Saturday, November 26, 2011

Hermann Hesse

"For he was aware that in the academy he would have to be even more ambitious if he wanted to outstrip his new fellow students. Why did he want to surpass them actually? He didn't really know himself."- Excerpt from Hermann Hesse's 'Beneath the Wheel'

"It is not our purpose to become each other; it is to recognize each other, to learn to see the other and honor him for what he is."- Hermann Hesse

For most of us who read, it seems that we all have one particular favorite author that goes beyond the consideration of literary tastes of other people; some of the great classic literary authors are also considered “too deep” for others. Hermann Hesse is of the authors that people seem to be impressed, shocked, or curious about that appears on my Goodreads list, my list of literary influences, my bookshelf, and when a book of written by Hesse is in my hands. Hesse never appeared on any required reading sheets in the school that I went to back in Ohio; when I moved to California, I noticed that his classic ‘Siddhartha’ is listed as required reading for some of the local area high schools. The reactions I get when people see with a Hesse novel—or even mentioning Hesse as an influence of mine—is “that’s a little too deep for me, Brian.” I’ve also heard that he’s a difficult author to read for many people, which somewhat baffles me. I’ve also heard the surrounding controversies about his supposed views on the Nazis during WW2.

I recently found a copy of ‘Demian’ at a Barnes & Noble in the bargain book section and couldn’t resist checking it out. I’d always heard about it from people who read it; one of my friends absolutely loves the book and calls it Hesse's best work,  I remember reading a lot of different moral points of view on it over the years, and it was one of Hesse’s novels I had never read. My purchase of “Demian” and reading it while at Starbucks, at home, or friends seeing that I was reading it from my Goodreads list, and people seeing the book in my possession in general sparked a lot of conversation about Hesse. So, this is my Hesse inspired entry as a result of reading "Demian." 

My appreciation for Hesse is actually recent; I want to say that I first started reading Hesse around 2006. I stumbled upon Hesse's "Beneath the Wheel" while shelving books in the literary section. And again, I also knew a couple of people who read Hesse and told me he was an author I needed to start reading. Plus as a Buddhist, I knew about his book "Siddhartha" given I had listened to good and bad conversations about it with other Buddhists--some of which turned into nasty arguments about the Buddha's teachings. I remember being told to read it, but take it with a grain of salt if I was looking for Buddhist insight from it. 

Hesse is indeed one of my favorite writers. And I have heard time and time again that it’s very heavy reading, very deep, and that it’s too difficult. I have never found his writings to be any of those things. My interest in Hesse’s writings are all based around the moral dilemmas that his characters face, and I don’t find his message or the viewpoints of his characters to be all that difficult to understand—even in today’s standards. If you remember yourself as a child, if you've had a life full of predicaments, or you've struggled to make the right moral decision, you can understand Hesse. He's not as difficult as many of the classic literary authors that I have tried to read, such as Goethe or O Henry. Now those authors are some heavy reading! O Henry's short stories are like having teeth pulled; Goethe bored me to the point of contemplating literary suicide and never wanting to pick up a book ever again. 

One of my favorites of Hesse’s works is “Beneath the Wheel.” The main character, Hans Giebernath, is a sensitive and gifted child. His father has very big demands of Hans' academic performance, people who know him around the town are proud of him and want to see him succeed beyond their expectations, and he’s eventually encouraged and nudged into a private school on a scholarship. The question of what Hans really wants for his life is the main idea of the book; the teachers presenting the works of Homer to him in different languages to read and understand, the pressure he faces when it comes to other assignments and pressures from his school and competitiveness with the other students also depress him and makes him feel burnt out. He worries about disappointing the people who love him and believe in him, he worries about the consequences of failure in his own life; and at times his life is not that of a child, but of an object, an object and showpiece to please those with high hopes of him. His friendship with another student of a rebellious nature who opens him up to the idea of finding his own way, finding his own voice, and finding what he really wants out of his own life becomes his downfall to where he simply burns out and can’t take it anymore. He goes home a failure, he can’t face his father, he can’t face people in town, and he’s desperate and lonely. He is crushed by his failure to where he doesn't feel alive anymore. The ending is so sad and tragic, but it's a story we have heard time and time again, especially in this current era. 

