18 May 2003

Kazantzakis and The Greek Passion

Nowadays the novelist Nikos Kazantzakis (1883-1957) is probably best known in the west for his book, The Last Temptation of Christ, which was made into a controversial film some years ago. Probably less known is another of his books on a similar theme, The Greek Passion (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1954), whose original Greek title is Christ Is Recrucified.

It is set in the little village of Lycovrissi, a predominantly Greek village in Turkish Asia Minor, right before the “Catastrophe,” that is, the expulsion of Greeks in 1922. The village priest is responsible for casting a passion play periodically performed by the villagers. As the plot unfolds, Manolios, a “strong and humble shepherd lad,” is chosen to play the Christ; Yannakos, the “sturdy merchant-pedlar,” is Peter; Widow Katerina, the village prostitute, is Mary Magdalen, and so forth. Although the play itself is never performed, Christ’s passion is nevertheless played out in real life, as each of the actors ends up living up to his role. This is culminated in the violent death of Manolios at the hands of his fellow villagers. All of this occurs under the watchful eyes of the Turkish lord, or agha, and his corrupt court.

Kazantzakis was by no means an orthodox (or Orthodox) Christian believer, and he seems to have flirted with more than one religion, including Marxism and Buddhism. Yet he was hardly a Bultmannian demythologizer either. Genuine miracles occur in his stories, as in, for example, the cure of Manolios from leprosy. God is indeed present. Yet the end of the novel is disturbing in the extreme. Manolios has indeed died, but apparently in vain, for Mustafa Kemal’s Turkish army is approaching and the villagers prepare to leave Lycovrissi for good, lest they be destroyed. The Catastrophe is at hand.

The issue for Kazantzakis is obviously not whether God exists, but whether he is who Scripture reveals him to be. For the Cretan-born novelist, God seems to be either arbitrary, making sport of his creatures and allowing them a bad end, or else powerless against the forces of evil. His acts in this world, even his miracles, are ultimately without purpose.

On Easter the Greeks greet each other with “Christ is risen,” to which the response is “He is risen indeed.” In Kazantzakis’ dark worldview there is no resurrection, only the oblivion of death. History is but “one damn thing after another,” and certainly not the story of redemption.

The Greek Passion was made into a 1957 film, titled “Celui qui doit mourir” (“He Who Must Die”), which I’ve not seen but would like to one day.

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