believing . . . and the Religious experience of life
My purpose in writing was not beauty, it was deliverance
— Nikos Kazantzakis
Anyone unwilling to grapple with spirit had better leave Nikos Kazantzakis alone—for it emptied his life and fills his works. And those who regard ‘spirit’ as merely a figurative term or hollow concept will be unable to grasp either the man or his works. But should they wish to try . . . let them pick up something—any work at all —that this son of Crete ever wrote. Then, holding it in their hands to take in its words through their eyes, let them see what happens inside them when, as with those not expecting visitors who suddenly hear the front door open and someone enter — their own soul rushes out to see who it is. When any arresting sentence or pungent passage kindles a recognition in their soul, then let them wonder at that quiver of life inside them—at what it is and where it comes from.
When Kazantzakis was born, the old midwife brought him close to the light and examined him with great care. Then, as if seeing some mystic sign on him, she lifted him high up and said, “Mark my words: One day this child will become a bishop.” Later, when he learned of this prophecy, Kazantzakis believed it because it matched his most secret yearnings. So from then on he set out to do only what he thought a bishop might do — until the day he came to see what bishops really do and changed his mind. “Thenceforth, in order to deserve the sainthood I so craved, I wished to avoid all things that bishops do.” And he did. Throughout his life he would reject anything not big enough to be lived — and the power of life within him would batter and smash against whatever wasn’t. And how would he know what was big enough to allow spirit the breathing room without which it will surely die? There was really only one way—risky, but sure; and he set out doing it about as soon as he learned to walk.
One day in school we read in our primer that a child fell down a well and found himself in a fabulous city with gilded churches, flowering orchards, and shops full of cakes . . . My mind caught fire. Running home, I tossed my satchel in the yard and threw myself upon the brim of the well so that I could fall inside and enter the fabulous city. My mother…uttered a cry, ran, and seized me by the smock just as I was kicking the ground in order to hurl myself headforemost into the well.
All his life, when there was no one to protect or stop him, Kazantzakis would hurl himself into the deepest wells of humankind: Art, Religion, Politics, Philosophy … to find out where it led, or drown. He did not calculate shrewdly or bargain like Faust, holding out until the terms were right; but instead simply handed over his whole existence— body, mind, soul, and spirit—to trying the way of those who have pointed the way for humankind, to see if their paths did indeed lead to life: Homer, Moses, St. Theresa, Buddha, Dante, Christ, Nietzsche, Muhammed, Genghis Khan, Shakespeare, Don Quixote, Lenin, El Greco, and others. Kazantzakis struggled in his spirit to meet theirs with no holds barred. Each encounter left a mark on his soul, giving to him and taking from him something, so that he would never be quite the same again.
Few humans treading this earth ever risk the total abandonment of a true pilgrimage, let alone undergo the danger and disintegration of a journey so vast in scope as that undertaken by Kazantzakis. Few who set out on such a journey persist to the end, and of these, only a handful produce anything that transcends their personal search and passes on something that others can use to advance further still. Had he been a man of thought or a man of action, he might have chosen to walk either path to distinction—as thousands of other genuinely outstanding people have done. But both strivings were in him, as they are to a degree in everyone, and they turned up early in his life, when he was still a schoolboy. His response hinted even then that he was one who would choose to live them both.
So audacious did my mind become, that one day I made the harum-scarum decision that next to every word in the French dictionary I would write the Greek equivalent. This labor took me months…and when I finally finished…I took it and proudly showed it to Père Lau rent, the school’s director, a learned Catholic priest. “What you have done, my young Cretan, shows that one day you will become an important man. You are fortunate in having found your road while so young. Scholarship—that is your road. God bless you.”
Filled with pride, I ran as well to the assistant director, Père Lèlievre, a well-fed, fun-loving monk with playful eyes. “Shame on you!” he screamed. “Are you a boy or a doddering old graybeard? Out of my sight! Take it from me that if you follow this road, you’ll never amount to anything—never! You’ll become some miserable round-shouldered little teacher with spectacles. If you’re really a Cretan, burn this damnable dictionary and bring me the ashes. Then I’ll give you my blessing. Think it over and act. Away with you.”
