How Japan unleashed Lu Xun’s ferocious literary passion


February 3, 2019

BOOKS

Books

How Japan unleashed Lu Xun’s ferocious literary passion

by Damian Flanagan

Image result for Lu Xun

Lu Xun

If you were to muse on the contribution of Japan to world literature in the 20th century, a host of authors’ names — from Soseki to Tanizaki, from Endo to Murakami, from Akutagawa to Kawabata — might come rushing to mind. Yet you might not realize that one of the most revolutionary moments in modern world literature occurred in Japan, but involved not a Japanese, but the most celebrated of all modern Chinese authors.

The scene: a biology class at Sendai Medical College in January 1906. The lecture finished, some lantern slides of photographs from the recent Russo-Japanese War that had raged in northeastern China were shown to medical students.

In one of the slides, Chinese bystanders apathetically surrounded a Chinese prisoner about to be executed as a traitor for providing information to the Russians. The Japanese classmates shouted and whooped “banzai” in approbation but, seated among them, a solitary Chinese student secretly burned with shame at the sight of his countryman humiliated in this way. What particularly appalled him was the attitude of the Chinese onlookers in the image who, though physically fit, seemed spiritually diseased.

Common medicine, the Chinese student realized, was never going to change this situation. What his countrymen needed was spiritual medicine. In that moment, he realized he needed to dedicate himself to something that would truly enlighten and modernize his nation: literature.

Image result for Lu Xun

That student was Lu Xun, now widely regarded as the most important writer of modern Chinese literature, commemorated with major museums in both Beijing and Shanghai. He was born in Shaoxing in 1881 and died in Shanghai in 1936, and is best known for his savage satires on the plight of his native China in the early 20th century.

In his short stories “A Madman’s Diary” (1918) and “The True Story of Ah Q” (1921), Lu penned his devastating critiques of the disappointments of the Xinhai Revolution of 1911 and China’s ongoing social malaise.

He also wrote many wonderful stories looking back to his youth in rural China, such as “Nostalgia” (1909), in which his childish imagination is terrorized by Confucianism and thrilled by his house servant’s memories of the Taiping rebels, or the affecting portrait of a destitute, petty scholar in “Kong Yiji” (1919).

But it was Japan that unleashed Lu’s literary talent. As a young man, he was dismayed by some of the practices of traditional Chinese medicine and determined that he would bring the enlightenment of Western medicine to China. He arrived in Japan to study medicine in 1902, aged 21, and after concentrating on learning the Japanese language, proceeded in 1904 to Sendai Medical College.

Yet by 1906, Lu had abruptly abandoned those studies. Whether the lantern slide incident was the actual trigger or a bit of later self-mythologizing is hotly disputed, but what is clear is that Lu began proposing a radical new agenda: Literature was a nation’s true medicine.

Why literature and not philosophy or politics? And what prompted him to turn to literature that year?

The answer can be found in Japan’s own relation to literature, which was a relatively new and revolutionary concept in Japan in 1906. People had of course been writing plays, poetry and entertaining stories since ancient times, but the notion — imported from the West — that these could be collectively grouped together and comprise a discipline worthy of the profoundest contemplation was a new one in Japan in the late 19th century. Lu had arrived in Japan when it was in the grip of this literary renaissance.

Image result for Lu Xun

Deeply disillusioned with the stifling influence of Confucianism on his return home, Lu’s first attempt to bring literary enlightenment to China was not to write his own stories, but to translate into Chinese, often via the medium of Japanese or German, stories from Britain, America, France, Finland and many countries of Eastern Europe. But his 1909 collection, “Tales from Abroad,” managed to sell just 41 of the 1,500 copies printed.

Among his later translations were pieces written by Natsume Soseki and, partly inspired by Soseki’s memoirs of Britain, in 1926 Lu penned a memoir of his instructor in biology in Sendai called “Fujino Sensei” in which he recounts how Fujino went to the trouble of personally correcting Lu’s weekly lecture notes.

In a famous parting scene, which has captivated the imaginations of Japanese readers ever since, Lu describes being called to his Japanese tutor’s house and receiving a photo of Fujino Sensei with the kanji characters, “sekibetsu” (sadness of parting) written on the back. After returning home to China in 1909, Lu hung it in pride of place on the east wall of his study in Beijing — pointing toward Japan — and wrote that he gained constant inspiration from gazing at it.

During the early decades of the 20th century, in which the Japanese Empire ever more strongly encroached upon China, the writings of Lu were a reminder of the close cultural ties and the warmth of human spirit that could exist between the two nations.

