Friday, April 3, 2015

Photios Kontoglou on Goethe, Kazantzakis and Venezis

Nikos Kazantzakis

By Dr. Constantine Cavarnos

Next we spoke briefly about Goethe, Kazantzakis and Venezis. I was interested in knowing his opinion regarding them. Goethe's name was mentioned as we were talking about Kazantzakis. It became clear that Kontoglou did not share the enthusiasm of many contemporary Greek intellectuals for the famous German writer. The philosopher-theologian Nikolaos Louvaris, for example, refers to Goethe repeatedly, and in fact more often than to any other writer, always approvingly, in his two-volume work Symposion Hosion (Symposium of Holy Men). Kontoglou, on the other hand, refers to him only once in his books, in the Preface of his first book, Pedro Cazas. For Kazantzakis, as I noted in an earlier chapter, he had no use. Photios remarked that both Goethe and Kazantzakis are writers with pompous expression, ostentatious, ever endeavoring to impress others with their assumed wisdom. The excessive admiration of Goethe was, according to Photios, another example of xenomania of contemporary Greeks.

Coming back to Kazantzakis, I note that nowhere in the numerous publications of Photios have I encountered his name; and in the ninety letters which he wrote to me from the time when I first met him, he refers to Kazantzakis only twice, and in both instances in order to censure him. In the first such letter, written on June 9, 1954, he says among other things:

Kazantzakis is the exact opposite of all that we believe and love. He has played with everything: with Buddhism, with Nietzscheisms, with Christianities, with anything you want. His writings are hollow, commonplaces, and he is becoming worse.... At one time I had become associated with him. But his irreligiousness and his blasphemy worry me very much.

In the second letter in which he makes reference to Kazantzakis, written on the 20th of the same month, Kontoglou alludes to Kazantzakis' book The Life and Conduct of Alexis Zorbas. He says:

The world has been filled with spiritual rottenness, with foolish philosophies, with Zorbases, or with light sentimentalisms.... Contemporary man feeds on such wretched food and thinks that he has attained the pinnacle of his power, of his wisdom, and of his happiness. How can contemporary clever-foolish man understand Saints Paul, Isaac the Syrian, Macarius the Egyptian and John Climacus - in a word, the Gospel! Souls without wings, without faith, without the breath of life.... May the Grace of our most compassionate Lord not let us wander like lost sheep in the desert of egoism and unbelief.

With regard to the novelist Elias Venezis, I said to Kontoglou:

Recently I read Venezis' book Galene (Calm) expecting to find in it a soothing atmosphere of serenity, but found instead agitating passions and turmoil. This book gives a one-sided picture of the life of the refugees of Asia Minor, altogether secular. It does not refer to their religious life. It does not present ideals, ethical and spiritual values; it does not transmit wisdom.

Kontoglou agreed with my analysis and pointed out certain other defects in Venezis' books.

- Venezis takes a short story and blows it up, making it into a book. He devotes several pages to describing a sunset. When he speaks of a murder, he does not say that so-and-so was killed, but goes into every little detail of the act. Sometimes I mention these things to him.

- And what does he say? I asked.

- What can he say? Nothing.

Meetings With Kontoglou by Constantine Cavarnos (Institute For Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies, Belmont, MA, 1992) pp. 68-71.