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Journal of Modern Greek Studies, Supplement to Volume 28, Number


1, May 2010, pp. 7-37 (Article)
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DOI: 10.1353/mgs.0.0083

For additional information about this article


http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/mgs/summary/v028/28.1A.galanopoulos.html

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Anti-Nihilism in the
Thought of Nikos Kazantzakis
Christos Galanopoulos

Abstract
Nikos Kazantzakis is one of the foremost literary anti-nihilists. He is viewed as
an affirmative fatalist, with fatalism considered an optimistic stance, not a pessimistic one. The term anti-nihilism is akin to Kazantzakiss Cretan Glance and
Pandelis Prevelakiss depiction of Kazantzakis as a heroic pessimist. Kazantzakis
was not a nihilist, despite his failure to overcome nihilism. He tackled nihilism
as a historical and psychological problem that cannot be resolved ideologically.
In terms of some contemporary postmodern debates, his anti-nihilism provides
the best antidote to our present-day nihilistic predicament.

Nikos Kazantzakis needs to be viewed more seriously in the light of literary, political, and philosophical anti-nihilism. It would not be much of
an exaggeration to say that most, if not all, of his literary creations target
the issue of nihilism in its historical and psychological implications. His
heroes, from Zorba and Odysseus to Christ, Buddha, and Saint Francis,
all confront nihilism. The less known characters from his plays Julian the
Apostate, Constantine Palaiologos, Kouros, Kapodistrias, and the Prometheus
trilogy, among others, all come to terms with the problem of nihilism. In
fact, Kazantzakiss works convey one main theme in words that constantly
recur: the (outcry) of the struggle, the ascent toward meaning,
humanitys confrontation with the nihilistic abyss. Pandelis Prevelakis
calls Kazantzakis a heroic pessimist, which is the same as calling him an
anti-nihilist. Kazantzakiss own Cretan Glance, the term he coined for
his uncompromising gaze at the nihilistic abyss, is the stance of a defiant anti-nihilist (1958:37, 62). His massive literary output helps us find
meaning in a world caught in transition.
Nihilism, as defined by Friedrich Nietzsche, implies a transitional
period in history where the fundamental moral values have been devalued,
and the new ones have not yet arrived (Nietzsche 1968:9). Kazantzakis
was certain that he lived in such an age, and spent his whole life trying to
find the solution to its situation. The result he achieved was deliberately
Journal of Modern Greek Studies 28 (2010) 737 2010 by The Johns Hopkins University Press

Christos Galanopoulos

incomplete: Kazantzakis knew that an ideological solution would be but


another nihilistic disguise. But in its incompleteness, his thought allowed
for creative action: the constant unmasking of nihilism in an affirmative
fatalism which is termed here as anti-nihilism.
It must be kept in mind that the term anti-nihilism here is not meant
to convey an ideological stance beyond nihilism either in political,
epistemological, or theological terms. Political nihilism was an underground movement in nineteenth-century Russia, which espoused science
while rejecting old cultural values; epistemological nihilism implies a
rejection of reason and a resolute skepticism about the possibilities of
objective or subjective knowledge; theological nihilism implies resolute
atheism. The political anti-nihilism of Kazantzakis is a resolute struggle
against ideological absolutism. Epistemologically, Kazantzakis rejected
not reason but scientific rationalism, as he explains in his essay on Henri
Bergson, whom he claimed was the first to espouse the collaboration of
intuition and intellect in philosophy (Kazantzakis 1983:284). Reason, for
Kazantzakis, is akin to the monistic Logos of Heraclitus and Bergsons
intuitive dure (duration) with its famous lan vital that opposes discrete
fragments of rational thought. Theologically, Kazantzakis is neither a
theist nor an atheist, but rather a panentheist; that is, one who believes
in an infinite force inherent in matter, but also transcending it (Bien
2007:397). Thus he escapes the intellectual sterility of both ideological
materialism and metaphysical absolutism. Instead, Kazantzakis believed
in a not-all-powerful deity that struggles together with humanity and that
needs humanity in order to stay alive.1
Kazantzakiss god was the sacred bull, the one over whom Cretans
in the paintings of the palace at Knossos, defying fear and danger, did
somersaults, turning this exalted game into art (Kazantzakis 1965:486).2
Herodotus, in The Histories, calls the sacred bull by the Egyptian name Apis,
and the Greek name Epaphos (Herodotus 2003:159, 182). Kazantzakis also
seems to have adopted as his god Epaphos, the god of (touch). He
explained this to Prevelakis as early as 1934 (Prevelakis 1984:408, 590).
The issue here is not whether or not God exists. Kazantzakiss well-known
metaphors such as the caterpillar turning into a butterfly, the flying
fish, and the worm turning its body into silk are certainly relevant. The
opposition of theism and atheism is nihilistic because it posits totalities;
that is, metaphysical absolutes. It is denied by Kazantzakis, who takes a
panentheistic stance in order to avoid the ideological trap while remaining open to the creative possibilities.
Kazantzakis synthesized the philosophies of Bergson and Nietzsche
in a profound way, shedding important light on the one in terms of
the other, and on his own work in terms of both. Their styles and tem-

Anti-Nihilism in the Thought of Nikos Kazantzakis

peraments were certainly differentBergson wrote systematically, even


though, as Kazantzakis claims, his system was deliberately incomplete
(Kazantzakis 1983:284). Nietzsche wrote in a more aphoristic style, while
also attempting to create a systemthe revaluation of all values. Yet how
really different were Bergsons and Nietzsches philosophies? Both were
influenced by Darwin while being critical of his deterministic progressivism; both wrote of life as affirming (its feeling of power in Nietzsche,
its ascending force in Bergson) and as negating (resentment of power in
Nietzsche and descending force in Bergson); both were anti-rationalists;
both were monists critical of Kantian dualism; both wrote of the fusion
of Becoming and Being; and both elevated creativity (Nietzsche as the
grand style in art and Bergson as creative evolution). Kazantzakis
anticipated these comparisons. In a significant note at the end of his
essay on Bergson, he writes that we must not confuse Bergsons lan
vital with Nietzsches will to power, because Nietzsche did not go so far
as Bergson in overthrowing cause-and-effect rationalism, which was also
Nietzsches project.3
Nihilism is a pathological state, one of quiet desperation, negation
of life, human alienation, and dehydration resulting from a culture
turned weary, sterile, and old, a state also known as passive nihilism
recall in Zorba the Bosss conversion from a Buddhism of passivity to a
Zorbatism of action. Against this nihilism of passivity and renunciation,
Kazantzakis offered an active nihilism that struggles against the negation
of life caused by passive nihilism. Understood in this light, the stance
beyond nihilism misses the point of the struggle against nihilism. Our
duty is to act; all the rest, reward and recognition, do not concern us,
Kazantzakis wrote to his first wife, Galatea (Kazantzakis 1979:72). Later
of course, he would accept recognition, but his earlier stance was not
contradicted. In his Report to Greco, his final work, Kazantzakis writes: the
certainty that no recompense exists must not make our blood run cold,
but must fill us with joy, pride, and manly courage (1965:465). Against
the dizzying circle of fear of death and hope for life, Kazantzakis in his
Obra (as he liked to describe his work [Prevelakis 1958:52]) tells us to
affirm life not just by accepting our fate, but also by willing ita response
that equals a Cretan Glance focused directly upon nihilism, not beyond
it. This, then, is not fatalism as many are accustomed to think of it; nor
is it passive nihilism. The confrontation with fate is no longer negative
and fruitless but full of new creative possibilities.
Nietzsche was the first to articulate the problem of nihilism as
one concerning the question of value. Note here that value according
to Nietzsche is a historical term. History is the history of values. Thus,
modernity is caught in the transitory, nihilistic throes of a culture that

10

Christos Galanopoulos

still adheres to dead values. For Nietzsche, the question is not so much
what one does or thinks, as it is what value one assigns to what one does
or thinks. Gilles Deleuze writes that Nietzsche revolutionized philosophy
in that he was the first thinker to introduce the concepts of sense and
value into philosophy (Deleuze 1983:1). But, instead of the new conformism and new forms of submission that a theory of value may lead to,
it must be noted that for Nietzsche the notion of value implies a critical
reversal. ... The problem of critique is that of the value of values...
(Deleuze 1983:1). In this light, Kazantzakiss rejection of recompense
and reward is part of his intellectual effort to avoid a false value and,
instead, to be critical of the value of values.
Martin Heidegger remarks categorically that Nietzsche defined
nihilism as history, in the sense of the progressive movement of valuation, devaluation, and revaluation, which Nietzsche named, according
to Heidegger, the will to power (1982:53). Heidegger writes that, for
Nietzsche, nihilism is the result of the movement of the history of Western civilization; it is the unfolding of that movement. The greatest values
devaluate themselves; the old absolutes are dethroned. This is a historicist
line of thought. Historicism implies that history moves according to a
dialectical pattern, which is the unfolding of its meaning. For Georg
Hegel, this was the actualization of the Spirit in the form of the perfect
State; for Karl Marx, it was the materialist actualization of the communist
revolution; and for Nietzsche it was the valuation-devaluation-revaluation
that produced the Overman.
Heideggers interpretation of Nietzsches valuative thought was
intent on placing Nietzsche as the last metaphysical and historicist
thinker, thus a prisoner of the metaphysical and historicist nihilism
that he (Nietzsche) attacks. In this sense, Heidegger is very similar to
Kazantzakis.4 Heidegger posits himself as the first thinker who was able
to separate his thought from the nihilistic trap of historicism and metaphysics, with his concept of Dasein, or being-there.5 Kazantzakis was
well versed in historicist thought; he studied the towering historicists
of his time, especially Oswald Spengler, very carefully. But Kazantzakis
was also well aware of the nihilistic trap of historicism: Life is a spark
that shines for a moment between two endless nights. But I want, out of
pride, not out of hope, to hold my body straight and let the holy spark at
my head consume and melt it (Kazantzakis 1974:34). Kazantzakiss holy
spark is the synthesis, or rather the fusion, of Becoming and Being; it is
the identification of Becoming as Being. In this sense, the uncertainty
of transience is embraced as freedom. But this freedom, for Kazantzakis
as well as for Heidegger, is a heavy burden rather than a relief.
Nietzsche, the prophet of historical nihilism, understood nihilism

Anti-Nihilism in the Thought of Nikos Kazantzakis

11

to be a psychological state for which there was no ideological solution.