Lu’s writings were first published as a collection in Japanese in 1924 and Rojin, as he is known in Japan, was nowhere greater appreciated outside of China than in Japan itself.

Author Osamu Dazai wrote in 1945 a novel called “Sekibetsu” about Lu and, in 1991, the writer Hisashi Inoue published a play, “Shanghai Moon,” describing Lu’s deep friendship with the Japanese bookseller and publisher Kanzo Uchiyama in Shanghai in the 1930s. Lu even hid in Uchiyama’s bookshop in 1934 to avoid a round-up of left-wing writers.

The sense of literary mission that Lu acquired in Japan never left him. The greatest change he effected was in shifting our understanding of the power and potential of literature itself, of pushing aside the pieties of moralistic philosophy, and presenting literature as something which can move nations, probe the human mind and be the hands-on, skeptical and ever-questioning application of human wisdom.

https://www.japantimes.co.jp/culture/2019/02/02/books/japan-unleashed-lu-xuns-ferocious-literary-passion/?appsule=1&idfa=05CDB89C-F295-4F5B-ACA3-F800B382CF4D&fbclid=IwAR1-dJXm487sb6hmY5VMunISqX3HgCDciDPeCHgoutFCNw-uOl6lrzDKTSo#.XFZaA80xXIV

Malaysian Islam seen through 3 men


January 21, 2019

Malaysian Islam seen through 3 men

I wish to present three perspectives of Islam concerning the concept of choosing a “leader” in Malaysia.

This article is inspired by Abdul Hadi Awang’s clarion call to Muslims to choose his narrow-minded brand of Islam, perhaps for the upcoming Cameron Highland by-election.

Image result for tariq ramadan and farouk musa

 

I will describe the views of Hadi, Perlis mufti Mohd Asri Zainul Abidin, and Muslim scholar Dr Farouk Musa, who heads the Islamic Renaissance Front (IRF).

Each has given three different views of what is considered appropriate leadership within an Islamic framework of their choice.

This article is specifically for Malaysians to contemplate the type of Islam existing in Malaysia that will determine the course of our nation in the coming decades.

Hadi Awang

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To Hadi, non-Muslims can NEVER be trusted at all, now and forever. To him, even if the non-Muslim looks “clean” he would eventually be corrupted simply because he is not a Muslim.

To Hadi, non-Muslims can NEVER be trusted at all, now and forever. To him, even if the non-Muslim looks “clean” he would eventually be corrupted simply because he is not a Muslim.

Simple. Clear. Concise. At whichever leadership position there is, whether for a head teacher, an elected representative, a district officer, a minister, a vice-chancellor and especially, the prime minister, the choice must always and forever be Muslim, no two ways about it.

It seems Hadi can clearly see the fate of everyone, Muslim and non-Muslim, because even the Prophet has said that no one knows their fate except Allah.

Asri

Image result for dr. asri and zakir naik

In a lecture posted on YouTube, the Perlis mufti was asked whether one can choose a non-Muslim leader or not. To me, for Malays to be asking that very question speaks volumes about the failed state of our education system for the past 60 years.

Asri gave what to me was a scholarly and clear answer. He firstly clarified that what is haram must be stated clearly, and anything that is not stated in the hadith and the Quran can be considered acceptable.

Democracy has never been stated by the Prophet and by the Quran and so it is not haram to use such a system in choosing a leader by a one-man, one-vote system.

Secondly, he said that the present administrative governance of the leadership in Malaysia is enshrined in the constitution and backed by the Malay rulers. Thus, the laws and guidelines for governance within a Malaysian-Muslim construct are well established and any different levels of leadership cannot decide willy nilly about any whimsical desire.

A head teacher has an SOP, an elected representative has a certain responsibility and jurisdiction, a district officer has his or her regulated guidelines, and so does a minister.

In that regard, a Muslim may choose anyone who is Muslim or non-Muslim for a position of leadership at any level except the topmost one, which is the prime minister of Malaysia.

Ahmad Farouk Musa

Image result for din merican and farouk musa

The third view is by far my favourite, the most radical and what I consider the most constitutionally correct.

This view is propagated by Dr Ahmad Farouk Musa, a fierce critic of traditional and state Islam and a proponent of a modern and enlightened Islam for all.

He says that a Muslim must never choose a corrupt, immoral and cruel leader just because he is a Muslim. A Muslim must subscribe to the principle of morality and justice for all by choosing someone trustworthy with the strength and will to do the right thing for all, at all times, regardless of faith, race or status.

If the candidate is a non-Muslim then Muslims must choose him or her over a corrupt Muslim.

What Muslims believe

It was fortunate that Barisan Nasional (BN) had a mutual understanding of electing leaders at all levels of governance by choosing citizens of various races, cultures and faiths.

