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Sex and Salvation

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At the age of 3, the Cretan Nikos Kazantzakis was, it seems, already a full-blown sensualist. In his autobiographical fantasia Report to Greco, he describes being picked up by the plump, blonde young wife of a neighbour in Heraklion:

The woman leaned over, placed me in her lap, hugged me. I, closing my eyes, fell against her exposed bosom and smelled her body; the warm, dense perfume, the acid scent of milk and sweat. The newly married body was steaming. I inhaled the vapour in an erotic torpor, hanging from her high bosom.

Kazantzakis was a writer whose inner life was devoted to the struggle between flesh and spirit. Although he came within a whisker of winning a Nobel Prize in 1952, his name meant nothing to me when I first picked up Report to Greco at the age of about 22. I do remember, however, being overwhelmed by that sense of recognition which the best writers inspire. Kazantzakis put into words – and such words! – the tumultuous feelings of my youth.

Written not long before the author’s death, the book is a philosophical odyssey that takes Kazantzakis from Heraklion to Naxos, where he was sent to school with French Franciscans, and then to Athens University. After travels in Greece and Italy, he studied in Paris, where he was shocked and invigorated by reading Nietzsche and comforted by the lectures of Henri Bergson.

Though it sounds presumptuous, we seemed to have a lot in common. Kazantzakis was brought up in the Greek Orthodox Church but broke away to find his own road to salvation. Report to Greco is the story of that search. I was brought up a Roman Catholic, taught by nuns as a child and by monks as a teenager; and around the age of 16, I rejected their story. It was the Church’s squeamishness about sex that alienated me, its celibate preoccupation with sins of the flesh. Like Angelos Sikelianos, the poet with whom Kazantzakis visited Mount Athos, I thought the flesh was as mu

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At the age of 3, the Cretan Nikos Kazantzakis was, it seems, already a full-blown sensualist. In his autobiographical fantasia Report to Greco, he describes being picked up by the plump, blonde young wife of a neighbour in Heraklion:

