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  • Why Read Kazantzakis in the Twenty-first Century?
  • Peter Bien, Guest Editor

Nikos Kazantzakis died in 1957 and 50 years later his achievements were celebrated world-wide. When George Stassinakis, president of The International Society of Friends of Nikos Kazantzakis, based in Geneva, urged me to set up a celebration in the United States, I was able to do this at New York University thanks to the splendid cooperation of Katherine Fleming, the Alexander S. Onassis Professor of Hellenic Culture and Civilization there, who offered a venue plus lunch, dinner, and secretarial assistance. Financial help came as well from Katy Myrivili in Athens, who was able to secure reimbursement for our symposiasts' travel expenses. Professor Nikos Metallinos of the Department of Communication Studies, Concordia University, Montreal, a specialist in Kazantzakis and music, served with vigor as vice-chairman of the event. Our chief sponsor was the Hellenic Foundation for Culture, Athens; co-sponsors were the International Society of the Friends of Nikos Kazantzakis, the National Book Center (EKEBI) in Athens, the Greek Embassy in Washington, and New York City's Greek Consulate, whose consul-general made a courteous appearance. We are grateful to all the individuals and organizations who helped make this conference a success. And we are particularly grateful to the Greek Embassy for generously providing funds to subsidize the publication of these papers here.

The symposium was held at New York University in March of 2007, entitled, "Why Should We Read Kazantzakis in the Twenty-first Century?" to honor Kazantzakis on the fiftieth anniversary of his death. We met for a very long day on 3 March 2007 from 9:30 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. at NYU's Jurow Hall, finishing with a performance by Lina Orfanos and Spiros Exaras of songs from Theodorakis's Zorba ballet, and then a lovely, leisurely supper. Also, as a welcome diversion in mid-afternoon, the symposiasts enjoyed a stirring dramatic reading by Yannis Simonides from Kazantzakis's play Kapodistrias. [End Page 1]

Thirteen papers were delivered by scholars ranging from retired senior professors to a schoolteacher and a current graduate student, folks who came from as far away as Greece, Texas, Florida, Michigan, California, and from as close as Broadway and 116th Street. Expanded versions of 11 of the original 13 presentations are printed herein, all of them edited by Katherine Fleming and myself; in addition, we include studies by Michael Paschalis and Ben Petre that were not delivered at the symposium. All address, in one way or another, the title question of the symposium: Why should we read Kazantzakis in the twenty-first century?

I opened the proceedings with a short introductory talk on Kazantzakis's future reputation—whether he would still be read 100 years from now. It is very hard to tell. I attempted to examine causes of his initial popularity and then to predict some reasons that might account for his renewed popularity in the future. Sometimes a popular author falls into relative obscurity and is then revived, Joseph Conrad being a good example. Kazantzakis, too, all the rage in the 1960s, failed to catch on afterwards. But his star seems to be rising again as the twenty-first century progresses. I surmised that he may be valued in the future primarily as a sort of cosmological visionary teaching us, through literary means, to love transience because it's all there is, and we are part of it.

If Kazantzakis is read 100 years in the future, it may be as a very interesting religious thinker. A favorite religious philosopher of mine, Don Cupitt, formulates the possible reasons as follows:

… [L]ike Nietzsche, Dostoyevsky, and Unamuno—[Kazantzakis] is one of those representative figures who has struggled on our behalf to make sense out of the many conflicting strands in modern Western culture…. He is highly aware of the contrast between the compassionate religious humanism of the New Testament … and the heroic humanism of Homer: Jesus versus Odysseus. And Kazantzakis is just as vividly aware of the conflict between the timeless … idea of truth taught by Plato and the Greek Church, and the historically evolving picture of reality that underlies all modern culture since Hegel...


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