Nikos Kazantzakis
New York: Simon and Schuster, 1965
Translated from the Greek by P.A. Bien
495 pages

Comments by Bob Corbett
December 2006

This is Nikos Kazantzakis’s intellectual autobiography. Not a log of places visited, nor a log with specific dates, places and people, nor a log when special events occurred. Not even an autobiography where he purports to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

Rather it is the story of his metaphysical and moral journey through life: the story of his ascent from Jesus to Buddha, a side trip to Lenin, culminating in his own voyage of Odysseus – the body of his written work and thought.

Kazantzakis avoids the problem of a recent “confession of life” in which an author was caught out embellishing the truth to the level of fiction. Rather, he tells us straight out that he has mixed truth with fiction for better effect. I would make the case that this fictionalized autobiography is more accurate to his life precisely BECAUSE of the fiction. He is much less concerned to give us facts of the this and that of his everyday life than he is to give us a picture of his intellectual and moral growth, his vision of the meaning and meaninglessness of human existence. Curiously the richness of many of the “fictional” scenes is that they bring greater power, clarity and conviction to his fundamental message.

The central driving force he wishes his life had had is THE ASCENT. Ascent to where? He really doesn’t know. It is the ascent, the hard uphill battle toward some endpoint that is the point of his life, the driving force of his existence. The freedom of mixing fact and fiction allows him the license to make this a rather pure ascent and admittedly aggrandize his person a good deal. But once one accepts this and reads the book as more an historical philosophical journey, the more valuable and believable the book is. The more, too, it is that his fictional account, in an odd and ironic sense, is more real than a non-fictionalized account of his life would be.

His main set of guides or influences are the life of Jesus, the way of Buddha, Lenin’s driving force to build his utopian world and the concept of Odysseus as wanderer, on his way “home.”

But never in any of these four is it the doctrine that moves Kazantzakis. Not the Jesus of Christian religion, not the Buddha of most accounts, neither the doctrine of Lenin nor his murderous ways and certainly not the mundanity of Odysseus’ return home. Rather, what moves Kazantzakis is the fanatical commitment of each man to his respective goal, not the goal itself.

Yet in the long-run it is Frederich Nietzsche who claims the primary role of mentor to Kazantzakis. He frequently mentions the other four as being operative at various stages of his life but he doesn’t tie these four as closely to Nietzsche as I would have liked him to. Somehow Nietzsche seems to be the string which binds the quintet together.

In a long, brilliant, if idiosyncratic, chapter on Nietzsche (a chapter much more about Kazantzakis than Nietzsche) he pulls together his realization of meaninglessness, (most would call it his pessimism) and celebrates Nietzsche’s superman (whom he clearly aspires to be more than the other four) for his courage in accepting the flawed world as it is, Kazantzakis struggles to embrace this struggle toward creating meaning and does so with courage and Cretan passion, and struggles mightily to build a new world that is neither flawed nor meaningless. This is a world of process not achievement. It is the GOING not the ARRIVING that matters, the way one lives one’s life, not the universe in which one lives which really counts.

He repeatedly denounces the hope and fear which he sees dominating the people of Earth and which drives them to the fanaticism which cripples them into looking for an ideal heaven or equally despicable, being saved from hell rather than embracing the world as it is.

Another figure who serves as a model, one much less abstract than Nietzsche’s superman, is Zorba the Greek. Kazantzakis tells us he actually knew Alexis Zorba. He was, in this admittedly fictionalized “report,” a former miner. But in this account Kazantzakis says that he himself has money, given him by an uncle to start a business, and Zorba cons him into the famous search for lignite, leading to, as Zorba says in the novel, “the whole catastrophe.” But, in REPORT TO GRECO Zorba then heads off to Serbia and a long correspondence continues between Zorba and Kazantzakis until Zorba’s death.

Kazantzakis then claims he wrote the novel to present Zorba as a model of Kazantzakis’s views. This was the sole place in REPORT TO GRECO in which I really wondered or cared about the “true” story in the sense of the actual autobiographical background. My curiosity has been peaked and I wonder, in a way I don’t care about other cases, the fact/fiction mix in his reports on Zorba.

Finally, of course, there is the fiction of the title. Why report to El Greco? Who is he in Kazantzakis’s life? There is little in the book of his relationship to El Greco, though the last 20 pages, the Epilogue, is addressed directly to El Greco. Before this he only briefly mentions the painter in four or five passage. El Greco is sort of a special hero, especially since he was born in Crete.

