Inspiration for Saving the Earth – The Terrestrial Gospel of Kazantzakis by Maskaleris

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The Terrestrial Gospel of Kazantzakis: Inspiration for Saving the Earth

                                                        “Good is this earth, it suits us”1                                                                          

Thanasis Maskaleris


             The terrestrial dimension in the work of Kazantzakis, crowned by the paeans he sang to the infinite beauty of the earth and to the human life rooted in the soil, is as intensely depicted as his momentous struggle to achieve spiritual ascent. Scattered in his writings we find innumerable passages on the fundamental importance of the material realm combined with his humanistic commitment to mankind’s terrestrial habitat—to live and “flower” in it; and his spiritual growth, the ascent, is crucially linked with and depends on the material base.2

            These passages, often a surging lyricism and ritual adoration, can provide for us today, our threatened planet, not only inspiration for ecological concern and action but also an ethical base that could strengthen the panoplies for such action. A selection of the best of such passages could become an eco-pulsing gospel in our struggle for survival.

       Using passages from several of his works I will attempt to demonstrate the significance of the Kazantzakian embrace of the earth and suggest how it can inspire and nurture committed ecological action, especially if combined with his principle of χρέος/ ευθύνη— dutiful service/responsibility– the central animating force of his ethical humanism. 

Before I proceed to my thoughts on the subject I have chosen for this presentation, I would like to define a principle for approaching Kazantzakis’ complex life and work, the various dimensions, στρώματα και υποστρώματα, of his mind and spirit. My belief is that all dimensions of his inner life and created work are essential and each one should be fathomed both in itself and in relation to the others.

            Kazantzakis’ socio-political concerns and commitments, his humanistic fire that aims at preserving and enhancing human dignity, his never-abating struggle for freedom—both individual and pananthropic—and his spiritual struggle on the ascending path are all essential, all sacred to him. Individual readers and critics may emphasize and   elevate a particular realm as more significant to them, but should be open to views on the other parts of his profound experiences and his vision. It’s best that hierarchizing is avoided, if possible, because it may lead to narrowing his world and, also, to dogmatism over which realm of the Kazantzakian universe is more important.

            My students, throughout my many years of teaching Kazantzakis, have perfectly demonstrated the validity of the above principle by responding to and emphasizing a chosen theme or dimension of the Kazantzakian world, always receiving plentiful humanistic nurturing from him, for their inner development.

            The realm in the work of Kazantzakis that I have chosen to mine for this celebratory occasion is the terrestrial—his passionate embracing of the earth and his hymning of the life and beauty of Nature. All of Kazantzakis’ works contain a vast number of passages about rocks, soil, seeds, rain, air, rainbows, the sea, flowers, and flowering. I believe no other modern writer has written so extensively about the cosmogonic energies of Nature, with as much poetic brilliance. And what is more, he constantly integrates the terrestrial, the material womb of life, with human life in all its manifestations — and this with insights and a dynamism that only mythology can surpass. Human life, he passionately declares, is rooted in the earth’s soil and its growth parallels  the essential life of Nature. As André Mirambel has observed: <<… κάθε λογοτεχνική δημιουργία του Καζαντζάκη πάντα πηγάζει από την πραγματικότητα, την παρατήρηση και την ανάλυση που περιβάλλοντος, τη σχέση του ανθρώπου και της γης.>>3  [… each literary creation of Kazantzakis always has reality as its source—is based on observation and analysis of the environment, the relationship of the human being with the earth.” ]

Speaking about the future of humanity in one of his letters Kazantzakis writes:<<…μα και πιο πέρα, η μακρινότερη στιγμή θα είναι περίλαμπρη. Ακόμα είμαι βέβαιος, το ανθρώπινο γένος δέ φανέρωσε όλες τις πλούσιες μέσα του πιθανότητες, η κοιλιά της γης είναι ακόμα γεμάτη αυγά…Αυτά τα γήινα αυγά πρέπει να να σωθούν…>>4 [ “…but on into the future, the most remote moment will be supremely luminous. I am certain the human race has not yet manifested all the rich inside it possibilities; the womb of the earth is still full of eggs…and these eggs must be saved.” ] 

As Kazantzakis depicts them, the gifts of the earth are boundless : the great joy of the senses, the heart and the soul, as they take in her beauty; then there is the gift of nurturing all living things and sustaining all growth. But Kazantzakis does not stop there. He derives from Nature, especially those who work the soil, essential lessons that can become foundations in building individual character and communal life. Together with the fruits of the earth, comes the earth-hewn wisdom of farmers, shepherds, artisans and all those who work earth’s infinite matter.

A few examples from the body of the earth-hymning passages will reveal more than my description or assessment of this Kazantzakian realm: In a letter, written when he was 65, he writes: <<Κυττάζω από τα δύο παραθυράκια τον κόσμο και δε χορταίνω να τον βλέπω. Τι θάμα είναι τούτος ο κόσμος!>>5 [ “I look at the world from these two little windows and never get enough of it. What a miracle this world is!”]

