Kazantzakis’ vision
cannot logically be expressed by such an eye on his own forehead.
The Odysseus of Kazantzakis
is the product of a synthetic philosophy, a hero closer in spirit to
Dante’s Ulysses and to Tennyson’s than to the Homeric prototype.
Kazantzakis also finds Odysseus restless in Ithaca very soon after he
settles his immediate affairs. He
Just as his patron goddess
Athena energizes and perpetually renews the original Odysseus, so Kazantzakis
endows his hero with magical physical and metaphysical prowess. He subdues
a revolt in Ithaca before departing with his chosen comrades. In Sparta
he abducts Helen and takes off with her to Crete where he helps destroy
the doomed kingdom. Abandoning Helen, a symbol of Beauty, he reaches
the decadent Egypt where he and his band will be guided by Hunger, “the
longing for social justice.”44
His going south beyond the sources of the Nile (Lenin) for such a purpose symbolizes the fact that the author’s previous work, The Saviors of God, applied to a post-Communist age, beyond the victory of Leninism. At the source of the Nile, accompanied by a leopard cub, Odysseus ascends a mountain to commune with God in the form of a flame. He builds his ideal city to guard his god, Flame, only to have it destroyed by a volcano. Going into solitude again, he becomes a famous ascetic. Released from matter, free, he diverts himself with a play of mind. Then he travels southward and meets Motherth, a symbol for Buddha who has seen Death as a “black night-moth.” At last, after other symbolic adventures, he reaches a seaport. “A procession is passing outside the tavern: the blacks are honoring a new god, brought to them by some Cretans: it is Odysseus himself, who has coursed like a divine fire through their island.”45
Kazantzakis may not have founded a religion but Odysseus does, in the allegory. While building his boat to renew the voyage by water, Odysseus meets a virginal fisher-lad, a Christ figure, whose creed of love and meekness the former rejects. In utter solitude he sails toward the South Pole; he knows “that man sails on the waters of despair, with Death as captain.”46 Finally, naked, Odysseus leaps upon an iceberg to await his own end. At his summons, all his comrades and everything he has loved on earth arrive as shades, along with Tantalus, Prometheus, Heracles, and Temptation. Suddenly, all dematerializes; all matter becomes spirit. “Odysseus’ mind makes a leap and frees itself from its last cage, that of its freedom.”47 The final negation has been negated; nothing remains but absolute Nothingness.
Even this briefest of resumes
makes a strong case for reading The Odyssey: A Modern
Kazantzakis, of course, does not stop with these contributions. He also writes, as his last testament, Report to Greco. Whereas in the character of Odysseus he speaks for his alter ego, in the Report he speaks for himself. Like the archetypal Wanderer who finally returns to the land of his fathers, Kazantzakis returns in spirit to Crete. His grave, which is also in Crete, has begun to acquire the sanctity that it sorely lacked some years ago when ill-wishers desecrated it with the contents of their chamber pots. Not only are Kazantzakis’ ancestors buried there, both dead men and dead gods; but Crete is the hub of three continents, the center of man’s universe. To the utmost clarity that human vision is capable of having Kazantzakis gives the name, the Cretan Glance. It is no great surprise, therefore, that he dedicates his finally summing-up (The Odyssey was the first) to his fellow Cretan, Domenicos Theotocopoulos, known to the world as El Greco.
The immortal painter whose genius found release in Spain had the clarity mentioned above—to see the spirit beyond matter, to see matter struggling to become spirit, to see all forms evolving toward God. Kazantzakis had a “violent meeting” with his compatriot in the mid-Twenties when he visited the El Greco Museum in Toledo. He noted then the Cretan artist’s “terrifying and holy intoxication.”48 To Eleni Samios he wrote in 1926: “El Greco is becoming a great lesson for me, a model, a direction that I must follow.”49
Report to Greco is no ordinary autobiography. The mere facts of even so unusual a life as Kazantzakis’ are not enough: these facts serve only as concrete objects to be transmuted into essences, symbols, and incantations. The mystical part of these objects, their mana, is precisely the allegorical meaning which the author ascribes to them. A lifelong habit of mind in flames and enlarges and makes incandescent the physical and intellectual odyssey which Kazantzakis underwent. As Kimon Friar states, he casts aside the factual details of his life and concerns himself “with tracing the essences of various episodes and trying to distill from these a final quintessence.”50
On the tenth anniversary of his death, the townspeople of Heraklion, Crete, held a memorial to honor their most celebrated citizen. Frank Riley was there to report the event for the Saturday Review. He was especially impressed by the procession led by the youth of Heraklion. “Each student,” he observed, “carried a copy of one of the more than eighty books written by Nikos Kazantzakis, many of them translated into thirty languages—one of the most awesome creative outputs of this century.”51
All his life, with pen in
hand, Kazantzakis struggled to perform that difficult (because mystical)
feat of turning matter into spirit. Perhaps he succeeded and perhaps,
as Kimon Friar suggests, he did not. One thing is very certain, however;
he also turned a great deal of his own author’s spirit into solid
matter: the more than eighty books which he wrote. Were he indeed a
Spirit in some Bergsonian version of the after-life, and could look
down upon Heraklion to see the votive procession in his honor, Kazantzakis
would have smiled, and called it good. Our pragmatic and scientific
age seems to thirst more and more for the occult, the mystical, the
holy. Kazantzakis wanted very much to create a new religion. He did
not find his Calvary; but he may yet, in time, find his Paul.