Buddha, Kazantzaki's Most Ambitious and Most Neglected Play


In lieu of an abstract, the first paragraph of the essay follows:

"My method...does not involve a denial of spirit and body, but rather aims at the conquest of them through the prowess of spirit and body."

In the spring of 1941, Kazantzakis embarked on one of his most ambitious works, the play Yangtze, now known under the title Buddha. If we consider the seven months from Mussolini's invasion of Greece on October 28, 1940, until the fall of Crete to the Germans at the end of May 1941, we see in condensed, intensified form the whole of human existence as Kazantzakis had conceived it previously and had expressed it in earlier works. What I mean is that we see, in the successful Greek defense against Mussolini, the noble and Quixotic effort of a youthful man or nation to do the impossible, and then we see, in the German victory, the inexorable power of an overwhelming fate nullifying and obliterating (so it would seem) all the effort that had preceded. Once more in Buddha, as he had in the Odyssey, Kazantzakis set himself the task of examining this totality of experience which seemed now to have been confirmed in the political cataclysm he had just witnessed. The play is therefore huge and comprehensive; it presents not only the total situation, but also various reactions to it, all of which were facets of Kazantzaki's own conflicting reactions to the actual events of 1940-1941. Specifically, it presents the reactions of a man torn between the need to remain Buddhistically aloof from events and the opposite need to participate in the world's ephemeral shadow-dance - to indulge in the supreme folly of trying to act as though the phenomenal world were real. But these contrary reactions are held at arm's length, as it were, and are unified by the magic of the poetic imagination. We may think back to a statement made by Kazantzakis in 1935:

I felt a great joy trying again to harmonize...fearful antitheses...Woe to him who sees only the mask! Woe to him who sees only what is hidden behind the mask! The perfect sight is to see simultaneously...the sweet mask and behind it the abominable face. To harmonize within oneself - to create - a new synthesis unknown in nature, and to play masterfully upon life and death as upon a double flute.1

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