Wednesday, January 19, 2011



Maria 1 - Nikos 0

by James Karas

[I wrote this piece in 2007, the 50th and 30th anniversaries of the death Kazantzakis and Callas respectively. Some members of the Kazantzakis Society of Toronto had not seen it and it seemed like a good idea to post it here]

Nikos Kazantzakis died 50 years ago. Maria Callas died 30 years ago.

Greece, the birthplace of neither but the mother of both of these famous Greeks wants to recognize and celebrate their achievements. One way of doing that is by choosing a suitable anniversary and proclaiming the year in which it falls as The Year of …. . But you can’t have more than one honouree (it tends to dilute the distinction) and George Voulgarakis, the Greek Minister of Culture, chose to dedicate 2007 to Maria Callas “because” he is quoted as saying “she is a great figure whom we have not honoured enough. We must lay claim to her and stress that she was 100% Greek”

It seems, then, that fears of losing her to someone else or fending off doubters about her 100% Greekness is the great impetus for the recognition accorded her as much as redressing our past failure in honouring her sufficiently. But who is denying that some or all of Callas was not 100% Greek that we need to lay claim on her and stress, again and again, that she was 100% Greek?

The Italians! There are Italians, according to the Minister who “consider she belongs to them.” Those spaghetti-eaters cannot be trusted with anything and nothing less than a year of Greek claims to Maria will have any effect on them. Who can forget or forgive their claim that Christopher Columbus was Italian and that the famous Greek opera composer Iosif Prassinos was also Italian. Those tricky Italians stealthily changed the name of the latter to the Italianate form of “Verdi” in order to hide the evidence of his identity. And now Callas!

The Minister could have steered away from the ludicrous and idiotic and said that Callas is one of the most famous Greeks of the 20th century. In fact she is frequently described as “the voice of the century” and she did have a significant effect on opera. She is credited with reviving the bel canto form and left behind a substantial recorded legacy.

All true. But opera is a foreign form of culture in Greece (name a famous Greek opera?) and although there are reasonably regular performances in Athens, you may not wish to try your hand at seeing too many performances in the provinces, as they say. Callas spent about eight and a half years in Greece from 1937 when she was 13 until 1945 when she was 21. Aside from singing in some concerts, she sang seven operatic roles in 56 performances. She sang in Greece a few times later but her influence on Greek opera and culture was zero. She had a famous affair with Aristotle Onassis, the ultimate Greek but, alas, she was married to an Italian.

Nikos Kazantzakis is another story. He is one of the great writers of the 20th century and he put Greece on the literary map of the world. If Greece had not worked so hard against it, he would have almost certainly received the Nobel Prize for Literature. His travel books, novels and his poem The Odyssey, A Modern Sequel, are read world-wide and explore “Greekness” or “Cretanness”, if you will, from the time of Homer to the Greek Civil War of the 1940s and beyond.

Does the Minister feel that Greece has honoured Kazantzakis just about enough and no one is laying any claim on him so there is no need to stress that he was 100% Greek therefore we can put him in the back seat of the Limo of Honour and celebrate him along with Nikos Engonopoulos and Dionysis Solomos? (The latter are “also” honoured in The Year of Maria Callas”). We may have to mount a separate campaign to defend Solomos. His first language was Italian and he never stepped on liberated Greek soil. Let’s hope the Italians don’t get wind of this or there goes our National Poet.

If Greece puts Nikos Kazantzakis in the “also honoured” tier, the rest of the world is not so stingy. The 50th anniversary of his death has provided the excuse for dozens of symposiums and conferences around the world where his work is considered and his achievement celebrated.

One of the significant events of the year is the publication of Kazantzakis: Politics of the Spirit, Volume 2, by Peter Bien. The first volume of his study was published in 1989 and it examined Kazantzakis’s work until 1938 when The Odyssey was about to be published. The second volume deals with Kazantzakis’s work from 1938 until his death in 1957, in other words the years when he wrote the novels that have made him famous.

Bien writes in a highly readable and at times almost conversational style and is both enthusiastic and critical of Kazantzakis. He finds his book on Spain, for example, “exasperating” and states that “Kazantzakis attempted to have his cake and eat it, too.” He accuses him of duplicity for his refusal to take a stand during the Spanish Civil War. Kazantzakis refused to support either side in the war and he even presented himself “either as a full diabolist, viewing both sides with unfeeling detachment, or as an emotional partisan of one side or the other.”

Was Kazantzakis for or against Mussolini, Hitler or Metaxas? There are no simple answers but there are great uncertainties. Bien examines the question but states that “I know of no evidence showing Kazantzakis’s opposition to Metaxas.” He warns against oversimplification of Kazantzakis’s views and states that if we must affix a label on his views “artist” is perhaps the most appropriate.