            <<Ελαμπε η μέρα αχάραγο διαμάντι>>. Οσο ανεβαίναμε, ανέβαινε κ’ η ψυχή, καθάριζε. Δοκίμαζα πάλι τί ψυχικήν αξία έχει η λαγαράδα του αγέρα, η αλαφράδα της αναπνοής, το πλάτος του ορίζοντα. Θαρείς κ’ είναι η ψυχή ένα αγρίμι, με πλεμόνια και ρουθούνια, έχει ανάγκη από πολύ οξυγόνο… >>6 [ “ The day shone like an uncut diamond. As we climbed the soul climbed too, getting more pure.  Once again I felt the impact on the soul of pure air, of easy breathing, of the great expanse to the horizon. You would think that the soul, too, was a wild animal with lungs and nostrils, needing lots of oxygen…” ]

 <<Πόσo είναι όλα, συλλογίστηκα, τέλεια συνταιριασμένα απάνω στη γής! Και πόσο καλά η γης είναι συνταιριασμένη μετη καρδιά που ανθρώπου!>>7 [“How perfectly everything is harmonized on this earth, I thought!. How well the earth is harmonized with the human heart!”]

“We’re taking root, my children, we’re once more getting hold of the earth, we’re sprouting afresh, we’re growing trunks and branches; have confidence.”8

“Last night I saw him [St. George] in my dream; he stretched out his arm and placed in my hand the seed of a village—a tiny village in my palm, with its church, its school, its gardens—and he said to me: plant it!” 9

“All this time the earth below and the sun above were working in concert without rest to ripen the grain. The ears, swollen with milk, became hard. The plain was red with poppies. The singing birds had gathered hair, straw and mud and had built their nests; the female, with outstretched wings was warming up the eggs. In front of her, perched on a branch, the male sang to give her courage. From time to time longed-for and rare showers brought some coolness, but soon the sun re-appeared and, chasing away the clouds, went on with his task, old as the world, of helping men and birds.” 10

            As I worked on this presentation, with the terrestrial Kazantzakis in me, the following idea came to my mind: to anthologize earth-passages from his opus, and publish them as a terrestrial gospel* to be read by the growing ranks of ecologists in the different lands of our planet. I am certain that it would give them inspiration and strength to continue their struggles to save the earth. Our environment and too many people across the globe are in critical situations, threatened by extreme poverty or  disasters due to recent climate changes ; every kind of panoply is needed in the fight to reverse the present catastrophic course. Flooded with excessive, soulless technology and driven by greed our world needs the teachings of Kazantzakis: the harmonization of Man and Nature, together with his humanistic ethical stance based on duty and responsibility –χρέος και ευθύνη–in our lives. Passages like the following from The Saviors of God : Spiritual Exercises, may significantly spearhead a new wave of ecological concern and much needed action:

            “This vineyard of earth is ours, our own flesh and blood.”

“Every man has his own circle of trees, animals, men, ideas, and he is in duty bound to save this circle. He, and no one else. If he does not save it, he cannot be saved.”12

“Love responsibility. Say: It is my duty, and mine alone, to save the earth. If it is not saved then I alone am to blame.”13

            Kazantzakis the great combatant would certainly join today’s fighters for our earth, since he believed that the saviors of God must first be saviors of the Earth.


1Nikos Kazantzakis,The Odyssey: A Modern Sequel, Prologue

2 This is not the place to discus the great dialectical paradox in Kazantzakis; his being rooted in the material world while at the same time he is struggling to rise above and beyond it— the coexistence in him of mud and spirit.

3 Καινούρια Εποχή. Φθινόπωρο 1958, σ. 173

4 Letter to Börje Knös,  in Νίκος Καζαντζάκης, Ο Ασυμβίβαστος,(Athens,1977) σ.574     

5 Letter to Börje Knös Καινούρια Εποχή. Φθινόπωρο 1958, σ. 151

6  Βίος και η Πολιτεία του Αλέξη Ζορμπά, (Athens, 1954 ) σ. 244-5

7  Ibid. σ. 158

8 Christ Recrucified, ( London, 1954 ) p. 172 

9 Ibid. p. 91 

10 Ibid. p.193

            11The Saviors of God : Spiritual Exercises, p.56

          12 Ibid. p. 121-2

13 Ibid. p. 68

* I have already begun work on this anthology, aiming to finish it as soon as possible.

This paper was presented at the Kazantzakis conference in New York—March 3, 2007

( Submitted to the Journal of Modern Greek Studies )

Thanasis Maskaleris

Professor Emeritus of Comparative & Modern Greek Literature
Founding Director, Center for Modern Greek Studies/ Nikos Kazantzakis Chair
San Francisco State University
Co-translator of Kazantzakis’ Russia  and co-editor of Modern Greek Poetry—An Anthology (Talisman House, Publishers, 2004)






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