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The Last Temptation of Christ ()


The Image Top 100 Books of the Century

    My principal anguish, and the wellspring of all my joys and sorrows, has been the incessant
    merciless battle between the spirit and the flesh. . . . Every man partakes of the divine nature in
    both his spirit and his flesh. That is why the mystery of Christ is not simply a mystery for a
    particular creed; it is universal. . . .  Struggle between the flesh and the spirit, rebellion and
    resistance, reconciliation and submission, and finally-the supreme purpose of the struggle-union
    with God: this was the ascent taken by Christ, the ascent which he invites us to take as well,
    following in his bloody tracks. . . .

    If we are to be able to follow him, we must have a profound knowledge of His conflict, we must
    relive his anguish. . . . In order to mount to the Cross, the summit of sacrifice, and to God, the
    summit of immateriality, Christ passed through all the stages which the man who struggles passes
    through. All-and that is why his suffering is so familiar to us; that is why we pity him, and why his
    final victory seems to us so much our own future victory. That part of Christ's nature which was
    profoundly human helps us to understand him and love him and to pursue his Passion as though it
    were our own. If he had not within him this warm human element, he would never be able to touch
    our hearts with such assurance and tenderness; he would not be able to become a model for our
    lives. We struggle, we see him struggle also, and we find strength. We see that we are not all alone
    in the world; he is fighting at our side. . . . This book was written because I wanted to offer a
    supreme model to the man who struggles; I wanted to show him that he must not fear pain,
    temptation, or death-because all three can be conquered, all three have already been conquered.
           -Nikos Kazantzakis, Report to Greco (1961)

Unless you're awfully young, you'll surely remember the enormous controversy that was generated by Martin Scorcese's film version of this novel.  There are various ideas, themes and images from the book and the movie that provoked these howls of outrage, but the most significant cause lies at the dramatic center of the the story and concerns the nature of the "Last Temptation".  As Kazantzakis imagines the tale, throughout his entire life Jesus is plagued by doubts about his destiny and his divinity and he is beset by temptation.  Finally, as he hangs upon the cross, an angel comes and rescues him and delivers him to a mortal existence, wherein Christ marries and has children.  But then Judas and the other disciples, now withered old men, track him down, accuse him of betraying them and his mission, and begin to stone him.  Upon which:

    His head quivered.  Suddenly he remembered where he was, who he was and why he felt pain.  A
    wild, indomitable joy took possession of him.  No, no, he was not a coward, a deserter, a traitor.
    No, he was nailed to the cross.  He had stood his ground honorably to the very end; he had kept his
    word.  The moment he cried ELI ELI and fainted, Temptation had captured him for a split second
    and led him astray.  The joys, marriages and children were lies; the decrepit, degraded, old men
    who shouted coward, deserter, traitor at him were lies.  All--all were illusions sent by the Devil.
    His disciples were alive and thriving.  They had gone over sea and land and were proclaiming the
    Good News.  Everything had turned out as it should, glory be to God.

    He uttered a triumphant cry: IT IS ACCOMPLISHED!

    And it was as though he had said: Everything is begun.

Now as a threshold matter, I just don't find it particularly horrifying for someone to suggest that Christ may have had carnal desires.  In fact, I find it pretty unexceptionable to suggest that the Good lord did not die a virgin.  The idea that he would have remained not only physically pure, but even mentally pure, seems to me to be at odds with the very reason for his existence.  Christ was after all a vehicle through whom God could experience what it meant to be Man.  It hardly makes sense then that Christ would have been completely immune to the attraction of sensory stimuli.  Wouldn't that, at least partially, defeat the purpose?  So this final temptation and the thought of Christ fathering children just doesn't seem like a big deal to me on the blasphemy front.

