Uncle Joe and the Perils of Good Intentions


April 8, 2019

 Uncle Joe and the Perils of Good Intentions

Americans have been on a long road trip with Joe Biden. The former Vice-President’s hot mikes, his “handsiness,” “gaffes,” and “loose-lipped and emotive manner” are all a matter of family lore.  Everybody knows a story or two or ten of Uncle Joe whispering in a woman’s ear, clasping her waist, or smelling her hair.

As Biden, now seventy-six, prepares to enter the 2020 Presidential race, several women have come forward to describe deeply uncomfortable situations involving his incursions into their personal space.

What’s changed is not the severity or nature of the offenses—no one has accused Biden of sexual misconduct. It’s just that the voices narrating the scenes have switched, so that we’re looking at the same gestures through a different lens. We’re looking through the lens of Lucy Flores, who wrote in The Cut that her encounter with Biden before a campaign event in 2014 left her feeling “uneasy, gross, and confused.” Or the lens of Amy Lappos, who said that, at a 2009 fund-raiser, Biden grabbed her around the neck and rubbed noses with her. “It’s not affection,” Lappos told the Hartford Courant. “It’s sexism or misogyny.”

On Wednesday, Biden tweeted a video acknowledging the accusations. “The boundaries of protecting personal space have been reset, and I get it. . . . I’ll be much more mindful,” he said. But he stopped short of apologizing. “I’ve always tried to make a human connection,” he said. “Life is about connecting to people,” he also said. The statement gently implied that Biden’s critics were fundamentally untethered—misunderstanding not only him but also the higher purpose of their time on earth. On Friday, Biden appeared more defiant. “I’m not sorry for anything that I have ever done,” he said. “I’ve never been disrespectful intentionally to a man or a woman—that’s not the reputation I’ve had since I was in high school, for God’s sake.” The same day, at a conference of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, in Washington, D.C., Biden joked about getting permission from the union’s president, Lonnie Stephenson, before putting his arm around Stephenson’s shoulder; then he made a similar joke about a child who joined him onstage.

What Biden perceives as intimacy, as empathic connection, may be, in fact, polite forbearance. Every woman knows men who remind her of Joe Biden. (If familiarity is his brand, then women are all too familiar.) These men radiate physicality and friendly exuberance, like messy Labradors—and who wants to seem uptight to a Labrador? Biden’s charisma, for those who see it as such, depends on him being slightly naughty, and then on us discerning his good (or at least harmless) intentions and giving him a pass. It might feel small and cruel not to give him a pass. On some level, a politician as intuitive and personable as Biden must realize that people dislike feeling small and cruel.

Although Biden has been in the public eye for nearly fifty years, his portrayal in the press as a well-meaning rogue is only about a decade old. He has always been a fundamentally sympathetic character, owing to the terrible family tragedies he has endured: the death of his first wife and baby daughter in a car accident, in 1972, and, in 2015, the death, from cancer, of his forty-six-year-old son, Beau. Still, Biden was long seen as a standard politico: slippery, telegenic, vaguely compromised. His first Presidential campaign flamed out, in 1987, owing to his plagiarism both on the stump and back in law school. In 1991, he oversaw Clarence Thomas’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings, where Anita Hill faced an all-white, all-male panel of interrogators, and where he declined to subpoena at least three witnesses who could have corroborated Thomas’s pattern of harassing behavior. “Biden was oily and unctuous throughout,” Howard Rosenberg wrote in the Los Angeles Times. (“I’ve worked my whole life to empower women,” Biden said in the video on Wednesday.)

Only in 2007, as he considered entering the Presidential race (“I’m a tactile politician and I trust my feel, and I’m telling you I think there’s some pace on the ball”), did the word “blundering” start to appear in coverage of Biden, partly because of a remark Biden made about the then candidate Barack Obama. “I mean, you got the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy,” Biden said. As similar anecdotes began to surface—Biden also referred to Obama as “Barack America,” and encouraged a man in a wheelchair to “stand up” and let the crowd see him—the main cliché about Biden became that he was infelicitously blurty. Media narratives coalesced around words like “quirky,” “anachronistic,” “effusive,” “undisciplined,” “garrulous,” and “folksy.” Wolf Blitzer highlighted the senator’s penchant for “off-the-cuff comments”; Politico called him “a reliable fount of gaffes, awkward statements, and hyperbole.”

