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18 February 1883|
Kandiye, Crete, Ottoman Empire (now Heraklion, Greece)
|Died||26 October 1957
Freiburg im Breisgau, West Germany (now Germany)
|Occupation||Poet, novelist, essayist, travel writer, philosopher, playwright, journalist, translator|
|Education||University of Athens
(1902–1906; LL.D., 1906)
University of Paris
(1907–1909; Dr, 1909)
Nikos Kazantzakis (Greek: Νίκος Καζαντζάκης [ˈnikos kazanˈd͡zacis]; 18 February 1883 – 26 October 1957) was a Greek writer. Widely considered a giant of modern Greek literature, he was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature in nine different years.
Kazantzakis' novels included Zorba the Greek (published 1946 as Life and Times of Alexis Zorbas), Christ Recrucified (1948), Captain Michalis (1950, translated 'Freedom or Death), and The Last Temptation of Christ (1955). He also wrote plays, travel books, memoirs and philosophical essays such as The Saviors of God: Spiritual Exercises. His fame spread in the English-speaking world due to cinematic adaptations of Zorba the Greek (1964) and The Last Temptation of Christ (1988).
When Kazantzakis was born in 1883 in Kandiye, now Heraklion, Crete had not yet joined the modern Greek state (which had been established in 1832), and was still under the rule of the Ottoman Empire. From 1902 to 1906 Kazantzakis studied law at the University of Athens: his 1906 Juris Doctor thesis title was Ο Φρειδερίκος Νίτσε εν τη φιλοσοφία του δικαίου και της πολιτείας ("Friedrich Nietzsche on the Philosophy of Right and the State"). Then he went to the Sorbonne in 1907 to study philosophy. There he fell under the influence of Henri Bergson. His 1909 doctoral dissertation at the Sorbonne was a reworked version of his 1906 dissertation under the title Friedrich Nietzsche dans la philosophie du droit et de la cité ("Friedrich Nietzsche on the Philosophy of Right and the State"). Upon his return to Greece, he began translating works of philosophy. In 1914 he met Angelos Sikelianos. Together they travelled for two years in places where Greek Orthodox Christian culture flourished, largely influenced by the enthusiastic nationalism of Sikelianos.
Kazantzakis married Galatea Alexiou in 1911; they divorced in 1926. He married Eleni Samiou in 1945. Between 1922 and his death in 1957, he sojourned in Paris and Berlin (from 1922 to 1924), Italy, Russia (in 1925), Spain (in 1932), and then later in Cyprus, Aegina, Egypt, Mount Sinai, Czechoslovakia, Nice (he later bought a villa in nearby Antibes, in the Old Town section near the famed seawall), China, and Japan.
While in Berlin, where the political situation was explosive, Kazantzakis discovered communism and became an admirer of Vladimir Lenin. He never became a committed communist, but visited the Soviet Union and stayed with the Left Opposition politician and writer Victor Serge. He witnessed the rise of Joseph Stalin, and became disillusioned with Soviet-style communism. Around this time, his earlier nationalist beliefs were gradually replaced by a more universalist ideology. As a journalist in 1926 he got interviews from Miguel Primo de Rivera and the Italian dictator Benito Mussolini.
During WWII he was in Athens and translated the Iliad, together with the philologist Ioannis Kakridis. In 1945, he became the leader of a small party on the non-communist left, and entered the Greek government as Minister without Portfolio. He resigned this post the following year. In 1946, The Society of Greek Writers recommended that Kazantzakis and Angelos Sikelianos be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. In 1957, he lost the Prize to Albert Camus by one vote. Camus later said that Kazantzakis deserved the honour "a hundred times more" than himself. In total Kazantzakis was nominated in nine different years. Late in 1957, even though suffering from leukemia, he set out on one last trip to China and Japan. Falling ill on his return flight, he was transferred to Freiburg, Germany, where he died. He is buried on the wall surrounding the city of Heraklion near the Chania Gate, because the Orthodox Church ruled out his being buried in a cemetery. His epitaph reads "I hope for nothing. I fear nothing. I am free." (Δεν ελπίζω τίποτα. Δε φοβούμαι τίποτα. Είμαι λέφτερος.)
The 50th anniversary of the death of Nikos Kazantzakis was selected as main motif for a high-value euro collectors' coin; the €10 Greek Nikos Kazantzakis commemorative coin, minted in 2007. His image is on the obverse of the coin, while the reverse carries the National Emblem of Greece with his signature.
Kazantzakis' first published work was the 1906 narrative, Serpent and Lily (Όφις και Κρίνο), which he signed with the pen name Karma Nirvami. In 1907 Kazantzakis went to Paris for his graduate studies and was deeply influenced by the philosophy of Henry Bergson, primarily the idea that a true understanding of the world comes from the combination of intuition, personal experience, and rational thought. The theme of rationalism mixed with irrationality later became central to many of Kazantzakis' later stories, characters, and personal philosophies. Later, in 1909, he wrote a one-act play titled Comedy, which was filled with existential themes, predating the post-World War II existentialist movement in Europe spearheaded by writers like Jean-Paul Sartre and Camus. After completing his studies in Paris, he wrote the tragedy, "The Master Builder" (Ο Πρωτομάστορας), based on a popular Greek folkloric myth.
Through the next several decades, from the 1910s through the 1930s, Kazantzakis traveled around Greece, much of Europe, northern Africa, and to several countries in Asia. Countries he visited include: Germany, Italy, France, The Netherlands, Romania, Egypt, Russia, Japan, and China, among others. These journeys put Kazantzakis in contact with different philosophies, ideologies, lifestyles, and people, all of which influenced him and his writings. Kazantzakis would often write about his influences in letters to friends, citing Sigmund Freud, the philosophy of Nietzsche, Buddhist theology, and communist ideology and major influences. While he continued to travel later in life, the bulk of his travel writing came from this time period.