The woman leaned over, placed me in her lap, hugged me. I, closing my eyes, fell against her exposed bosom and smelled her body; the warm, dense perfume, the acid scent of milk and sweat. The newly married body was steaming. I inhaled the vapour in an erotic torpor, hanging from her high bosom.
Kazantzakis was a writer whose inner life was devoted to the struggle between flesh and spirit. Although he came within a whisker of winning a Nobel Prize in 1952, his name meant nothing to me when I first picked up Report to Greco at the age of about 22. I do remember, however, being overwhelmed by that sense of recognition which the best writers inspire. Kazantzakis put into words – and such words! – the tumultuous feelings of my youth. Written not long before the author’s death, the book is a philosophical odyssey that takes Kazantzakis from Heraklion to Naxos, where he was sent to school with French Franciscans, and then to Athens University. After travels in Greece and Italy, he studied in Paris, where he was shocked and invigorated by reading Nietzsche and comforted by the lectures of Henri Bergson. Though it sounds presumptuous, we seemed to have a lot in common. Kazantzakis was brought up in the Greek Orthodox Church but broke away to find his own road to salvation. Report to Greco is the story of that search. I was brought up a Roman Catholic, taught by nuns as a child and by monks as a teenager; and around the age of 16, I rejected their story. It was the Church’s squeamishness about sex that alienated me, its celibate preoccupation with sins of the flesh. Like Angelos Sikelianos, the poet with whom Kazantzakis visited Mount Athos, I thought the flesh was as much God’s work as the spirit. Equally appealing to my lusty youth was the passion of the Cretan’s prose and his shameless, un-English rhetoric. For a boy already indoctrinated in the classical world (some of us had been learning Greek since the age of 10), here was the heroic spirit wrapped in real flesh and blood. The epitome, of course, was Kazantzakis’s real-life mentor, the miner George Zorbas, whom he immortalized in his novel Zorba the Greek. Kazantzakis was passionate, but not like Zorba, whose love of life he envied. His own character was introvert, his feelings almost neurasthenic. All too aware of being the bookworm in a family of farmers, fishermen and fighters, he was ashamed of having degenerated into ‘a pen-pusher’ whose fate it was ‘to satisfy my hunger with paper, like a nanny goat’. Shock at hearing that Man was descended from the ape left the young Kazantzakis both desiring and despising women. He took an Irish girl up Mount Psiloriti to make love to her in the chapel at the summit. But when he kissed her, he wrote, he saw behind the face a ‘tormented, swooning monkey’. Nikos strove to mortify the flesh: at times he thought it was his duty to become a saint. He was ‘solitary, coarse and taciturn’. Though sympathetic to the sufferings of mankind, he had little time for other people. But why should a writer be consistent? What counts, and what has survived more than thirty years of reading, is the vigour of his attack and the force of his commitment – above all, what he regarded as the imperative of unremitting struggle. In Greek, this memoir is called Anaphora ston Greko. Anaphora means not only ‘report’ but also ‘rising’ or ‘ascension’. Kazantzakis took this all-consuming theme of ascent from Father Makarios, a hermit on Mount Athos, whom he had asked if there were not a more human path to salvation. Only to struggle and to climb, replied the hermit: God sits at the summit of hunger, thirst and suffering, the Devil at the summit of the comfortable life. Nikos protested he was too young to make the choice. ‘Wake up, my child,’ replied the hermit. ‘Wake up before death wakes you up.’ Climbing is a familiar metaphor for learning, so why not for life and death? The pianist András Schiff, talking recently about his new recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations remarked: ‘I’m a few hundred feet higher up the mountain than I was before. I can see things I did not see then. But I’m still nowhere near the top.’ That sensation of struggling over the ridge, only to find another ridge soaring behind it, is very familiar. We cannot know, until we get there, until death, whether there will be a wonderful view from the top or the thick fog of oblivion. Kazantzakis warns us not to expect any reward for our struggle, which (so he learned from Nietzsche) is a sacred duty in itself. But there are homely examples for us to follow: the flying fish, which leaps out of its own element, the larva that wriggles from its cocoon to become a butterfly, the silkworm which draws out its own entrails to make its gossamer thread. During a retreat on Mount Athos, Kazantzakis hears the ‘confession’ of a monk who says he came close to God only once in his life, when he sinned by sleeping with a woman. Nikos takes the pilgrim ferry to Jerusalem and a camel across the desert to St Catherine’s monastery in Sinai, where he dines on boiled lobster and nearly becomes a monk himself. One of the fathers tells him not to be in such a hurry. Live life first, give in to temptation until it has no more hold over you, enjoy women so that they will never invade your dreams, and one day the flesh and spirit will be reconciled. In Vienna he decides that Buddhist detachment is the way to save himself from salvation. A girl he meets in the cinema agrees to sleep with him the following night. But his face swells up horribly and he cannot meet her. A disciple of Freud tells him he is suffering from a rare syndrome called Ascetic’s Disease – the soul is protesting at the body’s desire to commit a mortal sin. In Berlin, he is cured of Buddhism by a Jewish girl, who tells him that the Messiah has already arrived, and that his name is Lenin. She, and the post-war poverty of the city (this is 1922), shame Kazantzakis into becoming a Communist sympathizer. He makes the first of many visits to Russia before concluding that Lenin is a false god. Odysseus is his true model, and Christ, after all, his saviour. Rereading Report to Greco so many years later, I am struck again by the ferocity of Kazantzakis’s prose. Some literary critics cannot stand it, but I will gladly pay that price. Peter Bien, his translator, points out that Kazantzakis wrote not in the classicized formal Greek of the Establishment, but – and this was a political act – in demotic, the colourful, flexible and metaphorical language of the street. English readers, therefore, are missing part of the story. But even in translation, there is no mistaking Kazantzakis’s power. The evening star is seen ‘suspended from the acacia’s thorny branches like a drop of dew’. Crete, from the summit of Psiloriti, is ‘a triplemasted schooner sailing in the foam . . . a sea monster, a gorgon with myriad breasts, stretched supine on the waves and sunning herself’. Close to death, Kazantzakis invokes his fellow Cretan, the painter El Greco, with whose stubborn ambition and mystical art he identifies. Did I win or lose?’ he asks. ‘The only thing I know is this: I am full of wounds and still standing on my feet.’

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 1 © Christian Tyler 2004


About the contributor

Christian Tyler spent 30 years reporting for the Financial Times and was a leader writer, columnist and book reviewer. His own book, Wild West China, was published in 2003. His first school was St Mary’s Convent, Bishop’s Stortford, and his last Ampleforth College, Yorkshire.

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