Essay: Nikos Kazantzakis – Life and Works

By Sushant Dhar

Nikos Kazantzakis

Nikos Kazantzakis in Antibes, 1956 
Photograph by Henri Chaillet

I rose and held out my hand to the rain like a beggar. I suddenly felt like weeping. Some sorrow, not my own but deeper and more obscure, was rising from the damp earth: the panic which a peaceful grazing animal feels when, all at once, without having seen anything, it rears its head and scents in the air about it that it is trapped and cannot escape. I wanted to utter a cry, knowing that it would relieve my feelings, but I was ashamed to. The clouds were coming lower and lower. I looked through the window: my heart was gently palpitating. What a voluptuous enjoyment of sorrow those hours of soft rain can produce in you! All the bitter memories hidden in the depth of your mind come to the surface: separations from friends, women’s smiles which have faded, hopes which have lost their wings like moths and of which only a grub remains – and that grub had crawled on the leaf of my heart and was eating it away. My misery lasted for years, perhaps even to this day. I was born, after all, on Friday the eighteenth of February, the day of souls, a very holy day indeed, and the old midwife clutched me in her hands, brought me close to the light, and looked at me with great care. She seemed to see some kind of mystic signs on me. Lifting me high, she said, “Mark my words, one day this child will become a bishop” (Zorba the Greek).

And came Nikos Kazantzakis, the one who stared back at the abyss with unflinching courage.

It was the seventh day of November, 2016. I was sitting quietly in my room, looking through the window, watching the red dot disappear behind the snow clad mountains. I had finished reading Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Nietzsche’s ‘superman’ had taken hold of my mind. While browsing the web, I came around a breath-choking prologue: ‘I collect my tools: sight, smell, touch, taste, hearing, intellect. Night has fallen; the day’s work is done. I return like a mole to my home, the ground. Not because I am tired and cannot work. I am not tired. But the sun has set.’

These sentences were written at the time when Kazantzakis had a premonition of Charon coming soon to visit him. The words stunned me. I looked for the author and the book. I hadn’t read anything about Nikos Kazantzakis. Reading Report to Greco, Kazantzakis’ autobiographical novel, was akin to being part of the author’s spiritual journey. The moment I started reading Greco, I was transported into a different realm of writing. I hadn’t ever experienced such joy of reading. Pure philosophy. The uphill path. It was like reading something written with blood. The central theme of all his writings is the battle between soul and flesh; the unaccommodating ascent to the summit. All of his works speak of harmonizing the two forces that are fighting within each human being. He writes about real freedom; to hope nothing, to deliver man from man, to deliver god from god, to erect our personal bridges and jump over the abyss.

Nikos Kazantzakis was born in Herakleion, Crete, on February 18, 1883. He had his secondary education in Herakleion and then moved to Athens to study law. He gained popularity in his early youth by winning a prize for his play ‘Day is Breaking’. His first novel was ‘Serpent and Lily’. In 1909, Kazantzakis completed his Doctorate in the University of Athens on ‘Friedrich Nietzsche in the Philosophy of Law and the State’. Kazantzakis’s greatest desire was to manifest within him whatever was most profound and holy. The quest for the supreme essence took him to every corner of the world – thus started the battle between soul and flesh, the holy ascent.

It’s difficult to accommodate his life and works in an essay of this length. He dedicated all of his life writing the many themes that tormented him day and night. He didn’t stay at one place. He meditated on mountains, toured many countries, wrote letters to friends, fought the church, endured spiritual crisis and came out shining, expending all his energy into his supreme endeavour, building bridges for himself  to cross over the abyss. He did his duty. He remained faithful to the flame. His monumental works are Odyssey: A Modern Sequel, The Last Temptation of Christ, Report to Greco, God’s Pauper: St. Francis, Saviors of God, Zorba the Greek, Christ Recrucified, Freedom and Death.

I am reading Greco for the third time. The book doesn’t deal with the individual life of the author; it presents the universal struggle of mankind. It’s not an ordinary autobiography; it is sacred literature having in it all to take the reader to new heights, to experience closely a life that restored human dignity to its place in times of war and poverty.

In the introduction to Report to Greco, Helen Kazantzakis writes:

Now I remember another crucial moment in our lives, another hospital, this time in Paris. Nikos gravely ill again with a temperature of 104, the physicians all in turmoil. Everyone had lost hope; only Kazantzakis himself remained unperturbed.