Theologian Helmut Thielicke explained psychological nihilism as the
dread of the abyss of nothingness that yawns on the horizon of an
atheistic world (1961:117). The nihilist rejects the old metaphysical
moralism and is faced with the impossible task of finding meaning in a
meaningless world. But the psychological reaction to such a state varies
among different people. Thielicke distinguishes between covert and overt
nihilism, the former being a witting or unwitting disguise of nothingness
clothed with superficial meaning and the latter a passive or active form
of nihilism. Thielicke warns against the deceptive nature of nihilism,
which may hide behind even someone who thinks of himself as being
an advocate of an absolute (1961:40). Kazantzakis assesses covert and
overt nihilism as follows:
Woe to the man who sees only the mask; woe to the man who sees only
what is hidden beneath it! The only man with true vision sees at the same
moment, and in a single flash, the beautiful mask and the dreadful face
behind.
Happy the man who, behind his forehead, creates this mask and this
face in a synthesis still unknown to nature. (Kazantzakis 1963a:20)

Nietzsche was the first to distinguish between passive and active


nihilism, associating the former with Buddhism and the latter with his
own proto-existentialist philosophy. Unlike Thielicke, whose aforementioned statement indicates a desperate need to reaffirm Christian faith,
Nietzsche understood nihilism as a transitory state, one that is traversed
through Dionysian laughter and an ecstatic affirmation of the total
character of life as that which remains the same (Nietzsche 1968:539).
This is affirmative fatalism. One is reminded of Heraclitus, who explains
change and non-change, freedom and necessity, as one, the Becoming
of Being, which is in constant change.6 For Nietzsche, Becoming is personified in Dionysos, Being in Apollo. Dionysos represents the irrational
drive thatfused with Apollonian rational tranquility, the Becoming of
Beingfrees the artist from the constraints of both the irrational and
the rational to become inspired by the ecstatic affirmation of life and
to produce art.
Kazantzakis agreed. He did not allow himself to be victimized by the
burdensome realization of uncertainty; instead, he turned uncertainty
into art, the only deliverance (Kazantzakis 1965:312). I had known
well enough for years that the only way for me to escape intense pain or
joy and to retrieve my freedom was to bewitch this pain or joy with the
magic charm of words (1965:448). Even if Kazantzakis noted that the
more I wrote the more deeply I felt that in writing I was struggling, not

12

Christos Galanopoulos

for beauty, but for deliverance (1965:436), he knew full well that it is
only through art that this deliverance may be achieved: Words! Words!
There is no other salvation! I have nothing in my power but twenty-four
little lead soldiers. I will mobilize. I will raise an army. I will conquer
death! (Kazantzakis 1975:6).
Nietzsche wrote that the twentieth and twenty-first centuries would
be times of nihilism; that is, transitional periods that would witness terrible
events. Concerning the twentieth century, he was certainly prophetic. One
would generally agree that our times are best described as times of uncertainty. Kazantzakis lived in an age of great uncertainty, indeed an age of
breakdown and catastrophe as historian Eric Hobsbawm has described
it (1996:22). Two devastating world wars unleashed human irrationality
in all of its terribleness, surely more terrible than even Nietzsche could
have imagined, although he did carefully articulate the irrational drive
of the will-to-power. For Kazantzakis, living in such troubled times, to
have accepted easy solutions would not have benefited his high moral
standards: I considered metaphysical hope an alluring bait which true
men do not condescend to nibble (Kazantzakis 1965:325). He remained
true to this statement throughout his life, even surpassing his master,
Nietzsche, in this regard:
I wonder if such a cry has ever been heard on earth, a cry proud enough
to scorn hope. Even Nietzsche gave way to terror for an instant. Eternal
recurrence struck him as an interminable martyrdom, and out of his fright
he fashioned a great hope, a future savior, the Superman. But the Superman
is just another paradise, another mirage to deceive poor unfortunate man
and enable him to endure life and death. (Kazantzakis 1965:339)

Unlike Nietzsche, Kazantzakis had lived through the financial collapse of


the 1930s, a depression sufficiently unbearable to produce a false savior
named Adolf Hitler. Even Heidegger, notoriously, espoused Nazi ideology,
sharing the Nazi belief in the moral purity of the German peasant, even
if he joined the Nazi party for only a year. Yet this should not induce
anyone to think of Nietzsche as a proto-fascist; nor did Kazantzakis think
of him as one. Both Nietzsche and Kazantzakis teach us that totalitarian
fascism is the nihilistic result of false hopes and fears and of the negative
willingness to escape the heavy burden of freedom.
Is it possible that Kazantzakis also fell into the deceptive trap of
metaphysical nihilism? Kimon Friar suggests that Kazantzakiss earlier writings, especially his Spiritual Exercises, indicate a resolute nihilism (1960:33).
Friar distinguishes two different stages in Kazantzakiss literary output, a
Nietzschean nihilistic stage and a Bergsonian stage in which Kazantzakis
overcomes nihilism. Friars point may be strengthened by Kazantzakiss

Anti-Nihilism in the Thought of Nikos Kazantzakis

13

own assertion that the wounds opened in me by Nietzsche were deep


and hallowed; Bergsons mystic salves could not heal them. They relieved
them temporarily, but soon the sores opened again and bledfor as long
as I remained young, what I desired most deeply was not the cure but the
wound (Kazantzakis 1965:333). Friar is not clear as to when the change
from wound to cure happened, nor does Kazantzakis report some sort of
cure. Furthermore, one can argue that such a division rather undervalues
the importance of Kazantzakiss earlier works. It might seem that, at the
end of Zorba, the Boss undergoes a conversion from Buddhist nihilistic
passivity to a Zorbatic stance of the tragic hero, although, as Peter Bien
maintains, his Apollonian sophrosyne soon reasserts itself (1963:162).
For Kazantzakis, sophrosyne, which implies reason and moderation, is a
distorting intervention (1952:136). Just as Zarathustra does not become
the Overman, the Boss does not become Zorba.
Andreas Poulakidas closely examines Kazantzakiss Buddhist influences in Spiritual Exercises. He reminds us that the Buddha project had
obsessed him [Kazantzakis] most of his life (1976:208) and he concludes
that Kazantzakis in his Spiritual Exercises can be accused of nihilism.
. . . Ultimately, he has no theology. . . . There is only the unlimited
and deathly silent Abyss (1976:217). But the point precisely is that if
Kazantzakis had a theology, then he could have been accused of nihilism,
disguised beneath a theological system. Thus, Spiritual Exercises can be
understood less pessimistically and there is no need to save Kazantzakis from nihilism by relegating it to an early intellectual stage that he
surpassed. Poulakidas associates Kazantzakis with eschatology. He writes
that Kazantzakis differs from Buddhism in that his concept of Nirvana
is eschatologicalin the future all becoming will ceaserather than
ethical, as a state attained here and now, as Buddha taught (1976:216).
Yet, at least one Zen Buddhist scholar distinguishes between Buddhism
and Zen Buddhism and asserts that there are eschatological ideas in
Buddhism as wellfor example, [Buddhas] last teachings, but not in
Zen Buddhism (Nieda 1961:140). For Kazantzakis, Becoming and Being
are one, neither only Becoming nor only Being, but both simultaneously.
If we follow Poulakidass definition of eschatology, Kazantzakis cannot
be understood as an eschatological thinker. If he were, we would have
to conclude, with Poulakidas, that Kazantzakis, at least during the time
of writing Spiritual Exercises, was a nihilist, rather than an anti-nihilist.
For both Friar and Poulakidas, it is Kazantzakiss bomb-shell
statement at the end of the revised Spiritual Exercises that presumably
troubles them, forcing them to conclude that Kazantzakis was a nihilist,
at least during the time of the addition of the revised last part in 1928.
The revision has been quoted many times. Here it is again: Lord, you

