Archive for June, 2014

 How long will it be ere they attain to innocency? Hosea 8:5

One of the critics on the back cover of this book calls it “The most accessible of Hesse’s mature ponderings.” I think that’s total bollocks. I’ve read Steppenwolf and Narcissus and Goldmund, and they were both significantly more accessible than Journey to the East. The Glass Bead Game is in my massive to-be-read pile on the dresser, so I can’t yet say whether Journey is the least accessible of these last four novels, but yikes. How can a book about trying to remember something you’ve forgotten and aren’t even sure actually happened be more accessible than the journeys of the monk and his student, or the middle-aged man rediscovering joy and desire? Please let me be clear on this: The Journey to the East was a good book, just not an easy one.

Five-part novels always make me think of Elizabethan drama. Act I, exposition; Act II, rising action; Act III, the crisis or turning point; Act IV, chaotic insanity as we rush to Act V, the denouement. Hesse follows the Shakespearean pattern well.

So, what kind of journey are we talking about here? A group traveling through all of time and space in quest of whatever it is each individual is in quest of. Maybe treasure, maybe a fair damsel, maybe wisdom.

I realized that I had joined a pilgrimage to the East, seemingly a definite and single pilgrimage – but in reality, in its broadest sense, this expedition to the East was not only mine and now; this procession of believers and disciples had always and incessantly been moving towards the East, towards the Home of Light. Throughout the centuries it had been on the way, towards light and wonder, and each member, each group, indeed our whole host and its great pilgrimage, was only a wave in the eternal stream of human beings, of the eternal strivings of the human spirit towards the East, towards Home.

So our goal is the East, the eternal home of humanity. Read into that what you will: heaven, artistic success, death, eternal youth, a Golden Age. Our fellow pilgrims are The League, a secret society of artists and mystics that our narrator won’t tell us about. He’s sworn to secrecy. They seem a trifle Masonic, like the Mormons, with a similarly shadowy hierarchy.

While reading this book, my Mormon past rose up to judge me. Mormons are good at that. In the novel, HH was once a part of The League, but has spent many years away from it, and so has forgotten much of what he experienced. It has all begun to seem unreal, and he wonders what really happened, what he invented, and what was just crazy. Mormons say the same thing happens when you leave their Church; the Holy Spirit leaves you and you forget everything that is most important in life. Looking back on it, I haven’t forgotten everything, but I do see that all those mystical experiences can easily be explained by schizophrenia. I don’t have to valorize those symptoms any more. Visual, auditory, and tactile hallucinations; delusions of grandeur; paranoia (especially about being persecuted); and occasional self-harming.

As HH writes about The Journey, he keeps running into a block regarding this guy Leo. Leo was a servant on the Journey, possibly the best servant ever. And at one point he disappears. After he goes, the group of pilgrims sinks into infighting and disbands. HH then spends years floundering on his own before he decides to find Leo and figure out what happened (Act III, turning point, like Hamlet killing Polonius or Romeo Tybault).

Hesse has written about losing one’s way before, in the Samsara section of Siddhartha and in the bulk of Steppenwolf and Narcissus and Goldmund. But there’s a different feel to it here. Siddhartha’s Samsara years are a necessary part of his path to enlightenment; Haller’s story is of healing himself after his great isolation; and Goldmund’s story is mostly wandering, which he then uses to create art. But Journey seems to be about Hosea’s “attaining to innocency.” He’s not reincorporating the years of isolation and guilt into a complete understanding of himself; he’s rejecting them completely.

And this is why Journey is the first Hesse novel that I don’t agree with. I don’t think self-despair is really justified, and I don’t hate myself for leaving The Mormon League. I’m sometimes surprised that people take excommunication so seriously. There are a couple of high-profile cases in the news these days: Kate Kelly and John Dehlin. Kelly founded and leads an organization called Ordain Women, whose purpose is fairly clear from the title. They have marched and demonstrated and been asked to stop. She seems to misunderstand a fundamental truth about the LDS Church: it works from the top down. Change does not come from grassroots movements; nothing moves from the bottom up. It seems to me that she would in fact be much happier in a different religious community, so the excommunication should be no big deal.