On January 20, 2009, a new narrative twist arrived, with an article in The Onion titled “Joe Biden Shows Up to Inauguration with Ponytail.” The piece marked the début of the comedy Web site’s Diamond Joe character: a muscle-car-loving, Pearl Jam–singing playboy prone to causing trouble at Dave & Buster’s. (Sample headlines: “Biden to Cool His Heels in Mexico for Awhile,” “White House Infested with Bedbugs After Biden Brings in Recliner Off the Curb.”) The Onion’s fictional Biden made hypermasculine tropes look not only unthreatening but delightful. They were the satirical equivalent of petting the Labrador on the head. A slick, womanizing Biden, a shirtless Biden who soaped up his Trans Am on the White House driveway and starred in Hennessy ads (“Sensual, Powerful, Biden”), was, oddly, a familiar Biden—which is partly why the joke worked so well for so long. (It also worked because of the strong contrast with the impeccably statesmanlike Obama, a deft comedian who was, unlike Biden, always in on his own joke.)

By 2010, the “wacky uncle” meme was in full flower. “Joe Biden,” a reporter wrote for the Washington Times, “has acquired . . . immunity. He regularly says things ranging from goofy to merely silly to outrageous, but the passage of the years has made him a lovable old uncle that nobody any longer takes seriously.” In Marie Claire, Alexandra Jacobs described Biden as glad-handing “every politico, getting in close, squeezing their shoulders.” Of the candidate and his second wife, Jacobs wrote, “Joe and Jill Biden exude a marital heat uncommon in buttoned-up Beltway circles.” Jacobs also quoted the Obama aide Valerie Jarrett: “They’re very, very outwardly demonstrative.” (Even Jill Biden, in her forthcoming memoir, admits that, early in their relationship,

Joe’s ebullient courtship left her feeling “strange and uncomfortable,” and that she “sometimes found all that affection draining.”) “Affectionate and freewheeling,” the Times called Uncle Joe, in 2013. The reporter Amy Chozick revealed that, when speaking to his colleague Hillary Clinton on the phone, during President Obama’s first term, Biden sometimes signed off with the words “I love you, darling.”

The next significant update to the Biden mythology came in 2015. A viral photo of the Vice-President massaging the shoulders of Stephanie Carter, the wife of Defense Secretary Ash Carter, during Carter’s swearing-in, caused pundits to snarkily invoke the “ick factor” and the “yuck factor.” (In a Medium post, Carter defended Biden’s “attempt to support me.”) The hosts of the “Today” show pulled together a slide show of images of Biden cozying up to women. “Joe Biden is the most entertaining Vice-President ever,” Carson Daly said, while Willie Geist observed that “he’s getting a little handsy,” and Al Roker smirked at the “Vice-Presidential magic fingers.” (These types of segments are what Flores is invoking when she writes, “Despite the steady stream of pictures and the occasional article, Biden retained his title of America’s Favorite Uncle. On occasion, that title was downgraded to America’s Creepy Uncle, but that in and of itself implied a certain level of acceptance.”)

If Biden is not sorry for anything he has ever done, it’s in part because most men and some women have been telling him for a long time that he has nothing to be sorry for, or, if he does, that it is mitigated by its entertainment value. And it’s conceivable that there is nothing inherently wrong with a kiss on the back of the head. But it’s irrefutable that there is nothing sacrosanct about it, either. A nose rub is a curious hill to die on. Biden’s identity is predicated on harmlessness, and he must cling to that identity even after harm has been demonstrated. Biden may believe that Lucy Flores, Amy Lappos, and other women felt demeaned by their encounters with him, but he also believes that their misunderstanding of his good intentions forfeits their claims to our sympathy. His brand is empathic connection, and to maintain it he must resist empathically connecting with the discomfort and embarrassment of the women he attempted to empathically connect with, using his hands and mouth.

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If some Democratic women still have reservoirs of affection for Uncle Joe, they may be sourced in part from one of his greatest political performances: when he faced off against Sarah Palin in the Vice-Presidential debate in October, 2008. In her preview of the event, the Slate writer Dahlia Lithwick offered Biden some prescient advice. Palin “will attack, and you will smile,” Lithwick wrote. “She will make jokes, and you will laugh. Do whatever you need to do—take four Percocet, deploy Zen breathing techniques—to prevent yourself from attacking this woman.” That is exactly how Biden proceeded. The beaming and genial man who showed up onstage deflected Palin’s offensives with such pleasantness that one would have thought he’d spent a lifetime learning to prioritize and reflect back other people’s feelings. It was the first Vice-Presidential debate since 1984 to feature a woman, and Biden flipped the gender script. He was deferential, ever-smiling, on point. He performed polite forbearance. He played the girl. One wonders if he remembers what that felt like.