Bien traces the progress of Kazantzakis’s writing for the theatre and his development as a writer and a man. Kazantzakis, notes Bien, developed an antipathy towards Greeks in his youth, but in the 1930s and 1940s he started becoming more patriotic or at least started reaching a rapprochement with his fatherland.

Bien approaches Zorba the Greek, Kazantzakis’s most famous novel from political and philosophical points of view and provides an antidote to those who think the Michael Cacoyannis’s film expresses the writer’s view. The last scene of the movie where the Boss asks Zorba to teach him how to dance and they both eat goat meat and drink wine in Dionysian abandon is misleading. It gives the impression that the Boss has become like Zorba. That is not true, insists Bien. Zorba helped release the Boss from his intellectual impasse and allowed him to start writing again. He did not become like Zorba but was able to write about Zorba. More importantly, in Zorba the Greek Kazantzakis was able to reconcile East and West into a third way, the Greek Way.

Cacoyannis felt that Kazantzakis was expressing his hatred of Greeks in the novel and certainly reflects this supposed hatred in the movie. Bien argues that the novel demonstrates Kazantzakis’s admiration for the Greeks.

After finishing Zorba, Kazantzakis continued his examination of his roots and the question of Greekness by tackling subjects from ancient Greece (a trilogy of plays based on Prometheus), Byzantium (Constantine Palaiologos) and the modern era (Kapodistrias).

Kazantzakis spent World War II on the island of Aigina where he wrote the five plays just mentioned and Zorba the Greek. He has been criticized for not taking part in the resistance but his aloofness does not seem to have affected his reputation. After the liberation of Greece in October 1944, Kazantzakis went to live in Athens where he established a political party in May 1945 and in November of that year was invited to participate in a government of national unity. He resigned in January 1946 and returned to Aigina. He left Greece in June 1946 never to return except as a corpse.

Kazantzakis emerged from that tempestuous period, notes Bien, as a mature artist and went to write some of his most remarkable work in the last decade of his life. His fame spread and in 1946 he was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature together with Angelos Sikelianos. The nomination was controversial and unleashed a campaign of vilification by right-wing newspapers calling them “EAM-Bulgarian communists” and warning the Swedish Academy against “the international deceit whereby two perpetrators of the December 1944 uprising, two ambitious figures, ‘entirely foreign to Greece’ were supposedly representing the Greek nation.” His candidacy was opposed by successive Greek governments and of course he was never awarded the Nobel Prize.

Bien considers Christ Recrucified, written in 1948, as Kazantzakis’s most ambitious novel and his “political, religious and metaphysical summa.” He gives a detailed analysis of the book in relation to the current political situation (the civil war) and Kazantzakis’s development as an artist. He notes the irony that Kazantzakis wrote Christ Recrucified as “a lark” yet in it and his later novels he found the most mature and most enduring part of his prodigious output.

Bien writes that Freedom or Death (Kapetan Mihalis in Greek) “is probably the most lavishly praised of all of Kazantzakis’s novels” In his opinion, however, the novel “is severely flawed both aesthetically and politically.” Regardless of its patriotic appeal to Greeks, one of the basic problems is that the novel was intended as an epic but is mixed with realistic and psychological elements. With the mixing of genres “everything is likely to go wrong” notes Bien and in fact it does and the result is “aesthetic confusion.”

After Zorba the Greek, The Last Temptation is Kazantzakis’s best known novel. The furor it caused among religious leaders insured the novel’s success. The Greek Orthodox Church attempted to excommunicate Kazantzakis but he was saved by the intervention of Queen Frederika, notes Bien. The Catholic Church put the book on its Index of Forbidden Books and Protestant fundamentalists campaigned to have the work removed from libraries, according to Bien. But Kazantzakis was not without religious supporters. Unitarians, Quakers and religious liberals were in favour of the book because it made Jesus so human.

In his two volumes Bien presents a comprehensive study of the work of Kazantzakis. He puts it in the historical context of events in Greece and relates it to Kazantzakis’s life and, more importantly, his spiritual, philosophical and artistic development. He examines the large and complex output of a complex man and attempts to capture his changing outlooks, his spiritual development and his political involvements. The books show a lifetime of studying Kazantzakis and anyone reading any book by Kazantzakis will profit greatly by consulting the relevant chapters in Bien’s study or, better still, reading both volumes.

KAZANTZAKIS: Politics of the Spirit, Vol. 2
by Peter Bien
610 pp. Princeton University Press, 2007.

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