Herman Hesse Profile

Herman Hesse Profile

I was systematically reading through Hermann Hesse’s novels when I first met Carolyn in 1983, and we have both really enjoyed his inspiring books and other creative output.

Hesse was a brilliant German-Swiss novelist, poet, and painter who lived between 1877 and 1962. Some of his most well-known books include Siddhartha, Demian, Steppenwolf, and Magister Ludi: The Glass Bead Game, which are my favorites as well. Each book explores a similar theme, of an individual’s efforts to break free from the established modes of civilization, and begin a quest for self-knowledge and spiritual understanding.

Hesse was born in Calw, Germany and he later became a citizen of Switzerland. Hesse began working in a bookstore in Tübingen as a teenager, and at the end of his twelve-hour shifts, he worked on his own writing. His first publication came in 1896, with his poem Madonna in a Viennese magazine, and later that year this was followed by the publication of a small volume of his poetry titled Romantic Songs. Hesse’s first poetry collection wasn’t met with much success— it only sold 54 copies in two years— and Hesse’s mother didn’t like the poems, calling them “vaguely sinful,” which was upsetting to Hesse.
In 1899 Hesse began working at another bookstore in Basel, and spent much time alone, engaged in self-exploration. Due to an eye condition, in 1900 he was exempted from compulsory military service, and he suffered from nerve disorders and persistent headaches throughout his life.

In the early years of the last century, Hesse published more poems and some short prose in journals. In 1904 Hesse’s novel Peter Camenzind was published, and this was a breakthrough novel for him, as from this point on, Hesse could now earn a living as a writer. The novel became popular throughout Germany, and the Austrian neurologist Sigmund Freud praised Peter Camenzind as one of his favorite novels.

Hesse’s parents had a profound influence on his spirituality, and he said of his parents that, “their Christianity, one not preached but lived, was the strongest of the powers that shaped and molded me.” Self-exploration and spiritual development became important themes in many of Hesse’s writings. There was a ‘quest for enlightenment or self-realization’ theme in his books Siddhartha, Journey to the East, and Narcissus and Goldmund, and he often drew from Buddhism, Hinduism, and other Eastern philosophies in his novels. Hesse saw value in the varied forms of spiritual expression, and said, “For different people, there are different ways to God.”

Hesse is the author of 29 books. He also began painting when he was in his early 40s, and he created a legacy of around 3000 beautiful watercolors. The book Trees: An Anthology of Writings and Paintings collects Hesse’s poems and essays on the subject of trees and is accompanied by 31 of his watercolor illustrations, and the book Hesse as Painter collects 20 of his watercolors.

In 1946 Hesse received the Nobel Prize in Literature for his book Magister Ludi: The Glass Bead Game. However, despite Hesse’s status as a Nobel laureate, when Hesse died in 1962, his work wasn’t very well known in the United States. In fact, in the obituary that The New York Times published after Hesse’s death, said that his work was largely “inaccessible” to American readers.

This all changed in the mid-1960s when Hesse’s books suddenly became bestsellers in the U.S., and within the span of a few years, he became the most widely read and translated European author of the 20th century. The revival in popularity of Hesse’s works has been credited to their association with some of the popular themes of the 1960s counterculture, and according to Bernhard Zeller’s autobiography on Hesse, “in large part, the Hesse boom in the United States can be traced back to enthusiastic writings by two influential counterculture figures: Colin Wilson and Timothy Leary.”

Hesse’s work has had a considerable cultural influence. The band Steppenwolf took its name from Hesse’s novel with that title, and there is also a theater in Chicago called The Steppenwolf Theater. Throughout Germany, many schools are named after Hesse. Hesse’s novel Siddhartha required reading in my high school English class, which is how I first discovered his work.

Some quotes that Hermann Hesse is remembered for include:

“I have always believed, and I still believe, that whatever good or bad fortune may come our way we can always give it meaning and transform it into something of value.”

Learn what is to be taken seriously and laugh at the rest.

Wisdom cannot be imparted. Wisdom that a wise man attempts to impart always sounds like foolishness to someone else … Knowledge can be communicated, but not wisdom. One can find it, live it, do wonders through it, but one cannot communicate and teach it.