I went away completely confused. Who was right, what was I to do? Which of the two roads was correct? This question tortured me for years, and when I finally discovered which road was the correct one, my hair had turned gray.
This happened when Kazantzakis was a boy; but holding fast to both strivings, he wandered the world and became a man. When one striving persisted, content in being tended to and followed, then discontent and at times even disease would drive the other one into a resounding lament that soon swelled into a piercing temple-cracking cry that would make him turn and follow it.
Thought and action taunted him like two seductive sirens. Untied to any mast, he took the cotton from his ears, and then followed, living the torment of conflicting lures and screams—until he found, amidst the swell of rage and clamor, the still small voice of his own soul. At times the tension nearly tore his life apart. To ease the wrenching pain, most people would let one of these mighty strivings go, and lob it out of awareness, holding from then on with both hands fixed firmly to the other. But Kazantzakis didn’t. Like a man trying to tame two steeds, each lunging in a different direction, Kazantzakis held onto both. This guaranteed that his life would thus become a pilgrimage, for that is what a pilgrimage is: a journey combining thought with action, a sustained living of both. He undertook this pilgrimage, persisted in it to the very end, and in so doing created the unfolding journey of his life.
And journey he did, starting with Greece —“the filter which, with great struggle, refines brute into man, eastern servitude into liberty, barbaric intoxication into sober rationality”—where, “The spirit has trodden upon the stones…for many, many years; no matter where you go, you discover its divine traces”; Italy and Assist—where “For the entire extent of this honeymoon with my soul I felt, to a greater degree then ever again in my life, that body, mind, and soul are fashioned of the same clay. Only when a person ages or falls into the grips of illness or misfortune do they separate and oppose one another”; Mount Athos— “…since I myself could not become either a saint or a hero, I was attempting by means of writing to find some consolation for my incapacity”—where he and his poet friend, thinking they were a team of oxen, yoked together and, plowing the earth, “plowed the air” in youth’s needful Quixotic assault upon life; Jerusalem—“the sun-baked land where once upon a time a flame had bounded out of a poor cottage in Nazareth, a flame which burned and renewed man’s heart”—the place on the voyage to which, “The ship’s hold seemed like a new catacomb in which slaves had assembled once more—today’s slaves—to conspire to blow the world up all over again…High up in first class, the carefree faithless talked politics…while here below, deep down in the hold, we were carrying as a terrifying gift the seed of a new, dangerous, and as yet unformed cosmogony”; The Desert and Sinai—where an old monk, about to die, entrusts him with the fruit of the monk’s apprenticeship in life to flesh and spirit…“You are rendering up the flame of your entire life. Will I be able to carry it still further and turn it into light?”; Crete— where his father, unsatisfied with his only and wandering son, said, bidding him farewell at the waterfront, “I think you’re like your grandfather…I don’t mean your mother’s father, but mine, the pirate. But he rammed ships…What ships are you ramming?”; Paris—where he studied under the philosopher Bergson, and dove into that martyr to truth, Nietzsche; Vienna—where he discovered Buddha, and was also afflicted by a tormenting illness that swelled his face so that his eyes shut almost completely, which the renowned Freudian, Wilhelm Stekel, diagnosed as “ascetic’s disease,” common in the Middle Ages but almost unheard of in modern times…“because what body today, obeys its soul?”…and which cleared, as Stekel said it would, as soon as Kazantzakis left behind both Vienna and the woman he had met there; Berlin—where his Buddhism was punctured by the great misery of human suffering, hunger, oppression…shaming him into a responsibility which linked him from then on with all the rest of humankind—and where he first met Albert Schweitzer; Russia—Lenin, Marx, and the Slavic soul and land where the awesome bloody experiment was taking place…“Miracle butts against reality, makes a hole, and enters” The Caucasus—where he moved completely into action in taking, as he was asked to, the directorship of Greece’s Ministry of Social Welfare, in order to rescue 100,000 Greeks endangered by the Bolsheviks on the north and the Kurds on the south…“The moment was ripe to test whether action, by slicing its sword through the insoluble knots of speculation, was alone capable of giving an answer”; Crete— returning home…“Having just returned from Russia, I too wished to make this microscopic attempt to emerge from my ivory tower and work with human beings.” And then…“as if fate was in a mood to play games”…he met Giorghos Zorba…“this dancer and warrior, the broadest soul, surest body, freest cry I ever knew in my life.” (The account of this pilgrimage, filled with rare and truly magnificent discoveries, is laid out before the reader in Kazantzakis’ Report to Greco; New York: Bantam, 1966.)
