Nikos Kazantzakis was one of the most important Greek writers and philosophers of the 20th century. He was so prolific that he was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature in nine different years.
Kazantzakis wrote many important books, plays, memoirs, and philosophical essays. His most important works include Zorba the Greek (1946) published as Life and Times of Alexis Zorbas, Christ Recrucified (1948), Captain Michalis (1950) the English title of this book is Freedom and Death, and also The Last Temptation of Christ (1955). His fame spread in the English-speaking world due to the film adaptations two of his works: Zorba the Greek (1964) and the conotroversial The Last Temptation of Christ (1988).
Kazantzakis also did several translations of foreign – mostly philosophical -works, into Modern Greek, such as the Divine Comedy, Thus Spoke Zarathustra and the Iliad (from ancient to modern Greek).
Kazantzakis was born in 1883 in Heraklion, Crete. Kazantzakis was spiritually restless since his was a young man. Having metaphysical and existential concerns since a young age, he sought relief in knowledge and travel. He was greatly influenced by Friedrich Nietzsche, especially Nietzsche’s atheism and sympathy for the Superman (Ubermensch) concept. However, he was also haunted by spiritual concerns. Trying to attain a union with God, Kazantzakis entered a monastery for six months.
The Christ of The Last Temptation of Christ shares Katzantzakis’ metaphysical and existential concerns, seeking answers to haunting questions and often torn between his sense of duty and mission. Kazantzakis’ Jesus is a tragic figure who at the end sacrifices his own human hopes for a wider cause, he is not an infallible, passionless deity but rather a passionate and emotional human being who has been assigned a mission, with a meaning that he is struggling to understand and that often requires him to face his conscience and his emotions, and ultimately to sacrifice his own life for its fulfillment. He is subject to doubts, fears and even guilt. In the end, he is the Son of Man, a man whose internal struggle represents that of humanity.
Many Orthodox Church clergy condemned Kazantzakis’ the Temptation of Christ 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”). The excommunication was eventually rejected by the top leadership of the Orthodox Church.
“Δεν ελπιζω τιποτα. Δε φοβουμαι τιποτα. Ειμαι λεφτερος.
I hope for nothing. I fear nothing. I’m free.”
Kazantzakis wrote in Demotic Greek, with traces of Cretan dialect, which made his writings controversial in conservative literary circles in Greece. Also, his books were not translated into other European languages until Kazantzakis was old. Because of this, Kazantzakis had a tough time earning a living by writing, which led him to write a lot, including a large number of translations from French, German, and English, and curiosities such as French fiction and Greek primary school texts, mainly because he needed the money. Some of this “popular” writing was nevertheless distinguished, such as his books based on his extensive travels, which appeared in the series “Travelling” (Ταξιδεύοντας). These books on Greece, Italy, Egypt, Sinai, Cyprus, Spain, Russia, Japan, China, and England were masterpieces of travel literature written in demotic Greek.