Kazantzakis began writing The Odyssey: A Modern Sequel in 1924, and completed it in 1938 after fourteen years of writing and revision. The poem follows the hero of Homer's Odyssey, Odysseus, as he undertakes a final journey after the end of the original poem. Following the structure of Homer's Odyssey, it is divided into 24 rhapsodies and consists of 33,333 lines. While Kazantzakis felt this poem held his cumulative wisdom and experience, and that it was his greatest literary experience, critics were split, "some praised it as an unprecedented epic, [while] many simply viewed it as a hybristic act," with many scholars still being split to this day. A common criticism of The Odyssey: A Modern Sequel was aimed at Kazantzakis' over-reliance on flowery and metaphorical verse, a criticism that is also aimed at his works of fiction.
Many of Kazantzakis' most famous novels were published between 1940 and 1961, including Zorba the Greek (1946), Christ Recrucified (1948), Captain Michalis (1950), The Last Temptation of Christ (1955), and Report to Greco (1961).
Scholar Peter Bein argues that each story explores different aspects of post-World War II Greek culture such as religion, nationalism, political beliefs, the Greek Civil War, gender roles, immigration, and general cultural practices and beliefs. These works also explore what Kazantzakis believed to be the unique physical and spiritual location of Greece, a nation that belongs to neither the East nor the West, an idea he put forth in many of his letters to friends. As the scholar Peter Bein argued, "Kazantzakis viewed Greece's special mission as the reconciliation of Easter instinct with Western reason," echoing the Bergsonian themes that balance logic against emotion found in many of Kazantzakis' novels.
During the time when Kazantzakis was writing his novels, poems, and plays, the majority of "serious," Greek, artistic work was written in Katharevousa, a "pure" form of the Greek language that was created to bridge Ancient Greek with Modern, Demotic Greek, and to "purify" Demotic Greek. In his letters to friends and correspondents, Kazantzakis wrote that he chose to write in Demotic Greek to capture the spirit of the people, and to make his writing resonate with the common Greek citizen. Moreover, he wanted to prove that the common spoken language of Greek was able to produce artistic, literary works. Or, in his own words, "Why not show off all the possibilities of demotic Greek?" Furthermore, Kazantzakis felt that it was important to record the vernacular of the everyday person, including Greek peasants, and often tried to include expressions, metaphors, and idioms he would hear while traveling throughout Greece, and incorporate them into his writing for posterity. At the time of writing, some scholars and critics panned his work because it was not written in Katharevousa, while others praised it precisely because it was written in Demotic Greek.
Several critics have argued that Kazantakis' writing was too flowery, filled with obscure metaphors, and difficult to read, despite the fact that his works were written in Demotic Greek. Kazantzakis scholar Peter Bein argues that the metaphors and language Kazantzakis used were taken directly from the peasants he encountered when traveling Greece. Bein asserts that, since Kazantzakis was trying to preserve the language of the people, he used their local metahpors and phrases to give his narrative an air of authenticity and preserve these phases so that they were not lost.
While Kazantzakis was deeply spiritual, he often discussed his struggled with religious faith, specifically his Greek Orthodoxy. Baptized Greek Orthodox as a child, he was fascinated by the lives of saints from a young age. As a young man he took a month long trip to Mount Athos, a major spiritual center for Greek Orthodoxy. Most critics and scholars of Kazantzakis agree that the struggle to find truth in religion and spirituality was central to a great deal of his works, and that some novels, like The Last Temptation of Christ and Christ Recrucified focus completely on questioning Christian morals and values. As he traveled Europe, he was influenced by various philosophers, cultures, and religions, like Buddhism, causing him to question his Christian beliefs. While never claiming to be an atheist, his public questioning and critique of the most fundamental Christian values put him at odds with the Greek Orthodox church, and many of his critics. Scholars theorize that Kazantzakis' difficult relationship with many members of the clergy, and the more religiously conservative literary critics, came from his questioning and reversal of the classic tenets of Christianity. In his book, Broken Hallelujah: Nikos Kazantzakis and Christian Theology, author Darren Middleton theorizes that, "Where the majority of Christian writers focus on God's immutability, Jesus' deity, and our salvation through God's grace, Kazantzakis emphasized divine mutability, Jesus' humanity, and God's own redemption through our effort," highlighting Kazantzakis' uncommon interpretation what of traditional Orthodox Christian beliefs. Many Orthodox Church clergy condemned Kazantzakis' work and a campaign was started to excommunicate him. His reply was: "You gave me a curse, Holy fathers, I give you a blessing: may your conscience be as clear as mine and may you be as moral and religious as I" (Greek: "Μου δώσατε μια κατάρα, Άγιοι πατέρες, σας δίνω κι εγώ μια ευχή: Σας εύχομαι να ‘ναι η συνείδηση σας τόσο καθαρή, όσο είναι η δική μου και να ‘στε τόσο ηθικοί και θρήσκοι όσο είμαι εγώ"). While the excommunication was rejected by the top leadership of the Orthodox Church, it became emblematic of the persistent disapprobation from many Christian authorities for his political and religious views.
Modern scholarship tends to dismiss the idea that Kazantzakis was being sacrilegious or blasphemous with the content of his novels and beliefs. These scholars argue that, if anything, Kazantzakis was acting in accordance to a long tradition of Christians who publicly struggled with their faith, and grew a stronger and more personal connection to God through their doubt. Moreover, scholars like Darren J. N. Middleton argue that Kazantzakis' interpretation of the Christian faith predated the more modern, personalized interpretation of Christianity that has become popular in the years after Kazantzakis' death.
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