Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Hermann Hesse and my wandering life

Hermann Hesse (1877-1962) is one my favorite authors. I've had one his books in my hands every time I've faced a life-changing decision, which, in my relatively short and inexperienced life, has only been twice: once when deciding to go to Japan, and now as I decide a career path in America. Hermann Hesse's novels serve as bookends to my Japanese experience, and guideposts on journeys awaiting.

I first discovered Hesse in graduate school when I picked up his most famous work Siddhartha, the coming of age story of a young Indian searching for spiritual fulfillment during the time of the historical Buddha. The protagonist's spiritual wanderings away from the established religion and his sexual exploits, which Hesse writes so well, made Hesse an instant literary superstar and secular guru to the hippies during the 1960's counter-cultural movements following the book's translation and American release in 1951. As a wanderer of spiritual paths, I found Siddhartha a pleasure to read because of it's slow poetic sentences and delicate descriptions of a heart's desire.

Though Siddhartha is Hesse's most well known work, my favorite of Hesse's books is the brilliantly written and highly emotional Narcissus and Goldmund (English ed. 1968). Revolving around the relationship between the two title characters, Narcissus and Goldmund, the story follows the lives of these two men (though Goldmund receives most of the attention) as they develop intellectually, artistically, and spiritually.

The story begins at a Catholic monastery in Medieval Germany where Narcissus and Goldmund first meet. Common for the period, parents sent their young boys to monasteries for an education and to get them out of the house. Narcissus has been at the monastery for some time before Goldmund is dropped off there by his father. Goldmund is placed under the care of Narcissus, a straight-laced, studious young man who excels in Latin and aspires to become an abbot. Goldmund, on the other hand, is a starry-eyed youth who views rules more as guidelines. Hesse describes them both so:

Narcissus was dark and spare; Goldmund, a radiant youth. Narcissus was analytical, a thinker; Goldmund, a dreamer with the soul of a child. But something they had in common bridged these contrasts; both were refined; both were different from the others because of obvious gifts and signs; both bore the special mark of fate. (17)

From the very beginning of the novel, Hesse sets the two boys as friendly opposites and, sooner than later, Goldmund leaves the monastery after catching sight of a beautiful gal while fetching herbs in the field. If you think Bond girls are hot, wait 'till you come across one of Hesse's, they'll make your blood boil; Goldmund's sure did as the girl fetched his twig and berries. After this first of Goldmund's sexual encounters, he knows he's not cut out for life as a monk and he hits the road.

While on the road Goldmund experiences a dash of everything Bob Dylan sings about in "A Hard Rain's a Gonna Fall." He sleeps in peoples' hay and sometimes rolls in it with the women. He is taken in by various families, creating quiet sanctuaries where he can catch his breath- at least until the women take it away. He picks up travel companions, some good and others bad. He wanders through the decimation left in the Black Plague's wake. At last Goldmund takes up a trade and works as an apprentice where he refines his artistic vision, a vision that he's been chasing his entire life.

Though the story is primarily about Goldmund, Hesse uses both him and Narcissus to illustrate two ways of life; the life of the priest, and that of the artist. Hesse defines these lifestyles by contrasting the two characters lives, each representing a side of the classical, age-old dichotomy between law and love, order and chaos, piety and passion. Some literary critics, drawing on Hesse's admiration of Nietzsche, describe the book as Hesse's novelization of the Nietzschian concepts of the Apollonian (from Apollo, Greek god of order) and the Dionysian (from Dionysus, Greek god of wine and dance), with Narcissus embodying the former, and Goldmund the latter. I'm inclined to follow this analysis though it does lack a little imagination.

As I mentioned above, I read Narcissus and Goldmund during a transitional period in life when a big decision needed making. I was finishing up my M.A. at Iliff School of Theology, and had to choose between staying in America and continuing my education by going for my doctorate, or flying off to Japan, a place completely unknown to me, to start a life I couldn't even imagine. Do I stay in the monastery, the ivory palace of the academy, or, do I cut to the fields and explore another country and another part of myself? I chose to live the unexpected life and leave the tower just as Goldmund did. Like Goldmund I encountered many sights, beautiful people, and, at times, depression during long cold winters. Hesse helped me make my decisions, and I wonder if he would've made the same one. I'd like to think he would've.

