Friday, 24 June 2016

Wandering - Hermann Hesse


Hermann Hesse gets all mystical on your ass as he sets off on a trip through a pass in the Alps on the way to Montagnola on the Swiss/Italian border, recording along the way his thoughts and observations in prose, poetry and sketches.
I must confess, I'm no connoisseur of poetry. I like Rimbaud and Baudelaire and William Blake - and I like Patti Smith - but when it comes to poems by, for example, Hermann Hesse, I'm just not very interested. His book, Wandering, contains poetry and they don't really float my boat - Philistine that I am. I much more prefer his prose and his novels of which, in fact, I'm a bit of an admirer and it's in the prose pieces in Wandering that I think the most interesting ideas are to be found.

In these pieces Hesse wrestles with the same themes that inform a lot of his books as in the dichotomy between living life out in the physical world or retreating to the cloistered world of contemplation. Which of the two might be the most valid is a question he returns to again and again as he bids vainly to combine the two.
His recurring question over how to live a life is dealt with very succinctly in the piece, Red House, where he admits 'There is no center in my life; my life hovers between many poles and counterpoles. A longing for home here, a longing for wandering there. A longing for loneliness and cloister here, and an urge for love and community there. I have collected books and paintings and given them away. I have cultivated voluptuousness and vice, and renounced them for asceticism and penance. I have faithfully revered life as substance, and then realised that I could recognise and love life only as a function.'
Let's just stop and think about that for a moment, shall we?

Right. Wandering was written in 1920 but there's a piece in there that sadly - and very interestingly - is rather pertinent to Europe and Great Britain in 2016. The piece is called Farmhouse and in it Hesse writes: 'If there were many other people who loathed the borders between countries as I do, then there would be no more wars and blockades. Nothing on earth is more disgusting, more contemptible than borders. They're like cannons, like generals: as long as peace, loving kindness and peace go on, nobody pays any attention to them - but as soon as war and insanity appear, they become urgent and sacred. While the war went on, how they were pain and prison to us wanderers. Devil take them!'
It's the line 'As soon as war and insanity appear, they become urgent and sacred' that leaps out because is not the subject of 'borders between countries' profoundly topical these days? If so, does this mean that war and insanity is today's currency?

Hermann Hesse came into fashion in the Sixties and early Seventies but I fear he's rather fallen from the spotlight of late which is a shame because he's still got an awful lot to offer the modern day reader. The question he mulls over as in should one throw oneself out into the world or retreat to a cloister can these days be translated into the question of should we get out onto the streets or stay in our rooms on the Internet? Can the two be successfully combined? Where does real life lay? Should we make our friends on Facebook or down the pub? Viewing the world today (or Britain, at least) it would seem most people are choosing the Internet option but - call me old fashioned - I tend to agree with what Henry Miller once said: 'What is not in the open street is false derived, that is to say, literature.'
Yes indeed, the works of Hermann Hesse are still very relevant. 
John Serpico

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