Posts Tagged ‘hesse’

This week I had a student preparing to enter a course of study that I felt was completely wrong for her, so we took the Myers-Briggs personality test, and that helped steer her in a better direction. It reminded me of a lot of truths about myself that I don’t often think about, or that I think of as pathological when they’re really not, like my aversion to conflict. It made explicit the fact that an aversion to conflict and a strong desire to help people can make me popular to others, but that it’s very hard for me to trust them. The doors of my heart are made of heavy steel, and once shut they do not open easily. It’s unfortunately sort of easy to shut them – don’t do something you say that you will, lie to me, don’t try hard at your job or schoolwork, don’t finish things that you start, treat my relationship with my children as if it were unimportant simply because I don’t see them very often, take delight in the conflicts of others, tell me not to trust someone close to me, use the phrase ‘the gay lifestyle,’ that sort of thing. The high standards I have for friendship sometimes makes it seem miraculous that I have any friends at all, and truthfully I don’t keep many people close to me. Those people I do don’t always realize how close they are to me, or how few people are as close to me as they are. I was interested at the way www.16personalities.com added a fifth element, so now I’m INFJ-T, the T meaning Turbulent. This refers to my habit of second-guessing all my decisions and actions, which has a strong effect on the way my Counselor/Advocate personality expresses itself.

Rereading this book, I was a little surprised to see how strongly my life and especially my bloglife are influenced by it. Unlike some of my colleagues, I see the value in people like this:

The common reader, as Dr Johnson implies, differs from the critic and the scholar. He is worse educated, and nature has not gifted him so generously. He reads for his own pleasure rather than to impart knowledge or correct the opinions of others. Above all, he is guided by an instinct to create for himself, out of whatever odds and ends he can come by, some kind of whole – a portrait of a man, a sketch of an age, a theory of the art of writing. He never ceases, as he reads, to run up some rickety and ramshackle fabric which shall give him the temporary satisfaction of looking sufficiently like the real object to allow of affection, laughter, and argument. Hasty, inaccurate, and superficial, snatching now this poem, now that scrap of old furniture, without caring where he finds it or of what nature it may be so long as it serves his purpose and rounds his structure, his deficiencies as a critic are too obvious to be pointed out; but if he has, as Dr Johnson maintained, some say in the final distribution of poetical honours, then, perhaps, it may be worth while to write down a few of the ideas and opinions which, insignificant in themselves, yet contribute to so mighty a result.

Notice the reflection of my reading habits here. Yes, I get into these high-culture moods sometimes, but I mix Thomas Hardy with Christopher Moore, and French Enlightenment thinkers with mid-twentieth century sociologists, and it’s all a big mishmash of words. I may impart some knowledge, but I’m more interested in receiving it; I have little interest in correcting the opinions of others if those opinions are thoughtfully considered. That both gives me some value as a teacher and keeps me from realizing my full potential in the field – I refuse to become an authority figure (an INFJ trait).

This book came about because Woolf was writing reviews for the Times Literary Supplement and other periodicals, which means that to some extent she and I are engaged in the same pursuit. However, she would probably not have approved of how very personal I get.

Once again we have an essayist capable of using the essayist’s most proper but most dangerous and delicate tool. He has brought personality into literature, not unconsciously and impurely, but so consciously and purely that we do not know whether there is any relation between Max the essayist and Mr Beerbohm the man. We only know that the spirit of personality permeates every word that he writes. The triumph is the triumph of style. For it is only by knowing how to write that you can make use in literature of your self; that self which, while it is essential to literature, is also its most dangerous antagonist. Never to be yourself and yet always – that is the problem.

Woolf was still looking for essays that say something universal about the human condition. While there is some possibility of that in the way that I write, if people want universality from me they usually have to be able to extrapolate the message from my relation of my experience. I understand that my experience is unique to me, composed of the intersections of all my different identities, and while some experiences are common to certain groups of people, there’s no guarantee that I will have anything in common with another former academic/gay man/ex-Mormon/addictive personality/emotionally abused person.

Though Woolf keeps her experience away from her reviews, there are some qualities and preferences that become clear. A somewhat academic adherence to factual accuracy, as seen in her scathing review of a biography of Mary Russell Mitford, where she refers to the author as Mendacity (with a capital M). She also derides the author’s lack of passion for her subject:

What considerations, then, had weight with Miss Hill when she decided to write Mary Russell Mitford and her Surroundings? Three emerge from the rest, and may be held of paramount importance. In the first place, Miss Mitford was a lady; in the second, she was born in the year 1787; and in the third, the stock of female characters who lend themselves to biographic treatment by their own sex is, for one reason or another, running short. For instance, little is known of Sappho, and that little is not wholly to her credit. Lady Jane Grey has merit, but is undeniably obscure. Of George Sand, the more we know the less we approve. George Eliot was led into evil ways which not all her philosophy can excuse. The Brontës, however highly we rate their genius, lacked that indefinable something which marks the lady; Harriet Martineau was an atheist; Mrs Browning was a married woman; Jane Austen, Fanny Burney, and Maria Edgeworth have been done already; so that, what with one thing and another, Mary Russell Mitford is the only woman left.