Theresa May’s Government Lives on—and So Does the Brexit Chaos


January 18,2019

Theresa May’s Government Lives on—and So Does the Brexit Chaos

If insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result, the British Prime Minister, Theresa May, and the other members of the government should be confined to a psychiatric hospital. Having narrowly survived a no-confidence vote in the House of Commons on Wednesday, in which a loss would almost certainly have led to a general election, May and her colleagues are now looking to resurrect her Brexit plan, or a slightly refined version of it, which was subjected to an overwhelming defeat in the Commons on Tuesday evening.

With just ten weeks until March 29th, when Britain is supposed to leave the European Union, May is hoping that the prospect of the country crashing out without any withdrawal agreement—an outcome that could cause shortages of essential medicines and industrial parts, as well as bedlam at the Channel ports—will persuade a majority of parliamentarians to back her plan as the least bad option available. Of course, this is precisely the same logic that the Prime Minister was relying on when she delayed a vote on the Brexit plan until Monday, after the New Year, and she ended up suffering what was widely described as the biggest loss ever inflicted on a sitting British Prime Minister. But, after what she has been through in the past couple of years, May can perhaps be forgiven for getting a little addled. The entire country is a little addled. More than a little.

In making the closing argument for the motion of no confidence during Wednesday’s debate, Tom Watson, the deputy leader of the Labour Party, was careful to acknowledge the efforts that May had already made to solve the political equivalent of Goldbach’s conjecture. “I think the country recognizes that effort,” Watson told the packed chamber. “In fact, the country feels genuinely sorry for the Prime Minister. I feel sorry for the Prime Minister. But she cannot confuse pity for political legitimacy, sympathy for sustainable support.” May’s strategy had failed utterly, Watson said, and “the cruellest truth of all is that she doesn’t possess the necessary political skills, empathy, ability, and most crucially the policy, to lead this country any longer.” The question facing the House, Watson said, was whether it is “worth giving this failed Prime Minister another chance to go back pleading to Brussels, another opportunity to humiliate the United Kingdom, another chance to waste a few weeks. The answer must be a resounding no.”

Making the closing argument for the government, Michael Gove, the minister for the environment, sought to divert attention from the humiliating setback that May had suffered, and the fact that more than a hundred Conservative M.P.s had rejected her plan. He turned his invective to Watson’s boss, Jeremy Corbyn, the leftist leader of the Labour Party, whom the Tories still view as their trump card. After noting that Watson hadn’t mentioned Corbyn during his speech, Gove, who is known at Westminster as a clever and slippery fellow, gleefully caricatured many of the Labour leader’s positions, claiming that Corbyn rejects Britain’s role in NATO and wants to get rid of the country’s nuclear deterrent. (A longtime antiwar activist, Corbyn has held these positions in the past, but official Labour policy, which Corbyn now supports, rejects them.) “No way can this country ever allow that man to be our Prime Minister,” Gove said, to loud cheers from the Conservative benches.

Since ten M.P.s from Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party, which holds the balance of power in a narrowly divided Commons, had agreed to support the government, Gove knew that he and the Conservative government were on safe ground. But although the subsequent vote—of three hundred and twenty-five votes to three hundred and six—assured May’s survival, it merely confirmed the Brexit stalemate. A bit later in the evening, the Prime Minister emerged from 10 Downing Street to say that she had invited M.P.s from all parties to meet with her in an effort to find a way forward. Corbyn quickly rejected the offer, saying that the Labour Party wouldn’t join the talks unless May explicitly ruled out a no-deal Brexit—an option favored by some right-wing Conservative M.P.s.

So the show goes on, a very dark comedy. The hardline Conservative Brexiteers, led by the faux aristocrat Jacob Rees-Mogg, are encouraged because they have defeated May’s plan, and they know the default position is that Britain will crash out on March 29th.

Like a First World War general, May is soldiering ahead. Corbyn, relieved for now of the alarming prospect of having to step into May’s shoes, still says that he wants to honor the result of the referendum—in which many working-class, Labour-supporting areas voted Leave—but also to negotiate a better exit deal. (How he’d manage this, he hasn’t said.) But many Labour Party members—a large majority of them, according to recent polls—want to stay in the E.U., and seventy-one Labour M.P.s have now expressed support for the People’s Vote campaign, which is advocating a second referendum. In the coming days, Corbyn will face strong pressure to clarify his position and commit to another referendum.