Whoever wants music instead of noise, joy instead of pleasure, soul instead of gold, creative work instead of business, passion instead of foolery, finds no home in this trivial world of ours.

I have been and still am a seeker, but I have ceased to question stars and books; I have begun to listen to the teaching my blood whispers to me.”
“Some of us think holding on makes us strong but sometimes it is letting go

Carolyn and I have both seem evidence of Hesse’s influence in one another’s writings. On the back cover of my first book, Brainchild, Carolyn wrote. “Brown is the Hesse of our time.”  Similarly, in the introduction to Carolyn’s book The Alchemy of Possibility, I wrote, “Following the tradition of William Blake and Hermann Hesse, The Alchemy of Possibility is a poetic blend of mysticism and imagination.”

by David Jay Brown

Aldous Huxley Profile

Aldous Huxley Profile

Photo by Bettmann

British writer, philosopher, and social satirist Aldous Huxley’s work has had a profound impact on Carolyn and I, and our dear friends Oz Janiger and Laura Huxley told us wonderful stories about their precious time with him.

Aldous Leonard Huxley was born in 1894 in Surrey, England. He was born into an intellectually active family; his father was a schoolteacher and writer, and his mother founded an independent girls’ boarding and day school. Aldous was the grandson of the famous zoologist Thomas Huxley, who was an early advocate for Darwin’s theory of evolution, and his brothers Julian and Andrew became noteworthy biologists.

Aldous’ father, Leonard Huxley, had a well-equipped botanical laboratory where Aldous began his science education as a child. His brother Julian described him as someone who “frequently contemplated the strangeness of things.”

Aldous faced some serious challenges as a teenager. In 1908 his mother died, and in 1911 he contracted an eye disease that caused the surface of his eyes to become inflamed. This ocular inflammation left him almost blind for around three years, and then he partially recovered, with one eye just capable of light perception, and the other with about 5 percent of normal vision. Unable to pursue a career in medicine, as he had initially intended, due to his loss of sight, Huxley studied English literature at Oxford from 1913 to 1916.

After graduating from Oxford, Aldous taught French for a year at Eton College in Berkshire. One of his students at the time was a young fellow named Eric Blair, who also went on to become a well-known writer; he took the pen name George Orwell and wrote the classic dystopian novel 1984.

In 1916 Aldous edited the Oxford Poetry journal, and he completed his first (although unpublished) novel at the age of 17. In 1921 Aldous published his first novel, Crome Yellow, which, like the novels that followed— Antic Hay in 1923, Those Barren Leaves in 1925, and Point Counter Point in 1928, were social satires.

In 1919 Aldous married his first wife, Maria Nys, and they had one child together, Matthew (who Carolyn and I met at a conference during the 1990s). Aldous and Maria lived with Matthew in Italy during the 1920s, where Aldous would spend time with his friend, English novelist and poet D. H. Lawrence.

In 1932 Aldous published his most well-known work, Brave New World, a dystopian novel about a World State in the future, where citizens are environmentally engineered into an intelligence-based social hierarchy. The book has since become a classic of modern literature— it ranked number 5 on a list of the 100 best-selling English-language novels of the 20th Century — and carried a profound warning about the dangers of social control that seem especially relevant today.

In 1937 Aldous moved to Los Angeles with his wife Maria, where he worked as a screenplay writer for Hollywood films. Aldous received screen credit for Pride and Prejudice in 1940, and he worked on a number of other films, including Jane Eyre in 1944. In 1955 Aldous’ wife Maria died.

Aldous grew interested in philosophical mysticism and in 1945 he published The Perennial Philosophy, which explores the common ground between Eastern and Western mysticism. Our beloved friend Laura Huxley first met Aldous in 1948, when she was pursuing an idea for a film, and although the film was never produced, they stayed close and were married in 1956. Laura was married to Aldous for the last 7 years of his life.