I believe that the homophobia and slut-shaming and elitism in the above quotation are qualities that Woolf ascribes to Miss Hill, not attitudes that she herself embraced.

Woolf also had a good value for solitude, as when she describes Elizabethan drama:

But gradually it comes over us, what then are we being denied? What is it that we are coming to want so persistently, that unless we get it instantly we must seek elsewhere? It is solitude. There is no privacy here. Always the door opens and some one comes in. All is shared, made visible, audible, dramatic. Meanwhile, as if tired with company, the mind steals off to muse in solitude; to think, not to act; to comment, not to share; to explore its own darkness, not the bright-lit-up surfaces of others. It turns to Donne, to Montaigne, to Sir Thomas Browne, to the keepers of the keys of solitude.

Sir Thomas Browne, though unknown to me, is one of her heroes, like Max Beerbohm of the above quotation. This volume is arranged roughly chronologically, but there’s some fracturing and avoidance toward the end. We go from Chaucer to the Elizabethans and through the eighteenth century to Jane Austen, but then there’s an essay on modern fiction (compared unfavorably to the novels of the past) before she goes on to the Brontës, George Eliot, and the famous Russians (Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, of course, but there are others), but then she jumps back to the Romantic-Era Miss Mitford and a few other earlier writers before she gets on to talking about writing itself for a bit, and only ends with an evaluation of the writing current at the time. Of her contemporaries, Beerbohm gets some special attention:

But if we ask for masterpieces, where are we to look? A little poetry, we may feel sure, will survive; a few poems by Mr Yeats, by Mr Davies, by Mr de la Mare. Mr Lawrence, of course, has moments of greatness, but hours of something very different. Mr Beerbohm, in his way, is perfect, but it is not a big way. Passages in Far Away and Long Ago will undoubtedly go to posterity entire. Ulysses was a memorable catastrophe – immense in daring, terrific in disaster. And so, picking and choosing, we select now this, now that, hold it up for display, hear it defended or derided, and finally have to meet the objection that even so we are only agreeing with the critics that it is an age incapable of sustained effort, littered with fragments, and not seriously to be compared with the age that went before.

When it comes to the past, scholars are seldom entitled to publish their own opinions. No one wants to be the Victorianist who says that Dickens was nothing special. The monoliths of the past are monolithic in that we can’t disagree with them. Shakespeare was the greatest dramatist in the English language, but that’s because people decided he was a couple of hundred years ago, and few playwrights have even tried to compete. We don’t have different opinions on that now. When it comes to the present, the experts in the past can disagree and be extreme in their devotion or antipathy and it’s all right. The thing is, though, that even scholarly fads change. Walter Scott was once considered one of the most important early nineteenth-century poets who wrote some very influential historical novels, but now he’s largely ignored. Or at least he was when I was getting my degrees ten or fifteen years ago. The trend for the last forty years or so is to look away from the white men and recover works by women and minorities; after all, Byron felt seriously threatened by Mrs Hemans’s popularity, and the first American bestseller was a classic fallen-woman narrative written by a woman. Conrad is held at a distance because of his subhuman portrayal of Africans and Asians, even though in Woolf’s time he was beloved both by the masses and by the critics. And those writers considered obscure or nonacademic in Woolf’s time (evidenced by the fact that they’re included in this book), many are now canonical, like Austen, Brontë, and Eliot. This book focuses on biographies and volumes of letters, so those who only published letters or journals are not as easily embraced by academia. We like poetry and fiction, so this passage about journal-writing is itself a little dated:

Should you wish to make sure that your birthday will be celebrated three hundred years hence, your best course is undoubtedly to keep a diary. Only first be certain that you have the courage to lock your genius in a private book and the humour to gloat over a fame that will be yours only in the grave. For the good diarist writes either for himself alone or for a posterity so distant that it can safely hear every secret and justly weigh every motive. For such an audience there is need neither of affectation nor of restraint. Sincerity is what they ask, detail, and volume; skill with the pen comes in conveniently, but brilliance is not necessary; genius is a hindrance even; and should you know your business and do it manfully, posterity will let you off mixing with great men, reporting famous affairs, or having lain with the first ladies in the land.

Woolf seems most interested in those who refrain from these last three. She assumes her readers to have read the canonical works, and she introduces us to the less frequently taught.

Gently, beautifully, like the clouds of a balmy evening, obscurity once more traverses the sky, an obscurity which is not empty but thick with the star dust of innumerable lives.

Circling back, it’s not just that she’s writing for a general audience, showing them less-known literature, she’s also writing about the general audience. The essays in this volume tend to champion the lives of the not-so-great, the ordinary people who get passed by and whom few consider great. [Perspective: I once read a book that conducted a detailed scientific analysis of nineteenth-century prose styles, counting the ratio of words of dialogue to words of narration, the number of words per sentence, average number of adjectives per noun, that sort of thing. The author, Karl Kroeber, actually felt like he had to apologize for using Austen, C Brontë, and Eliot, because they were clearly inferior to Dickens, Thackeray, and Hardy. The analysis was interesting, he found that Mansfield Park is empirically the most boring Austen novel because it uses dramatically less dialogue and more narration than the others, but the patronizing misogyny was upsetting.] The message seems to be, obscurity does not imply triviality. It’s hard to find anything about me through a Google search, but my friends and family love me, and there are many ways in which my life matters, and has mattered to many different people.

