Nikos Kazantzakis : The Last Temptation Of Christ : Always Thirsty
Although many people may have heard of the novels Zorba the Greek and The Last Temptation of Christ, both of which have been adapted into films, it appears that few are so familiar with the name of the author, Nikos Kazantzakis. Although a national hero in his beloved homeland of Crete, Kazantzakis has failed to achieve the recognition in England that he so richly deserves. Novelist, playwright and journalist; disciple of Nietzsche, Bergson and Buddha; admirer of Christ and Lenin; praised by Thomas Mann, Albert Schweitzer and Albert Camus, his works are the external expression of an inward cry that seeks answers to the most profound questions of existence.
I first stumbled across the name Nikos Kazantzakis when I settled down to watch Martin Scorcese’s production of The Last Temptation of Christ, a film that has raised more eyebrows and received more complaints than any other film I can remember. However, unlike the majority of God-fearing viewers that recommended that Kazantzakis be anathematised from the human race, I did not find it offensive. On the contrary, although not particularly religious myself, I was profoundly attracted to this human Jesus, painfully struggling as he was between an acceptance of his own tragic, divine destiny and the temptation to bypass that suffering and live a normal, comfortable life, but consequently fail in his mission. Despite my discomfort with the American Dafoesque portrayal, I felt this to be a highly positive account of Christ, far more accessible and empathetic than that found in the Gospels.
Such an introduction to the powerful thought of Kazantzakis led me to track down more of his works. In particular, I became (and still am) fascinated by his aphoristic work The Saviors of God: Spiritual Exercises, which captures the essence of his philosophical ideas. A highly complex and difficult work upon first reading, I was aware of the accusations of nihilism and pessimism that had greeted its initial publication in Greece in 1927. However, I could not concur with the supposed negative ending of the work when all that went before seemed so illuminating and positive. I was intrigued. I sensed a new and refreshing approach to the relationship between matter and spirit and the ultimate question of God. I wanted to unravel all the layers of this enigmatic thought and so I decided to make an examination of the philosophical thought of Nikos Kazantzakis the subject of my doctoral research. Last year, this research took me to Iraklion, the birthplace of Kazantzakis, where I engaged myself with studying his personal library, housed in the Historical Museum of Crete, which is a fitting memorial to his life and work.
He was born in Iraklion in 1883 and studied in Athens before moving to Paris to study under the influential French philosopher Henri Bergson. It was in Paris that he nurtured his love for Nietzsche and soon afterwards Buddha. As well as his interest in philosophy and dramatic works, his journalistic commitments led him to compose travel-books about his visits to Italy, Spain, Russia, Japan, China and England. His magnum opus, translated asThe Odyssey: A Modern Sequel consists of a monumental 33,333 verses and was completed in 1938. The latter part of his life saw his concentration focus primarily upon the composition of novels, most notably the works translated as Zorba the Greek, Freedom and Death and, of course, The Last Temptation of Christ, which was placed on the Roman Catholic Index of Forbidden Books by the Pope in 1954. Due primarily to the widespread condemnation of the book, his body was refused permission to lie in state in Athens after his death, before being taken to Crete. His humble grave overlooks his beloved Iraklion.
His work was highly regarded by many eminent writers of the time, including Albert Camus who was eager to find a theatre to stage Kazantzakis’ play Melissa when the two met in Paris during 1947. By this time, Camus was highly respected as an emerging young writer, already author of the acclaimed L’Etranger (The Outsider), as well as achieving notoriety as a journalist writing largely about his native Algeria. Camus used his novels as the channel for his philosophy of the absurd, which he saw as constituted by the meeting of the human mind’s desire for understanding, coherence and unity with the unreasonable silent response that was offered by the universe. In his essay The Myth of Sisyphus (1939), Camus had attempted to find a meaning to life when one accepted the renunciation of the existence of God and eternal values.
In his interpretation of the myth, in which Sisyphus is condemned to eternally roll a rock up a hill that no sooner reaches the top rolls down to the other side, Camus asserts that the hero provides a way to proceed beyond the paralysis of nihilism. As Sisyphus is conscious of the futility and hence absurdity of his action, he is able to transcend the despair that might easily have followed. For Sisyphus, the value in life is to be found not in its inherent meaning, but in one’s attitude towards it. This attitude is one of revolt, the refusal to be paralysed by the consciousness of the absurdity of our existence. For Camus, recognition of the absurdity of life, which entails the realisation that all actions are ultimately annulled by death, that “supreme abuse” , enables one to lunge totally into the immanent world of experience. In an article from 1939 Camus claimed that “To establish the absurdity of life cannot be an end but only a beginning”. Thus he saw in the struggle of Sisyphus the means to go beyond nihilism. Camus concludes his interpretation of the myth as follows: “The struggle itself towards the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. We must imagine Sisyphus happy”.
In a similar way, Kazantzakis sees this approach of Sisyphus as a way beyond nihilism and despair. In a letter dated cober 21, 1947, he wrote to his friend, the Swedish politician Borje Knos: “’What is the right path?’, an Indian proverb asks. ‘The path of God’.’And what is the path of God?’ ‘ The uphill path!’ Humanity will once again take the uphill path, like Sisyphus” .