Carolyn Mary Kleefeld and Laura Huxley

Carolyn Mary Kleefeld and Laura Huxley

In 1953 Canadian psychiatrist Humphry Osmond introduced Aldous to a psychedelic medicine, mescaline, and he had a powerful mystical and transcendent experience that became the basis for his revolutionary book The Doors of Perception. It’s a slim volume, just 63 pages, but it had a powerful cultural impact and is generally regarded as one of the most important books on psychedelic mysticism. The popular rock band The Doors took their name from the title of Huxley’s book.

In 1962 Aldous published his final novel, Island, a utopian fantasy about a shipwrecked journalist on a fictional island, which incorporates the insights that he gained from his mystical experiences, and provides a wonderful alternative future to his dystopian vision in Brave New World. During his lifetime, Aldous published more than 50 books, and a large selection of poetry, short stories, articles, philosophical treatises, and screenplays.

Aldous died in 1963, on the same day that John F. Kennedy was assassinated. On his deathbed, Aldous asked Laura to administer LSD to him and he died while undergoing a psychedelic experience, as Laura read to him from The Tibetan Book of the Dead. Laura wrote about this experience, and her final days with Aldous, in her much-loved book This Timeless Moment.

Laura shared a favorite story with me about Aldous. She told me about this one time that Aldous was at a meeting of professional scientists, and how he was asked what final words of advice he could offer after a lifetime of inquiry. His response was, “I’m very embarrassed because I worked for forty years. I studied everything around. I did experiments. I went to several countries. And all I can tell you is to be just a little kinder to each other.”

Some of the quotes that Aldous is known for include:

After silence, that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music.

I wanted to change the world. But I have found that the only thing one can be sure of changing is oneself.

Most human beings have an almost infinite capacity for taking things for granted.

The more powerful and original a mind, the more it will incline towards the religion of solitude.

That men do not learn very much from the lessons of history is the most important of all the lessons that history has to teach.

Consistency is contrary to nature, contrary to life. The only completely consistent people are the dead.

The secret of genius is to carry the spirit of the child into old age, which means never losing your enthusiasm.

There are things known and there are things unknown, and in between are the doors of perception.

I wish so much that I had had an opportunity to interview Aldous, but I was only 2 years old when he died.

by David Jay Brown

Lao Tzu Profile

Lao Tzu Profile

Carolyn and I have long appreciated the writings of Lao Tzu, author of the Tao Te Ching, and have incorporated his philosophy into our lives.

Lao Tzu (or Laozi, and there are also around 10 other possible spellings of his name) was a semi-legendary ancient Chinese Taoist philosopher. The name Lao Tzu is a Chinese term that is usually translated as “the Old Master.”

It’s difficult to separate myth from fact about Lao Tzu; little is known about his life. Traditional accounts say that his original name was Li Er or Lao Dan and that he was born in the 6th century BC, in the village of Quren, which is in the state of Chu, a southern region in China.

It’s thought that Lao Tzu served as an archivist and scholar, an official who worked as a keeper of the imperial archives, for the Zhou court at Wangcheng. Zhho was a royal dynasty of China that lasted from 1046 BC to 256 BC, and Wancheng was an ancient Chinese city that today is known as Luoyang. This position as an archivist reportedly allowed Lao Tzu to access and study the classic works of his time.

Early accounts of Lao Tzu vary. In one account, it said that he was a contemporary of the Chinese philosopher and politician Confucius during the 6th or 5th century BC and that he met Confucius on one occasion, who was impressed by him, and Confucius mentions him in his writings. Another early account said that he was the court astrologer Lao Dan, who lived during the 4th century BC reign of the Chinese ruler Duke Xian of Qin.

In another account, it is said that Lao Tzu married and had a son who became a celebrated soldier. It is also thought that Lao Tzu never opened a formal school, but that he attracted many students and loyal disciples. In the later part of his life, he moved west and lived in an unsettled frontier region of China until the age of 80.

When Lao Tzu moved to this new region in the west, it is said in one account that a guard at the gate of this region asked him to record his wisdom for the good of the country before he could pass, and the text that he wrote was said to be the initial draft for the Tao Te Ching, although the present version includes additions from later periods.

The oldest surviving text of the Tao Te Ching so far recovered was part of the unearthed tomb of Guodian Chu Slips in 1993 and dates back to the Warring States period, which was an era in Chinese history characterized by warfare and lasted from 481 BC to 403 BC. The text of this early copy of the Tao Te Ching was written on bamboo slips, which was the main medium for writing documents prior to the introduction of the paper.