And of course, my favorite essay about writing is here, “The Patron and the Crocus,” with my favorite quotation about writing,

To know whom to write for is to know how to write.

Here on this blog I have several dozen followers, but I don’t deceive myself about their actually reading what I write. There’s a small group of four or five people who read and comment occasionally, and those are the people I write this blog for. If other people read and enjoy it, great. Little bit of trivia: most people who find my blog through an internet search are trying to find out whether Hesse’s Demian is about a gay relationship or not.

It seems a bit odd to acknowledge to myself that even though my favorite book is Ragnarok and I went through four-year obsessions with As I Lay Dying and Mansfield Park, that this is the book that seems to have shaped me the most, the book whose philosophy vibrates in tune with my own heart, one of the most important books to me, even though I haven’t read most of the material she’s reviewing. I love Woolf’s novels, but I love her nonfiction even more – the way that her voice reaches out to me and holds me gently, the way she affirms much that I had already believed, the polite manner in which she sometimes disagrees with me, the way that I feel her to be speaking in my own mind, across the abyss of years, gender, and mental illness. When I read Woolf’s novels, I love her writing and her characters; when I read Woolf’s nonfiction, I love her.

 

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.

Anais Nin is not best known for her male readership, but I try to read at least something by well-known authors, so I tried it out. Her writing is beautiful, though it’s not in a style or about a subject that will immediately appeal to most men these days.

Jay could not retain any sequence of the people she had loved, hated, escaped from, anymore than he could keep track of her very personal appearance as she herself would say: “At that time I was a blond, and I wore my hair very short,” or, “this was before I was married when I was only nineteen” (and once she had told him she had been married at the age of eighteen). Impossible to know who she had betrayed, forgotten, married, deserted, or clung to. It was like her profession. The first time he had questioned her she had answered immediately: “I am an actress.” But when he pressed her he could not find in what play she had acted, whether she had been a success or a failure, whether, perhaps, (as he decided later) she had merely wished to be an actress but had never worked persistently enough, seriously enough except in the way she was working now, changing personalities with such rapidity that Jay was reminded of a kaleidoscope.

He sought to capture the recurrence of certain words in her talk, thinking they might be used as keys, but if the word “actress”, “miraculous”, “travel”, “wandering”, “relationship” did occur frequently, it remained impossible whether or not she used them in their literal sense or symbolically, for they were the same to her. He had heard her say once: “When you are hurt you travel as far as you can from the place of the hurt,” and when he examined her meaning found she was referring to a change of quarters within fifty blocks in the city of New York.

She was compelled by a confessional fever which forced her into lifting the veil slightly, only a corner of it, and then frightened when anyone listened too attentively, especially Jay whom she did not trust, whom she knew found the truth only in the sense of exposure of the flaws, the weaknesses, the foibles.

As soon as Jay listened too attentively, she took a giant sponge and erased all she had said by an absolute denial as if this confusion were in itself a mantle of protection.

Sabina manages a number of love affairs, some of them very well-described for the 1950s. Her husband is the most important and yet the one who appears the least. Her relationship with him reminds me of many people’s relationships with God: he is the foundation of her life, the one thing that she can’t survive without, the one person whose opinion she values the most, and yet she doesn’t let his opinion of her behavior influence that behavior. She does what she likes and hides it from him. The lies she tells heap up around her and twist over each other in uncomfortable ways, and Jay’s experience in listening to her talk is a mirror for the reader’s experience with the novel. It’s not clear when things happen, so maybe all the affairs in the short little book are happening concurrently, or maybe she only does one at a time. This tangle of detail is where the title comes from.

It was when she saw the lives of spies that she realized fully the tension with which she lived every moment, equal to theirs. The fear of committing themselves, of sleeping too soundly of talking in their sleep, of carelessness of accent or behaviour, the need for continuous pretending, quick improvisations of motivations, quick justifications of their presence here or there.

It seemed to Sabina that she could have offered her services or been of great value in that profession.

I am an international spy in the house of love.

I’ve sometimes thought I could be a spy, but I don’t have Sabina’s talent for deceit. But this tension she experiences seems similar to what I went through when I was married. I reached a point where I could no longer hide from myself that I was gay, but I wasn’t ready to tell my wife yet. So I avoided her when I could and avoided talking to her when I couldn’t, and got into the habit of clearing my web browser history all the time. I knew that if we had any sort of serious discussion, I was going to tell her and she was going to leave me, and I didn’t want that, so we didn’t discuss anything. She accused me of being distant, and I was, but I wasn’t about to explain why. I didn’t feel at home in the places we lived, like I was always a foreigner, an intruder, a spy.

The core, where she felt a constant unsureness, this structure always near collapse which could so easily be shattered by a harsh word, a slight, a criticism, which floundered  before obstacles, was haunted by the image of catastrophe, by the same obsessional forebodings which she heard in Ravel’s Waltz.

The waltz leading to catastrophe: swirling in spangled airy skirts, on polished floors, into an abyss, the minor notes simulating lightness, a mock dance, the minor notes always recalling that man’s destiny was ruled by ultimate darkness.