Malaysians must acknowledge the great debt we owe to BN for ignoring extremist views like those of Hadi. Truly Hadi’s view is destructive to all Malaysians and serves perhaps his egocentric desire for power and prestige as well as financial gratification. Thank you, BN!

The choice of leadership modelled after the likes of Asri has been a precedent that Pakatan Harapan (PH) now emulates. Thank you also to PH for ignoring the views of the ulama who think they are the only ones capable of ruling over Malaysia with their limited education and framework of thinking.

Hadi’s view is perhaps relevant for a small fishing community. However, the great problem that has arisen is that after the Islamic revival movement of the Abim/Ikram era, Muslims are more religious than the days of P Ramlee in the 60s and 70s.

In those days, one out 1,000 Malays would pray regularly. Now one out of 100 Malays will not pray regularly.

Most Malays pray and have access to speeches by narrow-minded teachers, who propagate the Hadi view of leadership.

The proponents of this view are mostly in public universities holding positions of professors and associate professors. If I were to venture a figure in the 60s and 70s, 90% of Muslims would subscribe to the middle view of Asri and only 9% to Hadi and 1% to Farouk’s.

Now, I would venture that 70% of Muslims are with the view of Hadi, 29% with Asri and 1% with Farouk. This breakdown will cost untold hardship in Malaysia’s political scenario.

I would venture that my view and that of Farouk are 50 years ahead of time. The numbers supporting Asri’s view must turn to 70% if we are to move comfortably forward.

If I were to be bold and venture a guess, 100% of non-Muslims would subscribe to Asri’s view of leadership because the non-Malays accept and respect the cultural leadership of the sultan and the history of Tanah Melayu as an important civilisation and heritage.

Malaysians must understand that Asri is educating the Malays in a more moderate and progressive way, while Hadi seeks only discord and conflict as a political tool of power grabbing.

What of Farouk’s radical view of Islam? Well, he and I can wait 50 years. No hurry.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.

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.

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.”

NY Times Book Review–Two New Books Confront Nietzsche and His Ideas


November 26, 2018

 

by Steven B. Smith

A Life of Nietzsche
By Sue Prideaux
Illustrated. 452 pp. Tim Duggan Books. $30.

HIKING WITH NIETZSCHE
On Becoming Who You Are
By John Kaag
255 pp. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $26.

Ask college students majoring in philosophy how they got interested in their subject and more than likely the answer will be “Nietzsche.”

Nietzsche has probably been more things to more people than any other philosopher. In the years after World War II, he seemed irreparably stained by his association with National Socialism. His open contempt for equality as a form of slave morality, his language of superior and inferior peoples and races, and his advocacy of a new elite that might reshape the future of Europe seemed more than enough to banish him from the canons of serious philosophical thought, if not simple decency.

The reconsideration of Nietzsche began as early as 1950 with Walter Kaufmann’s influential “Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist,” which portrayed him as a German humanist in the tradition of Goethe and Schiller. Kaufmann traced the misappropriation of Nietzsche by Hitler to the influence of Nietzsche’s sister, Elisabeth, and her husband, Bernhard Förster, who bowdlerized his texts to support their own anti-Semitic and pro-Nazi sympathies. While few today accept the details of Kaufmann’s analysis, the rehabilitation of Nietzsche has been in full swing in recent years.

 

Nietzsche has been recovered as an ethicist teaching a creed of radical libertarianism, an aesthete who saw the world as akin to a piece of literature, a “perspectivist” who taught that all philosophy is essentially autobiography and more recently a deconstructionist and “critical theorist” who advanced his genealogical method against all received ideas. By this time, the Nietzschean clock seems to have come full circle.

The two books under review here ride the wave of this newfound fascination with Nietzsche, although neither engages directly with the complex legacy of his reception. Sue Prideaux’s “I Am Dynamite!” — the phrase is his self-description from “Ecce Homo” — follows Nietzsche’s life from his birth in 1844 into a family of pious Protestant burghers, his early academic accomplishments at the University of Leipzig and his appointment to a chair of classical philology at the University of Basel at the age of only 24.

 

One might be forgiven for thinking that Nietzsche’s life would have taken the boring trajectory of scholarly studies followed by academic honors and other signs of accomplishment, something like that of his Swiss colleague Jacob Burkhardt. Instead, he took a violent turn away from his chosen profession with the publication of his first book, “The Birth of Tragedy,” in which he skewered academic philology in the name of the higher values of life and music. He has never been entirely forgiven. The best parts of Prideaux’s book focus on Nietzsche’s infatuation and his later break with Richard Wagner and Cosima von Bülow — the illegitimate daughter of Franz Liszt — who invited the young scholar to become part of their inner circle at their villa on Lake Lucerne.