Some Western scholars think that the person known as Lao Tzu is a mythical character and that the Tao Te Ching was actually authored by a group of philosophers, not a single person, although more recent archeological discoveries have provided evidence that many Chinese scholars believe affirm the existence of a historical Lao Tzu.

The Tao Te Ching is a fundamental text for Taoism. Along with Confucianism and Buddhism, Taoism is one of the main currents of Chinese philosophy. Taoism is a philosophical or religious tradition that emphasizes living in harmony with the Tao. The word “Tao” doesn’t have a clear definition, because, according to the Tao Te Ching, “The Tao that can be expressed is not the eternal Tao.” However, the term generally means “way,” “path,” or “principle,” and in Taoism, it denotes something that is both the source and the driving force behind everything that exists. Some think of it as “God,” “the Great Spirit,” or “the Great Mystery,” but if it can be expressed in words, then by definition, it is not the Tao.

There are numerous myths about Lao Tzu. Some traditions worship Lao Tzu as a god and believe that he entered this world through a virgin birth, conceived when his mother gazed upon a falling star and that he remained in his mother’s womb for 62 years. According to this tradition he emerged from his mother’s womb as a grown man with a full grey beard. Other myths say that he was reborn 13 times after his first life, and in his last life, he lived for 990 years, traveling around China and teaching about the Tao.

Today there are numerous translations of the Tao Te Ching, and the influence of Taoism on Chinese culture and the Western world has been deep and far-reaching, influencing literature and the arts, as well as science. The Taoist perspective on natural elements, and observing how the natural world works, helped to create Chinese medicine. A search on Amazon currently reveals over 60 popular translations of the Tao Te Ching. Wayne Dyer created Living the Wisdom of the Tao, which contains the complete Tao Te Ching along with affirmations, and our friend Timothy Leary wrote a translation of the Tao Te Ching called Psychedelic Prayers.

Much of Carolyn’s artwork and poetry has been inspired by Taoism. Below are several of her Taoism-inspired paintings.

Some of the quotes that Lao Tzu is known for include:

The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. 

A good traveler has no fixed plans and is not intent on arriving.

Those who know do not speak. Those who speak do not know.

If you are depressed you are living in the past. If you are anxious you are living in the future. If you are at peace you are living in the present. 

Care about what other people think and you will always be their prisoner.

Nature does not hurry, yet everything is accomplished. 

Do you have the patience to wait until your mind settles and the water is clear? 

Silence is a source of Great Strength.

Music in the soul can be heard by the universe.

by David Jay Brown

Laura Huxley Profile

Laura Huxley Profile

Photo by John Engstead

Carolyn and I met Laura Huxley in the early 1990s through our friend Oz Janiger. Laura was an extremely gifted psychotherapist, a concert violinist, documentary filmmaker, author, and lecturer, as well as a cherished friend and a great inspiration.

Laura Archera Huxley was born in Turin, Italy in 1911. A musical prodigy, Laura began playing the violin at the age of 10 and she had special magic; at the age of 14, she played before the Queen in her native country. Laura performed with her violin all over Europe and left for America before the start of World War II. In 1939 Laura performed a violin concerto by Mozart at Carnegie Hall in New York City, and she played in the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra from 1944 to 1947 as a virtuoso.

Laura settled in Los Angeles. In 1949 she worked on freelance documentary films, and she was hired as an assistant film editor for RKO Radio Pictures in Hollywood. Around this time Laura’s close friend Virginia Pfeiffer became ill, and this had a profound effect on Laura. Laura donated her violin to another violinist, put her music study aside, and began training to become a psychotherapist. Laura pursued a lifelong interest in health, nutrition, psychology, and the advancement of human potential.

Laura first met celebrated British novelist and visionary Aldous Huxley in 1948, when she was pursuing an idea for a film, and although the film was never produced, this was the beginning of their legendary relationship. They were married in 1956. Laura wrote the revered book This Timeless Moment, about her experience with Aldous, who she was married to for the last 7 years of his life.