This core of Sabina’s was temporarily supported by an artificial beam, the support of vanity’s satisfaction when this man so obviously handsome walked by her side, and everyone who saw him envied the woman who had charmed him.

Yes, it was like dancing toward a bottomless pit, but only I could see it. When she was young, her parents took her to the Grand Canyon. Their first afternoon it was too foggy to see anything, so she and her brother ran along the trails just as they did here in Pisgah National Forest. Their parents kept telling them to be more careful, but they couldn’t see the danger. The next day it was clear, and her heart caught in her throat when she saw how close they had been to plunging to a certain death. The last couple of years of our marriage were like that.

I could see how much she relied on me, and it was very flattering to have a woman so beautiful so dependent. When we walked through a parking lot into a store, I’d see other guys nudge and point as we walked by, sharing the joy that the sight of her figure brought. After she had our first son she dropped a few dress sizes, and it’s pretty close to ideal in our society for a woman to be a 34C up top and still a size 4. When she put in her contacts, our friends often compared her to Anne Hathaway (Now that I think on it, this is sort of ironic, considering the role she played in Brokeback Mountain). I used to say that if she wasn’t the perfect woman for me, there was none. And, well, I was right.

Sabina doesn’t just show how easily men are cuckolded; she reduces her lovers to a feeling that she gets from them or a few key traits, just as men have been doing to women for centuries. She chooses them as one does items on a menu: pick what you’re in the mood for tonight, and tomorrow night pick something else.

The music stopped, he came to her table, sat down and gave her a smile mixed with a contraction of pain.

“I know,” he said. “I know . . .”

“You know?”

“I know, but it cannot be,” he said very gently. And then suddenly the anger overflowed: “For me, it’s everything or nothing. I’ve known this before . . . a woman like you. Desire. It’s desire, but not for me. You don’t know me. It’s for my race, it’s for a sensual power we have.”

He reached for her wrists and spoke close to her face: “It destroys me. Everywhere desire, and in the ultimate giving, withdrawal. Because I am African. What do you know of me? I sing and drum and you desire me. But I’m not an entertainer. I’m a mathematician, a composer, a writer.” He looked at her severely, the fullness of his mouth difficult to compress in anger but his eyes lashing: “You wouldn’t come to Ile Joyeuse and be my wife and bear me black children and wait patiently upon my negro grandmother!”

Sabina answered him with equal vehemence, throwing her hair away from her face, and lowering the pitch of her voice until it sounded like an insult: “I’ll tell you one thing: if it were only what you say, I’ve had that, and it didn’t hold me, it was not enough, it was magnificent, but it didn’t hold me. You’re destroying everything, with your bitterness, you’re angry, you’ve been hurt . . .”

“Yes, it’s true, I’ve been hurt, and by a woman who resembled you. When you first came in, I thought it was she . . .”

“My name is Sabina.”

“I don’t trust you. I don’t trust you at all.”

But when she rose to dance with him, he opened his arms and as she rested her head on his shoulder he looked down at her face drained of all anger and bitterness.

Paradoxically, there’s something freeing in this sort of commitment-phobic attitude toward love. No one man has to be everything to her. The English fighter pilot just has to be the complete PTSD-ridden ex-soldier (who is really hot), and she’s satisfied. The drummer can be as serious as he likes; she’ll accept him as he is, and get what he can’t supply with someone else. Bacon and eggs are truly wonderful, but no one wants to eat them three times a day every day for the rest of her life.

They also elicit different things in her. She feels like she has this multiplicity of selves, and she has to be a different one for each man she’s with. Donald wants a maternal figure, so she cooks for him and babies him and feels like her mother. Other men want someone to listen, or to watch spy movies with, or to fuck in all the positions their wives don’t like. She remakes herself every time, becoming the woman that every man wants her to be. None of them really know her, not even Alan, and she doesn’t really know herself either. At the end of the book she realizes that she wants to know herself and be whole, a unified personality, but she doesn’t seem to know how to become this, and I don’t think she succeeds. Nin collected this with four other interconnected novels, so maybe Sabina reaches wholeness later; this book is about realizing that her promiscuity is a quest for unity of personality. In this sense, it has some similarities to the final portion of Hesse’s Steppenwolf.

In this discussion, it’s probably seemed that I value promiscuity over fidelity, but my feelings on the subject are a little complex just now. The ex and I were very possessive of each other, which belied a great insecurity in the relationship. I’d like to be confident in the love of my partner. I don’t see the value of celibacy, so I’m going to continue to try people out until I find someone who wants to hang onto me, but serial monogamy fits my personality better than random promiscuous activity. I don’t understand the impulse that Sabina follows, stacking up guilt upon guilt until she telephones a lie detector who may or may not exist. If you’re with someone who expects faithfulness, give him that. If you’re going to keep a string of lovers on the side, be honest with him and them. Secrets are a poison that diseases the consciousness. As for me, it’s been almost six months since the last time a man told me that he loves me, then stripped me down and beat me without actually fucking me, so I’m ready to try dating again. After one of those experiences, it takes a while for the loneliness to outweigh the risk. I’m really hoping I find someone genuinely nice this time, or at least more upfront about what he wants to do to me.

