Nikos Kazantzakis

Read December 2003

There is an Old School style of travel writing that consists mainly of the large-scale observation, coupled with gross national characterization, sometimes backed up with a small number of conversations and literary quotations. The difficulty with such literature is it rarely answers two questions: (a) Of whom are these comments not true? and, (b) What other sources did you consider and reject? Some authors still practice this style, and can (coupled with terrific writing) make it stick, as Jan Morris does. Others gloss it in humor; George Mikes was a master of this terrain. Kazantzakis, best known for Zorba the Greek, gives England this treatment with a veil of philosophy.

The long-standing rivalry between Greece and England, and Kazantzakis's heartfelt Greek emotions, make this an intriguing book. And setting aside a few quirks—an anti-technological angst (perhaps forgiveable given the time he wrote this), a tendency to get lost in metaphysics, and a habit of reporting dialogue that often presents the other party in a poor light—this book largely delivers.

Kazantzakis sets out to study what he believes are England's three greatest contributions to society: the Magna Carta, Shakespeare and gentlemen (!). The book itself is organized partially as a travelogue and partially as a meditation. Like other distinguished Continental visitors such as Engels, Kazantzakis doesn't limit himself to the grand sites, but takes in the “grime-stained cities” that birthed the Industrial Revolution.

Two themes emerge from his study, and a person steeped in Greek lore makes for a particularly good student of both. The first is Time, “by no means a worshiper of the beautiful” (p. 97), as the sculptor of England. He beautifully describes London (p. 57) as “a dark tropical forest whose sole architect [is] Time”. He sets up the tension of the Great Fire, presenting this as the moment when London, under Wren's hand, could have taken a Descartesian stance, but chose the path of chaos instead. Later, he offers three inherently temporal activities as the source of civilization: war, commerce and religion.

The second theme is freedom. Even setting aside the caricatured views of the British in the US, having grown up in India, I definitely don't associate freedom with the British (or vice versa), and often find baffling the Economist's repeated references to this tradition. Yet Kazantzakis, not being so provincially bound, makes a compelling case for England's treatment separate from the rest of Europe in the Middle Ages, tracing this back to the Magna Carta.

In addition to this analysis, there are several gems in the book:

In a 1954 article, included as an epilogue, Kazantzakis is able to return to the themes of time and freedom to castigate England over Cyprus. History shows that six years later (soon after Kazantzakis's demise), England granted the island its freedom—only for Makarios's nation to eventually turn into yet another troubled corner of the former Empire.

(For a very different kind of treatment of the essence of Englishness, see the book by Wood.)