Then he stopped to catch his breath from the grueling pace of the spiritual marathon he had been on for forty years. The air he now breathed in blew like wind across a field of grain, and it shook loose the seed of his soul, which fell to the ground within him, took root, and began to sprout. For years he had had a definite aim.
My aim is not Art for Art’s sake, but to find and express a new sense of life…In the process of writing I feel increasingly relieved. And yet I know that this is by no means enough. To attain my aim, I must make a leap. As soon as this leap is accomplished (which can only be an example of life and not one of Art and writing), I shall find the expression of my soul…
Now that aim took shape. As he began to find his soul, a living form emerged, an actual man . . . Zorba . . .
“Giorghos Zorba …this dancer and warrior, the broadest soul, surest body, freest cry I ever knew in my life.”
. . . whom he then used to refashion an ancient form into a figure big enough to pour his forty years of thought and action into, which was “…Odysseus; he was the mold I was carving out so that the man of the future might flow in.” In this act and work, his “Obra,” a remarkable metamorphosis occurred: what he was struggling to create now began to actualize itself within him. In the fourteen years he was metamorphosing Odysseus from the issue and happenings of the past, his own substance was transubstantiating itself into the stuff of the future. Sitting down to write out of the odyssey he had lived, he commenced to live the odyssey of which he wrote—and arose a different man.
If he had allotted fourteen years to model his Odysseus, the “future man,” Odysseus, in his turn, had allotted fourteen years to model the future Kazantzakis. And when the umbilical cord was cut, ed, there were two men—mature, serene, walking hand in hand along the rim of the abyss. The osmosis of life and death took place gently, “admirably,” open-eyed. (Helen Kazantzakis, Nikos Kazantzakis, New York: Simon and Schuster: 1968, p. 384.)
This, by far, was the most critical period of Kazantzakis’ life. During this time he was sure he was wasting his life, was thunderstruck in totally different ways by his mother’s death, and then his father’s, lost some of his closest friends, had the deepest doubts about his writing, experienced a series of severe setbacks with publishers, and underwent extreme personal and financial hardship. Yet at the same time, he focused his life’s elusive purpose in a single sentence, (“It is not human beings that interest me, but the flame that consumes human beings.” Ibid, p. 214.), found his most natural style, heard the cry of the future, entered fully into his Age, wrote The Odyssey, and then launched forth, unencumbered and renewed, into the future. He had made it through life’s straits. To be sure, there in the narrows much had washed overboard and tumbled into the rough dark waters of the deep. But like the little skiff he saw in a dream, his heart kept scudding along in the narrow crack left between the menacing sky and pitch-black raging sea, billowing full-sail toward the open waters.
Kazantzakis had found vitality in a form he thought he was unsuited for and not able to handle: the novel. A torrent of novels then rushed forth. Still true to his aim, his primary thrust in this venture of body, mind, and soul was not artistic but religious—genuinely religious. As Martin Buber defined it: “The realer religion is, so much the more it means its own overcoming. It wills to cease to be the special domain ‘Religion’ and wills to become life” (The Eclipse of God, New York: Harper & Row, 1952). Instead of using life’s power to create expressive forms, he came at it the other way around, seeking to find expressive forms that the power of life might use. While art is a movement of life into form, religion is a movement of form into life. In the first, spirit becomes matter, and in the second, matter becomes spirit. He was after a way to extend spirit, to stretch it in order that life could have the breathing room in which to form him and all humankind anew, thereby lifting man higher and planting him with both feet on the new ground of the age just dawning.
I used to believe that there must be a great difference between vital literary work and action. A genuine novelist can live only in his own time, and by living this reality he acquires consciousness of his own responsibility and assumes the duty of helping his fellowmen to envisage and solve, as far as possible, the crucial problems of his era. If he acquires consciousness of his mission, the novelist endeavors to compel the reality that is flowing formlessly to take on the form he regards as most worthy of man….