Nin mentions misogyny once or twice, but generally she ignores the systemic difficulties that women faced sixty years ago and focuses on the specific experience of one woman.

Above all he possessed a most elaborate encyclopedia of women’s flaws. In this gallery he had most carefully avoided Joan of Arc and other women heroines, Madame Curie and other women of science, the Florence Nightingales, the Amelia Earharts, the women surgeons, the therapists, the artists, the collaborative wives. His wax figures of women were an endless concentrate of puerilities and treacheries.

“Where did you find all these repulsive women?” she asked one day, and then suddenly she could no longer laugh: caricature was a form of hatred.

I can’t tell you how much I hate the sentence, “You have to admit, that’s funny,” nor how many times I have heard it. No, I do not have to laugh at a comment that dehumanizes me or any group of people, whether I belong to that group or not. As Nin points out, such comments ignore the best (and even the typical) aspects of human experience, highlighting the worst in all of us and blaming huge groups of people for the faults of a few. Telling jokes that rely on the gender of the people involved is sexist. Differentiating between gay men and real men is homophobic. Joking about your ignorance about Islam is offensive. We don’t have to laugh when you are actively involved in hating us or the people we love.

Anais Nin writes beautifully, and this book is rather sexy. I should have liked it more than I did. Throughout, there was some ineffable barrier between me and the writer. I don’t know if it was cultural (I’m American, she’s Cuban-French) or just that being a man makes it hard for me to connect with the material. But it’s not even 120 pages; I should have had no trouble knocking it out in an afternoon, but it took me almost a week. Maybe it was Sabina’s unhappiness, her lost-ness, her inability to resolve her conflicts. Maybe it was something else. I’ll need to read another of her books to see if this was an exception or the rule.

Steppenwolf has been very important to me. It has been very important to lots of people, but I don’t like to think about that. I tend to feel towards it like it is St Matthew’s pearl of great price, that I go to great lengths to obtain and keep secret. Or maybe it’s a little more like Gollum, stroking my paperback in secret, muttering over My Precious. I take an unjust comfort in the thought that very few people understand it like I do. I try not to be a snob, but when it comes to things that touch me deeply, I get overprotective.

Hesse’s comments in the foreword strengthen this impression. He talks about the many men who identify with the protagonist, but who miss the point. The first hundred pages or so are kind of slow, and describe Harry Haller, the Steppenwolf of the title. But the rest of the book, longer than that beginning, is about how he grows and changes, becoming more complete, though the novel ends with the proof that he’s not finished yet.

Of course, I neither can nor intend to tell my readers how they ought to understand my tale. May everyone find in it what strikes a chord in him and is of some use to him! But I would be happy if many of them were to realize that the story of the Steppenwolf pictures a disease and a crisis – but not one leading to death and destruction, on the contrary: to healing.

Harry begins the novel unhappy and begins a journey to heal himself and find some happiness in his life. If you’re one of these forty-ish-year-old Germans who live lives of Thoreau’s quiet desperation, you’ll identify with Haller at the beginning, when we’re spending a lot of time analyzing him, but you have to be willing to change, you have to believe that you can change, in order to see it as Hesse does, to get the benefit he seems to have intended from the book.

Unfortunately, Hesse’s greatest lyricism is in the passages about the quiet desperation.

He who has known the other days, the angry ones of gout attacks, or those with that wicked headache rooted behind the eyeballs that casts a spell on every nerve of eye and ear with a fiendish delight in torture, or soul-destroying, evil days of inward vacancy and despair, when, on this distracted earth, sucked dry by the vampires of finance, the world of men and of so-called culture grins back at us with the lying, vulgar, brazen glamor of a Fair and dogs us with the persistence of an emetic, and when all is concentrated and focused to the last pitch of the intolerable upon your own sick self – he who has known these days of hell may be content indeed with normal half-and-half days like today. Thankfully you sit by the warm stove, thankfully you assure yourself as you read your morning paper that another day has come and no war broken out, no new dictatorship has been set up, no particularly disgusting scandal been unveiled in the worlds of politics or finance. Thankfully you tune the strings of your moldering lyre to a moderated, to a passably joyful, nay, to an even delighted psalm of thanksgiving and with it bore your quiet, flabby and slightly stupefied half-and-half god of contentment; and in the thick warm air of a contented boredom and very welcome painlessness the nodding mandarin of a half-and-half god and the nodding middle-aged gentleman who sings his muffled psalm look as like each other as two peas.

I find myself stuck in this half-and-half life right now. In this desert, the best thing on offer seems to be not-depressed, so that’s all I’m shooting for when I’m here. I know it’s dangerous to postpone the search for happiness, but I don’t seem able to find much here. The communal culture is not well-suited to my temperament, but living in one means that the solitary joys are few. The locals deal with it by focusing on their religion. The name Islam means submission, so that’s what they do. They resign themselves to life as it is and discourage any attempts to change anything. I have never been good at submission. I can fake it for short periods, but it’s not natural or comfortable to me. This is not to say that I think I’m better than others, or that I’m too much in love with myself. In many ways I am (and have been) like Haller at the beginning:

It was always at himself first and foremost that he aimed the shaft, himself first and foremost whom he hated and despised.