Dehlin’s case is a little more tricky. He’s not trying to change things; he runs a blog and podcast designed to help unorthodox Mormons stay Mormon, if that’s what they want. He shows people where there is latitude already, which is often a case of shifting focus or perspective on an issue. One of his common themes is comfort for LGBT members, and while the news made it seem like there was some kind of shift in the Church on this subject a few years ago, there has never been. I did some research on this back when I was at uni, and even then the Church said the same thing. Feelings are not a sin; actions are. Experiencing same-sex attraction doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with you, but having sex outside of marriage with anyone they take to be a major sin, regardless of gender. I’d think that they’d be happy to extend marriage to same-sex couples so that they can enjoy sin-free loving relationships, but no. Dehlin (I assume) focuses on the “feelings are not a sin” part of the equation instead of the “gay sex will send you to hell” part. And there is a segment of the LGBT population that embraces celibacy before commitment, and some people prefer not to have sex at all, even in a loving committed monogamous relationship. Dehlin hasn’t yet been excommunicated, to my knowledge, but he’s been invited to reconsider whether being a Mormon is the right choice for him. The people who enforce law don’t like it when you point out the loopholes.

As for me, while no one told me to make a choice, and some people encouraged me not to, I felt like I had to choose between being gay and being Mormon. The Mormon Church’s official stance is that death is the cure for homosexuality, and if gay people can just stay chaste, one day they’ll be lucky enough to die and become straight. I don’t want to be heterosexual, not even when I’m dead. I like being who I am. I don’t want to be affiliated with an organization that encourages gay people to think that they’re irrevocably flawed and that death is the answer. Our community has enough problems with suicide as it is. I don’t want to be perpetually at war with myself; I don’t want to monitor my behavior and mannerisms constantly to keep people from knowing that I’m gay. Coming out has led me to greater self-awareness, self-acceptance, and self-peace than I found in thirty years in the Mormon Church, and I believe that these are inherently good things that I would not have experienced if I had stayed in.

Whatever journey we are taking in life, we are never not on it. There is no such thing as wasted time, or waiting for life to start. Life is always going on around us; we are always living it. Our struggles, our stupidity, our wandering away from faith and innocence, these are all part of who we are. HH had forgotten a large part of his personal history and identity, but at the end of the novel he seems poised to forget another large, equally important part of himself.

If you hope, embrace hope. If you doubt, embrace doubt. But whatever you do, whatever you are, be who you are. Accept who you are. Learn to love the person you authentically are. This is how we serve the world. This is how we make the universe brighter and more complete.

Perhaps that’s my real problem with The Journey to the East. It doesn’t feel like it’s done. HH lands in a hell of self-knowledge without harrowing hell and coming out of it. Hesse doesn’t show us here that there is value in all experience; just that people suck, including me and you. And then we die. HH sees himself flowing outward into his fictional creations (many League members are characters from his other books) and there being none of him left in himself. By creating art, he dissipates himself like ash in the wind. And so it finishes,

The candles burned low and went out. I was overcome by an infinite weariness and desire to sleep, and I turned away to find a place where I could lie down and sleep.

Not with a bang but a whimper.

In the second patio, there is a tall tree of the flimsy acacia sort. Above itself it puts up whitish fingers of flowers, naked on the blue sky. And in the wind these fingers of flowers in the bare blue sky sway, sway with the reeling, roundward motion of tree-tips in a wind.

A restless morning, with clouds lower down, moving also with a larger roundward motion. Everything moving. Best to go out in motion too, the slow roundward motion like the hawks.

Everything seems slowly to circle and hover towards a central point, the clouds, the mountains round the valley, the dust that rises, the big, beautiful, white-barred hawks, gabilanes, and even the snow-white flakes of flowers upon the dim palo-blanco tree. Even the organ cactus, rising in stock-straight clumps, and the candelabrum cactus, seem to be slowly wheeling and pivoting upon a centre, close upon it.