As Kazantzakis labored in the vineyard of this unfamiliar genre, thought and action joined and produced offspring. Each novel was a furthering step in his pain-filled yet joyous ascent, and meant another trip to the rim of the abyss, to look into it unflinchingly and leap, so that he would have to sprout wings to keep from perishing. Each new novel was thus a stretching of his outermost boundaries, a making of still more of his soul into spirit; so each one, a little odyssey in itself, drained more of his life from him. Eleni could plainly see the exhaustion hollowing out the face of her companion as he continued along his chosen path:
I’ve struggled, that’s true, throughout my life. And I’m still struggling to keep my soul from dying. I know how the mortal becomes immortal. And this is precisely the great torment of my life. For it is not enough that you know. You must also become…
Finally, on October 26, 1967, sick with fever, while Eleni was at his side, he made his final leap into the abyss and rendered the last bit of his life into spirit.
Confronting death as he had lived, he had just given up his soul. “Like a king who had taken part in the festivity, then risen, opened the door and, without turning back, crossed the threshold.
“I had been struggling for a lifetime to stretch my mind until it creaked at the breaking point in order to bring forth a great idea able to give a new meaning to life, a new meaning to death, and comfort to men.”
What he had been struggling to do in his lifetime, Nikos Kazantzakis achieved. Faith is that upon which one is willing to act. To believe is to be and live more and more in the light of the ultimate, so that one’s life becomes filled with it. Believing means fashioning one’s “more” into a religious act and experience of life. For Kazantzakis, the élan of life came through this ardent desire. “We call ‘nonexistent’ whatever we have not desired with sufficient strength.” Thus his life was an enactment of adoration, and it is the efficacy of his ever-transcending act that pours into the lives of thousands of others as spirit. Early in his life he had wanted to found a new religion. He failed in that, yet succeeded in doing much more. Because far greater than that which only brings in the new, is something strong enough to make even the old new once more. The tremendous might of his spirit broke the crust of what so much religion had hardened into for centuries, exposing again the good bread it held underneath, so it could be eaten and nourish to life the hungry souls of the world once more. And the power of his life, with all its far-reaching effects, showed in what happened at his funeral on the island of Crete, which both the church and the state sought, unsuccessfully, to suppress.
They were here from every village and city…50,000 of them, to pay final homage to the writer who had wandered the earth and always returned home to squeeze a clod of Cretan soil in his palm and draw strength from it…
Everything went as planned—the tributes, the placing of flowers— until it came time to lower the coffin into the grave. Then a giant of a man, a veritable Zorba, stepped out of the crowd…Captain Mamousakas…his mustache was large, sweeping, ferocious…“Such a man as this,” he rumbled, “must be put into his grave by heroes.” So saying, he picked up the head of the coffin by himself. His three friends took hold of the other end. Together they lowered Nikos Kazantzakis into his personal abyss. (Frank Riley, “A Cross In Heraklion,” Saturday Review, October 14, 1967, pp. 47-48.)
His life — long since turned into spirit — was stirring the lives here just as it was elsewhere around the world. And that same spirit is found there in the flame his work kindles in souls living today.
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A post script
Nikos Kazantzakis died October 26, 1967 at seventy-four. His wife Eleni (in English, “Helen”) lived to within a few months of her hundred-and-first birthday. She first wrote me in 1977 in response to what I’d written about Nikos. Prompted by him many years earlier, she had written a book about Gandhi and several other things (and, after Nikos’ death, the definitive biography on him). With her living in Geneva (photo above) and my living in the U.S., there seemed no viable way that we would ever meet. But eleven years later, in 1988, when I was in Europe on sabbatical for the entire summer in what became the second sunrise of my soul, we did meet. Greeting me at the door, she took the flowers I’d brought in her one hand, entwining her other in my arm, and said, “Come to my kitchen table. I treat you like family!” And over the lemon cake she’d made and the hot tea she’d prepared, we exchanged personal tales and told life stories for over five hours. Later, when I emerged from her door to hail a taxi on the street in order to make it back to the station and catch the train to Italy, I felt like the fountain in the photo above. That day stands as one of the most sun-basked glistening summits in all my life. -G.R.
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