Nietzsche’s life became increasingly erratic as a series of illnesses — whether real or imagined is not altogether clear — kept him away from teaching. It was during this period of self-imposed exile that he wrote his greatest and most enduring books, “The Genealogy of Morals” and “Thus Spake Zarathustra.” His later years were spent in wanderings throughout Italy and Switzerland before his final breakdown in Turin, where he threw his arms around the neck of a horse that he saw being beaten on the street, leading to his final institutionalization.

Prideaux ends her book deploring the Nazification of Nietzsche’s legacy, but without ever asking whether Nietzsche bears any responsibility for this misappropriation. Why did he write in a way that permitted such misuse? Dangerous thinkers should expect to attract dangerous followers. What else to expect from a philosopher who describes himself as dynamite? Nietzsche would no doubt have despised populist demagogues like Mussolini and Hitler, but then one who promises that “one day there will be associated with my name the recollection of something frightful” should not be surprised when something frightful comes along.

As the author of previous biographies of Edvard Munch and August Strindberg, Prideaux clearly knows her way around the world of European high modernism. She is strong on Nietzsche’s life, but much less so on his ideas. In fact, apart from Nietzsche’s ideas, his life is of relatively little import. She does little to explain what makes Nietzsche an enduring philosopher who continues to exercise great influence. Nor does she attempt to put Nietzsche in the context of his great fin de siècle contemporaries and admirers including William James, Freud, Gide and Shaw, among many others.

John Kaag’s book, “Hiking With Nietzsche,” is a semi-autobiography that follows the author as a 19-year-old, hiking to Sils-Maria in the Swiss Alps in search of Nietzsche’s house, then recounts him making the same trip 18 years later as a professor of philosophy with his wife and baby daughter in tow. It is often said that you can understand someone only when standing in their shoes; Kaag believes that wisdom comes only when hiking on their trails.

This book is less a scholarly study of Nietzsche than a meditation on the relation between hiking and philosophy. For Kaag, walking is not about the destination but the adventure itself. Almost all of the great philosophers — Socrates, Aristotle, the Stoics, Rousseau, Kant, Thoreau — were walkers whose ideas germinated only in motion. He takes Nietzsche’s challenge to “become who you are!” as a call to schlep his young family around the Alps to achieve his own goal of self-discovery. His wife must have the patience of a saint.

 

Kaag is a lively storyteller who brings Nietzsche’s life into continual contact with his own. This is both the strength and the weakness of the book. He succeeds quite well in maintaining a balance between Nietzsche’s life and thought and makes some nice connections to Emerson, Hesse, Mann and Adorno. I imagine he is an excellent teacher. At other times, a cloying style gets the better of him as we learn a little too much about the author’s parenting skills.

Like Prideaux’s, Kaag’s Nietzsche is a largely apolitical existentialist who challenges his readers to be what they might become. What he doesn’t tell us is how to become what we might be. Nietzsche is presented as the great apostle of the free spirit, the nonconformist and the rugged individualist living in the age of the philistine and the “last man.” Kaag doesn’t exactly ignore Nietzsche’s rough edges — his fascination with eugenics, his flirtations with anti-Semitism, his hatred of democracy in all its forms — but he sees them as not fatal to Nietzsche’s project of individual self-overcoming.

In the important new book “Dangerous Minds,” the political scientist Ronald Beiner argues that Nietzsche has become a part of the cultural air that we breathe. His intoxicating call to embrace liberation and to live up to our highest aspirations has inspired generations of novelists, playwrights and philosophers, to say nothing of countless undergraduates. Yet he also prophesied a world of “great politics” characterized by wars and revolutions fought over the very future of civilization.

Nietzsche was the Marx of the right, the original culture warrior who believed that the future belongs to those with the courage to face the nihilism of the present and mold it like potter’s clay. It is possible to think of Nietzsche’s Übermensch as a solitary walker responsible to no one but himself, but just as likely he was imagining a new Caesar, Borgia or Napoleon. To ignore this dimension of Nietzsche is to give him less than his due.

Steven B. Smith’s latest book is “Modernity and Its Discontents: Making and Remaking the Bourgeois From Machiavelli to Bellow.”

 

A version of this article appears in print on , on Page 17 of the Sunday Book Review with the headline: A Most Controversial Thinker. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe

 

 

Hermann Hesse’s Arrested Development


November 15, 2018

Hermann 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 reenactments 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.

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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.

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“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.”