The problem with life’s progression and the number of books available to read is that certain authors and their works get inexorably pushed to the side. I think Jorge Borges will always be with us, but Thomas Wolfe is falling by the wayside. Flaubert, Balzac and Hugo in France will live on; Zola is likely to disappear. I have previously blogged about my great love for Zola; I am now going to encourage everyone to read at least two of the fictional works by one of my top ten novelists: Hermann Hesse of Germany. I remember as a young psychologist reading STEPPENWOLF for the first time and simply being awestruck by the accuracy with which he was able to capture the essential dichotomy of humankind.
STEPPENWOLF represents the proverbial wolf on the steppes: wild and lonely, and the novel explores the dualistic nature of the human and the wolf. The conflict is embodied in one Harry Haller who wanders around a city meeting a succession of strange people as he struggles to resolve his own internal issues. Harry is a sophisticated, enlightened person (like all of us, of course) who is also is pulled by the primitive, archaic drive within his psyche (ditto). Resolving these two essentially irresolvable forces causes him to feel torn apart and in constant turmoil. What is interesting about this book, and causes it to transcend other books of the same genre, is the clear representation of suffering and despair versus transcendence and healing—major preoccupations of the author throughout this life (he was plagued with depression and underwent considerable psychoanalysis during the middle period of this life). What also sets this great work apart from others is that the story is mired in illusion: one cannot often recognize what is real from unreal—an ongoing factor in all people’s lives if they bother to stop mindlessly texting their friends all the time and attempt to analyze things from a fair and balanced perspective. (Of course the rejoinder to that might be, why bother? Shakespeare would not approve of such a cavalier attitude, but . . . .). If nothing else, it is a book written by a brilliant man who makes one think, and Hesse often complained that his great novel was vastly misunderstood. So, take a crack at it.
A better know and easier-to-read work is SIDDHARTHA, composed before STEPPENWOLF, and revealing Hesse’s absorption with Buddhist thought and spirituality. The story roughly follows what we know of Gautama Buddha, founder of Buddhism. In the novel, Siddhartha gives up his comfortable way of life to become a wandering ascetic, but wanders from his goal when he meets a beautiful courtesan who promises to introduce him to great worldly pleasures if he becomes rich. He does (and I ask, how many red-blooded men wouldn’t, given the chance?), but ultimately becomes dissatisfied with materialistic pursuits and eventually leaves her to pursue spiritual fulfillment (a factor which puts our hero in a somewhat unique position viv-a-vis other red-blooded men, I suspect). Later, Kamala, the courtesan, dies, and Siddhartha is entrusted with the son the two of them have had together. This relationship brings into focus the difficult issues that may evolve when one embarks on a great spiritual journey. Through enlightenment, Siddhartha learns that for every belief or statement there is an opposite one which may be just as valid (an example being his own son who takes off for parts unknown, not giving a damn about enlightenment), and that fixed and rigid belief in things does not lend one to the openness and fullness of Truth.
Heavy stuff, but as I pen this, I wish to make the modest proposal that all members of congress be required, under pain of death, to read this essay. 🙂
Now, this particular novel is more accessible and interesting to read than it sounds. I used to assign the book to my students back in the days when I taught a course in college entitled “Special Problems” in psychology (a title that was certainly apropos since the students generally agreed that I, the instructor, had a lot of special problems) and generally was rated an enjoyable read—unlike, I should add, STEPPENWOLF, which is considered more of a struggle.
Two other noteworthy books from the pen of our magnificent author are NARCISSUS AND GOLDMUND, and THE GLASS BEAD GAME. The former is beautiful written, flowing and musical (Hesse was also an excellent poet), and is about two friends during the medieval period who take different courses in their lives: one becomes a celibate priest and ultimately an abbot, while the other travels through the material world and experiences all the highs and lows indigent to that choice—food, drink, pleasures of the flesh, etc. In the end they reconcile and compare their experiences, contrasting the artist with the thinker, each seeking to find a meaning to life.
THE GLASS BEAD GAME was Hesse’s last novel, eventually gaining him the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1946. It is a complex novel and difficult to understand, and once again concerns the struggle between the material and spiritual world, representing Hesse’s desire to gain a synthesis of human learning. Though Hesse was fond of the novel, it never achieved the rank of some others.
I have always encouraged Americans to read more foreign works because doing so gives one a different perspective, and certainly a more cosmopolitan one. In Hesse, one confronts a genius who explored the world with the same intensity and lifelong dedication as did the venerated Jorge Borges. I would recommend reading (if you already haven’t) SIDDHARTHA first and then STEPPENWOLF, in that order.
Go for it; you won’t regret it.