From the ruins of the palace of Knossos in Crete, and now in the Heraklion Archaeological Museum, a mosaic was found dating from c.1500 BCE. In it a bull charges violently, young athletes in loincloths, male and female both, rush, leap toward its sharp horns, vault over its back, and land safely behind it.
Kazantzakis’ sees this ancient Minoan fresco as symbolic of his life. The bull, symbolic of the dark shadow that Death casts over a life – bittersweet tears, unrequited love, the suffering of the innocent, the tragedy of death – is an everpresent reality. For most people, we either turn and run, or deny its presence.
But how shall the courageous human being face the power of this darkness?
‚You triumph without killing the terrible bull because you think of it not as an enemy but as a collaborator; without the bull you could not become so strong or graceful or your spirit so courageous. This is a dangerous game and to play it you need great physical and spiritual discipline. The heroic and playful eyes, without hope yet without fear, which so confront the Bull, the Darkness, this I call “the Cretan Glance.” If you are able to dance with the tragic elements of life in both ecstasy and joy and to laugh in the face of this darkness – this is the highest calling of humanity, and this is where joy can be found.‘
And he continues in the Prologue to ‚The Last Temptation of Christ‘: ‚The stronger the soul and he flash, the more fruitful the struggle and the richer the final harmony.‘
So take this unpredictable bull by the horns and dance with it like Zorba on the beach!!!
In his ‚Report to Greco‘ Kazantzakis writes: ‚I had to fill the eyes of my own Odysseus with this Cretan Glance.‘
You remember the story where Odysseus, anticipating the Sirens sweet seductive song that has plunged previous sailors to their rocky deaths, plugs the ears of his shipmates with beeswax, but instructs them to tie him to the ship’s mast; he leaves his ears unplugged so that he might experience, might taste the full seduction longing of longing for the dark Abyss, staring into the face of seductive death, and to live, with courage, live. Odysseus, for Kazantzakis, becomes the archetype of the spiritual struggler, his great spiritual hero.
Odysseus holds the two great opposing forces in a dynamic tension, a creative synthesis, as Kazantzakis puts it, “like that round fruit which two lips make when they are kissing” – there is the luminous, rational, and civilizing impulse of Apollo, the solar god; and there is the dark, intoxicated, primal breaker-of taboos, Dionysius, the god of wine and ecstasy. For Kazantzakis, Apollo is the supreme ideal of Western religion, to save the ego from annihilation, salvation from death, a personal god, symbolic of spirit, and embodied in the figure of Saint Francis of Assisi. And Dionysius (who originated in India) is the supreme ideal of Eastern religion, the achieve-ment of
union through the dissolution of the ego into the Ground of all being, an impersonal energy, symbolic of the flesh, and embodied in the figure of Zorba. Both are necessary, both divine, both belong to Odysseus.
So it was, in the winter of 1938, the culmination of a twelve-year process, Kazantzakis finally published his The Odyssey: A Modern Sequel to Homer’s original, written in 24 books (one for each letter of the Greek alphabet) and in 33,333 lines. Homer’s original epic, as you recall, details Odysseus’ ten-year journey home after the ten-year Trojan Wars. He arrives at his home in Ithaca and slaughters the suitors who wait to marry his beloved and mourning supposed widow, Penelope, and they live happily ever after. Yet in Kazantzakis’ sequel, Odysseus soon tires of the idleness, the security, the “sweet Mask of Death” of family, country, friends, and duty.
For, Kazantzakis tells us in this myth, the goal of life is not the safety and security of home, no matter how one defines home, although we dream of such security – “there’s no place like home” – but rather, the never-ending quest, the incessant voyage in search of home. So he sets off again. The true home is the struggle for home, the journey toward home. Kazantzakis’s Odysseus epitomizes the hero who “transubstantiates flesh into spirit,” but holds on to them both, because the spirit evolves in and through the flesh, because the spirit has no value apart from the flesh. Whereas Homer’s Odysseus voyaged in search of his native land, Kazantzakis’ Odysseus left the security of his home in search of the evolutionary Eros that runs through the heart of the world, and his heart, which he called “God.” Home is the last temptation. Ithaca is the voyage itself, and the human heart is a restless heart.
