Gertrude (Hermann Hesse)

Posted: May 15, 2016 in fiction
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What a sad little book.

This should hardly be a surprise; Hesse generally writes sad little books, and this one came out before he got into psychoanalysis. But even here, in his comparative youth, Hesse is one of the writers who can most clearly articulate the experience of depression, and while it can evoke painful memories for me, there is a reward greater than the pain: the knowledge that I am not alone in my suffering.

“Do you think so?”

“Yes. You are suffering from a sickness, one that is fashionable, unfortunately, and that one comes across every day among sensitive people. It is related to moral insanity and can also be called individualism or imaginary loneliness. Modern books are full of it. It has insinuated itself into your imagination; you are isolated; no one troubles about you and no one understands you. Am I right?”

“Almost,” I admitted with surprise.

“Listen. Those who suffer from this illness need only a couple of disappointments to make them believe that there is no link between them and other people, that all people go about in a state of complete loneliness, that they never really understand each other, share anything or have anything in common. It also happens that people who suffer from this sickness become arrogant and regard all other healthy people who can understand and love each other as flocks of sheep. If this sickness were general, the human race would die out, but it is only found among the upper classes in Central Europe. It can be cured in young people and it is, indeed, part of the inevitable period of development.”

I don’t believe everything about depression that Mr Lohe says here, and I don’t think Hesse does either. First, there is nothing imaginary about feeling lonely. The people I love live hundreds of miles away, and the best friend I’ve made here is a student who is graduating in a week. He’s going to school in the Pacific Northwest next year, so I may never see him again. This thought makes me sad. Second, depression would not stop the entire human race. Depressed people are capable of having sex, and many try to use that to treat their depression. And even without that, we don’t all kill ourselves. Thirdly, what do you mean, it’s confined to rich Europeans? Have you ever met someone outside the upper classes of Central Europe? We’re all the same; human nature is a constant, and the same types of personality exist in all strata and in all places.

In other ways, of course, Mr Lohe is completely right. Our society values the mental habit of finding patterns and formulating general theories from a few pieces of evidence. This is what is measured on IQ tests, and I do it well, so people think I’m smart. But people with this habit, people with high IQs who are considered intelligent, will draw huge overarching conclusions about the entire world based on the flimsiest evidence. This is where stereotypes come from. When I was young I thought the world was cold and indifferent because I could not mix with the people around me; now, I think that the people in the town I grew up in are weird and that I was suffering from my family situation without acknowledging the suffering or its cause, which kept me from interacting well with people. I think that my current living situation is temporary, but I still have to fight against the temptation to believe that I will always be alone and that while I may move from one place to another, nothing important will ever change.

When music stirred my being, I understood everything without the aid of words. I was then aware of pure harmony in the essence of life and felt that there must be a meaning and a just law behind everything that happened. Even if this was an illusion, it helped me to live and was a comfort to me.

This week I’ve been grateful for a key to the practice rooms at school. I’ve found it useful to have a language without words; I’m playing Mozart on the piano again. [I wish I still had my Debussy music.] Sunday was Mothers’ Day, and I had been planning to be a good and dutiful son, but when the day arrived I just couldn’t. I went to church as usual, but all I wanted to do was run away and scream. The reverend had a word or two to say to me after the service, and he had to hold me in place to keep me from running. [I crocheted him a blanket for a housewarming gift and he wanted to thank me; it wasn’t anything threatening.] I did scream some in the car later. After church I get a latte and use the free internet to check facebook and wordpress, and my friends were all grateful about their mothers and posting happy pictures – I honored the day by posting Joan Jett singing “I Hate Myself for Loving You.” So I’ve pinpointed my mom as some source of past trauma and present stress, but I don’t know how to deal with it. The music helps, but it doesn’t heal.

I soon realized that these teachings could only be of solace and value to those who could accept them literally, and sincerely believe them to be true. If, as it seemed to me, they were partly beautiful literature, partly intricate symbols, an attempt at a mythological explanation of the world, one could be instructed by them and hold them in esteem, but one could not learn how to live and gain strength from them. One could perhaps be a worthy and religious theosophist, but the final solace beckoned only to those who accepted simple beliefs without too much questioning. In the meantime, it was not for me.