Laura had a number of mystical and transcendent experiences in her life, and she was outspoken about her beliefs. Between 1963 and 1987, Laura wrote three popular self-help books about getting through life’s difficulties, You Are Not the Target, Between Heaven and Earth, and One-a-Day-Reason to be Happy, as well as a book about conscious conception, The Child of Your Dreams. In 1977 Laura founded Children: Our Ultimate Investment, a nonprofit organization dedicated to “nurturing the possible human.” The organization sponsored a four-day conference in the early 1990s that Carolyn and I attended.

In 1994 Laura participated in the roundtable discussion at UCLA that I co-hosted about the future of technology, along with Carolyn, Timothy Leary, Oz Janiger, John C. Lilly, and Nina Graboi.

Carolyn Mary Kleefeld and Laura Huxley

Carolyn Mary Kleefeld and Laura Huxley

Laura died in 2007 at the age of 96 in her home in the Hollywood Hills, with Valerie Corral, Dr. Paul Fleiss, and Carolyn by her side. Valerie Corral wrote this about her experience with Laura while she was dying:

“She closed her eyes. We sat in that vast silence. Suddenly Laura spoke. ‘Emptiness, emptiness, emptiness. It is emptiness.’ Laura laughed with weakened enthusiasm. With that smile still on her face she looked at me, ‘Tell Ram Dass, it’s all brand new. It Is All Brand New,’ in a soft, rich laugh. She began to speak about the things we all must face, uncertainty, longing, and pain. But there was no remorse or sorrow, only peace, and luminosity. She was stunningly beautiful.”

Carolyn had this to say about her experience with Laura: “I cherish our timeless camaraderie in the last years of her life, and the mischievous comments she loved to sprinkle into the mundane. She was my beloved mentor and friend and is forever in my heart. I have great memories of us walking around the Hollywood sign, and spending numerous evenings with her marvelous friends — the DiCaprios and her daughter Karin Pfeiffer — and of our dancing together, with scarves she would drop down to us from her perch on the stairs above.”

Laura wrote the introduction to Carolyn’s book The Alchemy of Possibility. Here’s an excerpt:

“Like all nature mystics, Carolyn has a symbiotic relationship with nature. “The Alchemy of Possibility” might remind us, not through statistics but through poetic prose, that the Golden Rule is to be applied to every tree, every rock, every creature, and every thing on the planet. The poem, “is you, is me,” says it all. There is a numinous presence in her identification with nature… In writing freely about her amorous, spiritual, and mundane life, Kleefeld offers… [an] effective intangible therapy for “surfing the waves of existence.” …  The Alchemy of Possibility is to be kept nearby and enjoyed slowly…”

I interviewed Laura in 1992 for my book Mavericks of the Mind, which also includes my interview with Carolyn. There was an old-world elegance and mischievous charm about Laura that I adored. Here are some excerpts from our conversation:

David: What do you think happens to human consciousness after death?
Laura: I think and feel that it goes on. I can’t imagine that this extraordinary complex of feeling, thought, and whatever else, just vanishes. I believe that it goes on; but how is a mystery. Perhaps it goes on into vibrations, or into other bodies, or into something totally different and unknown to us.

David: I read the experience that you wrote about at the end of This Timeless Moment, with the medium and the bookcase, that suggested the possibility of contact with Aldous after he had passed on into the afterlife.
Laura: That was extraordinary wasn’t it? I never speak about that because I wrote it with such exactness. I think that if I were to speak about it, I would not remember the moment, the time, and all that exactly. What I have written is absolutely correct.

David: Have you had any other experiences where you felt the presence of Aldous after he had died?
Laura: I went to one or two other mediums who also gave me a very strong presence, but not like that one. That one was…

David: Uncanny.
Laura: That’s right.

David: What’s your personal understanding of God?
Laura: I think, I feel, that there is an immense power; something that is so incredible that we cannot even imagine it— it has so much more imagination than we have. So that when we imagine God, we just imagine as far as we can imagine. But our imagination is very limited when you think of all the flowers and stars. You think of a star, and you think of a cell, and it’s mind-boggling.