 

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How and when will it all end? On Thursday, the government announced that Parliament would debate and vote on May’s “Plan B” on Tuesday, January 29th. M.P.s who spoke with the Prime Minister said that she still thinks she can tweak her deal and win, but few people outside of Downing Street believe it. The E.U. has ruled out making any more significant concessions. Both major parties are horribly split. And when the pollsters present the British public with the three options on offer—a no-deal Brexit, a Brexit on May’sterms, or a decision to Remain—there is no clear majority for any of them.

“I cannot recall Britain falling so low,” Philip Stephens, a veteran political commentator for the Financial Times, wrote in Thursday’s paper. “The Suez debacle in 1956? As supplicant at the door of the IMF 20 years later? These were moments of national shame. They were moments also that passed. The impact of Brexit has been cumulative. Each chapter in the story heaps on more humiliation. However it ends, the damage will not be quickly undone.”

And who, ultimately, is to blame? Before the vote on Wednesday, a BBC News crew approached David Cameron, the former Conservative Prime Minister who decided to hold the 2016 Brexit referendum, near his home in West London. He said that he didn’t regret that decision, even though the result went against his wishes. (He was a Remainer.) Then he set off on his morning jog.

A previous version of this post misstated the day that the vote on Theresa May’s Brexit plan took place.

https://www.newyorker.com/news

The Philosopher Redefining Equality


 

January 4, 2019

Annals of Thought

The Philosopher Redefining Equality

Elizabeth Anderson thinks we’ve misunderstood the basis of a free and fair society.

The Closing of The Weekly Standard Makes Neo-conservatism’s Exile from the Republican Party Official


December 17, 2018

The Closing of The Weekly Standard

For more than two decades, The Weekly Standard was the house organ of neo-conservatism. William Kristol, one of the magazine’s co-founders and the walking embodiment of its politics, was a leading champion of the Iraq War and of Sarah Palin’s rise in national politics.

In  the pre-Trump era, especially during the George W. Bush years, he was a conservative celebrity in Washington and a fixture on Fox News. But Kristol recoiled from the ugliness and political contradictions of Trumpism, and his magazine followed his lead. In the summer of 2016, the day after the Republican National Convention wrapped up, Stephen Hayes, Kristol’s successor as the magazine’s editor-in-chief, published an article titled “Donald Trump Is Crazy, and So Is the GOP for Embracing Him.” On Friday, The Weekly Standard’s corporate owner, Clarity Media Group, decided to shut the whole thing down. The magazine’s employees were told to clear out their desks by the end of the day.

The move came a few days after the first public reports of tensions between The Weekly Standard and Clarity over the magazine’s opposition to the Trump ward shift of the Republican Party.

The magazine’s obstinance stood in contrast to Clarity’s other D.C. media property, The Washington Examiner, which has been friendlier toward the Administration. The New Yorker’s Benjamin Wallace-Wells, who wrote about Kristol and Trumpism earlier this year, thinks that the magazine’s closure is the clearest sign yet that neo-conservatism has been cast out of the Republican coalition. “Pillar after pillar of conservatism has collapsed in the face of Trump,” he told me. “But the neocons have been pretty forthright. They stood up and have argued against him.”

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Trump celebrates collapse of The Weekly Standard as the conservative magazine’s reporters lose jobs over holiday season

The question is whether the G.O.P. has any room for dissent at the moment. “Within the conservative movement and the Republican coalition, the degree of orthodoxy, obsequiousness, that this suggests—I think it’s real. I think there isn’t very much space for Trump-critical thought,” Wallace-Wells said. As the publishing industry struggles financially in the Internet age, the closure of any outlet raises questions about business models and sustainability. But small magazines have different economies than daily newspapers or big book publishers. Philip Anschutz, who controls Clarity, has an estimated fortune of eleven billion dollars. “It’s not that there’s not an audience anymore,” Wallace-Wells said. “The reason is just that an owner said, ‘Nope, sorry, I’m not doing this anymore.’ ”

https://www.newyorker.com

 

 

 

 

Hesse’s Arrested Development


December 14, 2018

 Hesse’s Arrested Development

The stories Hesse tells appeal to young people, because they keep faith with the powerful emotions of adolescence, which most adults forget or outgrow.