Religion is not the answer. I convinced myself for a long time that it could solve my troubles, but for all my heroic efforts, I just can’t believe in it. I don’t think that stories have to be literally true in order to be powerful, but the Hebrew mythology is not as useful for me as it once was. I just can’t accept things without interrogating them. No idea really stands up under a steady stream of questions. I think this is part of my attraction to academia; it’s a subculture that doesn’t expect (or fully value) definitive answers. Only the questions matter; answers are necessarily provisional and incomplete, so life is about learning to ask the right questions. I can accept that, though I can’t often come up with the right questions on my own. I have a strong value for and feel a profound connection with those friends who ask me good questions.

Anyway, the book. Our first-person narrator/protagonist is a crippled composer whose ideal woman (Gertrude) falls for his best friend, a depressed but talented singer who drinks too much and beats his girlfriends. There’s another girl who loves him but whom he does not love in return. So for all his teacher’s comments on how wrongly people with depression view the world, in Hesse’s world everyone falls in love with the wrong person, and some of them die.

I think one can draw quite a distinct division between youth and maturity. Youth ends when egotism does; maturity begins when one lives for others. That is what I mean. Young people have many pleasures and many sorrows, because they have only themselves to think of, so every wish and every notion assumes importance; every pleasure is tasted to the full but also every sorrow, and many who find that their wishes cannot be fulfilled, put an end immediately to their lives. That is being young. To most people, however, there comes a time when the situation changes, when they live more for others, not for any virtuous reasons, but quite naturally. A family is the reason with most people. One thinks less about oneself and one’s wishes when one has a family. Others lose their egotism in a responsible position, in politics, in art or in science. Young people want to play; mature people want to work. A man does not marry just to have children, but if he has them they change him, and finally he sees that everything has happened just for them. That links up with the fact that young people like to talk about death but do not really think about it. It is just the other way round with old people. Life seems long to young people and they can therefore concentrate all their wishes and thoughts on themselves. Old people are conscious of an approaching end, and that everything one has and does solely for oneself finally falls short and lacks value. Therefore a man requires a different kind of continuity and faith; he does not work just for the worms. That is why one has a wife and children, business and responsibility, so that one knows for whom one endures the daily toil. In that respect your friend is quite right, a man is happier when he lives for others than when he lives just for himself, but old people should not make it out to be such an act of heroism, because it isn’t one really. In any case, the most lively young people become the best old people, not those who pretend to be as wise as grandfathers while they are still at school.

I find much of this to be true. Having children and family can give a meaning to an otherwise purposeless existence; the trick is to find the right people to devote one’s life to. Kuhn latches onto his mother (his father dies shortly after giving this speech), even though they’ve never understood or even liked each other. At first it’s a bad situation, but it gets better with time. They learn to respect each other, and perhaps love too. I spent eight years living for my wife and children, and it just made things worse in the end. She didn’t respect my work (reading Wuthering Heights is not playing when you’re taking a degree in British literature), and in the end she didn’t trust or value me for myself. I was useful to her when I could be controlled, but I hate feeling controlled. She encouraged me to examine my emotions critically, but when I did the result was not complimentary to her. My children are as independently minded as I am, so it was hard to base my emotional life in them because children don’t reciprocate well. They’re excessively pragmatic, in a short-sighted way. But at least their machinations and motivations are obvious. I love my sons and miss them horribly, but I’m so glad to be away from their mother that it’s not often apparent.

So, it’s a book about famous people and the reality of being around them:

