Short Stories, Irish literature, Classics, Modern Fiction, Contemporary Literary Fiction, The Japanese Novel, Post Colonial Asian Fiction, The Legacy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and quality Historical Novels are Among my Interests

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Journey to the East by Hermann Hesse 1932 - Orientalizing and Hesse

It has been a long time since I have read a novel by Hermann Hesse, at least forty years.  I can still recall the spiritual journey of Shidhartha.  I can bring up a lot of the ultimate counter culture novel, Stephenwolf and I would still enjoy playing The Glass Bead Game.  Based on my recollection, a lot more works by Hesse have been translated into English since I last read one of his novels.  This is a very good thing as his ideas are much more complicated and subtle than they appear at first.  

I wanted to read a novel,by Hesse as part of my participation in German Literature III.  I also wanted to read one that was not terribly long.  Journey to the East is only 128 pages in my edition and carries on his concerns with the decay of Western culture and his belief in what he sees as the wisdom of the East.  At some point, I don't doubt this has been pondered by academics, I need to step back and wonder how much of his opus is based on Orientalization, the ideas of Jung and Spengler, and whether or not I enjoy reading him for his intrinsic interest and how much of my pleasure in reading Journey to the East is nostalgia.  I will read more new to me Hesse and may reread my old Hesse.  

Journey to the East is not the master work my three classics are but it is for sure worth reading as a fourth Hesse.  Like his other works it focuses on "secret wisdom" obtainable though a profound study of the teachings of eastern masters.  1932, when it was first published in Germany, was a very difficult year for Germany and much of the world.  Huge numbers were out of work, many people were deeply dissatisfied with received forms of wisdom, cults were every where and the darkest one of all was soon to take over Germany. The underlying ideology of Nazism was also a form of a journey to a fantasy of the wisdom of the ancient east.  It also focused on guru like great leaders and extraordinary teachers of opaque and obscure wisdom, just like Journey to the East and other core Hesse texts do. Hesse kind of also, in my opinion, plays on the vanity of his readers who see themselves as penetrating beyond the thought patterns of ordinary people.  In all of his works I have read there is a contempt for the mundane world and a sense of elitism based on a grasp of secret teachings.  

Journey to the East is told from the point of view of a man who is a member of an ancient league seeking wisdom through a real and virtual journey to the east.  Among the members have been Rilke, Don Quixote, Plato, Pythagoras, Mozart, Tristram Shandy and Puss in Boots as well as the ferryman from Shidhartha.  When one joins the league, you are sworn to secrecy.  The central character of the novel is confused about the league, is it necessary to physically go east to find true wisdom or is the east all around us.  He decides to write an exposé on his experiences with the league.  There is also some interesting plot lines involving a missing lowly servant who turns out to be the president of the league.  There is a scene at a league meeting in which we first learn the servant is the league president when he appears in magnificent garb.  (I admit when I read the description of the garb and the meeting I did not think divine teachings I thought this just might be silly).

It is hard to pin down this work, and the rest of Hesse, as "meaning something". Just when you have a theory, Hesse undercuts you.  

What Hesse work should I next read?


Fred said...

mel u,

I have just finished rereading Magister Ludi or the Glass Bead Game, and I would recommend that you reread it also. In this, his final work, he repudiates much of his earlier belief in secret or esoteric wisdom and argues we need to involve ourselves with the mundane world.

Mel u said...

Fred, thanks for your comment as always- I do hope to reread The Glass Bead Game -

Arenel said...

This one sounds really crazy! I'm yet to read any Hesse, but I will probably start with the Glass Bead Game :)