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Christos Galanopoulos

and I are one ... and ... even this ONE does not exist! (Kazantzakis
1960a:131). Peter Bien wonders what this means (1989:133). He is careful not to give a simple answer; e.g., that Kazantzakis is a nihilistand
indeed warns against such an answer. After examining the statement
in terms of Buddhistic nihilism, Schopenhauerian subjectivism, and
Christian mysticism, Bien arrives at the conclusion that it is positive and
multifaceted, the result of a dialectic between seemingly opposing forces
(1989:133143).
The problem has no solution and simultaneously many solutions.
In terms of the present study, the solution is that Kazantzakis was uncompromising with regard to every metaphysical notion: hope as well as hopelessness. He had no hope, nor did he find a solution to his hopelessness.
But in his uncompromising struggle to find meaning, he may have given
the false impression that by bridging hope with hopelessnessagain, in
a synthesis still unknown to mankindhe found freedom. But freedom
cannot be a metaphysical absolute, notion, or idea. As Kazantzakis pointed
out again and again, the essence of freedom is struggle. In other words,
there is no freedom except in the moment that is fleeting and simultaneously fulfilling. Life is a very simple miracle ... it lasts a moment and
it is good (Kazantzakis 1963a:17). This is what the statement means for
the anti-nihilist Kazantzakis.
Understood in this light, Kazantzakiss earlier works need not to
be thought of as exhibiting a passive acceptance of nihilism from which
Kazantzakis later recovered. Spiritual Exercises, a literary and philosophical
treatise that has been falsely interpreted as an expression of nihilism, is
better understood as the starting point of Kazantzakiss literary engagement with nihilism, rather than as a growing stage in his philosophical
development. Perhaps there was a certain change of attitude toward
hopelessness from the early to the later Kazantzakis. In Serpent and Lily
he writes, I am at peace because I have no hope (1980:82). Later, his
attitude toward hopelessness changes to a Bergsonian call to action. At
any rate, Spiritual Exercises, written a decade and a half after Serpent and
Lily, serves as the inaugural beginning of the anti-nihilistic struggle.
Action is the widest gate of deliverance. It alone can answer the questionings of the heart. Amid the labyrinthine complexities of the mind it
finds the shortest route. No, it does not findIt creates its way, hewing
to right and left through resistances of logic and matter (Kazantzakis
1960a:99). One of the most seemingly nihilistic of his statements in
Spiritual Exerciseswhich reads Our body is a ship that sails on deep
blue waters. What is our goal? To be shipwrecked! (1960a:59)is the
expression not of a fatalistic pessimism, but of an affirmative fatalism
that embraces fate and transcends failure by willing it.

Anti-Nihilism in the Thought of Nikos Kazantzakis

15

Literary critic Charles Glicksberg argues that Kazantzakis was a


nihilist throughout his literary lifetime. He is convinced that if one
knew nothing of Kazantzakiss negative beliefs and his open espousal
of nihilism, one would be inclined to hail him as a religious visionary
engaged in a lifelong quest for God (1975:276). As Glicksberg suggests,
Kazantzakis is a fitting example of the secular saint. A religious atheist,
he never gave up the quest for the innermost secret of life even after
he became convinced that there was no ultimate meaning to be found
(1975:176). Obviously, Glicksbergs interpretive emphasis is weighted
toward the nihilistic conviction of meaninglessness. If one is to focus on
writings such as, say, a letter to Lefteris Alexiou in which Kazantzakis writes
that his inner modesty leads him to a terminus that is named not
Victory but Nothingness, one may conclude without further ado that
Kazantzakis was a resolute nihilist (Alexiou and Stefanakis 1983:290).
Prevelakis is rather subtle on this issue. Depending on ones
reading, one may assume that he interprets Kazantzakiss work as nihilistic through and through.7 He writes that Kazantzakis offers no hope
except the affirmation of life in the face of resolute nihilism (Prevelakis
1958:187); furthermore, he asserts categorically that one may not expect
a constructive political theory from a nihilist (1958:163). This does not
imply, however, a resolute nihilism, but only an honest rejection of false
hopes. It is the position of a heroic pessimist, of one whose intellectual
pessimism is transformed into creative action. Prevelakis posits Kazantzakis as a complete nihilist, only to explain that this is also the source of
Kazantzakiss creative inspiration: He overmastered all his experiences,
was cured of all prohibitions. He conquered the awareness of nihilism by
means of tremendous poetic creativity (1958:205). A merely theoretical
overcoming of nihilism would strangle creative inspiration, Bergsons lan
vital. Only a consistent anti-nihilism, working with and against nihilism,
is the antidote. Such an anti-nihilism is found not in metaphysics but in
aesthetics, in art. In fact, if one were to pinpoint the main objective of
Kazantzakiss life and the driving force behind his work, it would more
than likely have to be that, in seeking the Absolute, he was able, in a
profound way, to avoid the nihilistic trap of empty absolutes. In doing
so, he became the arch-anti-nihilist artist.
A main reason why some Kazantzakis scholars conclude that he
overcomes nihilism is that they confuse it with the political and pseudophilosophical movement that took place in nineteenth-century Russia,
called nihilism. For example, Minas Savvas writes that Kazantzakis was
not dominated by any one man or philosophy; rather, he embraced and
abandoned Christianity, Buddhism, Communism, Nihilism, and Existentialism (19711972:284). But, contrary to Savvass understanding,

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Christos Galanopoulos

nihilism is not a philosophy; it is a pathological symptom of cultural


decline. Savvas attempts to link Kazantzakis to Marxism, which left a
permanent mark upon his writing (19711972:285). Bien is more careful; he claims that nihilism is a sickness and that Kazantzakis, in his
dissertation, presents Nietzsche not as the germ spreading nihilism, but
as the physician diagnosing it and attempting a cure (19711972:254).
The present study suggests that Kazantzakis, too, is such a diagnostician,
indeed one who does not make the error of prescribing a medicine such
as Marxism or even Nietzscheanism.
Bien states that Nietzsches dangerous move was to prescribe a
homeopathic cure for nihilism; that is, to overcome nihilism with more
nihilism. Interestingly, Bien suggests that Nietzsche convinced Kazantzakis that nihilism could be a homeopathic weapon for the cure of
contemporary decadence and not just a symptom of that decadence
(1989:35). Bien repeats this assertion when speaking of Kazantzakiss
interpretation of what was going on in the Soviet Union, saying that he
embraced a position that may be called homeopathic, proclaiming that
since Soviet communism was a disease, let us have more of that disease
rather than less, so that the patient might come to a crisis and then be
curedor die (Bien 2007:21). If Kazantzakis is similar to Nietzsche in
this respectand the term anti-nihilism is certainly applicable here
one should not interpret this to mean that Kazantzakis prescribes the
Nietzschean Ubermensch (Overman) as a solution. The patient is not
cured, for there is no cure. Not only does this conclusion not mark the
end of the struggle; it does the opposite: it leads to the position of the
desperado; namely, the man who knows perfectly well that he has nothing
to hold on to; who believes in nothing; and since he does not believe, is
governed by a wild rage (Kazantzakis 1963b:174; Bien 2007:392).
What Kazantzakis meant by action is the action of the artist and
thinker, the creative inspiration to compose or create. Kazantzakis is
averse to the action of the political demonstrator. Bien is at his best when
discussing this point. He clarifies the meaning of action in Kazantzakis
as creative action, as one more synthesis of seeming opposites, of theory
and practice. Kazantzakis resolves the conflict between the active and
contemplative life by deeming contemplation the highest form of action
(Bien 1989:188). For Kazantzakis, theory is practice; there is no opposition between the two. I am both theory and practice (Kazantzakis
1960a:48). Bien quotes Kazantzakiss declaration: I am a monist. Most
deeply, I feel that matter and spirit are one (Bien 1989:60; Kazantzakis
1975:78). In fact, Kazantzakis was an anti-intellectual among intellectuals; he had to be consistent with his anti-rationalism: No one despises
the ... contemplateur more than I do (Bien 1989:58). Nowhere is this