What seems to have attracted him to El Greco was the latter’s courage to be different, his genius, pessimism , denial of hope and fear which made Kazantzakis’s (fictionalized) El Greco to be a very close model of Kazantzakis’s vision of a Neitzchean superman. El

Greco is also close enough to the fictionalized Kazantzakis so that the mirror image tells us how Kazantzakis wishes his own life to have been.

Kazantzakis enriches his account with many verbal images and symbols. He frequently refers to the famous El Greco painting “Toledo in Storm” (generally known as “View of Toledo”). He seems attracted to the surrealistic distortion of form in El Greco’s work, and this painting’s dark and elongated features emphasize the general pessimistic sense of human existence which Kazantzakis has.

Reading this book was a deeply personalized dialectic for me. Kazantzakis’s fictionalized life is the life I came close to living, without Kazantzakis’s fame and level of genius to be sure. However, much else in his REPORT would be in my own REPORT TO ST. FRANCIS, or perhaps to Camus or even Heidegger.

Both of us began with Jesus (though his Jesus was the Jesus of Greek Orthodoxy and mine a Roman Catholic). I skipped Buddha and resided in the less Zorba-like Marx rather than Lenin, and later on I took refuge in Zorba himself as a version of my superman figure. Like Kazantzakis Nietzsche has been an important mentor for me and both of us unbelievers share a deep respect for Francis of Assisi.

Kazantzakis and I also share the notion that “meaning” is in the revolt which embraces the rejection of OBJECTIVE meaning, replacing it with subjective, self-chosen and created meaning. And we deeply share the WISH to be fully and perfectly committed to that goal.

I plead a bit more humility than Kazantzakis in seeing how very far short of that goal my life has fallen, mainly getting sidetracked by the pleasures of the capitalist “good life.” Since I only have Kazantzakis’s conveniently fictionalized account of his own life, I don’t really know quite where he failed. However, I have no doubt he knew well where his life lived up to his ideal and where it failed. His project in GRECO was a different thing, not a confession, but an idealized journey he wished to emphasize and the life he wished to have lived, thus I don’t fault him for this idealized version of his own life.

His summary of El Greco’s “resistance” deeply moved and motivated Kazantzakis:

It was a great moment. A pure righteous conscience stood on one tray of the balance, an empire on the other, and it was you, man's conscience, that tipped the scales. This conscience will be able to stand before the Lord as the Last Judgment and not be judged. It will judge, because human dignity, purity and valor fill even God with terror ... Art is not submission and rules, but a demon which smashes the moulds ... Greco's inner-archangel's breast had thrust him on savage freedom's single hope, this world's most excellent garret.

Along the way of reading this fascinating and challenging report I came across several passages of special interest which I wish to mention and/or comment upon.

  1. I especially like his account of asking an elder how he might seek a life of value and success. The Cretan sage responded: “Reach what you can.” But Kazantzakis responds that he wants even more than this in life. The sage them replies: “Reach what you can not.”

  2. Shortly after this passage Kazantzakis writes this bold and brilliant sentence: “Without elucidating this clearly in my mind, I had a presentiment that the true man is he who resists, struggles and is not afraid, in time of great need to say no, even to God.”

  3. Kazantzakis’s family fled to Naxos when he was just eight years old and the Cretan war was raging. He writes that he was astonished to find the people of Naxos living their daily lives without fear, but that “Liberty here had extinguished the yearning for liberty.”

  4. He provides a delightful discourse on even and odd numbers:

    I felt that the Parthenon was an even number such as two or four, Even numbers run contrary to my heart; I want nothing to do with them. Their lives are too comfortably arranged, they stand on their feet much too solidly and have not the slightest desire to change location. They are satisfied, conservative, without anxieties: they have solved every problem, translated every desire into reality, and grown calm. It is the odd number which conforms to the rhythm of my heart. The life of the odd number is not at all comfortably arranged. The odd number does not like this world the way it finds it, but wishes to change it, add to it, push it further. It stands on one foot. holds the other ready in the air, and wants to depart. Where to? To the following even number, in order to halt for an instant, catch its breath, and work up fresh momentum.

  5. As Kazantzakis looks back over his old diaries of youth he realizes he has moved on to different tactics and ways, but he respects the ROLE of youthful passion in its time.