David: We can’t even grasp ourselves, let alone a supreme being of cosmic proportions.
Laura: Exactly. How can we grapple with God when we don’t even understand the simplest of things? I don’t even know what goes on when I speak to you, or how you hear, and how you interpret what you hear, and how this influences what I am going to say, etc., etc.

David: If you could sum up the central message that you learned from the time you spent with Aldous, what would you say that was?
Laura: He said it himself. I can do no better than what he said. It was at this important meeting of outstanding scientists in Santa Barbara. Everyone was very serious, and they said, well, Mr. Huxley, what is your final advice after all these years of inquiry? He said, “I’m very embarrassed because I worked for forty years, I studied everything around me, I did experiments, I went to several countries, and all I can tell you is to be just a little kinder to each other.”

by David Jay Brown

Carl Jung Profile

Carl Jung Profile

I began reading Carl Jung’s writings when I was in high school, and when I first met Carolyn, Jung’s work came up in our discussions a lot.

Carl Gustav Jung was a Swiss psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, who helped to revolutionize the field of psychology. Born in 1875, Jung has been described as a solitary and introverted child, with early aspirations to become a preacher or minister. However, after studying philosophy as a teenager, Jung decided against those religious aspirations and decided to pursue a career in psychiatry at the University of Basel instead.

In 1900 Jung moved to Zürich and began working at the Burghölzli psychiatric hospital, where he developed a relationship with the Austrian neurologist Sigmund Freud. Jung and Freud became close friends and built a strong professional association; for six years they cooperated in their work. However, in 1912 a split between these two intellectual titans developed when Jung published a manuscript titled Psychology of the Unconscious. This historic book created a theoretical divergence between the two men; after this their personal and professional relationship was damaged, and over the years they became increasingly bitter toward one another.

In a nutshell, Jung believed that there was more to the unconscious mind than Freud. According to both Freud and Jung, the unconscious mind is the mental reservoir of emotions, memories, and brain processes that are outside of our conscious awareness; yet influence our thoughts, desires, dreams, and actions. One basic difference between Freud’s and Jung’s theories of the unconscious mind was that Freud believed that it is purely the result of our personal development, while Jung believed that there was also a transpersonal dimension to it, what he called “the collective unconscious,” that was shared by all of humanity.

Jung saw evidence for the collective unconscious among the common elements found around the world in dreams, visions, myths, fairy tales, art, and other forms of cultural expression— what he called “archetypes.” Archetypes are those images, figures, character types, settings, and story patterns that, according to Jung, are universally shared by people across cultures.

In mainstream psychology, Jung is known for introducing many commonly used concepts to the field, and that have also been adopted by the culture at large — such as his models of psychological types, and his notions of the anima and animus, the Self, the shadow, and introversion and extroversion. Another idea that Jung developed that Carolyn and I have both found useful is the notion of “synchronicity.”  Synchronicity is the coincidental occurrence of events that seem meaningfully related but cannot be explained by conventional mechanisms of causality. Synchronicities are those magic moments of strange association that just seem too personally meaningful to be mere coincidence — implying that we have some deep, psychic interconnection with the universe that can’t be easily explained through mechanistic science.

In addition to his work in psychology, and his prolific writing, Jung was also an artist, a builder, and a skillful craftsman. He built a small castle with 4 towers on the shore of Lake Zürich, known as the Bollingen Tower. Jung was known to have mystical, visionary, and psychic experiences. His psychological experiments between 1915 and 1930, where he engaged his mind with what he called the “mythopoetic imagination,” resulted in a series of “visions” or “fantasies” that were recorded as art and text in an illuminated calligraphic volume that became known as The Red Book. Hidden for years in a Swiss bank vault, this legendary manuscript was published posthumously in 2009. I’ve spent many an hour spellbound by this remarkable book; it’s a beautiful artwork and powerful spiritual insights.

Jung died in 1961. The last book that he wrote, Man and his Symbols, was published 3 years after he died. Princeton University Press published a 20-volume set titled The Collected Works of C.G. Jung, which contains Jung’s dissertation, essays, lectures, and letters from 1902 until his death. A number of his books weren’t published until after he died, and some of Jung’s manuscripts remain unpublished to this day.