Anti-Nihilism in the Thought of Nikos Kazantzakis

17

better reflected than when Kazantzakis speaks of himself and his work in
his Apologia when he was arrested in Crete as a communist and atheist:
I am neither a narrow-minded denier nor a superficial praiser. That is
because I am not a man of practical energy but rather a man who has
assigned himself the aim in life of attempting to think and to formulate
his thoughts (Prevelakis 1984:229). In terms of binary oppositions, what
Kazantzakis asserted is that he did not draw a sharp distinction between
denier and praiser; if he had done so, he would have fallen into the
metaphysical and nihilistic trap of ideology.
Theologian Lewis Owens attempts to shed light on Kazantzakiss
concept of metacommunism in order to show that Kazantzakis was not
a communist, but a metaphysical thinker bent on transcending communist materialism and moving toward metaphysical conceptualization
another transformation of matter into spirit in the known Kazantzakian
manner. Owens defines Kazantzakiss metacommunism as the desire
for the creative renewal after the destructive fire (2001a:432). And he
deduces that like the individual, the political must serve the metaphysical (2001a:432). It is apparent here that Owens interprets Kazantzakis
theologically, although Kazantzakis himself had misgivings about interpretations of his work that begin from a methodological standpoint,
whether scientific or theological. Bien, who has paid very close attention
to the political thought of Kazantzakis, also links metacommunism to
the synthesis of matter with spirit, but is more careful about the importance of matter and leans more toward the permanence of this process
rather than its actualization. He emphasizes, regarding the goal of
amalgamating activism and nihilism, that Kazantzakiss god can evolve
only through matter (Bien 1989:73). Elsewhere, he quotes Kazantzakiss
assertion: ... my God is still hungry. ... He believes in matter (Bien
2007:70; Kazantzakis 1963a:185186).
Is there, then, a Kazantzakian eschatological doctrine? Owens
quotes a line in a letter from Kazantzakis to his wife Eleni that he takes
from Biens Kazantzakis: Politics of The Spirit, volume 1: Ive finished the
essay on metacommunism that I wrote you about. ... Its a big rupture
with communismnot in a backward direction of course, but terrifyingly forward (Owens 2001a:440; Eleni Kazantzaki 1968:15, 1983:196).
The emphasis is on terrifyingly. The point here again is that Kazantzakis,
while accepting the metaphysical wind, as he liked to say, was careful
not to fall into the nihilistic trap of a metaphysical absolute. Thus, he
is neither a communist nor an anti-communist, and does not take an
ideological position, for doing so would negate both the Bergsonian lan
vital and the Nietzschean affirmation of life, both of which Kazantzakis
espoused and fused together. Likewise, Kazantzakis is neither a nihilist

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nor a meta-nihilistunder a dogma or ideologybut an anti-nihilist, thus


again avoiding the metaphysical trap of nihilism from both directions.8
Kazantzakis sees all political and theological doctrines as masks that
hide the nihilistic abyss. Espousing neither materialism nor spiritualism,
he places himself in historical transitoriness. Tranquilly gazing at the abyss
by the end of his intellectual journey, he remains uncorrupted by the
metaphysical lures of both materialism and spiritualism while working
with themas the silkworm works with mulberry to make silkletting
his body be consumed by the metaphysical flame, always remaining true
to both Body (Becoming) and Spirit (Being), indeed seeing them as One,
the one that is or is not, because it Becomes.
In his Kazantzakis: Politics of the Spirit (Volume 1), Bien refers
to Kazantzakis as an eschatological thinker, but his understanding of
eschatology is different from that of Poulakidas discussed earlier. His
reference seems to be similar to Charles Glicksbergs secular saint,
but Bien does not see Kazantzakis as a nihilist. Biens choice of title
may also be compared to James Leas Kazantzakis: Politics of Salvation
(1979), but Bien is more careful not to confuse Kazantzakiss politics
with an overcoming of nihilism.9 A political form of nihilism is misleading because it places value on what is essentially nothing. On the other
hand, anti-nihilism can be understood politically as an effort to depict
the nihilism disguised beneath political ideology. Bien traces the political movements that Kazantzakis espoused and rejected, ending with a
politically uncompromised Kazantzakis who becomes an eschatologist
without an eschatology, thus transubstantiating matter into spirit by not
allowing matter to be weighed down by a metaphysical or spiritual
doctrine. Thus there is no contradiction between Kazantzakiss caution
concerning metaphysical lures and his assertion to Prevelakis that he
accepted the frightful metaphysical wind passing above me and shriveling my body (Prevelakis 1984:39).
Similarly, in a letter to Galatea, Kazantzakis wrote: Ah! If we could
only perish suddenly by serving a purpose. What purpose? Does this
Earth, this starlight, have a purpose? What do we care? Dont ask, fight!
(1979:74). For Kazantzakis, the struggle to give meaning to life has no
eschatological end, no final purpose. On the contrary, the struggle becomes
the eschatological end, and matter is transformed into spirit, in this life.
The message is non-eschatological and non-metaphysical through and
through: we do not want the world to disappear, nor do we want Christ
to load it on His shoulders and transfer it to heaven. We want it to live
and struggle here with us. We love it just as the potter loves and desires
his clay. We have no other material to work with, no other solid field
over chaos to sow and reap (Kazantzakis 1965:423).

Anti-Nihilism in the Thought of Nikos Kazantzakis

19

Kazantzakis may be thought of as an eschatological thinker, and


Bien is certainly convincing when he presents Kazantzakiss work as
eschatological politics (2007:56). But it would be an error to identify
an eschatological doctrine in Kazantzakis, and Bien certainly does not.
Bien describes Kazantzakis as a romantic naturalist. . . . By naturalist
here, I mean a person who believes that being and nature are identical,
hence that everything supernaturalincluding any teleological explanation of the ultimate purpose of beingmust be rejected (2007:xi).
Eschatology is a historicist doctrine involving the teleological assumption
that history moves in a linear direction toward an inevitable, culminating
event. Indeed, the nineteenth century, which planted the intellectual
seeds for thinkers like Kazantzakis, was also in historiography the great
age of historicism, which bears similarities to eschatological thought.
It was Georg Hegel who inaugurated the age of historicist literature
with his seminal Philosophy of History, in which he posited that history
culminates in the actualization of the Spirit on Earth. Kazantzakis took
historicist thinkers such as Wilhelm Dilthey and Oswald Spengler very
seriously.10 Marx was also a historicist thinker; his historical materialism
implies that history moves in the pattern of class conflict based on the
given economic mode of production in a historical era, and culminating
in the communist revolution. Indeed, this is not far from eschatology,
which is precisely why Kazantzakis shied away from Marxism, finding it
too confining and failing to see much of a difference between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat when it came to political reality. It is rather
with a sense of pity that he writes, The revolutionaries have become
comfortably established; the comfortably established soon wind up as
conservatives and little by little the conservatives become reactionaries
(Eleni Kazantzaki 1983:269, 1968:219). Seen in this light, Kazantzakiss
metacommunism is a metadialectic in which the rationalistic mask of
binary oppositions is revealed as a form of nihilism.
There is no doubt that Kazantzakis was deeply concerned with politics or that he was a political thinker. Bien has certainly exhausted the
subject. If understood in the light of anti-nihilism, Kazantzakiss political
thought is of the highest caliber, akin to Nietzsches great politics in
that it avoids the nihilistic traps hidden beneath ideology, including the
mistake, most significant in that it is most final, of viewing nihilism as
ideology. Thus, the last man, or Buddha, is the final ideological mask
that needs to be overthrown as the last value, the value of numbing
nothingness. Kazantzakis also wages war against the satisfied in life
who choose the descending as opposed to the ascending Bergsonian
flow. By great politics Nietzsche meant an anti-metaphysical polemic
against sterile ideologies, which threaten with a totalitarian vision of

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human nature. His politics was directed against the will to power
of the weak-natured, which Nietzscheopenly and proudly declaring
himself an Aristotelianopposed to the feeling of power in the strongnatured. The point is that the will to power may be ruthless and a source
of evildoing, while power itself does not corrupt but ennobles the mind
(Kauffman 1974:194). In one of his most significant sentences, Nietzsche
declares: Man would rather will nothingness than not will (1969:163). It
is this will to nothingness, akin to the desire for power, that Kazantzakis
makes his goal to expose and struggle against as the foremost example
of modern Western decadence. Kazantzakis loved people but only from
far away, as he once wrote rather humorously. For me, my own job is
not to see anyone at all; not to live with human beings. Every contact is
painful for me andwhat is worsesuperfluous. O mon Coeur, suis ton
chemin comme le rhinocros! (Eleni Kazantzaki 1983:322, 1968:265).
His inner modesty and care for humanity drove him away, but he never
lost his deep sense of social responsibility.
It is Nietzsches fatalism, his aesthetic amor fati, that Kazantzakis
espouses and turns into a literary engagement designed to confront
the problem of nihilism. To embrace ones fate, to will it together with
its successes and failures, to say the great Yes to life, and to oppose the
negation of lifethat is what Nietzsche meant by the grand style in
art, and what Kazantzakis set out to accomplish. Heidegger understood,
as did Kazantzakis, Nietzsches principal declaration concerning art as
the great stimulant of life. Stimulant means what conducts one into
the sphere of command of the grand style (1977:130).
It would appear that Kazantzakiss literary heroes in the end fail
in what they set out to accomplish. The point, however, is to confront
failure without regret and thus to transubstantiate it into freedom. To
love ones fate despite and because of ones failures becomes the supreme
antidote to nihilism. In Kouros, the Kapetanios advises Theseus to seize the
moment passing above him as if it were Ariadne (1964a:287). Constantine
Palaiologos abounds in descriptions of Kazantzakiss philosophy of turning
hopelessness into the supreme hope (1964b). Palaiologos exclaims, for
example: / , !
(No other hope remains / but lack of hope, bless it!). And again:
/ /
(To fight without hope / and to realize deeply that your
strength increases / in extreme despair) (1964b:530, 548).11
Saint Francis or The Poor Man of God (1962), Kazantzakiss last
novel, is yet another most powerful indication of Kazantzakiss nihilistic
concerns, his final evocation of yet one more great anti-nihilist. The
novel is abundant in seemingly nihilistic sentences that must by now