‘Will you get a pencil, Lenotska?…’

Still plunged in vision, he dictated to me in a broken voice the Franciscan haikai he placed in the saint’s mouth: I said to the almond tree, Sister, speak to me of God. And the almond tree blossomed. His life was full of substance, of human anguish, joy, and pain – ‘dignity’ to put in a single word. In my thirty years by his side I cannot recall ever being ashamed by a single bad action on his part. He was honest, without guile, innocent, infinitely sweet towards others, fierce only toward himself. If he withdrew into solitude, it was only because he felt the labors required of him were severe and his hours numbered. Nikos Kazantzakis asked his God for ten additional years, ten additional years in which to complete his work – to say what he had to say and empty himself. He wanted death to come and take only a sackful of bones. The Report is a mixture of fact and fiction – a great deal of truth, a minimum of fancy. His round, round eyes pitch black in the semidarkness and filling with tears, he used to say me, ‘I feel like doing what Bergson says – going to the street corner and holding out my hand to start begging from the passers-by: Alms, brothers! A quarter of an hour from each of you. Oh, for a little time, just enough to let me finish my work. Afterwards let Charon come.’

In a letter to Borje Knos (January 30, 1952), Kazantzakis writes: ‘I am obliged to see it that each book of mine will be one step further ahead and higher. The Last Temptation took such a step. The new book must advance yet another stride. And this responsibility is a very heavy one.’ And there came another of his greatest work, God’s Pauper, St. Francis of Assisi. The life of St. Francis is soul shattering. Each word written by Kazantzakis, retelling the story of St. Francis, is embedded in fire. The reader is consumed by this fire. St. Francis walks through the conflagration, taking the uphill path, bridging the abyss at Mt. Alvarnia and jumps across. Kazantzakis writes this on the struggle of mankind, on the meaning of life (Report to Greco):

It is extremely dangerous to lean over and see. 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. Let the world remain here to struggle with us. We have no other material to work with, no other solid field over chaos to sow and reap.

On the simplicity of his life and on the indifference of the world: (Report to Greco)

‘Once and for all, monsieur, she shouted, how long is this state of affairs going to continue?’

‘What state of affairs?’

‘What state of affairs! Why, you come home early every evening, you never receive visitors, either men or women, you keep your light on past midnight. I suppose you think that’s normal?’

‘But I attend classes all day long at the university; at night I study and write. Isn’t that permitted?’

‘No, it is not. I’ve had complaints from the other tenants. You are hiding something. Such decorum, such isolation and silence – without a woman, good gracious, without a friend! You must be sick. Yes, you must be sick, or else, with all due respects, you’re cooking up something. I’m sorry, but this simply cannot continue.’

At first I was on the verge of anger, but I quickly realized that my landlady was right. When a person is orderly and quiet in a society which is unruly, immoral and boisterous, when he welcomes neither men nor women into his room, he infringes the rules. He is not, and cannot be, tolerated. One night I was sitting in the yard gazing at the stars. For me the star-filled sky had always been the most heart-rending, the most disquieting of sights. It gave me no joy whatsoever, nothing but fright; I could not look at it without panic invading my heart. My friend came out into the yard. ‘What are you doing there?’ he asked me, astonished. ‘Ah so you’re not talking. Why not?’ Coming closer, he leaned over me and saw the large tears that were flowing from my eyes. He burst into guffaws. ‘Liar! Hypocrite!’ he shouted. ‘I suppose you’ll tell me now that you’re crying because looking at the stars is so moving. But you can’t fool me, you Jesuit!’

After finishing his great voyage to Western Europe, Kazantzakis came back to Greece wounded, seething with intellectual revolt and spiritual confusion. He had discovered the grand purpose of his individual life:

How difficult, how extremely difficult for the soul to sever itself from its body the world: from mountains, seas, cities, people. The soul is an octopus and all these are its tentacles. No force anywhere on earth is as imperialistic as the human soul. It occupies and is occupied in turn, but it always considers its empire too narrow. Suffocating its desires to conquer the world in order to breathe freely. I did not know what I was going to do with my life; before anything else I wanted to find an answer, my answer, to the timeless questions, and then after that I would decide what I would become. If I did not begin by discovering what was the grand purpose of life on earth, I said to myself, how would I be able to discover the purpose of my tiny ephemeral life? And if I did not give my life a purpose, how would I be able to engage in action? I was not interested in finding what life’s purpose was objectively – this, I divined, was impossible and futile – but simply what purpose I, of my own free will, could give it in accord with my spiritual and intellectual needs. Whether or not this purpose was the true one did not, at that time, have any great significance for me. The important thing was that I should find (should create) a purpose congruent with my own self, and thus, by following it, reel out my particular desires and abilities to the furthest possible limit. For then at last I would be collaborating harmoniously with the totality of the universe.

I just finished reading his biography containing hundreds of letters written by the author to his wife and friends. The letters provide a deep insight into his life and works. Each letter is a piece of literature filled with human struggle. The book is divided into four parts: Part One: The Seed (1882-1923); Part Two: The Odyssey (1924-1938); Part Three: The War (1939-1945); Part Four: Toward The Horizon (1946-1957).

Freedom and Death (published in 1953) is next in line. The journey of reading and writing must go on.



Sushant Dhar lives in Jammu, India. His essays and short-fiction have been published in Outlook, New Asian Writing, The Bombay Review, Muse India, Indian Short Fiction Magazine and Indian Ruminations. The author can be contacted at

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