Jung’s influence can be seen throughout Carolyn’s work. For example, an entry in Carolyn’s Alchemy of Possibility oracle is titled “Synchronicity,” and Carolyn’s painting Reflecting on my Shadow expresses Jung’s concept of the shadow — that dark side of the unconscious mind, the self’s emotional blind spot, which is composed of repressed ideas, weaknesses, desires, instincts, and shortcomings.

Some quotes that Carl Jung is remembered for include:

Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life, and you will call it fate.

The meeting of two personalities is like the contact of two chemical substances: if there is any reaction, both are transformed.

I am not what happened to me, I am what I choose to become.

A dream that is not understood remains a mere occurrence; understood it becomes a living experience.

Who looks outside, dreams; who looks inside, awakes.

by David Jay Brown

Nikos Kazantzakis Profile

Nikos Kazantzakis Profile

Upon Carolyn’s recommendation, I recently watched the 1964 film Zorba the Greek, which I greatly enjoyed. The movie was based on the novel by Greek writer Nikos Kazantzakis, who Carolyn has raved about for years. Kazantzakis has written many other critically acclaimed works of fiction and nonfiction and is remembered today as one of Greece’s greatest writers.

Nikos Kazantzakis was born in 1883 in Heraklion, the capital city of Crete, which was then part of the Ottoman Empire. Kazantzakis was the eldest of four children. His father was a farmer and animal feed dealer, who was described as “unsociable,” while his mother was described as “saintly.”

From 1902 to 1906 Kazantzakis studied law at the University of Athens and he graduated with honors. In 1907 he went to the Sorbonne in Paris to study philosophy. In Paris, he was deeply influenced by the philosophy of Henri Bergson and the idea that “a true understanding of the world comes from the combination of intuition, personal experience, and rational thought.” Kazantzakis’ 1909 doctoral dissertation at the Sorbonne was on the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche, and upon returning to Greece he began translating works of philosophy.

In 1906 Kazantzakis published his first work, an essay titled The Disease of the Century, which was published by Picture Gallery Magazine. That same year Kazantzakis also published his first book, The Serpent and Lily. Both the essay and the book were written under the pen name “Karma Nirvami,” which was one of the pseudonyms that Kazantzakis used during the first few years of his writing. His first play, Daybreak, was staged several months later at the Athenian Theater in Athens, and in 1909 he wrote a one-act play about existential themes called The Comedy.

Through the next several decades Kazantzakis traveled extensively throughout the world. He traveled around Greece and much of Europe— including Germany, Italy, France, The Netherlands, and Romania— as well as northern Africa, Egypt, Russia, Japan, and China. These travels put Kazantzakis in contact with different philosophies, ideologies, and lifestyles that would later influence his writing, as he often used his experiences to create vivid settings and characters in his works.

In 1919, Kazantzakis was appointed as the director general of the Greek Ministry of Public Welfare, although he only held this post for a year before resigning. However, during his service, he helped to feed and rescue over 150,000 Greek war victims.

In 1924 Kazantzakis first met Eleni Samiou, who was 21 years old at the time, and who devoted her life to helping Kazantzakis with his work. They began a romantic relationship around four years later, although they weren’t formally married until 1945. Samiou helped Kazantzakis by typing his drafts, commenting on his drafts before they were published, accompanying him on his travels, and managing his business affairs. They were married until his death.

In 1924 Kazantzakis also began working on an epic poem that was based on Homer’s “Odyssey,” which he retold from a contemporary perspective. Kazantzakis considered this to be his most important work. After fourteen years of writing and revision, it was finally published in 1938 as The Odyssey: A Modern Sequel.

Kazantzakis also wrote several books about his own interpretation of Christianity and Greek Orthodoxy, such as “The Saviors of God,” a series of spiritual exercises that he wrote between 1922 and 1923 and was first published in 1927. “The Saviors of God” is today widely considered to be his greatest work of philosophy. It incorporates elements from Bergson, Marx, and Nietzsche, as well as Christianity and Buddhism.

Facing financial difficulty in 1934, to earn money Kazantzakis wrote three textbooks for the second and third grades. The Greek Ministry of Education adopted one of them and his financial concerns were alleviated for a time.