It has to be said, there are no points to be won from liking Hesse nowadays.” This rueful assessment of the novelist Hermann Hesse, quoted in the opening pages of Gunnar Decker’s new biography, “Hesse: The Wanderer and His Shadow” (Harvard), appeared in an obituary in 1962; but it could just as well have been pronounced yesterday, or a hundred years ago. Ever since he published his first novel, in 1904, Hesse has been one of those odd writers who manage to be at the same time canonical—in 1946, he won the Nobel Prize in Literature—and almost perpetually unfashionable among critics. The great German modernists who were his contemporaries mostly disdained him: “A little man,” according to the poet Gottfried Benn; “He displays the foibles of a greater writer than he actually is,” the novelist Robert Musil said. In America today, Hesse is usually regarded by highbrows as a writer for adolescents. Liking him is a good sign at age fifteen, a bad one by age twenty.

For many readers, Hesse’s novels are among the first serious fiction they encounter—a literary gateway drug. This was particularly so during the international Hesse craze of the nineteen-sixties, when the books became passports to the counterculture and Timothy Leary advised, “Before your LSD session, read ‘Siddhartha’ and ‘Steppenwolf.’ ” But, long before then, adolescents were the core of Hesse’s readership, a fact that sometimes irritated him. His first novel—“Peter Camenzind,” the tale of a moody, nature-loving young man who drops out of bourgeois society—was taken up as an inspiration by the Wandervogel, a back-to-nature youth movement that promoted what Hesse himself derided as “campfire Romanticism.” For Peter to inspire a mass of followers, Hesse complained, was a misunderstanding of the whole point of the character: “He does not want to follow the path trodden by many, but to resolutely plow his own furrow. . . . He is not made for the collective life.”

That book was at least written by a young man about the problems of the young. “Steppenwolf,” on the other hand, tells the story of an aging intellectual’s midlife crisis; you don’t need the clue offered by the initials of Harry Haller, the book’s unhappy hero, to make the identification with the author. It seems strange that such a book would become a bible of the sixties, inspiring the name of the band behind “Born to Be Wild.” Hesse didn’t live quite long enough to see what the sixties made of him, but he had seen similar cults before, and he didn’t trust them. “I often have cause to get a little annoyed at schoolboys reading and enthusing over ‘Steppenwolf,’ ” he wrote, in 1955. “After all, the fact is that I wrote this book shortly before my fiftieth birthday.”

Still, Hesse’s young readers, then and now, were not wrong to feel that he was speaking directly to them. The stories he tells appeal to young people because they keep faith with the powerful emotions of adolescence, which most adults forget or outgrow—the woundedness, the exaltation, the enormous demands on life. The young Emil Sinclair, the narrator of “Demian,” is a good example of Hesse’s totally unironic self-seriousness: “I have been and still am a seeker, but I have ceased to question stars and books. I have begun to listen to the teachings my blood whispers to me. My story is not a pleasant one; it is neither sweet nor harmonious, as invented stories are; it has the taste of nonsense and chaos, of madness and dreams—like the lives of all men who stop deceiving themselves.”

Many young men, in particular, see a glamorous reflection of themselves in the typical Hesse hero—a sensitive, brooding man who cannot find a place for himself in ordinary society. This figure might live in India in the age of the Buddha, like Siddhartha, or in Germany in the Jazz Age, like Harry Haller, or in the Middle Ages, like Goldmund in “Narcissus and Goldmund.” Whatever the setting, his path will generally feature the same landmarks. He will be plucked out of his childhood surroundings and sent to an élite school, where he will suffer deeply. He will rebel against conventional ideas of success and refuse to pursue any kind of career, combining downward mobility with spiritual striving. Often, like Peter Camenzind, he will turn to drink, regarding alcoholism as a kind of noble infirmity. “The god of wine loves me and tempts me to drink only when his spirit and mine enter into friendly dialogue,” Peter says.

Because the Hesse hero occupies a precarious position outside human society, he is at the same time extremely arrogant—Siddhartha refers to the normal human beings around him as “the child people”—and full of self-contempt. No wonder he is much given to thoughts of suicide, whether or not he actually commits it. For, as Hesse explains in “Steppenwolf,” “to call suicides only those who actually destroy themselves is false. . . . What is peculiar to the suicide is that his ego, rightly or wrongly, is felt to be an extremely dangerous, dubious, and doomed germ of nature; that he is always in his own eyes exposed to an extraordinary risk.”