Strange that we should think in straight lines, when there are none, and talk of straight courses, when every course, sooner or later, is seen to be making the sweep round, swooping upon the centre. When space is curved, and the cosmos is sphere within sphere, and the way from any point to any other point is round the bend of the inevitable, that turns as the tips of the broad wings of the hawk turn upwards, leaning upon the air like the invisible half of the ellipse. If I have a way to go, it will be round the swoop of a bend impinging centripetal towards the centre. The straight course is hacked out in wounds, against the will of the world.

[happy sigh] I do love me some D. H. Lawrence.

As is apparent from the novels, Lawrence describes nature wonderfully well, so I came to his travel books expecting to be amazed. I was, but not for the reasons I expected. I’ve read some of his novels and plays, so I know he was a bit misogynistic, but I chalked that up to personal sexual issues. Lawrence once said that he believed that all great men were at least bisexual, if not entirely homo, which is a way of saying that he is. His novel Women in Love is about two men who would have had a sexual relationship if they knew such a thing was possible. As it is, there’s an unnecessarily nude wrestling scene (watch it in the 1969 film with Alan Bates and Oliver Reed). Judging from my own experience, when a man is in a socially acceptable relationship with a woman but really wants to be with another man, it’s easy to reject/fear/distrust/hate women in the abstract. I’d like to think that I fight against misogyny a little more than Lawrence did, but since I don’t write novels it’s hard to know.

What I did not expect was racism. He phrases all cultural differences as race issues, and has a weird paternal condescension to Native Americans. Instead of helping us to feel familiar with them, he fixates on difference. He describes some of the rituals, like the Snake Dance, but while he is exact in describing what he sees, he seems to miss the emotional content completely. He does some comparison of the belief systems, but he compares the rituals to going to the theatre, and begins describing them in a chapter called Indians and Entertainment. His primary tendencies, in describing Mexicans, is to equate all of them with Native Americans, thus erasing their European and African roots, and to associate them with nature, thus separating them from civilization and humanity.

From the valley villages and from the mountains the peasants and the Indians are coming in with supplies, the road is like a pilgrimage, with the dust in greatest haste, dashing for town. Dark-eared asses and running men, running women, running girls, running lads, twinkling donkeys ambling on fine little feet, under twin baskets with tomatoes and gourds, twin great nets of bubble-shaped jars, twin bundles of neat-cut faggots of wood, neat as bunches of cigarettes, and twin net-sacks of charcoal. Donkeys, mules, on they come, pannier baskets making a rhythm under the perched woman, great bundles bounding against the sides of the slim-footed animals. A baby donkey trotting naked after its piled-up dam, a white, sandal-footed man following with the silent Indian haste, and a girl running again on light feet.

Donkeys, Mexicans, it’s all the same thing. Seriously, the Savage Reservation in Huxley’s Brave New World feels more respectful.

The white cotton clothes of the men so white that their faces are invisible places of darkness under their big hats. Clothed darkness, faces of night, quickly, silently, with inexhaustible energy advancing to the town.

This description seems apt for him—he looks at the clothes and can’t find the faces. The real identity of the Mexican people remains a mystery. I have often heard and read of British travelers being praised for their ability to retain their peculiarly British identity when confronted with other cultures, but reading Lawrence on Mexico, I think that they can remain unchanged because of a stubborn refusal to understand anything that isn’t British. Nowadays I see this more often in Americans traveling abroad; I guess the British are either more open to new cultures than they were or staying at home.

This book ends with a reminiscence of his ranch in New Mexico from his new home in Italy, and it reminds me of Etruscan Places, which I read a few months ago. EP feels less condescending, but that might be because I have had less involvement with Italians than I have with Native Americans. It focuses on a contrast between the Fascism of the 1920s and the freedom of pre-Roman civilization. He spends most of his time in tombs, and I had recently been to Père Lachaise, one of the highlights of my Paris vacation, so I was rather more involved in reading it than I was in the Mexico book.