Anti-Nihilism in the Thought of Nikos Kazantzakis

21

be understood in the light of the culminating struggle against nihilism,


the struggle to unveil the mask of the last value, that of nothingness.
An example is: To be a saint means to renounce not only everything
earthly but also everything divine (Kazantzakis 1962:22). This statement
should be viewed not as a renunciation, but as an attempt to get rid of
all absolutes, especially in the realm of the phenomena of experience,
so that the flow of creativity and the vital affirmation of life may reassert
themselves. Elsewhere in the novel, Kazantzakis has a fat, jovial monk
taunt Francis: What I want to see is this: for you to become so poor
that you must renounce even the hope that one day you will see God.
... That is what perfect Poverty means. ... That is the highest form of
sainthood (1962:160). Francis is scandalized at first, but slowly understands and prays that he may have the strength to renounce the hope, O
Lord, of seeing Thee. Who knows: perhaps this, and only this, constitutes
absolute Poverty (1962:161). Poverty here is akin to the Silence ending
the revised Spiritual Exercises, showing again that Kazantzakis remained
consistent with the project that he inaugurated in that book, rather
than being a nihilist in his early career and overcoming nihilism later
on. In Saint Francis again: The great Yes is formed only by these many
Nos (1962:110). This statement crystallizes the idea that the book has
maintained all along. At the novels end, the tiny sparrow becomes one
final panentheistic metaphor. Kazantzakis embraces poverty, the poverty
of meaning, as loves begging sparrow, and turns it into art.
In The Last Temptation of Christ (1960b), Kazantzakis tackles anew
the literary and philosophical themes that commonly appear in his work.
His homeopathic approach to nihilism is revisited in the words that he
puts in the mouth of his Christ: This world . . . must be destroyed right
down to its roots if the new world is to be planted (1960b:367). And
elsewhere in the same novel: Man cannot sprout wings unless he has
first reached the brink of the abyss (1960b:43). Kazantzakis employs the
butterfly as a creature of the earth that achieves in nature the focal point
of Kazantzakiss message: the momentary transubstantiation of matter
into spirit. It is in this life that this happens. Christ acknowledges the
butterfly as his sister (1960b:69), nor does he forget Mary Magdalenes
observation that it is here on earth that we women live out eternity
(1960b:353).12
It is the organic vitality of the body that Kazantzakis affirms in the
end, echoing the advice of Nietzsches Zarathustra: remain faithful to
the earth (Nietzsche 1995:13). That is, we must rid ourselves of empty,
downgrading, and sterile metaphysical absolutes. To Victor Serge, one
of his communist acquaintances in the 1920s, Kazantzakis wrote that
he (Kazantzakis) could not espouse a fundamental metaphysic: my

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metaphysical sense is not sufficiently basic (Eleni Kazantzaki 1983:273,


1968:222). Neither is he a romantic revolutionary, a life-negating mystic,
nor a person who insolently fights matter. Instead, everything for him
is insatiably holy (Eleni Kazantzakis 1983:313314, 1963:258). There
is an unforgettable line in Zorba, a masterstroke of Kazantzakiss pen
that encapsulates what our tired times need. The Boss says: Zorba sees
everything every day as if for the first time (1952:51). This sentence
mirrors Kazantzakiss mind in all of its hidden alleys. What is more, all of
modern philosophy from Spinoza and Hume to Nietzsche and Bergson
is reflected in that sentence, let alone the obvious postmodern themes
of inauthenticity, loss of desire, and fragmentation. Kazantzakis, through
his massive literary output and many travels, not only mirrored the times
in which he lived, but greatly anticipated our own times.
Given the massive amount of academic output dedicated to philosophy and literary criticism during the second half of the twentieth century
and into the present, it is curious that Kazantzakis, at least to my knowledge, is never seriously mentioned or referred to in the more popular,
postmodern intellectual schools of thought such as poststructuralism
and deconstruction, which openly claim Nietzschean and Bergsonian
influences, and whose main concerns have been with the nihilistic topics
of the loss of the Subject and of the inauthentic and fractured Self, as well
as with totalitarianism and its sibling, authoritarianism, as pathological
states, all of which are deeply woven into the work of Kazantzakis. While
Kazantzakis has been carefully studied in some theological and literary
circles, he has been all but ignored in other academic and intellectual
circles.13 His work begs to be rescued from the grip of academic classification and given the open public space that it deserves.14
For the past 40 years the world has been witness to a new wave of
postMay 1968 French intellectuals. Jacques Derrida, Roland Barthes,
Michel Foucault, Bulgarian-born Julia Kristeva, Jacques Lacan, JeanFranois Lyotard, Gilles Deleuze, and Jean Baudrillard, to name but a
few of the most famous ones, have become household names. No matter
what ones prediction may be concerning their value in the future, the
point here is that they exhibit some similarities to Kazantzakiss intellectual project against nihilism and thus deserve closer attention. In fact,
it may very well be that the oftentimes difficult project of reading these
thinkers can be aided by knowledge of Kazantzakis and his works. Given
the present availability of space, only Derrida, Deleuze, and Lyotard
are considered here, and those only in passing. A metaphysical lure
or empty absolute that Kazantzakis refers to is the meaningless signifier
(image) that these thinkers refer to, an oppressive absolute that, rather
than referring to a signified (concept), signifies nothing but its own

Anti-Nihilism in the Thought of Nikos Kazantzakis

23

imagethat is, its own totalityin a dizzying play of nihilistic signifiers.15


Other such metaphysical lures include modern master narratives and
meta-narratives or ideologies such as fascism and communism. In this
sense, Kazantzakiss flirtation with the various movements of his time,
and his eventual rejection of them as empty absolutes, can be read in
terms of the postmodernist projects of those writers. Thus, the various
political movements that Kazantzakis espoused and then rejected can
also be read in terms of those movements as signifiers that Kazantzakis
found in the end to be nihilisticthat is, empty of meaning.
Can Kazantzakis be viewed as a postmodern thinker? Perry Anderson
has pointed out that Spanish-speaking writers were the first to use the
term post-modernismo in the 1930s. Historian Arnold Toynbee, a towering
figure in the field of historiography, finds the historical transition from
modernism to postmodernism to have occurred sometime around the
Franco-Prussian War of 1871, accelerating during and after the 1930s,
thus placing the turning point from modernism to postmodernism during Kazantzakiss lifetime (Anderson 2006:45).16 Jean Franois Lyotards
The Postmodern Condition (1984) was the first book to treat postmodernity as a general change of human circumstance (Anderson 2006:26).
Lyotards project was to show the postmodern condition as one in which
modern master narratives, especially Marxism, were absolutistic and
came tumbling down. Thus, we live in a transitional age of meaningless
metanarratives, much in the way that Kazantzakis suggested, an age in
which the values of modernity have been devalued but new values have
not yet arrived. Yet Kazantzakis held that hoping is fruitless and that
the transitional age is permanent: a new table of values will become
entrapped in a new false absolute and another oppressive signifier and
master narrative.
Postmodernism, like nihilism, is not an ideological term but one
signifying a transitional historical era. It is an era in which capitalism
has emerged victorious and unopposed. In the sense of the history of
western civilization as the unveiling of nihilism, capitalism is the sole
signifier, but one that signifies nothing because it cannot be trapped
under an ideology. Postmodern thinkers like Lyotard have been accused
of capitalism because they find that the end of capitalism will come only
in homeopathic fashion after more capitalismsimilar to Biens explanation of Kazantzakiss homeopathic Nietzschean solution to nihilism. Since
capitalism in its consumerist stage signifies nothing but itself, the postmodern age is one of post-this and post-that, a metahistorical age in which
historicism has collapsed and the possibility of meaning in history has
collapsed together with it. Against such a scenario, Kazantzakis becomes
one of the great modernand postmodernwriters, attempter and

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tempter (to use Nietzsches play with words), a philosopher of the


future who challenges us and instructs us to struggle against this nihilistic predicament (Nietzsche 1989:5253).
The reason why Kazantzakis has been largely ignored in the postmodern debate could be that his work, as already suggested, has been
analyzed mainly as theology.17 For Allan Megill, in the theological view,
the dominant metaphor for crisis is the abyss: the metaphor of humanity
stranded in a world without God or other absolutes on which we can
depend. In my historical reading of crisis, the dominant metaphor is
that of the break (1985:xiii). Is it possible, then, that we also need to give
a historical reading of Kazantzakis, who uses the word abyss but clearly
does not consider himself a theologian? In his analysis of Heidegger,
perhaps the most influential philosopher in the postmodern debate,
Megill writes:
By the early 1930s, Heidegger had become a herald of absolute crisis, a
prophet of extremity. Crisis opens the way for his aestheticism, as it does for
Nietzsche as wellexcept that Heidegger is much more explicit about the
relationship pertaining between art and crisis. ... In Heideggers universe,
there is a rift, a fissure, an abyss. Out of this rift comes art. ... Negative
and positive go together. The complete degradation of the extant world
prepares the ground of an aesthetic creation ex nihilo; the notion of crisis
opens up the space within which aestheticism can flourish. (1985:143)