The idea that one’s inner life is unusually dangerous and risky is one that most adults grow out of—partly because we get calmer with age, partly because we come to recognize the full reality of other people. But Hesse’s heroes are punk Peter Pans—they don’t grow up, and despise people who do, because they see maturation as a surrender to conformity and accommodation. Things that most people learn to put up with strike Harry Haller as the fetters of a living death:

Without really wanting to at all, they pay calls and carry on conversations, sit out their hours at desks and on office chairs; and it is all compulsory, mechanical and against the grain, and it could all be done or left undone just as well by machines; and indeed it is this never-ceasing machinery that prevents their being, like me, the critics of their own lives and recognizing the stupidity and shallowness, the hopeless tragedy and waste of the lives they lead.

Most people, in other words, are what Holden Caulfield, another favorite avatar of teen-age readers, called “phonies.” What torments Hesse is the difficulty of being authentic—of staying true to who you really are, despite the enormous pressures of alienation and conformity. “If I search retrospectively”—in his own writing—“for a common thread of meaning, then I can indeed find one,” Hesse wrote near the end of his life. “A defense of (sometimes even a desperate plea on behalf of) the human personality, the individual.”

Decker’s biography shows that Hesse’s life was an uneasy compromise between his spiritual absolutism, which pushed him in the direction of irascible isolation, and his human needs, which encumbered him with wives, children, and houses that he never quite wanted or accepted. Married three times, he was unhappy as a husband and as a father, and the characters in his books mostly shun both roles. His last novel, “The Glass Bead Game,” is a futuristic fantasy about an academy of scholars who are all male, and all single.

It is not surprising that Hesse would remain attuned to adolescence, since his teen-age years, in the eighteen-nineties, were the most dramatic and consequential period of his life. It was then that Hesse was first forced to confront the entire weight of the institutions ranged against him—family, church, school, society—and do battle with them in the name of defending his individuality. He won, but not without sustaining deep wounds; in a sense, his fiction is a series of reënactments of this primal struggle.

From a very young age, it was clear that there was a mismatch between Hesse and his family. He was born in 1877, in Calw, a small town in the Black Forest, in southwest Germany, where his father and grandfather worked together in a Christian publishing house. On both sides, he was descended from devout Pietists—members of a German Protestant sect that, like the Methodists in England, rejected the established church in favor of a fervently inward, evangelical striving for virtue. In Decker’s words, Pietism “regarded as the devil’s work everything that did not serve the ultimate purpose of preparing one for the kingdom of God in the hereafter.” When it came to child-rearing, this conviction translated, at least in the Hesse family, into a concerted effort to break the young Hermann’s will, to teach him the docility and submissiveness that God demanded.

Yet in Hermann this religious force met an immovable object. “I was the child of pious parents, whom I loved tenderly and would have done even more so had they not made me aware from a very early age of the Fourth Commandment. Unfortunately commandments have always had a catastrophic effect on me,” Hesse recalled in an autobiographical sketch. Compelled to honor his father and mother, he instinctively refused. In one incident recorded in his mother’s diary, the three-year-old Hesse put an iron nail in his mouth, and, when he was told he could die if he swallowed it, he stubbornly replied, “I don’t care! If I die and go to my grave, I’ll just take a couple of picture-books with me!” Some years later, his father contemplated sending him away “to an institution or to be raised by another family.” For his part, Hesse recalled that, as a child, he would dream of setting the family’s house on fire and of murdering his father.

These tensions boiled over in 1891, when the fourteen-year-old Hesse enrolled in Maulbronn Monastery, an élite state-run boarding school housed in a medieval abbey; its mission was to recruit the region’s brightest boys and turn them into Lutheran ministers. Getting into Maulbronn required passing a gruelling examination, an experience that marked Hesse so deeply that he returned to it in several novels. Indeed, many of his books are not just novels of education—the Bildungsroman that had been a classic genre in European literature since Goethe—but specifically novels of schooling. Each of the dormitories at Maulbronn, for instance, had a grandiose name; Hesse lived in Hellas, a tribute to the school’s conventional idolatry of ancient Greece. Fifteen years later, when he came to fictionalize his school days in the novel “Beneath the Wheel,” the main character goes to just such a school and lives in a dormitory called Hellas. And thirty-seven years after that, in “The Glass Bead Game,” Hesse told the story of Joseph Knecht, who once again lives in a dormitory called Hellas.