In the following years, Kazantzakis wrote some of his most acclaimed works, which established him as a major Modern Greek writer. In 1946 his most famous novel, Zorba the Greek, was published. The novel beautifully contrasts the sensual and intellectual facets of human nature. It is a transformative story of a young writer who ventures off to escape his bookish, intellectual life, with the unexpected aid of a charismatic and boisterous, passionate, and mysterious peasant and musician named Alexis Zorba. The novel was adapted into the wonderful 1964 film starring Anthony Quinn that I mentioned earlier, and it won three Academy Awards.

Kazantzakis was spiritually inclined, but he had some issues with his Greek Orthodox Christian faith. As a child, he was baptized within the Greek Orthodox tradition, and he was drawn to the stories of saints. Many scholars and critics say that his works center on a search for spiritual and religious truth. Kazantzakis was exposed to different religious belief systems, like Buddhism, during his travels, influencing him to doubt his Christian faith. Although he never denied it, his criticism of Christianity caused tension within the Greek Orthodox Church and with his critics. In 1948 Kazantzakis wrote The Last Temptation of Christ and Christ Recrucified, his most controversial works, which are about questioning Christian values. The Last Temptation of Christ was condemned by the Catholic Church and was not published until 1956.

Kazantzakis’s novel Report to Greco was written in 1945, but not published until 1961. It’s an autobiographical work, and it explores Kazantzakis’s spiritual quest and his search for what he called a “new man.” In 1949 he wrote The Greek Passion, a play set during the Greco-Turkish War of 1919-22. Kazantzakis traveled extensively throughout this period, spending time in France, Austria, Italy, Germany, and the United States.

In 1953 Kazantzakis published The Greek Passion, which is a novel about a village’s struggle to cope with the Greek Civil War. Kazantzakis was also a prolific translator, translating works by Dante, Shakespeare, and many other writers into the Modern Greek language. He translated a number of notable works including The Divine Comedy, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, On the Origin of Species, and Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey.

In addition to his widely acclaimed novels, memoirs, philosophical essays, and translations, Kazantzakis also wrote travel books and he lectured widely. Kazantzakis was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature for nine different years but never won. In 1957 he lost the Prize to Albert Camus by a single vote. Camus later said that Kazantzakis deserved the honor “a hundred times more” than himself. 

Kazantzakis died in 1957, in Germany, after a return flight from Asia. He is buried in Crete, at the highest point of the Walls of Heraklion, the Martinengo Bastion, which looks out over the mountains and the Sea of Crete. Kazantzakis’ epitaph reads: “I hope for nothing. I fear nothing. I am free.”

In 1968 Eleni Samiou published a biography of her husband— Nikos Kazantzakis— The Uncompromising — which contains the story of Nikos’ life and a large number of their letters.

In 2007 a euro collectors’ coin, the €10 Euro Greek Nikos Kazantzakis commemorative coin, was minted for the 50th anniversary of his death. His image is on the obverse of the coin, while the reverse carries the National Emblem of Greece with his signature. In 2017, on the 60th anniversary of his death, the €2 Euro Greece Grecia with his image was also minted.

In 2022, 65 years after the death of Kazantzakis, fans of his work rejoiced, when his final novel Aniforos was first published. The manuscript had been kept at the Nikos Kazantzakis Museum in the author’s home village of Mirtia, Crete since its rediscovery. Aniforos was written right after Zorba the Greek in 1946, and is filled with autobiographical references and reflections on his firsthand experience of World War II.

Some of the quotes that Nikos Kazantzakis is known for include:

God changes his appearance every second. Blessed is the man who can recognize him in all his disguises.

The only thing I know is this: I am full of wounds and still standing on my feet.

A man needs a little madness, or else… he never dares cut the rope and be free.

You can knock on a deaf man’s door forever.

Since we cannot change reality, let us change the eyes which see reality.

I said to the almond tree, ‘Sister, speak to me of God.’ And the almond tree blossomed.

You have your brush, you have your colors, you paint the paradise, then in you go.

Once, I saw a bee drown in honey, and I understood.

by David Jay Brown