Here’s a favorite passage from Etruscan Places:

It is all a question of sensitiveness. Brute force and overbearing may make a terrific effect. But in the end, that which lives lives by delicate sensitiveness. If it were a question of brute force, not a single human baby would survive for a fortnight. It is the grass of the field, most frail of all things, that supports all life all the time. But for the green grass, no empire would rise, no man would eat bread: for grain is grass; and Hercules or Napoleon or Henry Ford would alike be denied existence.

Brute force crushes many plants. Yet the plants rise again. The Pyramids will not last a moment compared with the daisy. And before Buddha or Jesus spoke the nightingale sang, and long after the words of Jesus and Buddha are gone into oblivion the nightingale still will sing. Because it is neither preaching nor teaching nor commanding nor urging. It is just singing. And in the beginning was not a Word, but a chirrup.

Because a fool kills a nightingale with a stone, is he therefore greater than the nightingale? Because the Roman took the life out of the Etruscan, was he therefore greater than the Etruscan? Not he! Rome fell, and the Roman phenomenon with it. Italy today is far more Etruscan in its pulse than Roman; and will always be so. The Etruscan element is like the grass of the field and the sprouting of corn, in Italy: it will always be so. Why try to revert to the Latin-Roman mechanism and suppression?

In sum, I love DHL and would gladly go back in time to be the Crich to his Birkin (though the wrestling scene would end a little differently). However, his ethnocentricity and misogyny can be a little hard to take. Perhaps indicative of the zeitgeist, but when reading in the twenty-first century, the contrasting cultural values are a little jarring.

Last summer I was really impressed with the film World War Z. I went to the theatre thinking, Brad Pitt and zombies, and left it with much more. It ends up being an allegory of the bases of success as a society—the groups based on military might or spiritual faith fail, while science dedicated to serving others wins.

The book is completely different. It’s not some facile Brad-Pitt-and-zombies novelization, though. A “picturization” (to borrow Selznick’s term) of Max Brooks’s World War Z would look like a Ken Burns documentary. After the zombie war is over, someone travels the world interviewing the people who were involved. The interviews are presented in a fairly straightforward manner. There might be an unreliable narrator or two, but Brooks doesn’t use the tropes that normally create Gothic suspense. There’s no mystery. Just one big global problem, and the knowledge that eventually people will survive.

I would be interested to know how people from other countries react. The book is a little America-heavy, but not so much as to be jarringly off-balance. Does he portray other cultures accurately? I’m not qualified to say. Maybe there will be a Holy Russian Empire at some point in the future. Sometimes he uses American phrasing for British subjects, but it’s not pronounced enough to ruin the book.

I did not expect the book to be so patriotic. The movie makes it seem like every society on earth can keep their heads in a crisis and follow orders except Americans, but in the novel everyone loses their shit. And then there are unexpected moments when people stop to define what their nation represents, as in this excerpt from the American vice president’s interview:

The president was cool, a lot cooler than me. Maybe it was all that military training . . . he said to me, “This is the only time for high ideals because those ideals are all that we have. We aren’t just fighting for our physical survival, but for the survival of our civilization. We don’t have the luxury of old-world pillars. We don’t have a common heritage, we don’t have a millennia of history. All we have are the dreams and promises that bind us together. All we have . . . [struggling to remember] . . . all we have is what we want to be.” You see what he was saying. Our country only exists because people believed in it, and if it wasn’t strong enough to protect us from this crisis, then what future could it ever hope to have?

In Brooks’s story, Cuba becomes a major world superpower, because all that isolation really helps protect people from zombies. People leave the United States on homemade rafts in order to escape to Cuba, reversing what we’ve been seeing for the last few decades. And when Americans arrive in Cuba, they call themselves Nortecubanos and they bring their American values for efficiency and equality.