“Beneath the Wheel” assigns many of Hesse’s own experiences to Hans Giebenrath, a gifted boy who is emotionally destroyed by the pressure of studying to get into a Maulbronn-like school. He passes the examination, but only by cramming so intensively that his boyish love of life is extinguished. He is soon overcome by apathy and despair, and has to drop out; in the end he drowns in a river, possibly a suicide. The conclusion of the book channels the self-pity that Hesse remembered so well: “All nausea, shame and suffering had passed from him; the cold bluish autumn night looked down on the dark shape of his drifting body and the dark water played with his hands and hair and bloodless lips.” (The very title of the book is an indictment, and “Beneath the Wheel” belongs with other German works of the period, such as Frank Wedekind’s “Spring Awakening” and Heinrich Mann’s “The Blue Angel,” as an exposé of a soul- and libido-crushing educational system.)

Hesse avoided Hans Giebenrath’s fate, but only barely. In March, 1892, he ran away from Maulbronn and was reported missing. He returned after just a day and, as Decker writes, truancy hardly sounds like an unprecedented crime for a fourteen-year-old. But the reaction from school and family was extreme. It speaks volumes about his parents’ religious sensibility, for instance, that his mother’s response to the news of his disappearance was to hope that he was dead: “I was very relieved when I finally got the feeling . . . that he was in God’s merciful hands,” she wrote in her diary.

Unfortunately, he returned alive, a bigger headache than ever. Hesse had to leave school, and his parents, unable to cope with him, resorted to having him committed to a mental asylum. Facing the prospect of indefinite, possibly lifelong incarceration, he bombarded his parents with heartbreaking letters: “I loathe everything here from the bottom of my heart. It is like it has been designed especially to show a young man how wretched life and all its aspects are.”

After several months, Hesse was released on a trial basis, and he was able to attend a local high school. But the damage to his relationship with his parents was permanent: when his mother died, in 1902, he refused to attend the funeral. And the damage to his career seemed equally irreparable. At Maulbronn, he was on a fast track to a prestigious and secure job as a minister or a teacher. Now college was out of the question, and Hesse became an apprentice to a bookseller. To his parents—often, surely, to himself—it must have looked as if he had failed for good.

 

But Hesse’s genius was to embrace this failure and make it his inspiration. “In the beginning was the myth” is the first sentence of “Peter Camenzind,” the book that rescued Hesse from poverty and obscurity; and many of his books are retellings of the same myth, one that Hesse devised to interpret his own unhappy existence. Indeed, Hesse’s novels are best understood as successive versions of a spiritual autobiography—a form that, ironically, was a staple of Pietist literature. “The only way I can conceive” of writing, Hesse once said, is “as an act of confession”—a statement that could have been endorsed by his paternal grandfather, a doctor who left behind a memoir in two volumes. Indeed, in rebelling against his Pietist upbringing, Hesse ended up recapitulating its central themes: he never lost the habit of rigorous self-examination or his feelings of unworthiness and his longing for an experience of the divine.

The difference was that he could not imagine finding that experience within Pietism. “If I had grown up in a respectable religious tradition, for example as a Catholic, I would probably have stuck to the faith throughout my life,” he explained wryly. Instead, he was driven to look for spiritual wisdom in other traditions, always admiring figures who seemed to defy dogma and doctrine. Francis of Assisi was an early inspiration: Hesse wrote a short biography of the saint who preached to the animals and spoke of the sun and the moon as his brother and sister.

He soon found himself looking farther afield—especially to the East, to the religious traditions of India. This, too, was a kind of atavism—his maternal grandfather, a missionary, had spent many years in India, and his mother had partly grown up there. But, while they went to spread a Christian faith they knew was the true one, Hesse went as a seeker. In 1911, he made an impulsive journey to Ceylon and Singapore, which proved disappointing at the time—he could not get used to the climate—but laid the groundwork for his later book “Journey to the East,” which imagines a spiritual secret society that includes the great minds of Europe and Asia.

Image result for “Siddhartha.”

 

The book that connects Hesse with India for most readers, of course, is “Siddhartha.” Published in 1922, in the wake of a world war that had destroyed and discredited European civilization, “Siddhartha” takes refuge in a distant place and time—India in the age of the Buddha, in the fifth century B.C. In this short book, Hesse boils down his archetypal story to its mythic core. Once again, we meet a sensitive, gifted young man—Siddhartha, the son of a Brahman priest—who rejects his family, its religion, and its aspirations, and sets out to discover the truth for himself.