    As I pore over this ancient diary now in my old age and see our quixotic campaigns of that time -- the ramshackle lance, worm-eaten shield, tin helmet, the mind filled with nobility and wind -- I am unable to smile. Happy the youth who believes that his duty is to remake the world and bring it more in accord with virtue and justice, more in accord with his own heart. Woe to whoever commences his life without lunacy.

  6. Kazantzakis allows that two key theses affected him deeply from youth on:

    1. Earth is not the center of the universe.

    2. Men are descended from the monkey, not privileged creation.

  7. Two more lines that provided me some serious thinking time-outs were:

    1. “I vowed never to shut myself up inside four walks of an office, never to come to terms with the good life, never to sign an agreement with necessity.”

    2. “… the man who either hopes for heaven or fears hell cannot be free. Shame on us if we continue to become intoxicated in the taverns of hope or the cellars of fear.”

  8. Kazantzakis is very honest about his relationship to thinkers and theories, even saviors: He uses them, is enlightened and changed by them and given momentary clarity even certainty. Then questions arise, limits develop and a new thinker or movement appears to change (temporarily) his reality.

    But like Dostoyevsky he tends to think the masses cannot deal with freedom, suffering and doubt and will take refuge in the easy way out.

    “The Russian masses stared ecstatically [at Lenin on 10th anniversary] with the precise gaze they had employed just a few years earlier when they viewed the rosy, blond face of Jesus upon the gilded rood scenes. This man was now a Christ, a Red Christ. The essence was the same: humankind’s eternal essence, made of hope and fear. Nothing had changed but the names.”

  9. Yet Kazantzakis deeply respected the struggle of the early days of the Russian Revolution. The people approached the new world they desired to create with the passion of a Nietzschean superman.

    Each man bears his cross; so does each people. The majority carry it on their shoulders until they die; there is no one to crucify them. Happy the man who is crucified, for he alone shall enjoy a resurrection. Russia was being crucified. As I roamed her various republics and villages, I shuddered from sacred awe. Never had I seen such struggle, such agony upon the cross, never so many hopes. For the first time I realized how difficult it is for a man to decide to take a step forward in order to conquer his former love, former God, age-old habits. Although all these had once been spirit urging him to ascend, they had turned to leaden matter in the course of time and had collapsed halfway along in the journey. Now they kept the new creative breath from passing.

  10. Kazantzakis develops a strange and rather pessimistic version of the Hegelian/Marxian dialectic:

    This is the law [the dialectic]; only in this way can life renew itself and advance. All living organisms (and ideas and civilizations are using organisms) feel the irresistible inner need, and beyond this the obligation, to grasp and assimilate whatever they can from their surroundings making this their own — to rule, if they can, the world. And a new idea is the most famished and grasping of all beasts.

    But at the same time another law begins to operate, the pitiless law that by however much the living organism carries out its duty to expand and rule, by so much, and more, does it approach its downfall. Hubris is perhaps the only sin which the universal harmony considers mortal and does not forgive.

    The culmination of the organism’s power is fated to engender its destruction.

  11. Kazantzakis sees himself and others who have come to grips with the meaninglessness of existence, yet who embrace existing as “the struggler.” But it is not this or that created value or end which matters, but the struggle itself:

    “You may be terror-stricken then, because you will discover an appalling secret: the Struggler is not interested in men: he is interested in the flame which kindles men. His course is a red line which perforates men as though they were a chaplet of skulls. I follow this red line; of all things in the world it alone interests me, even though I feel it passing through my own skull, piercing and smashing it. Of my own free will I accept necessity.

    But let us stop at human boundaries; only inside them can we work and do our duty. Let us not advance beyond them to the brink, because the abyss yawns at the brink, and our blood might run cold. Standing at the brink with his calm, venomous smile is Buddha, the great prestidigitator who blows and makes the world disappear. But we do not want the world to disappear, nor do we want Christ to load it on His shoulders and transfer it to heaven. We want it to live and struggle here with us. We love it just as the potter loves and desires his clay. We have no other material to work with, no other solid field over chaos to sow and reap.

  12. Finally are two more sentences which sparked considerable time of reflection in me:

    1. “The nonexistent is whatever we have not sufficiently desired whatever we have not irrigated with our blood to such a degree that it becomes strong enough to stride across the somber threshold of nonexistence.”

    2. “To refuse ever to deny your youth, right up to extreme old age, to battle all life long to transubstantiate your adolescent flowering into a fruit-laden tree – that, I believe, is the road of the fulfilled man.”
Bob Corbett


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