The premise of “Beneath the Wheel” applies today. We live in an era where we’re applauding Amy Chua’s “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother” for her intense parenting style to where she demands her children be child prodigies instead of live happy, normal childhoods. It seems children are not allowed to be children anymore. While we should definitely strive for them to learn as much as possible, we see the “Beneath the Wheel” effect. The character of Hans Giebernath lives in many high school children who have been crammed with educational material that they don’t have any social connections, and haven’t been able to discover themselves as children, and they don't know where they fit into this world with their talents. Some children are naturally gifted and should be allowed to naturally follow their own pursuits; sometimes being intelligent comes with the cost of sensitivity, and sensitivity can be a good or bad thing in my own opinion and experiences with my own sensitivity. Hesse was writing about something that has been going on for years in many different countries when it comes to the cultural influences of parents on the subject of education. The children in South Korea are unhappy, overworked, overstressed, and are committing suicide. South Korean advocacy groups for children run around the cities at night looking for these “after-school centers” that keep children learning late at night, sometimes beyond midnight. Plus consider adults who are pressured in their careers who are Hans Giebernath. We're all Hans in our own ways. We strive to be people we are not to win over others, we strive to destroy competition without an understanding of why we choose to live this way at such a high cost to our moral and spiritual well-being. 

Next is 'Siddhartha.' The book is one I have seen sold even in Buddhist publishing such as Shambhala Publications, I've seen it in new age bookstores, I've seen it in coffee shop bookshelves, and it's a book that is everywhere. As a Buddhist, I’d like to correct the people who believe that “Siddhartha” is a fact-based story about the Buddha. It’s actually not a fact-based story, but it’s inspired by the life of the Buddha. Many of Siddhartha’s (the novel character) experiences and point of view are based on the actual story of the Buddha; being the son of a Brahmin who sets off to seek enlightenment with a friend of his. Siddhartha encounters a lot of painful journeys along his road to enlightenment, and Hesse’s understanding of the life of the Buddha provides a different twist to his own character of Siddhartha embracing his own pain, emotional issues, and the fact he’s just tired of life to where he wants to find freedom, but is too afraid to experience freedom. There are a lot of ways to interpret the book. A lot of Buddhists I know find it to be a cutesy novel with a lot of references to Buddhism; I personally find it as one that doesn’t really have anything to do with Buddhism in general, but it does reference how we suffer, how we yearn, how we struggle to understand ourselves. Hesse kind of left it open for the reader to interpret in his/her own way how to view the story. I enjoyed Hesse’s story about the Buddha like character of Siddhartha, but I personally don’t find the book to be one that I would consider to have a genuine connection to Buddhism. It makes for great literature, but not for literal interpretation. Plus I remember reading a Theravadan Buddhist monk’s autobiography where he mentioned a follower of his treated “Siddhartha” as if it were a Buddhist text, would abandon his wife and children for days at a time to seek his own freedom, and didn’t realize he was oblivious to the pain he was causing his family and to himself. As far as high school kids reading it, I see a lot of critical thinking essays and getting students to understand things such as balance, responsibility, and asking questions about ourselves and our intentions as people.

If you’re a fan of the lives of classical composers or artists who found solace in their pain, ‘Gertrud’ is one of Hesse’s true masterpieces for anyone of that crowd. If you can tolerate hearing about the life of Mozart or any other composer, you can read 'Gertrud.' And some of those composers from various eras were fucked up, and 'Gertrud' doesn't even go close to the lives of actual composers. I used to recommend ‘Gertrud’ to a lot of people as a great introduction to Hesse. I also feel that ‘Gertrud’ has been the real life story for many through so many musicians throughout many eras of music history, including modern and mainstream music. They say that “pain makes great art,” and that’s the premise of ‘Gertrud.’ A young struggling composer named Kuhn who thinks everything he writes is unworthy of being his opus; he falls in love with 2 troubled people who make his life miserable. It doesn’t have to be love, you can relate to it through so many other things that end up making someone who thinks their art is shit actually turn around and write something truly remarkable. Syd Barrett from Pink Floyd lost his mind on LSD, went schizophrenic, and wrote truly genius music while Pink Flord wrote 20 minute long songs about Syd's demise, or even whole albums. Gwen Stefani from No Doubt broke up with the bass player in the band before they eventually found success, and wrote nearly 2 albums about her pain from the heartbreak that spawned hit single after hit single in the late 90s. That experience made them a modern day 'Gertrud" with Gwen Stefani being Kuhn. The guitar player of the band said, “it felt like it was her saying, “here’s another song about Tony (the bass player)” Kuhn’s burn from love ends up creating his best piece of work. This is another story that goes to show Hesse’s struggles with emotional pain and pressure can bring out the worst or the best of us. 