Along the way, he experiences the extremes of deprivation, as an ascetic, wandering monk, and of satiety, as the wealthy lover of the beautiful courtesan Kamala. But he remains unhappy in every condition, until he finds that the only true wisdom is nonattachment, a resigned acceptance of everything that happens. Life cannot be fixed in place; it flows, like the river where Siddhartha receives his revelation:

And when Siddhartha listened attentively to this river, to this thousand-voiced song, when he listened neither for the sorrow nor for the laughter, when he did not attach his soul to any one voice and enter into it with his ego but rather heard all of them, heard the whole, the oneness—then the great song of the thousand voices consisted only of a single word: Om, perfection.

“Siddhartha” appears to be a kind of wisdom writing—a teaching. Yet the central message of the book is the impossibility of learning anything that matters from a guru or teacher. Siddhartha’s revelation sounds very Buddhist, and Hesse borrowed the character’s name from Siddhartha Gautama, the founder of Buddhism. But, in the book’s most important scene, Siddhartha actually encounters the Buddha—and spurns him. While his more timid and conventional friend, Govinda, becomes a Buddhist monk, Siddhartha knows that any kind of religion—even a true and admirable one—is an obstacle to enlightenment. “No one will ever attain redemption through doctrine!” he exclaims. After all, the Buddha didn’t become the Buddha by following the Buddha; he forged his own unique path. Hesse’s moral is similar to that of a famous Zen koan: “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.”

Hesse’s emphasis on self-reliance, with its echoes of Emerson—another writer fascinated by Eastern religions—helped to make him a trusted guide for a generation of readers whose faith in institutions was destroyed by the First World War. Indeed, Hesse’s reputation as a sage rests mainly on the books he wrote after the war—starting with “Demian,” in 1919, and continuing through “Siddhartha” and “Steppenwolf,” in the nineteen-twenties.

Although Hesse was a German subject, he was a resident of Switzerland—he lived there on and off during his early life, and permanently starting in 1912—and he viewed the war fever that infected Germany from an ironic distance. (He nonetheless volunteered for the German Army, but was rejected because of his weak vision, the result of a childhood fireworks accident.) Early in the war, Hesse published an essay in which, while he still expressed hope for a German victory, he insisted on the need to preserve humane values and communication between nations. “This disastrous world war should serve to drum into us more insistently than ever the realization that love is better than hate,” he wrote. Even so mild an avowal earned Hesse the permanent hostility of many Germans. For the rest of his life, he would be attacked by incensed nationalists, both in the press and in regular deliveries of hate mail.

By the same token, in the nineteen-thirties Hesse’s hostility to Hitler was automatic. Nazism, with its blood sacrifice of the individual to the state and the race, represented the opposite of everything he believed in. In March, 1933, seven weeks after Hitler took power, Hesse wrote to a correspondent in Germany, “It is the duty of spiritual types to stand alongside the spirit and not to sing along when the people start belting out the patriotic songs their leaders have ordered them to sing.” Still, while he hosted and helped many émigré writers—including Thomas Mann, a good friend—Hesse never threw himself into anti-Nazi politics. Decker points out that, in the nineteen-thirties, he made a quiet statement of resistance by reviewing and publicizing the work of banned Jewish authors, including Kafka. But, tellingly, his own books were not banned by the Nazis until 1943.

It was Thomas Mann who, at the end of the First World War, published a book called “Reflections of a Nonpolitical Man”; but the title would have applied much better to Hesse, for whom being nonpolitical was a first principle. After all, if the world and the self are illusions, it is delusive to believe that they can be redeemed. To those who wanted him to take a more public stand against Hitler, Hesse replied that anti-fascism was as much a betrayal of the self as fascism: “What’s it got to do with me?” he asked. “I can’t change a thing. What I can do, though, is offer a little succor to those who, like me, strive in everything that they think and do to undermine the whole filthy business of striving after power and political supremacy.”

This attitude to politics and history is characteristic of what Hegel called “the beautiful soul”—one who remains unstained by the world because he declines to engage with it. The phrase was invented by Goethe, who used it in his “Confessions of a Beautiful Soul,” a fictional memoir in which a Pietist noblewoman describes her spiritual life. Hesse, by analogy, might be called an ugly soul, one who is so occupied with his own spiritual distempers that the outside world barely makes an impression.

This is also a key to Hesse’s appeal to young readers, who seldom see beyond the limits of the self. But the complete integrity of Hesse’s self-absorption is what guarantees the permanence of his work. As long as people struggle with the need to be themselves, and the difficulty of doing so, he will be a living presence—which is even better, perhaps, than being a great writer. ♦

 

This article appears in the print edition of the November 19, 2018, issue, with the headline “The Art of Failure.”