Or, as when Hesse describes the suicide as a personality type:

What is peculiar to the suicide is that his ego, rightly or wrongly, is felt to be an extremely dangerous, dubious, and doomed germ of nature; that he is always in his own eyes exposed to an extraordinary risk, as though he stood with the slightest foothold on the peak of a crag whence a slight push from without or an instant’s weakness from within suffices to precipitate him into the void. The line of fate in the case of these men is marked by the belief they have that suicide is their most probable manner of death. It might be presumed that such temperaments, which usually manifest themselves in early youth and persist through life, show a singular defect of vital force. On the contrary, among the “suicides” are to be found unusually tenacious and eager and also hardy natures. But just as there are those who at the least indisposition develop a fever, so do those whom we call suicides, and who are always very emotional and sensitive, develop at the least shock the notion of suicide.

These days we talk about clinical depression and prescribe medicine, but Hesse cuts to the heart of the matter. I feel this whenever I walk across a bridge or stand on a cliff; I’m not afraid I’ll fall, I’m afraid I’ll jump.

Those of us who feel this self-discontent, which becomes displaced as discontent with the entire world, usually want to be different. We know that life would be better if we changed – we don’t need the great Zachary Glass to tell us that. However, that knowledge is only the first step. It’s like when I came out of the closet and got divorced. Lots of people were telling me that I should go hook up with some random guys to ‘explore my sexuality’ or ‘figure out what I want’ or even ‘you can’t masturbate forever.’ I had accepted that this kind of experience would have some benefit for me, but that doesn’t mean I was ready to do it. It took me a couple of years before I was. When the time was right, I did it and derived what advantages one can. I think that a lot of us make this mistake: we think that when we know we ought to do something (or want to do it), that’s all the preparation we need. Recognizing a need is not the same thing as being ready for its fulfillment.

In analyzing the Steppenwolf, it’s useful to talk about Freud for a minute (not that Hesse does, though he discusses the same concepts). Harry Haller sees himself as a two-part being, a man and a wolf. The two sides of himself are constantly at war with each other, each struggling to dominate. The part he calls the wolf matches with Freud’s idea of the id, the part of the subconscious where all our desires originate from instinctual drives. The id wants to avoid pain, so at first Freud called it the pleasure principle. Hesse points out that a lot of what Haller calls the wolf is actually what makes him a human man. As time went on, Freud started treating soldiers who were trying to recover from World War I, and he realized that he couldn’t explain their traumatic dreams with the pleasure principle. He recognized survivors’ guilt, and theorized that the subconscious has another part – a legislative body where we store our internalized social conventions, which attacks us in the form of guilt and the compulsion to repeat traumatic events in our imagination. Haller thinks that the man part of himself is this superego, even though it’s more often trying to kill him, or at least punish him for the desires that come from his id/wolf. Hesse identifies the bourgeois as those who can comfortably strike a middle path between desire and law, who live the sort of half-and-half contented life mentioned above.

Haller finds comfort in aesthetics. This is the only place where he can reconcile his need to satisfy himself with his need to satisfy everyone else. His ideals are Goethe and Mozart, and judges every other cultural production by its ability to approximate one of these two monoliths. Buxtehude and Haydn are okay, even Schubert, but not Beethoven. Jazz is right out.

You are right, Steppenwolf, right a thousand times over, and yet you must go to the wall. You are much too exacting and hungry for this simple, easygoing and easily contented world of today. You have a dimension too many. Whoever wants to live and enjoy his life today must not be like you and me. Whoever wants music instead of noise, joy instead of pleasure, soul instead of gold, creative work instead of business, passion instead of foolery, finds no home in this trivial world of ours –

His aesthetic sense can help him find peace in mundane things, like a neighbor’s potted plants, but his snobbery keeps him away from a lot of life. He feels isolated, and comforts himself by saying that it’s because the rest of the world is not up to his standards, but he doesn’t recognize the arbitrary nature of those standards. I feel isolated a lot of the time, but I no longer see that as a sign of my self-worth. I don’t want to define myself by the things I refuse to enjoy. I used to reject country music out of hand, but I want to get over that. Yes, I can enjoy a glass or two of wine with my salmon and lentils at an expensive Parisian restaurant, but if I’m at a pig-picking in eastern North Carolina and someone hands me a Mason jar of homebrewed corn whiskey, I’ll enjoy that too. I’m done with being proud of loneliness. After all, don’t wolves travel in packs?

That larger second part of the book is about Haller getting out of this miserable, snobbish, suicidal life. He meets a girl who forces him to learn the fox trot and to listen to recorded music. He realizes that he’s having fun. In order to be a complete person, he has to learn to embrace everything that the world has to offer, even if it’s not the highest art. [I think that’s why I started a blog about books with World War Z – to remind the readers of my former blog that my thought-life isn’t all Thomas Hardy and Virginia Woolf.] He has to find the value of the ephemeral. This is personified in the vaguely Hispanic saxophone player, who leads him into the allegorical magic gallery.

You have often been sorely weary of your life. You were striving, were you not, for escape? You have a longing to forsake this world and its reality and to penetrate to a reality more native to you, to a world beyond time. You know, of course, where this other world lies hidden. It is the world of your own soul that you seek. Only within yourself exists that other reality for which you long. I can give you nothing that has not already its being within yourself. I can throw open to you no picture gallery but your own soul. All I can give you is the opportunity, the impulse, the key. I can help you to make your own world visible. That is all.

