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Howard Dossor on Nikos Kazantzakis
An Interview with Christos Fifis
Howard F Dossor is an ex-Congregational minister who left the Church after discarding his religious views. He moved to the educational sector and taught for a number of years in schools and at La Trobe University’s Language Centre before his appointment as the foundationt Registrar and Secretary of Victoria University. In his retirement he pursued his intellectual interests in writing books and articles and presenting lectures on the English philosopher and novelist Colin Wilson and the Greek author Nikos Kazantzakis. He started studying the work of Kazantzakis in 1956 when he first read the novel Zorba the Greek. Several of his lectures on Kazantzakis are presented on YouTube. Howard is a contemporary thinker exploring various aspects of culture and education. In the present interview he expounds his thoughts on the significance of Kazantzakis.
Christos N. Fifis
Christos Fifis (CF): Howard, I believe you have a longstanding interest in the Greek writer, Nikos Kazantzakis. Can you tell us why you as an Australian, are drawn to his work.
Howard Dossor (HD): Of course. Kazantzakis was born in Crete, Christos, and the Greeks should be extremely proud of him, as I am sure many of them are. But I regard him as an international, a universal - well, a human writer and certainly one of the most important writers of the modern age. Many interpretations of his work exist but I think my understanding of his writings is different from most of what has been written about him. Whoever is right or wrong, however, I would very much like to see much more evaluation of his ideas.
CF: What is it that you find to be of interest in his writing?
HD: That is an easy thing for me to do. I think there are three vitally important contributions Kazantzakis has made, not simply to the literary world but to the world of philosophy. In his slim, but profoundly important volume, Askitiki, translated into English as Spiritual Exercises, he addressed and resolved some of the most basic questions about human existence. Most of his novels, like Zorba the Greek and Freedom or Death are fictional treatments of the philosophy he outlines in Spiritual Exercises.
CF: Is Kazantzakis a philosopher?
HD: Oh yes - and a very important one for he has managed to do what so very few people have accomplished.
CF. You said just said that he has made three important contributions. Can you elucidate on these?
HD: In the first place I believe he has answered the most important question human beings can ask. He has told us what it is that accounts for our existence. In doing so, he considers humanity as a unified species rather than as a conglomeration of disparate individuals. And then he examines the issue of religious belief and redirects our attention away from it and towards our innate spirituality.
CF: That is a very big claim. Can you explain it.
HD: The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche argued in the nineteenth century that God was dead. I think Kazantzakis agreed with that statement. Or, rather, he had come to the conclusion that belief in God was a mistaken explanation for the creation of the world and everything in the cosmos. His well-known and often repeated statement that "We come from a dark abyss," which is the opening line of Spiritual Exercises, is , I think, a clear indication that he rejects the idea of God as the creator of the earth and the heavens.
CF: What was the basis of his rejection of this belief?
HD: He had studied under the French thinker Henri Bergson and recognized much wisdom in Bergson's idea of a Lifeforce. Kazantzakis accepted that idea and it became the foundational idea in all his thinking. He writes extensively of its nature and its function in Spiritual Exercises.
CF: Can you give us some idea of what he means by the Lifeforce?
HD: I think, Christos, that you can best grasp his meaning if you simply drop off the ending force from Lifeforce; For Kazantzakis, Life itself is the creative energy that flows - and has forever flowed - across time and space. Life is reality. Not just human life, of course, but Life in its essence. Everything that exists comes into being through the creative power that is Life.
CF: But life was not particularly kind to Nietzsche or to billions of other people throughout the generations. According to the philosopher, Thomas Hobbes, "life is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short."
HD: In this statement, Hobbes has anticipated something of the more recent negative Existentialism of Jean-Paul Sartre. Both result from a selfish concentration upon individual experience rather than on the cosmic life that unites us and offers us possibilities we have not yet even dreamed of. Kazantzakis does not merely challenge Hobbs; he corrects him.
CF: If we accept Life, rather than God as the creator of everything, what are the implications for mankind?
HD: The implications are enormous. Kazantzakis could not define Life; none of us can because we are inside it and cannot get an external, objective view of it. But the fact that we experience it means that we can recognize some of its characteristics. The main characteristic Kazantzakis recognized is that Life is a process. It flows forever. But he also saw that the direction of this flow was perpetually upward. This led him to write of life as an ascent and this word is crucial to our appreciation of his contribution.
CF: Why is it important for us?
HD: The purpose of all existing forms of life, including the human species, is to assist Life itself in its ascent. To do this, humanity itself must ascend.
CF: Do you mean that it must ascend into some kind of Heaven?
HD: No. Kazantzakis is not concerned with a perfect ending. His idea of immortality is different from the traditiona teachings of the Church. At our death our personal existence comes to an end but whatever we have contributed to life becomes a component of life itself. In a real sense we are already in eternity for our spiritual life knows nothing of history or geography. It only knows ascent. The ascent never ends for there is always room within reality for further development. For us, the ascent means that we continually enrich the spiritual contenrt of our life. We rise above being imprisoned in material values and commit ourselves to ideas such as beauty, goodness and truth. Through these values we make our contribution to the reality that is life.
CF: You have dealt with two of the three ideas you mentioned as attracting you to Kazantzakis. What is the third?
HD: Let me recapitulate. The first is the notion that Life is reality and the highest value we are capable of recognizing. The second is the pathway of ascent that Life itself is always undertaking and in which we have a responsibility to join. I have already made reference to the third: it is the idea of complementing our material values with spiritual values. Of course there will always be material needs that we will have to satisfy because we have bodies, live in variable climates and must procreate in order to advance the species. But our highest aspirations must be focused on what we know in our hearts to be most real. In our living we must remain true to the life itself that sustains us.
CF: Thank you Howard. You give us good reason to turn back to Kazantzakis' writings and re-examine them in the light of your appreciation of them.
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