Elsewhere: Heidegger professes to find an abyss (Abgrund) in the sentence language speaks. But, he continues, when we fall into this abyss,
we do not go tumbling into emptiness; on the contrary, we fall upward,
to a height ... (Megill 1985:168). Megills reading of Heidegger comes
strikingly close to the need for such a reading of Kazantzakis.
What is curious about these postmodern writers is that their thought
is saturated with Nietzschean influences, very much in the tradition
of the continental Franco-German intellectual exchange. Derrida and
Deleuze even wrote books entirely about Nietzsche. In his Spurs: Nietzsches
Styles (1979), Derrida focuses on Nietzsche in similar fashion to Biens
suggestion that Kazantzakis follows Nietzsche more in terms of style
than of ideas.
We remember Kazantzakis saying in 1910 that if anything remains from
Nietzsche it is only a rhythm. The word means more in Modern
Greek than it does in English; perhaps style could be a better translation. What Kazantzakis wishes to say is clarified at the end of his dissertation. Kazantzakis remarks here that. . . . Nietzsche gave old ideas a new
radiance ...
This radiance is the Nietzschian rhythm which so impressed
Kazantzakis and which he desired to acquire in his own right, imitating

Anti-Nihilism in the Thought of Nikos Kazantzakis

25

the Nietzschian prototype. . . . [T]he ideas . . . were secondary. (Bien


19711972:265266)

Thus, Bien reasserts that what Kazantzakis derived mostly from Nietzsche
was an aesthetic perspective. What Nietzsche meant by the aesthetic was
the radical overthrow of metaphysical sterility with the power of desire,
not the degrading aestheticism of art for arts sake. Derrida, speaking
of truth in the Nietzschean metaphor of the female, quotes Nietzsche:
Certainly she has not let herself be wonand today every kind of
dogmatism stands sad and discouraged. If it continues to stand at all!
Derrida comments, Woman (truth) will not be pinned down. In truth
woman, truth will not be pinned down. And in Kazantzakian fashion,
he warns against those essentializing fetishes [such as femininity or
female sexuality] which might still tantalize the dogmatic philosopher,
the impotent artist or the inexperienced seducer who has not yet escaped
his foolish hopes of capture (1979:55).
Against the psychological nihilism of conformism and alienation,
Deleuze and Lyotard posit a philosophy of desire as the nexus of the
resistance toward nihilistic totalities. Desire here is akin to Kazantzakiss Dionysian intoxication and creative ascent. Kazantzakis placed
desire at the heart of his creative inspiration: The things that move
me most deeplyunity, firmness of purpose and constancy of desire ...
(1952:199). As with Kazantzakis, Deleuze and Lyotard are concerned
with the negation of life in the face of nihilistic totalities. Deleuze is an
especially important postmodern philosopher and critic whose thought
stresses the postmodern opposition to the modernist logic of binary
oppositions and hermeneutics. He attempts a monistic synthesis of
necessity and freedom, being and becoming, woven into his analyses
of major thinkers from Spinoza and Hume to Nietzsche and Bergson,
Freud, Marx, Melville, and Kafka, among others, constantly bringing out
the existential themes of the loss of authenticity and the desire for life in
a culture of copies and simulations. In his book Nietzsche and Philosophy
(1983), Deleuze analyzes the themes of active and re-active nihilism much
in the way that Kazantzakis writes about what uplifts the human spirit;
namely, action and what downgrades it; namely, re-action.18
Lyotard may be the most extreme of all the postmodern writers in
his constant delineation and rejection of anything that is remotely similar
to the representational logic of modernity. He lashes out against all systems in an effort to re-vitalize desire, which champions the production
of intensities. From this postmodern perspective, activities that produce
intensities, that free and intensify the flow of desire, are embraced over
modern politics. Lyotard concludes: More important than political
leftism, closer to a concurrence of the intensities: a vast subterraneous

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movement, wavering, more of a ruffle in fact, on account of which the


law of value is dis-affected (Best and Kellner 1991:155). This passage can
be connected to several Kazantzakian themes: the subterranean
(outcry) against the dullness of humanity, the metacommunism that
brings revolution closer to actuality than does the totalizing numbness
of Soviet authoritarian communism, and the intensification of struggle
toward a higher synthesis.
Like Kazantzakis, Lyotard proposes a relationship between theory
and fictionbetween philosophy and poetry. ... In Just Gaming, Lyotard
remarks: the difference between what I write and poetry and literature
is that, in principle, what I write is not fiction. But I do wonder more
and more: is there a real difference between theory and fiction? After
all, dont we have the right to present theoretical statements under the
form of fictions? Not under the form, but in the form (quoted in Pefanis
1991:101). Anticipating this postmodern turn, Kazantzakis writes: I have
been struggling for a lifetime to stretch my mind until it creaked at the
breaking point in order to bring forth a great idea able to give a new
meaning to life, a new meaning to death, and comfort to men. And now,
look! ... the idea has turned into a tale (1965:474).
The intellectual affinities between Kazantzakis and Derrida are even
more obvious. Derrida, who could very well be the most controversial
philosophical thinker of our times, is as much revered as he is attacked
and despised, much in the way Kazantzakis has been; most pointedly, he
is severely popularized.19 It even seems that his philosophy of deconstruction, which had a short, happy life in American literary circles, is now
dead. Is it possible to have a Kazantzakian reading of Derrida and vice
versa? Can Derridas deconstructivist project be seen in the light of a
Kazantzakian inner modesty? After all, Derrida himself states that Derrida must be deconstructed in the end, declaring that we are obliged
... to dwell dangerously between the barriers and the gorges, between
ethics and nihilism (Campolo 1985:447). More than anything, Derridas
philosophy targets metaphysical absolutes in all of their forms.
How would Derrida deconstruct Kazantzakis? It is possible that
Derrida would find a kindred spirit in Kazantzakis, one who posits a
limited God and counsels against the nihilistic totalitarianism that lurks
in binary oppositions, textual interpretations, political ideologies, and
easy solutions. Derrida has reflected on the relation between his work
and eschatology:
While Derrida interrogates the idea of an schaton or tlos in the absolute
formulations of classical philosophy he emphasizes that this does not
mean that I dismiss all forms of Messianic or prophetic eschatology. I think
that all genuine questioning is summoned by a certain type of eschatology,

Anti-Nihilism in the Thought of Nikos Kazantzakis

27

though it is impossible to define this eschatology in philosophical terms.


(Smith 2005:68)

Thus Derrida explains that the project of deconstruction is an eschatology without an schaton, perhaps. Where the Messiah never shows up,
for if that were the caseif the Messiah actually arrivedthat would be
the end of the story (Smith 2005:111). Kazantzakis arrives at a philosophical silence, the Cretan Glance at the abyss from which he derives
his creative powerwhich, as Derrida would concur, is always under
deconstruction. As with Kazantzakiss cry, Derrida sees deconstruction
as a positive response to an alterity which necessarily calls, summons
or motivates it. Deconstruction is therefore vocationa response to a
callthe call of the other, as he puts it (Smith 2005:12).
Both Kazantzakis and Derrida have similar attitudes toward what
constitutes political activism. Both reject the binary opposition of theory
and practice. For Kazantzakis this turns into the literary act as practice;
for Derrida deconstruction is a kind of activism beyond the simplistic
binary politics that so often informs what we call activism (Smith
2005:114115). It has been clear from the beginning that this political
deconstruction is about the deconstruction of political structures. It
was not a matter of deconstruction becoming political; it has always been
such (Smith 2005:13). Kazantzakiss metacommunist credo would find a
home among Derridas readings of Marx. Derrida writes: Now, if there is
a spirit of Marxism which I will never be ready to renounce, it is not only
the critical idea or the questioning stance. ... It is even more a certain
emancipatory and messianic affirmation (Smith 2005:86). Derrida sees
deconstruction asin his wordsa messianism without religion, even
a messianic without messianism ... (quoted in Smith 2005:86). Both
Kazantzakis and Derrida want to elevate Marx from the ideological lure
of the Party, the simplistic binary logic of artificial opposites, and the
absolutistic metaphysics of interpretationwhat Nietzsche terms the
deception through meaning (Spivak 1997:xxiii). In the same way that
Bien maintains that for Kazantzakis the importance of Nietzsche lay in
style, so Derrida concurs: As Nietzsche said, it is perhaps a change of
style that we need; Nietzsche has reminded us that, if there is style, it
must be plural (Spivak 1997:xxix).
The emphasis on plurality is at the heart of Deleuzes nomadology, a deliberate word play on Gottfried Leibnizs Monadology (2007).
Deleuze defines nomad thought as a Nietzschean war machine and
nomadic forcea force that constantly seeks to decodify nihilistic codes.
By codification Deleuze implies the institutionalization of everything,
from laws and contracts to thought and even madness (1991:142143).