My experience in reading ‘Demian’ is that ‘Demian’ was unlike any of Hesse’s other novels—at least in my opinion. It’s a very complicated novel to explain in detail given it’s in parts of a man’s life where there is so much going on, and the redeeming character of his life that helps him through his trials and tribulations appears in his life at various times through the book. I found it to be similar to Hesse’s works that I have read, and I also found it to be unlike him after reading his other books based on the experiences of the character being changing from phases in his life from childhood to adulthood. The theme of war also set the tone to make it even more of an interesting novel.

Hesse as a person was no doubt a very complicated man. It’s been said that he suffered from very horrible depression after trips through various countries in Asia as a result of experiences he had on those trips. He was seeking so much in terms of spiritual knowledge, spiritual experience, and spiritual freedom that he failed ,and had a point of view from those experiences that tore him apart. His marriage was falling apart, he found himself in WW1 as a volunteer in the imperial army, until he was deemed unfit for combat. He made controversial statements; one of which was saying that patriotism was not a virtue or a trait of a true intellectual, and it was during a time when his country was at war. His son became ill, his wife was diagnosed as schizophrenic, he remarried and kept having failed marriages, and Hesse observed Hitler’s rise to power and Nazi Germany spreading through Europe with great concern, but he was criticized for never making any statements against Hitler, and he was condemned by people from that era for not writing statements of outrage or shunning Hitler (Hesse was living in Switzerland at the time), yet he was never a supporter of anti-Semitism, and his wife at the time was Jewish. Hesse's silence on a matter of horrific events in his native country, as well as other parts of Europe, became part of a dirty rumor and lie about his life and work. 

There’s no doubt that many people probably don’t understand the depth of Hesse’s work; many probably find it depressing, or they simply don’t want to. I know a lot of people who came into the bookstore seeking out material that didn’t have death in it, didn’t have deep sentiments, and didn’t have anything depressing in them. I wanted to tell those people not to read books, listen to music, or watch movies.  I also believe that we all have our own understanding of literature with our own developed tastes; some of us understand literature that others do not. I don't believe any of us are more well-read than others--unless all you're reading are the "Twilight" novels, or all the James Patterson books that come out once a week. 

The one thing I can say about Hesse is that if I can understand him and find reason in it, I believe a lot of other people could. He’s deep, but his characters stay with you after you read his books. The character of Hans Giebernah is one character I thought of a couple of years ago as a friend described the dilemma of her son being in a private school with a heavy curriculum, his vocabulary and ability to use words that his classmates didn’t understand, the pressures he faced in school, and the sensitivity he had as a result of being a smart child. Hans is also a character that fits part of the description of my childhood. Hans is with me right now after suffering too many setbacks this year that derailed me. Hans represents Amy Chua’s daughters that she wrote about being a hard ass, Chinese culturally influenced mother who refuses to let her children be children in hopes of them becoming child prodigies. Hans represents the younger generation of people who had expectations placed on them by their parents and have found it hard to find a suitable career or life due to a recession and "NOT HIRING" signs.

Hesse's characters moral dilemmas make you view your own perspectives and the perspective of others in a different light. Hesse is one author I believe wrote about the human condition to where we could gain an understanding from where he failed. I also believe that while he suffered so much in his life, he was able to create some of the world’s greatest literary works. His failure in spiritual matters made him a great philosopher, and he philosophized through his characters and in his novels. 

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