Wednesday, October 31, 2012

The Last Temptation of Christ by Nikos Kazantzakis

But man, without God, born as he is unarmed, would have been obliterated by hunger, fear and cold; and if he survived these, he would have crawled like a slug midway between the lions and the lice; and if with incessant struggle he managed to stand on his hind legs, he would never have been able to escape the tight, warm, tender embrace of his mother the monkey... Reflecting on this, Jesus felt more deeply than he had ever felt before that God and man could become one.

I have never seen Martin Scorcese's Last Temptation of Christ, but I know the controversy: Willem Dafoe's Christ experiences a sort of dream sequence as he is crucified that tempts him with the life he might have lived as an ordinary man, married to Mary Magdalene, for whom he has long held romantic and sexual feelings.  That may depart fairly radically from the Gospels, but there is something appealing in the idea of a more human Jesus who suffers greatly under the yoke of his task and yearns for the simple pleasures of human life.  The modern, evangelical conception of Jesus seems to me to render the scenes of his temptation in the desert inexplicable.  How could Satan hope to penetrate such a bulwark of mildness?

I thought Kazantzakis' original novel might be a picture of that more human, more palpable Jesus.  I was pretty wrong.  I was hoping that it would put Jesus in a historical context, against a realistic backdrop of Roman Israel, but Kazantzakis' Temptation seeks to outdo the Bible itself in visions, signs, and wonders.  Here's one I picked at random from about two hundred:

Suddenly he uttered a cry.  He felt a horrible pain in his hands and feet, as though he had been pierced by nails.  He collapsed onto a rock, the sweat pouring over him in cold granules.  For a moment his head swam.  The earth sank away from under his feet and a fierce dark ocean spread itself out before him.  It was deserted but for a tiny red skiff which sailed bravely along, its sails puffed out, ready to burst... Jesus looked and looked, then smiled.  "It is my heart," he murmured, "it is my heart..."

That's fairly effective, isn't it?  The vision of Jesus' heart as a small red boat in a great dark ocean is very powerful.  But there is no ground to the novel, these visions come so frequently that there is no non-visionary mode to provide contrast.  By the end of the novel, I grew extremely weary of them.  Kazantzakis, I think, is trying to recreate some of the inherent wonder and mystery of the Gospels (and probably even moreso books like Daniel and Revalation).  But what is the point of replicating the style of those texts, which, let's be honest, succeed pretty well on their own?

And yet, I did like some of the ways that Kazantzakis manipulates the fundamental Gospel story: He makes Jesus not just a carpenter but a crossmaker, reviled by his community.  He makes Judas into a brother-rival figure that personifies a more militant, revolutionary vision of the Messiah as a Jewish warrior-hero.  Judas remains fiercely loyal to Jesus, though there is immense philosophical tension between them, and ultimately Judas' betrayal is depicted by Kazantzakis as a planned event.  (This is, I think, the basic idea represented in the recently discovered "Gospel of Judas," too.)  And yet, I would have enjoyed the tension of that relationship much more if I had felt that Jesus and Judas approached any reasonable human likeness.  In a book of symbols, they remain symbols, and get lost in the crowd.

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