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Against such codification, Deleuze posits Nietzsche as a nomadic thinker,


one who makes no attempt at recodification; instead, his masterful
siege of the language permits him to transmit something uncodifiable:
the notion of style as politics (1991:143). Deleuze portrays a Nietzsche
who lived like . . . a nomad, reduced to a shadow, moving from furnished room to furnished room (1991:149). His life became fused into
his writings. How similar Kazantzakis is here! He, too, lived as a nomad,
always traveling, living far from home, and turning his nomadic life into
a machine of war against nihilism: I began to write. But no, this was not
writing: it was a real war, a merciless hunt, a siege, a spell to bring the
monster out of its hiding place (Kazantzakis 1952:134). Kazantzakiss
Spiritual Exercises especially is such a war machine.20
Deleuzes project of decodification begins at the most minuscule or
molecular level, to use his own terminology. Deleuze is similar to Derrida
in his pluralism: in fact pluralismotherwise known as empiricismis
almost indistinguishable from philosophy itself (Deleuze 1983:4). He
calls for a radical empiricism, one in which Platos poisoned gift of
introducing transcendence into philosophy will be overthrown with a
restoration of immanence in its full extension and in its purity, which
forbids the return of any transcendence (1997:137). In his last essay
before his death, Deleuze wrote that transcendence is always a product of
immanence (2001:31). It is Hume who guides Deleuzes thinking here.21
Hume is instrumental in pointing out that our habitual associations of
ideas blur reality from our experiences. Moreover, copies of images from
past impressions already in our minds render us unable to experience
difference. What we need is to look inward and begin a self-critical process of dissociation, much in the way that Bergson taught: Life does not
proceed by the association and addition of elements, but by dissociation
and division (1998:89). This line of thought is very much at the heart
of the Zorbatic vision of experiencing each day differently.
It should become obvious after reading Kazantzakis that he depicts
the times in which we live with profound intellectual insight, and provides
a most refreshing example of, if not solution to, how to deal with the
uncertainty and transience of our existence. Kazantzakiss message that
one should live life courageously by accepting and willing ones fate in all
of its implications, and thus become who one is, certainly resonates with
the philosophy of Nietzsche and several of his postmodern followers. But
this message is brought out most beautifullyand, I would argue, most
meaningfullyby Kazantzakis himself, the archetypal anti-nihilist.
KING LOW HEYWOOD THOMAS SCHOOL

Anti-Nihilism in the Thought of Nikos Kazantzakis

29

NOTES
See his Confession of Faith in Alexiou (1981:297300).
It has to be kept in mind that by art Kazantzakis was careful not to imply art for
arts sake, or a plunge into aestheticism.
3
See note 3 at the end of H. Bergson in Alexiou and Stefanakis (1983:285).
4
See Peter Bien for an illuminating letter that Kazantzakis wrote when he first learned
about Heidegger, acknowledging him as a kindred thinker (1989:231232).
5
See Heideggers The Word of Nietzsche: God is Dead (1977) for a discussion of
incomplete vs. completed nihilism: incomplete because it involves a devaluation and a
revaluation that are still in the realm of old value, completed because it involves a revaluation of all values, including value itself. Heidegger contends that, as a countermovement
to metaphysics, Nietzsches philosophy remains, as does everything anti, held fast in the
essence of that over against which it moves (Heidegger 1977:61). Thus, it would seem that
the title anti-nihilism, given that metaphysics is nihilistic, shows Kazantzakis as a nihilist.
But the argument in this essay is that an overcoming of nihilism is the equivalent of a
plunge into another metaphysical absolute; Kazantzakis, as I try to show, was well aware
of this trap. It is worth adding that it is widely thought that Heidegger fell short of his
mark. See Peter Gordon (2003).
6
In his dissertation entitled Heraclitus and Philosophy (1986), Kostas Axelos writes that
for Heraclitus freedom and necessity are not opposites; they are the two different sides
of the same coin. True freedom and not its confusion with individual arbitrariness, he
writes, expresses the necessary rhythm of the whole universe. Thus, free choice becomes
the necessary choice (1986:210). It is in the same way that Kazantzakis, as well as Nietzsche,
fuse freedom and necessity as affirmative fatalists.
7
Lea divides between two schools of scholars and places Prevelakis in the nihilistic
camp (1979:181182).
8
In another essay, Owens compares Kazantzakis to Plotinus, and asserts that while for
Plotinus the non-ontological One becomes a final resting place and results in nihilistic paralysis, for Kazantzakis instead it is a new beginning and not a final resting place
(2001b:269277). This is all fine and good but in postulating a metaphysical abyss beyond
nihilism, Owens seems to underscore the importance of immanence in his transcendenceimmanence. Owens again separates metaphysics from nihilism and moves dangerously
close to the metaphysical lure that Kazantzakis warns against.
9
A more agreeable comparison could be made with Deleuzes politics of style at
least in terms of Nietzsches influence on Kazantzakis. Bien shows that Kazantzakiss most
important Nietzschean influence was in terms of Nietzsches style (19711972). None
other than Derrida also pays great attention to the importance of style in Nietzsche. See
his Spurs: Nietzsches Styles (1979). Obviously, Biens choice of title, Politics of the Spirit (1989),
emphasizes the Bergsonian influence on Kazantzakis.
10
Stefanakis goes so far as to assert that Spengler influenced Kazantzakis even more
than Nietzsche or Bergson did (Alexiou and Stefanakis 1983:219). I would say that Kazantzakis deeply understood the implications of Spenglers thought because he had mastered
Bergson and Nietzsche.
11
Thodoros Grammatas provides a useful summary of Kazantzakiss work in a 1982
issue of . He writes that Odysseus must embrace death in the end; Zorba turns
failure into freedom and teaches the Boss how to dance on the face of it; and Prometheus,
Julian the Apostate, Palaiologos, and Kapodistrias all know that their efforts are in vain but
actively engage in them all the more, thus willing their fate and freeing themselves. In the
play Kouros, in particular, both Minoas and Theseus perfectly exemplify the themes of love
1
2

30

Christos Galanopoulos

of fate and of finding freedom by living in the moment, as the only way to affirm life and
to live freely, without regrets or false hopes and fears (Grammatas 1982a).
12
(Digenis Akritas) and Faust were other projects that he was hoping to
enlist in the battle but was not able to complete. Both works are important to note because
they show Kazantzakis constantly trying to find ways to continue the ascent toward the
resolutionor rather the completionof the problem of nihilism. Kazantzakiss Akritas
was meant to be the first new man who would overcome the last old man, specifically
the Odysseus of his epic Odyssey (Prevelakis 1984:486). But Kazantzakis also sees the Last
Man as Buddhasee Zorba the Greek (Kazantzakis 1952:134). These metaphors are, of course,
taken from Nietzsches Thus Spake Zarathustra, and imply the completion and overcoming
of nihilism. The last men in Nietzsche are those who are the most despicable because
they have invented happiness (Nietzsche 1995:17). Kazantzakis also despised the happiness of those who are satisfied. But Kazantzakis never wrote Akritas, never posited
a New Man. In his discussion of Kazantzakiss Akritas, Bien explains that Akritas would
have rejected the ephemeral life for a dream world beyond the reality of space and time
(2007:182). But Kazantzakis ultimately preferred to be earthy, to come down on the side of
the visible world, affirming the materiality of the body and thus remaining in confrontation
with nihilism and avoiding the trap of a metaphysical dreamworld. Prevelakis mentions
the plan to write Faust in his introduction to the and describes it as a
work that seriously tortured Kazantzakis for the last seven years of his life (1984:).
It was meant be his final word. Faust would be the founder of a new monasteryit is
well known that Kazantzakis kept thinking of such a monastery throughout his lifeone
where absolute freedom would be declared and myths would have no place. In the story,
Faust would be murdered by one of his students in the name of a new religion. Faust was
not created, but his cry was: The Cretan Glance.
13
For example, the attempt by Stathis Gourgouris to demythologize transcendental
nationalism and move toward a radical secularism is similar to my attempt here to show
Kazantzakis as one who demythologizes or unmasks the faces of nihilism in religion and
politics, including those masking nationalism and secularism. In a study of Edward Said,
Gourgouris discusses what he terms Saids experimental method, a resistance to identity [that] means profound alertness to history, to the temporal fluidity and multiplicity
we inhabit in our being in the world, also a sense of mobility, of restlessly moving from
object to object, of denying the stability of any presumable ground, as opposed to a metaphysical or transcendental nationalism, calling transcendence the blissful pill of oblivion
(2004:6466, 79). Such language is at the heart of the project of this essay. Bien joins the
debate in Inventing Greece, where he declares that nationalism is invented (2005:218).
Biens use of arguments by Gourgouris and Gregory Jusdanis is in line with my arguments
here concerning nihilism and how to battle it as a false religion and a psychological need
that, in this case, lurks behind nationalist ideology (as well as behind national identity and
language). Again, Kazantzakis is a great example of an intellectual who was not outwitted
by nihilistic disguises in what Jusdanis, as quoted by Bien, calls the metaphysics of nationalism. And, as Bien reflects: The best proof of the equation nationalism = religion, is
provided, I suppose, by how people behave (2005:218). Nihilism lurks behind peoples
hopes and fears and the need to believe in the myth of a metaphysical or transcendent
absolute, to use Gourgouriss term. Vassilis Lambropoulos, who espouses the postmodern
possibilities of pluralities and multiplicities, and the break with master narratives, is of
valuable use here, with his defense of syncretism as Heraclitean harmony, a dynamic
antidote to cultural assimilationism (2001:232234), what I would call, in terms of the
present essay, the reactionary nihilism of the metaphysical need.
14
Theodore Frangopoulos writes that some of the reasons why the Greek public has