Gradually the walk in the night cooled me down, and although my own wound was still open and needed healing, I was induced to think more and more about what Marian had said and about my stupid behavior that evening. I felt that I was a miserable creature who really owed an apology. Now that the courage the wine had given me had worn off, I was seized by an unpleasantly sentimental mood against which I fought. I did not say much more to the pretty woman, who now seemed agitated and moody herself as she walked beside me along the dark streets where, here and there, the light of a lamp was suddenly reflected on the dark surface of the wet ground. It occurred to me that I had left my violin in Muoth’s house; in the meantime I was again filled with astonishment and alarm at everything. The evening had turned out to be so different from what I had anticipated. Heinrich Muoth and Kranzl the violinist, and also the radiant Marian, who played the role of queen, had all climbed down from their pedestals. They were not gods or saints who dwelt on Olympian heights, but mere mortals; one was small and droll, another was oppressed and conceited, Muoth was wretched and self-tormented, the charming woman was pathetic and miserable as the lady friend of a restless sensualist who knew no joy, and yet she was good and kind and acquainted with suffering. I, myself, felt changed. I was no longer a single person but a part of all people, seeing good and bad in all. I felt I could not love a person here and hate another person there. I was ashamed of my lack of understanding and saw clearly for the first time in my young life that one could not go through life and among people so simply, hating one person and loving another, respecting one person and despising another, but all these emotions were closely tied up, scarcely separable and at times scarcely distinguishable. I looked at the woman walking by my side who was now also silent as if she too realized that the nature of many things was different from what she had thought and said.

And about the nature of creative work:

Then my work appeared before me, so familiar and yet so alien, which no longer needed me and had a life of its own. The pleasures and troubles of past days, the hopes and sleepless nights, the passion and longing of that period confronted me, detached and transformed. Emotions experienced in secret were transmitted clearly and movingly to a thousand unknown people in the theatre. Muoth appeared and began singing with some reserve. Then his voice grew stronger; he let himself go and sang in his deeply passionate manner; the soprano responded in a high, sweet voice. Then came the part which I could so well remember hearing Gertrude sing, which expressed my admiration for her and was a quiet confession of my love. I averted my glance and looked into her bright eyes, which acknowledged me and greeted me warmly, and for a moment the memory of my whole youth was like the sweet fragrance of a ripe fruit.

But the depression covers it all.

If you’re not comfortable with reading about depression, stay away from Hermann Hesse. If you’re suffering from it, he can help you feel like someone understands, even if it’s a German who’s been dead for fifty years. I think that the solutions Hesse finds later in his career are more helpful: think Steppenwolf, for example. It’s a good book – Hesse writes beautifully, and his translators do too – but sad. I should go look for something cheerful to read next.

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Comments
  1. Germans have a very unique and precise view on bourgeois interactions- and the accompanying mindset. Isn’t depression just a point of view?

    • theoccasionalman says:

      If it were just a point of view, I’d be able to discard it as easily as I do deconstructionism, Christianity, and other points of view that only help me in very specific situations. As would my friends; depression seems to attack intelligent people who can easily see things from others’ points of view. It’s almost like it’s a side effect of intelligent empathy.

      [And I’ll see your Billie Holliday and raise you a Nat King Cole.]

      • Work with me on this one… Take your last wave of depression and go backwards. How many decisions and interpretations were necessary to arrive at that exact point?

      • theoccasionalman says:

        I’m glad that we’re doing this in writing, because my gut response was, “How many? All of them. Everything has led me here.” Then I spent a day or two going, “I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know.” Both of those responses, while true, are also intellectually lazy. So instead, let me tell you a story.

        In the fall of 2003, I was preparing to graduate in the spring and thinking about what I would do next. I was an impressive student back then, so someone put me onto the Marshall Scholarship, which pays for an American student to study in the UK. I got really excited about the possibility of studying eighteenth-century British literature at the University of Nottingham. I didn’t get the scholarship, but I could have gotten into the program without any trouble. Had I been determined, I could have found the funding and my life would be dramatically different to what it is now. But I started dating this girl, and she would have followed me to Nottingham (but not happily), but we got married and moved to Seattle instead. For a long time, I was grateful to her because she really pushed to make Seattle happen, and I was afraid that if I were single I would have ended up living with my mother after graduation. But a little while ago I remembered Nottingham, and I’m fascinated by the possibilities that that other life presents. I’ve been afraid that I ruined my life, that I could have been happier if I had gone to Nottingham instead of staying in the United States. After getting married I was no longer an impressive student, and marrying someone who has only contempt for literature as a profession has really torpedoed my academic career. Along with the conviction that I wrecked everything for myself thirteen years ago, I’m also haunted by the idea that this is in fact not the best of all possible worlds. It puts a dent in my optimism.

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