I am bothered instead by how little sense it makes from a logical standpoint.  After all, our mortality is the very core of the human dilemma.  It is the temporary nature of our existence which separates us from God and godhood--God having banished us from Eden before we could partake of the Tree of Life.  If we had eternal life, in addition to our capacity for knowledge and the ability to reason, then we too would be as God.  What God failed to realize was how this duality would warp our souls, the desperation that would make us capable of acts of truly horrific acts.  It is this context which makes Christ's words upon the cross so important:  "Forgive them Father, they know not what they do" and "Oh Lord, why hast thou forsaken me."  The first represents the Lord's final recognition of the fact that we are not ultimately responsible for this flaw in our makeup.  The second is the most important moment in the Bible, as even Christ experiences despair which causes him to doubt God (himself).  This is the point at which God, who had been so petty, jealous and vengeful throughout the Old Testament, must forgive Man, as He realizes what it is to be a man.  Christ/God having despaired, how can he continue to blame Man for despairing?

So for Kazantzakis to posit this as the moment at which Christ would be tempted by the offer of becoming human, simply makes no sense.  A Last Temptation in which he is offered the opportunity never to have been born would make sense, a chance to avoid mortality altogether.  Or you could make an effective scene out of Christ imagining his life as a regular man, not having to be crucified, but then losing his wife or a child and having the full weight of mortality crash down upon him.  But, as is, the book really does read as if the author's only concern is with the Lord's maidenhead.  It makes it seem as if the Last Temptation is to exchange being the Messiah for a chance to do the nasty.  This is simply too trivial to bear much thought and represents a fairly fundamental misunderstanding of just what it meant for God to become Christ.  The whole point is that God has finally experienced what it is to be a Man and has found out that it is pretty difficult. The idea that just as that realization is being driven home comes a point at which he would consider chucking his divinity to become a family man is pretty ludicrous.

Taken on it's own terms, as more of an existentialist gloss on the Gospels, it's not a bad book.  The portrait of Christ struggling against his destiny and seeking to escape fate is fairly powerful.  And, read in this context, his resistance to the Last Temptation is genuinely heroic.

In either case, it's an interesting novel, often beautiful and it seems unlikely to lead anyone down the path to towards Hell.  It is well worth reading, though deeply flawed.

(Reviewed:)

Grade: (C+)

  

Websites:

Book-related and General Links:
    -Nikos Kazantzakis (1885-1957)(kirjasto)
    -ENCYCLOPAEDIA BRITANNICA: Your search: "nikos kazantzakis"
    -Nikos Kazantzakis (1883-1957) (Bohemian Ink)
    -Nikos Kazantzakis (The Plaka)
    -Nikos Kazantzakis (Interkriti)
    -Welcome to the Nikos Kazantzakis Home Page
    -Journal of Modern Greek Studies 16.2,  October 1998  Special Issue: Niko Kazantzakis (Requires Acrobat to read files)
    -ESSAY: The Last Temptation Reconsidered  (Carol Iannone, First Things)
    -ESSAY: Always Thirsty: Lewis Owens on the uphill path of Nikos Kazantzakis (Spike)
    -ESSAY: The Last Temptation of Christ Denied (Bob and Gretchen Passatino, Answers in Action)
    -In Search of Excellence:   Historical Roots of Greek Culture(1)  (Alexander Makedon, Chicago State University)
    -REVIEW: of  of Kazantzakis: Politics of the Spirit by Peter Bien  Towards the Good with Nikos Kazantzakis (Michael Antonakes)
    -REVIEW: of Last Temptation (RPI)
    -REVIEW: The Greek Passion (Comments of Bob Corbett)
 

FILM:
    -BUY IT: DVD (1988)(Amazon.com)
    -BUY IT: VHS (1988)(Amazon.com)
    -INFO: (IMDB)
    -REVIEW: Garry Wills: Jesus in the Mean Streets, NY Review of Books
        The Last Temptation of Christ a film directed by Martin Scorsese and screenplay by Paul Schrader
    -ESSAY :  The Last Temptation Reconsidered (Carol Iannone, First Things, February 1996)
 

GENERAL:
    -REVIEW: Richard Clogg: The Case for the Colonels, NY Review of Books
       Greece Without Columns: The Making of the Modern Greeks by David Holden
    -SPEECH: Nobel Lecture:  Writing And Being  by Nadine Gordimer

Comments:

Your points are all good. Unfortunately, THE sticking point about the book for many folks is the sexual angle. Try running it by folks in, say, small town Anywhere, U.S.A.

- ernest deschoening

- Apr-02-2007, 10:47

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