And what he finds there is all the selves he has been. Society has agreed that it’s a terrible crime to reduce a person to one body part, like her genitals; it’s equally awful to reduce a person to a single personality trait, but we do that anyway. It’s easier to hate someone when you only see one quality in them. Haller has reduced himself to two, his anxiety to be respectable and his desire to rebel. But we are all more complex than that. There is no simple duality at the heart of man (good/evil, flesh/spirit, God/Satan, angel/djinn, whatever). We are more than we give ourselves credit for.

In reality, however, every ego, so far from being a unity is in the highest degree a manifold world, a constellated heaven, a chaos of forms, of states and stages, of inheritances and potentialities.

Every possibility is in every person. Given the proper training and stimulus, any person is capable of any action. This is one of the reasons it so ill becomes us to judge others; in dwelling on another’s guilt, we deflect our attention from our complicity in his crime, our jealousy that he did it and not I. At the same time, we also measure ourselves against other people’s successes, but without recognizing that we ourselves are capable of the same degree of success. There is value in every person, in every kind of life. For my entire adult life, I’ve been living the adventure of traveling around and meeting new people in new places. I’d like to try the adventure of living in a town for years, growing into a house that becomes the shell of my life, seeing a single group of people grow and change, feeling how I change in response to them. There are all sorts of adventures, if you choose to see them as such.

Haller reflects on his life at the end of the book:

My life had become weariness. It had wandered in a maze of unhappiness that led to renunciation and nothingness; it was bitter with the salt of all human things; yet it had laid up riches, riches to be proud of. It had been for all its wretchedness a princely life. Let the little way to death be as it might, the kernel of this life of mine was noble. It had purpose and character and turned not on trifles, but on the stars.

As does mine. As does yours.

 

Three years ago, when I faced the fact that I didn’t believe in the church I had been attending my entire life, my friendly acupuncturist recommended this book to me. He had read it when he was younger, and it really helped him begin fashioning his own belief system. I read it then and really liked it, but as I was reading it these last few days, I realized that its time has passed for me. It’s a good book for beginning, but feels less relevant when you’re in the middle of the struggle.

It’s also kind of elitist. Sinclair starts the novel as a kid in school. He meets Max Demian and they talk about the biblical story of Cain’s mark. Demian sees it as some sort of retcon by the uninitiated: they saw something about Cain that was unsocial and extraordinary, so they invented the myth about killing Abel to explain it. The two friends spend the rest of the novel either being alone or hanging out with an intellectual ‘elite,’ until they go off to fight in World War I. There in the last few pages, Sinclair finally begins to see the beauty and dignity of ordinary men and ordinary lives.

Having read several of his books, I firmly believe that Hermann Hesse was a closeted homosexual. Possibly not closeted to close friends, but in terms of his public. This book leans pretty strongly in that direction. It seems obvious to me that Sinclair is in love with Demian but can’t admit it to himself. He feels a magnetic attraction that he can’t explain. He only infatuates himself with women who are completely unattainable and noticeably masculine. The big love of his young life is Demian’s mother, a more mature version of Demian himself, only with a gendered body that Sinclair will admit to being attracted to. When the book ends, Sinclair is in a war hospital seeing a vision of Demian kissing him. This vision seems to settle in his mind what relation he will have to Demian in future, using him as a sort of intellectual muse.

Part of the difficulty Sinclair has is one that I’m faced with too. He doesn’t know what he wants to be when he grows up.

There was only one thing I could not do: wrest the dark secret goal from myself and keep it before me as others did who knew exactly what they wanted to be – professors, lawyers, doctors, artists, however long this would take them and whatever difficulties and advantages this decision would bear in its wake. This I could not do. Perhaps I would become something similar, but how was I to know? Perhaps I would have to continue my search for years on end and would not become anything, and would not reach a goal. Perhaps I would reach this goal but it would turn out to be an evil, dangerous, horrible one?

I wanted only to try to live in accord with the promptings which came from my true self. Why was that so very difficult?

I still don’t know what I really want to do, professionally speaking. It doesn’t seem like an important question. What’s important to me is in my personal life – what sort of relationship I’ll have with my children, where I’m going to find the right somebody to love, what I will eventually discover myself to believe in. As long as my job gives me enough money to feed my kids and pay my bills, and gives me enough free time to work through the rest of it, I don’t care too much about what that job is going to be. I never felt a strong vocation to teaching; I majored in English and wanted to become a professor because that seemed the best way to prolong the academic life I was enjoying so much. But as I contemplate that now, I don’t think it’s the right thing for me. And I don’t know where that leaves me.

As one can expect from Hesse, this novel is about a spiritual journey. Of course, it starts by rejecting the conservative Christianity of the time.