Anything or anyone – any ideology or philosophy or art, any religion or god that resolves that restlessness, no matter how beautiful or seductive, is nothing more than an illusion, an opiate that sedates the ever-ascending, ever-struggling human spirit. This is why Kazantzakis calls his Odysseus “a god-slayer in search of God.” (L. Michael Spath ‚The Cretan Glance‘)
Throughout his poem Kazantzakis explores the meaning of freedom in all its implications of liberation, redemption, deliverance, and salvation. „Odysseus,“ he once said in a newspaper interview, „is the man who has freed himself from everything-—religions, philosophies, political systems—one who has cut away all the strings. He wants to try all the forms of life, freely, beyond plans and systems, keeping the thought of death before him as a stimulant, not to make every pleasure more acrid or every ephemeral moment more sharply enjoyable in its brevity, but to whet his appetites in life, to make them more capable of embracing and of exhausting all things so that, when death finally came, it would find nothing to take from him, for it would find an entirely squandered Odysseus.“
Sometimes Kazantzakis was called ‚The Greek Nietzsche‘. Nietzsche confirmed him in his predilection for the Dionysian as opposed to the Apollonian vision of life: for Dionysus, the god of wine and revelry, of ascending life, of joy in action, of ecstatic motion and inspiration, of instinct and adventure and dauntless suffering, the god of song and music and dance; as opposed to Apollo, the god of peace, of leisure and repose, of aesthetic emotion and intellectual contemplation, of logical order and philosophical calm, the god of painting and sculpture and epic poetry. Ultimately Kazantzakis wished to combine the two in what he called the „Cretan Glance,“ to remind scholars that Dionysus as well as Apollo was a god of the Greeks, and that the noblest of Greek arts was a synthesis of the two ideals.
Basic to all of Kazantzakis‘ vision, as to that of Yeats, has been the attempt to synthesize what seem to be contraries, antitheses, antinomies. His own life and personality would seem to be a battleground of contradictions unless one looked upon them with the third inner eye, and from a higher peak, as on an unceasing battle for a harmony never resolved. This eye, this glance, between the eye of the Orient (or Dionysus, who came from India or Asia Minor) and the eye of Hellenic Greece (or Apollo), Kazantzakis called the „Cretan Glance,“ for he was born on the island of Crete, at the crossroads between Africa, Asia, and Europe.
„Crete, for me (and not, naturally, for all Cretans), is the synthesis which I always pursue, the synthesis of Greece and the Orient. I neither feel Europe in me nor a clear and distilled classical Greece; nor do I at all feel the anarchic chaos and the will-less perseverance of the Orient. I feel something else, a synthesis, a being that not only gazes on the abyss without disintegrating, but which, on the contrary, is filled with coherence, pride, and manliness by such a vision. This glance which confronts life and death so bravely, I call Cretan.“
Kazantzakis then goes on to trace the Cretan Glance to its origins in the old pre-classical Minoan civilization of Crete. Minoan Crete, with its dreadful earthquakes symbolized by the Bull-God, and with the acrobatic games which the Cretans played with this same Bull, was a true realization of what Kazantzakis considered to be the superior vision: the Synthesis. The Cretan bull-rituals had no relationship to the bullfights of modern Spain. The Cretans confronted the Bull—the Titan- Earthquake— without fear, with undimmed eyes, nor killed him in order to unite with him (the Orient) or to be released from his presence (Greece), but played with him at their ease. „This direct contact with the Bull honed the strength of the Cretan, cultivated the flexibility and charm of his body, the flaming yet cool exactness of movement, the discipline of desire, and the hard- won virility to measure himself against the dark and powerful Bull-Titan. And thus the Cretan transformed terror into a high game wherein man’s virtue, in a direct contact with the beast, became tempered, and triumphed. The Cretan triumphed without killing the abominable bull because he did not think of it as an enemy but as a collaborator; without it his body would not have become so strong and charming or his spirit so manly. Of course, to endure and to play such a dangerous game, one needs great bodily and spiritual training and a sleepless discipline of nerves but if a man once trains himself and becomes skillful in the game, then every one of his movements becomes simple, certain, and graceful. The heroic and playful eyes, without hope yet without fear, which so confront the Bull, the Abyss, I call the Cretan Glance.“
These thoughts came from Kimon Friar in his excellent introduction to his translation of Kazantzakis‘ ‚Odyssey‘!!!