We were the breadbasket, the manufacturing center, the training ground, and the springboard. We became the air hub for both North and South America, the great dry dock for ten thousand ships. We had money, lots of it, money that created an overnight middle class, and a thriving, capitalist economy that needed the refined skills and practical experience of the Nortecubanos.

We shared a bond I don’t think can ever be broken. We helped them reclaim their nation, and they helped us reclaim ours. They showed us the meaning of democracy . . . freedom, not just in vague, abstract terms, but on a very real, individually human level. Freedom isn’t just something you have for the sake of having, you have to want something else first and then want the freedom to fight for it. That was the lesson we learned from the Nortecubanos. They all had such grand dreams, and they’d lay down their lives for the freedom to make those dreams come true. Why else would El Jefe be so damned afraid of them?

And it’s not just American patriotism. There’s a splendid justification for the monarchy, in an interview with a Scot who survived the war in an English castle. This is so England-loving it might have come from Doctor Who.

[David hesitates before speaking. He is clearly uncomfortable. I hold out my hand.]

Thank you so much for taking the time . . .

There’s . . . more.

If you’re not comfortable . . .

No, please, it’s quite all right.

[Takes a breath.] She . . . she wouldn’t leave, you see. She insisted, over the objections of Parliament, to remain at Windsor, as she put it, “for the duration.” I thought maybe it was misguided nobility, or maybe fear-based paralysis. I tried to make her see reason, begged her almost on my knees. Hadn’t she done enough with the Balmoral Decree, turning all her estates into protected zones for any who could reach and defend them? Why not join her family in Ireland or the Isle of Man, or, at least, if she was insisting on remaining in Britain, supreme command HQ north above the Antonine.

What did she say?

“The highest of distinctions is service to others.” [He clears his throat, his upper lip quivers for a second.] Her father had said that; it was the reason he had refused to run to Canada during the Second World War, the reason her mother had spent the blitz visiting civilians huddled in the tube stations beneath London, the same reason, to this day, we remain a United Kingdom. Their task, their mandate, is to personify all that is great in our national spirit. They must forever be an example to the rest of us, the strongest, and bravest, and absolute best of us. In a sense, it is they who are ruled by us, instead of the other way around, and they must sacrifice everything, everything, to shoulder the weight of this godlike burden. Otherwise what’s the flipping point? Just scrap the whole damn tradition, roll out the bloody guillotine, and be done with it altogether. They were viewed very much like castles, I suppose: as crumbling, obsolete relics, with no real modern function other than as tourist attractions. But when the skies darkened and the nation called, both reawoke to the meaning of their existence. One shielded our bodies, the other, our souls.

He really makes it seem like having a king is not that bad. And that William probably is the best choice for successor.

The section on Japan, while it doesn’t stir the same emotions as the country I am from or the country whose culture I have spent my adult life studying, presents the view of society that attracts me the most.

You know I don’t believe any of this spiritual “BS,” right? As far as I’m concerned, Tomonaga’s just a crazy old hibakusha, but he has started something wonderful, something I think is vital for the future of Japan. His generation wanted to rule the world, and mine was content to let the world, and by the world I mean your country, rule us. Both paths led to the near destruction of our homeland. There has to be a better way, a middle path where we take responsibility for our own protection, but not so much that it inspires anxiety and hatred among our fellow nations. I can’t tell you if this is the right path; the future is too mountainous to see too far ahead. But I will follow Sensei Tomonaga down this path, myself and the many others who join our ranks every day. Only “the gods” know what awaits us at its end.

With five hundred years of empire under our belts, isn’t it time to stop? Can we follow the middle path that commands respect from others and also respects the autonomy of other nations? I live in a part of the world that is famed for constant conflict, and I’d really like the conflict to cease. The world is a good place, and people are good. We all love our families and friends and want to do what’s right. If we can remove the imperial bent of religions and communicate openly and clearly with each other, I think we can have a world that is both free and peaceful. But the future is too mountainous to see too far ahead, and none of us knows what will happen. I probably have another forty years on this planet—let’s see what comes next.