Nikos Kazantzakis
New York: Simon and Schuster, 1963
Translated from the French by Richard Howard
SBN # 671-20340-1 251 pages

Comments by Bob Corbett
March 2009

THE ROCK GARDEN is a rather strange book. It is billed as a novel, and it is, in part. However, it is also a travel guide and perhaps most of all it is a philosophical / artistic reflection on the meaning of Kazantzakis’ own life. In 1936 he visited Japan and China. He wrote a travel book based on this trip, which, by the way, took place when Japan and China were in a semi-war, which actually broke out into a full war on July 7, 1937 and lasted until the end of World War II. He also wrote THE SAVIORS OF GOD: SPIRITUAL EXERCISES at an earlier time. In this novel there are long excerpts from this latter book, and some excerpts form the travel book as well.

There is relatively little to the book as novel. Kazantzakis had a Chinese friend, Li-Te while at college in England years before. At that time Li-Te had a love affair with a mysterious and sexy Japanese woman. As luck has it, after all these many years, Kazantzakis runs into her in Japan, just on the street. Rather exceptional luck I thought. Times have changed and Japan and China are in the early state of war. Joshiro is now working for the Japanese cause as a spy. Her love affair with Li-Te is long past and he, a Chinese, is a significant enemy since he himself is deeply involved with the Chinese Communist movement and is a vehement enemy of Japan.

Kazantzakis seems to use the two characters as well as Li-Te’s very traditional father, as props to discuss the enormous cultural changes that have come to both China and Japan and set both of them on the path to free themselves from Western domination and for each to dominate the other in the process. Unfortunately he uses them as rather shallow props.

Only slightly different is his would-be love affair with Siu-lan, Li-Te’s sister. He meets her on his visit to Li-te’s home, and is immediately in lust with her. It’s a crazy and totally unconvincing obsession. He just seems to want to add her to the huge list of women he has seduced or at least had sex with. There seems to be little love in this thwarted love affair, and not convincing passion. Kazantzakis seems to feel he must always be pursuing some new sexual conquest.

That may sound surprising given that Kazantzakis was 51 when he wrote it and went to Japan and China. But, in the autobiographical part of this book his central theme is the notion of life as a journey, a constant inquiry, a constant revising. What he seems less sure of is: Is this life of inquiry and constant revision a growth or just a movement. I think he is truly unsure.

While I was quite disappointed in two of the main facets of the novel part of this book, I still overall loved the book itself. The disappointments were the stories of Joshiro and Li-te and their relationship to the Japanese / China war, and his rather juvenile attempt to seduce Sui-lan. The just didn’t ring true or convince this reader.

However, I loved much of the philosophical inquiry which constitutes most of the book.

His primary philosophy stance, much influenced by his mentor Henri Bergson, with whom he had studied, and the phenomenology of Edmund Husserl, is captivating. He tells us:

1st. duty: Accept “All that I see, hear, taste, smell, and touch are the creations of my mind.”

2nd duty: “I will not accept boundaries; appearances cannot contain me; I choke! To bleed in this agony, and to live it profoundly, is the second duty.”

3rd duty: “Conquer the last, the great temptation of all: Hope.

“Nothing exist …, Neither life nor death. Treat matter and spirit as loving phantoms that pursue each other, embrace and vanish, and say: ‘This spectacle pleases me.’”

He is a constant seeker of truth and meaning and this trip to Japan and China is precisely to stimulate himself with these radically different cultural and religious/philosophical traditions. Even at age 51 he is a serious seeker.

“What is fulfillment of my own law? To disturb order, to violate convention, to turn from the path of the ancestors. To wander through the forbidden, in the proud and perilous regions of the uncertain. To receive without flinching – indeed, as a blessing – the curses of father and mother alike to have the courage to be alone.”

Yet there are curious contradictions:

I was surprised with Kazantzakis, champion of individual freedom, relishing the seeming perfect “servile manners” of an attentive Chinese waiter.

“What happiness, I thought, to have a servant, so faithful and so marvelously trained! Life could become endurable.”

Happily for me his next sentences returns more to the spirit and insight of the Kazantzakis I so admire. He says of his waiter in a café: blockquote>“I looked up to give him a smile of approval, but drew back, alarmed; I had surprised his gaze, which was piercing me like a dagger.”

In another place he is more playful about his search, but I doubt if he was terribly serious. The dialogue is on the conflict of reason and passion. In the end the dominant thrust is the seeking for and spelling out of his views on the ultimate.

“’If we drink two more glasses of this wine,” I said, ‘human logic will be in danger.’”

” ‘So much the better!’ answered the old poet with very long, gleaming nails. It will give way to music, which is the supreme logic, and you know how our Confucius loved wine, music and women. Exactly like your Socrates.’”

While I don’t know much about Confucius, I think it is quite clear that when Plato wrote his great works, putting Socrates’ arguments into print, he wasn’t writing under the influence of wine. My experience suggests a couple glasses may well be a decent preliminary to a good discussion, thinking, even writing. More tends to damage the product!

There is, he argues, an eternal struggle toward joy and away from pain.

“Joy leads us to seek more and higher joy. Pain and suffering move us to seek to overcome them and return to joy.”

The battle is eternal. But is the created joy progressive? Kazantzakis seems not to deal with the question and thus seems not to see the dialectic to be progressive, but eternally recurrent in a different manner than Nietzsche’s. It is the form of the dialectic, not the result, that seems to fascinate Kazantzakis.

“We have seen the highest circle of spiraling powers. We have named this circle God. We might have given it any other name we wished: Abyss, Mystery, Absolute Darkness, Absolute Light, Matter, Spirit, Ultimate Hope, Ultimate Despair, Silence.”

. . . .

“My God is not Almighty. He struggles for he is in peril every moment; he trembles and stumbles in every living thing, and he cries out. He is defeated incessantly, but rises again, full of blood and earth, to throw himself into battle once more.”

. . .

“My God is not All-holy. He is full of cruelty and savage justice, and he chooses the best mercilessly. He is without compassion, he does not trouble himself with men or animals; nor does he care for virtues or ideas. He loves all of these things for a moment, then smashes them eternally and passes on.”

One can clearly see strong influences of Nietzsche and his sense of virtue which he found in the ancient Greek culture.

Kazantzakis adds:

“Within the province of our ephemeral flesh all of god is imperiled. He cannot be saved unless we save him with our own struggles, nor can we be saved unless he is saved.”

I came away from the novel both delighted and troubled. I was delighted with much of his exploration of human existence and how to understand it and live it. Yet troubled, and at the same time fascinated in the dual drives of his desires. On the one hand there is his nearly incessant drive for knowledge, even wisdom and experience in the world. On the other is the equally obsessive desire for sex.

However, he seems at complete ease with this constant tension and while telling us of his preference for reason, he seems to act very readily on his sexual drives, even when they clearly thwart his alleged preference for reason and inquiry.

Overall this is a very strange book. I like it and am very happy I read it. I’m not sure too many others will feel the same way. He and I share many of the same philosophical attractions, and his habit of rather easily being moved to set those considerations aside for passional concerns and sexual desires are not in the slightest unfamiliar to me.

The book is a structural mess. A nearly non-existent novel, shallow as a travel guide, not very enlightening in political analysis of Japanese and Chinese mindsets in these early days of war. Yet the bulk of the book is philosophical reflection and it is powerful, daring, exotic, challenging and for me, gripping.

Still, it is not a book for all.

Bob Corbett


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Bob Corbett