The Journey to the East (Hermann Hesse)

Posted: June 25, 2014 in fiction
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 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.


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