Anti-Nihilism in the Thought of Nikos Kazantzakis

31

not considered Kazantzakis more seriously may be that his choice of demotic Greek makes
his work difficult to enjoy, that his philosophy is too complex to have the patience to follow,
and that he refuses to enlist his negativism in a given ideology (1997). He claims that it is
difficult to pay serious attention to someone so great who, because of his greatness, does not
provide a model to live by. Frangopoulos asks: What gives us the right to ask Kazantzakis
for solutions? Could it be that we cringe from paying serious attention to him because we
are suspicious that he will lead us to the nihilism that underlies our lives? (1997:306).
This question lies at the heart of what I seek to accomplish here. Frangopoulos adds that
Kazantzakis has been seriously studied only outside Greece, and he invokes Friar and Bien,
calling for the young Greek generation to follow their example (1997:304306). In the
words of Vasilis Vasilikos, one of the ways to avoid a difficult confrontation is to reject the
opposition beforehand (1997). Vasilikos is perhaps the most famous case of a well-known
Greek intellectual who was averse to the works of Kazantzakis owing, in part, to the latters
heavy handedness with demotic Greek, especially in the Odyssey, as well as how massive an
epic it was. Vasilikos is rather ironic when he writes that the Odyssey became popular in
the United States because Americans, living in a megatherium, prefer bulky works. Yet
he also confesses that he was inspired by the epic in its English translation. He further
writes that it was not until he met Friar in 1959 that he became seriously interested in
Kazantzakis (1997:285288). Given Frangopouloss comment about the serious reception
of Kazantzakis outside of Greece as opposed to within his native country, it becomes all the
more curious that the Greek public has not paid very much attention to Kazantzakisat
least not until the celebratory year of 2007. It is also possible that the literary scholasticism
and, indeed, educational conservatism of high school classes in modern Greek (which
are devoted mostly to translating, memorizing, and some literary analysis, and provide
no research skills), block students, alas, from connecting to the underlying power and
beauty of Kazantzakiss ideas.
15
Grammatas discusses the linguistic themes of signifier and signified in Kazantzakiss
workhis use of pseudonyms as an effort to bridge the gap between signifier and signified
(1982b). For example, the pseudonym Psiloritis is both the signifier-person who descends
from the mountain and the signified-person with the mountains attributes. All of this of
course is done on the symbolic level. In his dissertation, Grammatas explains that Kazantzakis
favored demotic as the language closest to a semantic language; Kazantzakis was painfully
aware, as an artist, of the inability of words to move beyond the symbolic and into reality
(1983:143144). That is, the signifier/signified relation is artificial. Grammatas points out
that, for the poet, this relation is harmonious (1983:118). Still, as Bien suggests, poetry
was not Kazantzakiss most successful medium, which is also acknowledged by Grammatas,
who finds Kazantzakis to be more of a philosopher than a poet (1983:120). He further
postulates that Kazantzakis achieves momentary freedom with his jump into the abyss: the
acceptance of lifes tragic reality (1983:157, 165). Citing a letter of Kazantzakis to Yannis
Hatzinis in which he denies the accusation that he lacks hope, Grammatas argues that
nihilism, for Kazantzakis, is the expression and vindication of the purest form of humanism
(1983:157). In Spiritual Exercises, Kazantzakis writes: We know that all these words, these
allegories, these thoughts, and these incantations are, once more, but a new mask with
which to conceal the Abyss (1960a:101). And in Zorba: I was only changing words and
calling it deliverance (1952:175). But in beholding the abyss, Kazantzakis equates poetry
with the great danger and resumes the struggle against nihilism (1952:270).
16
According to Anderson, postmodernism as a collective reference was first used
after 1972 with the publication of the journal boundary 2, whose creator, William Spanos,
was then a visiting professor in Athens: William Spanos, decided to found the journal as
a result of the US collusion with the Greek Junta and the kind of complicity between

32

Christos Galanopoulos

orthodox modernist New Criticism intellectuals and the callous officialdom he was witnessing (2006:16).
17
A notable postmodern theological view is provided by Darren Middleton, who
acknowledges the importance of Derrida and introduces Kazantzakis to postmodern
theology (1998:459). In accord with what I attempt to show, Middleton writes: theologians err when they seek to identify the God of their metaphysics [with the] God of faith
(1998:460). And elsewhere: Kazantzakis ... deconstructs the intellects deepest and most
ultimate ground (1998:458). But while discussing the provocative soteriology (1998:455)
of Kazantzakiss struggling God, Middleton seems to confine himself to the Kantian metaphysics of the thing-in-itself, the unknowable God, the attempt to save God from Humes
empiricist skepticism by locking Him away. In my view, Kazantzakis, not a mystic in any
way, saves the god Epaphos not through silence but through action.
18
In fact, all of Nietzsche and Philosophy is about these themes. Deleuze discusses Bergson
as well in the light of what uplifts and what downgrades in his book Bergsonism (1988). It
is a pity that Deleuze was concerned with Kazantzakiss main two philosophical influences
but failed to study Kazantzakiss work.
19
For a lucid and friendly account of the charges directed against Derrida, see John
P. McCormick (2001). McCormick discusses Derridas speech entitled Force of Law, in
which Derrida uses the Apology of Socrates as a metaphor for his own Apologia concerning
deconstruction. A polemical critique is offered by Alex Callinicos who is too occupied with
his ideological party loyalties to see the nihilistic absolutes resulting from the influence
of the Enlightenment, especially its historicist metaphysic of binary oppositions, andin
Jrgen Habermas fashionhe cannot fathom the survival of Marxism devoid of it (1989).
Thus, his otherwise rich and enriching knowledge of postmodern topics is marred by his
strategic defense of a political stance (it must be kept in mind that postmodernism does
not signify an ideological stance but rather, the breakdown of ideology; like nihilism, it
signifies a transition, not a position). Derrida has attempted to show that the critique of
Enlightenment rationalism need not be associated with a rejection of Marxism but rather
with its liberation from doctrinaire language. In the face of the new world order . . .
and the widespread claims that Marx and Marxism are finally dead ... Derrida ... scathingly criticizes capitalism, defiantly presents deconstruction as the heir of a certain spirit
of Marxism, and calls for a new International as a response to the new Holy Alliance of
the outgoing twentieth century (Postone 1997:370; Derrida 1994). One could imagine
a similar response by Kazantzakis. Moreover, it is becoming more clear that the reasons
behind the criticisms of Derrida lie in that he was appropriated in the United States by a
group of literary analysts who boxed his work exclusively in the field of literary analysis, thus
neglecting his wider philosophical concerns (Borradori 2003:15). For that reason also he
was mistaken for a thinker who had made a fundamental break with the unfinished project
of modernity, to use Habermass Kantian language (2003:15). Habermas and Derrida share
the same task of addressing the human condition after the Nazi experience, a task that, as
this essay contends, is similar to Kazantzakiss anti-nihilism. In this light, Kazantzakis shares
affinities with both Critical Theory (the Frankfurt School and beyond), and its analysis of
authoritarianism, as well as with post-structuralism and deconstruction. What these schools
also have in common is the Marx-Nietzsche-Freud fusion, which Kazantzakis also worked
out in his own way. What all of these thinkers, including Kazantzakis, seek to address is
the totalitarian, or, in the vein of this essay, the nihilistic mentality.
20
See Prevelakis (1958:220222) for a discussion of the Spiritual Exercises and Prevelakis
(1984:) for further elaboration on this theme.
21
Scholars who are familiar with the philosophy of David Hume will readily see the
significance of empiricism in connection with the present essay, especially in that the

Anti-Nihilism in the Thought of Nikos Kazantzakis

33

seemingly skeptical dead-end of empiricism involves the potential for vital renewal. It is
no accident that Peter Gay, in his effort to save the Enlightenments secularism from Carl
Beckers assault that it was one more heavenly city, hailed Hume as its greatest philosopher (Gay 1966; Becker 1932). Immanuel Kant claimed that Hume woke him from his
dogmatic slumbers, and Schopenhauer, one of the supreme masters of German prose,
said that he consciously tried to write German in the way Hume wrote English (Magee
1987:163164). Hume argues that it is our custom or habit to create causes and see
no further, so that we can live our lives unburdened by difficult questions concerning
the nature of our experience. He asks: What is the foundation of all conclusions from
experience? (1995: 46, section 4). His answer is: habit (1995:56, section 5). Furthermore:
we are accustomed to seeing the same causes for effects that are repeated. The problem
here is that our accustomed response blocks novelty; the happening is the product of
the minds copying the impression, which is not an original impression any longer. The
results of this query can be devastating if one continues to see a cause and effect relationship everywhere: we may go through life prejudiced and desensitized. What we need is
to reverse the trend of mechanistic and automatic knowledge by living the impression
every time that it happens. This is what Kazantzakis teaches us. In his The Vision of Hume,
David Appelbaum writes: Rather than succumb to nihilism Hume proposes a turning
toward precognitive immediacy and places knowledge of reality beyond the reach of the
mechanical mind in order to rescue reason (1996:1819). To question, which Hume asks
us to do, requires suspension of easy belief, and equally easy disbelief. It is to bear in mind
that triumphs are small in the face of the cosmic conundrum that calls us to behold it
(1996:55). Zorba, Bergson, and Nietzsche are echoed in these sentences.

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