But I have to tell you something: this is one of the very places that reveals the poverty of this religion most distinctly. The point is that this God of both Old and New Testaments is certainly an extraordinary figure but not what he purports to represent. He is all that is good, noble, fatherly, beautiful, elevated, sentimental – true! But the world consists of something else besides. And what is left over is ascribed to the devil, this entire slice of the world, this entire half is suppressed and hushed up. In exactly the same way they praise God as the father of all life but simply refuse to say a word about our sexual life on which it’s all based, describing it whenever possible as sinful, the work of the devil. I have no objection to worshiping this God Jehovah, far from it. But I mean we ought to consider everything sacred, the entire world, not merely this artificially separated half! Thus alongside the divine service we should also have a service for the devil. I feel that would be right. Otherwise you must create for yourself a God that contains the devil too and in front of which you needn’t close your eyes when the most natural things in the world take place.

I think that Demian is right here, but only partially. Yes, the common Christian conception of God ignores a significant portion of our lives, and demonizes the very drives that lead to the fulfillment of one of God’s first commandments, to be fruitful and multiply. Yes, either everything is sacred or nothing is. But I don’t see that these ideas mean that we need to continue to accept the traditional binary thinking. Instead of seeing God and the devil as dualistic opposing forces, look at nature, both human and otherwise. Every species ensures its own survival. Once that’s accomplished, they live in peace with each other. There’s a time and a place for destruction, just as there is for creation. It all exists in cycles. The divisions between good and evil desires are sometimes in place to ensure the survival of our species, but sometimes they’re fairly arbitrary. Instead of setting up a shrine to the devil (Aldous Huxley showed a worship service to the devil in Ape and Essence – not as fun or constructive as it sounds), I think it’s more worthwhile to revise our understanding of God, or at least of the conventional morality ascribed to him.

Conventional morality kind of sucks. It seems based on the idea that self-denial is intrinsically good. Of course some of it is, but there must be a reason we deny ourselves things, and that reason must be a good one. It’s easy to deny yourself things when you hate yourself. I spent a long time doing just that. Sometimes I still do. Denying myself luxuries so that I can more adequately support my children seems like a good idea, but denying myself basic necessities because I’m angry at the world and my place in it is a bad one. I don’t think that fear of hell is a good reason to do anything, either. Not only is it fairly ineffective, it transforms you into someone who lives in constant fear, and I think that fear is bad. I have a lot of experience with it, I’m comfortable with the fear I find in myself, but I try not to let it govern my quotidian experience of life on earth. The emphasis on fear and unnecessary self-denial turns a lot of people away from faith-based belief systems.

I like listening to music, but only the kind you play, completely unreserved music, the kind that makes you feel that a man is shaking heaven and hell. I believe I love that kind of music because it is amoral. Everything else is so moral that I’m looking for something that isn’t. Morality has always seemed to me insufferable. I can’t express it very well.

Sinclair doesn’t quite have the words for it, but Pistorius, the drunk church organist who teaches him for a time, puts it better.

I don’t mean that you should simply do everything that pops into your head. No. But you shouldn’t harm and drive away those ideas that make good sense by exorcising them or moralizing about them. Instead of crucifying yourself or someone else you can drink wine from a chalice and contemplate the mystery of the sacrifice. Even without such procedures you can treat your drives and so-called temptations with respect and love. Then they will reveal their meaning – and they all do have meaning. If you happen to think of something truly mad or sinful again, if you want to kill someone or want to commit some enormity, Sinclair, think at that moment that it is Abraxas fantasizing within you! The person whom you would like to do away with is of course never Mr X but merely a disguise. If you hate a person, you hate something in him that is part of yourself. What isn’t part of ourselves doesn’t disturb us.

I’ve mentioned this concept a few times lately, with Gibran and Casariegos, but I think it’s important, and must be something I need to hear a lot these days. The key to happiness, holiness, whatever you like, you could even call it the Meaning of Life, is to accept everything about myself. Not do everything that occurs to me, but to accept whatever need my urges and ideas express. I also think it’s important to recognize that when something irritates me in someone else, it’s because that same thing is in me. Which means it’s a tendency that I need to accept instead of hating it. I think that hatred in general is a bad thing.

Throughout the book, Sinclair has a series of teachers, and at the very end (last page) he seems to have internalized the most important of them. These past few days I’ve been feeling the lack of a teacher. My beliefs are all tangled and confused and I’d like some help getting through this next clarifying stage of things, but I don’t know if there are any that I’d accept. Among the people around me now, the only spiritual teachers would lead me toward Islam, and I know that I don’t want to go there. I have a hard time with the idea of a silent God, one who spoke last to Muhammad and has expected all the rest of us to listen to that conversation fifteen hundred years ago. I’d rather not believe in God at all than believe He’s that indifferent to me. And this is part of my problem: I can easily say what I don’t believe, but it’s incredibly difficult to find a positive belief statement that I can agree with unreservedly.

When Demian first came out, it seemed to capture the attitude of an entire generation of young Germans who came of age during World War I. It was like the twentieth century’s Sorrows of Young Werther. I can see how it can provide a lot of hope to people who feel like they’re somehow different than the people around them, but can’t pinpoint in what way. I think that feeling is fairly common to adolescents. It starts us on a journey, but it doesn’t reach the end. I don’t feel like I’ve even hit the middle; on the last page, I still feel as if Sinclair is just beginning. I suppose in some ways that’s appropriate. I feel like life is a series of beginnings with no ends, like nothing is ever really finished or done. It’ll all keep circling back, in Nietzsche’s eternal return.

 

 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.