Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Garden of the Gods

. . . [A]lthough the commonplace aids of modern travel such as railways, steamers, telegraph, automobiles, airplanes, etc., were renounced, we penetrated into heroic and the magical. It was shortly after the World War, and the beliefs of the conquered nations were in an extraordinary state of unreality. There was a readiness to believe in things beyond reality even though only a few barriers were actually overcome and few advances made into the realm of a future psychiatry.

This post contains spoilers.

Hermann Hesse's The Journey to the East (first published in 1932 as Die Morgenlandfahrt) is a short, meandering tale that is equal parts mystic and mundane. Narrator H.H. is lonely, unhappy man who used to be a choirmaster but who has since sold his beloved violin and abandoned music. He claims to have once been a member of "the League," a religious/philosophical sect whose members have included such luminaries as Mozart, Plato, Don Quixote, and Paul Klee. Some time ago, shortly following the Great War, H.H. and a small group of League members undertook a journey through time and space, attempting to reach "the East" in hopes of attaining spiritual enlightenment. Instead, the whole lofty enterprise collapsed into mindless squabbling following the mysterious departure of the much-loved servant Leo. A disillusioned H.H. left the Journey and the League shortly thereafter, and now struggles to recall the events that transpired during his time in the League and set them to paper.

Whether the League actually exists or not is left up for debate. The Journey to the East is describes as both a literal, geographic journey and a metaphysical exploration of the collective human experience of art, literature, music, science, philosophy, and the intellect. H.H. tells us that
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 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.
Though the prose is simple and straightforward, H.H.'s brief descriptions of his time on the Journey, particularly the Bremgarten episode, are reminiscent of the hallucinatory fantasy sequences that characterize the climactic party and the Magic Theatre in Steppenwolf (1927). In Steppenwolf, Henry Haller's proto-psychedelic experiences come at the culmination of his evolution from bourgeoisie conformity to liberation and self-realization. H.H., in Journey to the East, similarly recalls that the "first principle of our great period" was to "never rely on and let myself be disconcerted by reason" and to "always know that faith is stronger than so-called reality." Taken together with Steppenwolf, Hesse seems to equate intellectual and psychological growth with looking "beyond the veil," so to speak - of breaking through the physical world to some higher plane.

In Journey to the East, however, the Bremgarten episode occurs not only at the beginning of the story but as H.H.'s memory of a past event. H.H.'s abandonment of the League is depicted not so much as literal resignation from an organization but as the loss of some inner faculty related to imagination and creativity. He recalls a conversation had with one of his leaders regarding a comrade who had deserted the Journey. Many great people have undergone a similar experience, the leader tells him; once upon a time, when they were young, "the light shone for them; they saw the light and followed the star; but then came reason and the mockery of the world; then came faint-heartedness and apparent failure; then came weariness and disillusionment. . ." Don't concern yourself with that young man, the leader concludes, he will repent what he has lost, search for us, and never find us. The main conflict Hesse brings to our attention appears to be the disconnect between art and the intellect on the one hand, and the conventional, immediate, and here-and-now on the other.

Still, an open, seeking mind comes with a price. H.H. is disenchanted and adrift, certainly, yet he also seems diminished and "not all there." In fact, I didn't even think he had much of a personality beyond his feelings of loss and desire to write about the League. We get no description of his past before the League, or where he currently lives or what he has done since he left the League. H.H. is a cipher: who is he other than a wayward disciple of some vaguely-described secret society?

Back at the Bremgarten, H.H. had asked Leo why the artists present seemed only "half-alive" while their creations were so vivid. (The Greek poet Longus, for example, spends the entire party writing in a book while dragons and colorful snakes fly from his letters and whirl about the room.) It is, Leo responds, because the artist, like the mother for her child, gives all their strength and passion to their offspring, and watches the offspring grow, from an idea existing only in the mind to a physical creation that awes the world. "He who wishes to live long must serve, but he who wishes to rule does not live long." Leo, far more than H.H., is an animated, fully-realized character who reveals both innocent joy and humble wisdom. Leo has been the focal point of H.H.'s obsession with the long-lost League: it was his disappearance that precipitated H.H.'s decline and it is he who H.H. now seeks to contact. They are like Haller and Hermine, like Emil and Demian: two separate beings who are compliment one another and are united in their opposing qualities.

Years later, in the novel's present day, H.H. finds the League again and discovers that, far from a simple servant, Leo is the League's President! And while H.H. flails about desperately seeking purpose, Leo has achieved true greatness and piece of mind. Only in the very last pages does H.H. - Hermann Hesse's surrogate? - arrive at the true meaning of his downfall: as he decreases, so does Leo increase. Such is the way of creation. H.H. suddenly feels inexpressibly weary and wishes to find somewhere to sleep.


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