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Nikos Kazantzakis: Brilliant Skeptic

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Nikos Kazantzakis A documentary on Nikos Kazantakis' life and work, in English. No subtitles are available. I am a great admirer of his work. Here is my tribute to him, a book (in ...
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In 1988, fundamentalist Christians in several nations vented rage and violence because a movie, The Last Temptation of Christ, portrayed Jesus as a wavering human, lusting for the prostitute Mary Magdalene.

A Parisian theater showing the film was firebombed, sending 13 people to hospitals. Another at Besancon, France, suffered a similar attack. Tear gas was loosed in some French movie-houses. Israel's government banned the film.

In America, theaters were ransacked, one was burned, another had its screen slashed, and a screaming protester crashed a bus into a theater lobby. About 25,000 evangelicals picketed Universal Studios in Hollywood, and smaller throngs protested in several cities. Catholic bishops and TV evangelists denounced the movie angrily. Some filed lawsuits and appealed to politicians in attempts to ban it. Campus Crusade for Christ leader Bill Bright offered $10 million to buy the movie and burn it. Most theaters in the southern United States, fearing savage reprisals, refused to show the film.

All this tumult provided an epitaph for a brilliant, brooding, funny, sad, profound, Greek writer who had died three decades earlier. The movie was drawn from his most controversial novel.

Philosopher-author Nikos Kazantzakis was a literary giant who left an indelible mark on the modern world. Born in Crete in 1885 (some references say 1883), he attended a Catholic school, then studied law in Athens, then philosophy in Paris under Henri Bergson, the eventual Nobel laureate who focused on the "vital force" of the human spirit. Fascinated by spiritual questions, Kazantzakis published his first book and play in 1906 while still a student. During ensuing years, he traveled through Europe and Asia, writing dramas, epic verse and travel books.

In 1917, he and a foreman operated a lignite mine on a Greek island an experience he later fictionalized in his most renowned novel, Zorba the Greek.

In 1919, Kazantzakis was appointed welfare minister of Greece. By the time he resigned in 1927, he had fed and rescued 150,000 Greek residents trapped by a civil war in the Caucasus.

Sympathetic to Marxism, he was a war correspondent during the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s and eventually was awarded the Lenin Peace Prize but trips to the Soviet Union disillusioned him, and he never joined the Communist Party. Before World War II, he lived on the Greek island of Aegina. After the war, he married late in life, became a Greek government minister again, then worked for UNESCO. Finally, he and his wife settled at Antibes, France.

Kazantzakis didn't begin writing novels until mid-life, but they brought his greatest fame and impact. Zorba the Greek portrayed a bookish young intellectual operating a lignite mine on a Greek island while learning about life from Zorba, his lusty, crafty, uneducated, smart, exuberant foreman. Zorba danced wildly, laughed at social and religious lunacy, and personified Bergson's "vital force."

Like most agnostic philosophers, Zorba and his young employer tried in vain to discern a meaning in life. The unlettered workman begged his educated companion for answers then scorned his scholarly learning when he could provide none. Here's a sample from the novel:

Zorba looked at the sky with open mouth in a sort of ecstasy, as though he were seeing it for the first time".

"Can you tell me, boss," he said, and his voice sounded deep and earnest in the warm night, "what all these things mean? Who made them all? And why? And, above all" here Zorba's voice trembled with anger and fear "why do people die?"

"I don't know, Zorba," I replied, ashamed, as if I had been asked the simplest thing, the most essential thing, and was unable to explain it.

"You don't know!" said Zorba in round-eyed astonishment, just like his expression the night I had confessed that I could not dance". "Well, all those damned books you read what good are they? Why do you read them? If they don't tell you that, what do they tell you?"

"They tell me about the perplexity of mankind, who can give no answer to the question you've just put to me, Zorba."

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James A. Haught is editor emeritus of West Virginia's largest newspaper, The Charleston Gazette-Mail.  Mr. Haught has won two dozen national news writing awards. He has written 12 books and hundreds of magazine essays and blog posts. Around 450 of his essays are online. He is a senior editor of Free Inquiry magazine, a weekly blogger at Daylight Atheism, (more...)

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