Playwright, journalist and novelist; admirer of Christ, Buddha and Lenin; disciple of Nietzsche and Bergson; praised by Thomas Mann, Albert Schweitzer and Albert Camus; vilified as communist and atheistic, Nikos Kazantzakis (1883-1957) remains both an inspirational and divisive figure more than 50 years since his death. Together with a resurgence of interest in his theatrical works, there has been renewed and welcome discussion focussing upon his religious thought. This UK premiere of the play and subsequent round-table discussion brings both areas into sharp focus.
We know that Kazantzakis rejected many aspects of traditional Christian Orthodoxy from an early age and it is clear that this loss of faith in Christian eschatology and soteriology is tragically portrayed in Comedy,written in 1909 when, still a young man, Kazantzakis was starting to forge his way through the Greek intellectual circles. The play is a clear indication of the challenging and original thought that was to mark much of his later career, and many commentators have excitedly pointed out that the existential themes in Comedy antedate Sartre’s Huis Clos by thirty-five years and Beckett’s Waiting for Godot by forty-three years. Essentially, Comedy is a damning critique of Christian salvation and an exploration of the ‘abyss’ in the wake of Nietzsche’s proclaimed ‘death of God’. As Peter Bien, Kazantzakis’ main translator, writes: “In Comedy the main theme is that heaven does not exist. For Kazantzakis, the abyss is not hell in an ethical sense, but the extinction that is our guaranteed end once we no longer believe in Christianity’s afterlife of eternal bliss.”
The plot and setting are simplistic, yet engaging. Two old men are located in an opulently furnished room, representing the final death throes of consciousness within the human brain. One by one we are introduced to the different facets of consciousness that personify the pleasure and pains of human existence: a small girl, an ascetic, an adulteress, a young man, a worker, a fool, a mother, and old woman, a proud young man and a nun. It is the ascetic who largely dominates and encapsulates the palpable angst, but seeks to assure all present that salvation will arrive at midnight. But midnight arrives and nobody comes. In his frustration, the ascetic shrieks at God but is neither answered not rebuked. As the last candle goes out, all those present expire and the play ends with all the characters folding their arms in silence, and who “never move again.”
The ending seems unambiguous: there is no heavenly salvation and the Christian message is therefore a lie. Does this then warrant the terms of atheism and nihilism to be labelled on Kazantzakis’ later work? Kazantzakis clearly struggles with ‘God’ for the remainder of his life, from his ‘meta-communistic credo’ Askitiki: Spiritual Exercises (itself condemned for supposed atheism) through to his later novels of overtly religious themes: Christ Recrucified, God’s Pauper and of course The Last Temptation, which was placed on the index of Forbidden books by the Vatican in 1954. Yet Kazantzakis continues to intrigue, challenge and inspire religiously-sympathetic readers. Darren Middleton, for example, has attempted, more than any other academic, to rehabilitate Kazantzakis in the eyes of Christian readers. The similarities that Middleton posits between Kazantzakis’s world-view and that of ‘process theology’ allow for a rich discussion of God to be continued which eschews the traditional static classical notion of God. God and the world are inextricably linked, according to this idea; more specifically, through our human actions we affect the life of the Divine – in Kazantzakis’s terminology, we become ‘The Saviours of God’. This is of course a rather radical move away from traditional Orthodoxy but, as our round-table discussion will no doubt show, it places Kazantzakis at the forefront of a new and positive approach to spirituality and demands that his work continues to merit serious attention.
Dr Lewis Owens