When I arrived in Denver after two years of living in Japan, I stayed at my friend Jeremiah's apartment and, while perusing his book collection, came across one of Hesse's novels I had heard about but never read, Beneath the Wheel (English ed. 1968). I just finished reading the book last night and feel that this novel will impact my very near future as I decide upon career paths. The novel's message comes more as warning than inspiration.

Beneath the Wheel, like Narcissus and Goldmund, is a bildungsroman, or a growing up story. (After reading most of Hesse's novels, easily 2/3rds of them are bildungroman.) The main character of the novel is gifted young Hans Geibenrath who lives in small town Germany. Hans starts off as a quiet teacher's pet who excels in Latin and Classical Greek. He loves to pull a reed and fish alone at the river with his sparce free time, i.e. when he isn't learning New Testament Greek with the liberal pastor or studying for his state examination. Hans is a fragile little genius and the pride of his small town.

The story kicks into gear after Hans aces his state examination and is sent to the academy with a bunch of other boys from all over Germany. While at the academy he continues to blow his teachers away with his knowledge and learning ability. However, after meeting his first and only friend at the academy, the imaginative poet Hermann Heilner (notice the HH), Hans's grades begin to fall as Heilner's rebelliousness rubs off on him. After Heilner is brought in after running away from the academy he is expelled, an act which drives the coffin nail on Hans remaining interest in school. With his best and only friend expelled, Hans goes from bad to worse, both in terms of his effort and his health. His headaches intensify and occasionally cause him to faint. Han's is sent back home for health reasons and never returns to the academy.

Back home he is considered a failure. The same schoolmaster and pastor who once praised him now have no time for him. Instead of idling away at home, Hans takes up a trade, mechanics, and begins working in a metal shop filing cogs off a metal wheel. The rest of the story came as quite a shock to me and I won't retell it here. It is tragic.

Just as Narcissus and Goldmund, represent two ways of life, letters and spirit, we find the same relationship between Hans and Heilner, only with drastically different outcomes. Where Hesse focuses on the wandering man in N&G, in Beneath the Wheel he examines the strait-lacer, Hans, who is disowned by the same society that once promised his dreams. The novel is often interpreted as Hesse's attack on the elitist, overly academic, soul-draining German education system which he went through as a student, at least until one school expelled him. I can go with this interpretation is it well grounded (see last page), but the book struck me in a different way for a different reason.

I always end up seeing myself in all of Hesse's protagonists; it feels good. His characters always have a special irresistible spark to them. They are all men of genius and usually full of common sense as well- and that's rare. I enjoyed seeing myself as Goldmund, traveling around, getting in adventures like Cane on Kung-Fu, hell, the end of N&G brought tears to my eyes and left me an emotional train wreck for a week. But it's not so much fun walking in Hans's shoes. Here's a fellow on the decline. He comes back from the highest academic halls to walk the muddy streets of the guilds. From translating Hebrew to filing metal off a wheel. He comes home depressed and his ultimately tragic fate is left intentionally vague by Hesse.

Well I'm a bit like Hans now. I'm back from an amazing experience in Japan- I left a success thankfully!- but I'm back in a small town without much going for me at the moment. From the heights back down to earth. From doing a decent job in an exotic foreign land, to possibly doing mundane work to earn a paycheck back in Lubbock. Like the classically trained Hans grinding a wheel; the same wheel I don't want to fall beneath.

Beneath the Wheel served as warning sign to me. There's nothing wrong in finding some work to make a living; the struggle is keeping one's passions and talents alive under the grind of a job that fate, or perhaps an innate self-affirmation, has not designed. And that is my current struggle; to locate a career path that works toward my ultimate goals of happiness while keeping me happy and satisfied in the process. The lesson learned from Hans is not let yourself sink too low into an unsurfacable melancholy: the wheel can only crush those who do not pick themselves up.

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