Herman Hesse (1877-1962) was one of the most conscious spiritual seekers in his time and one of the finest and most consistent European doves in an age of two world wars and an ethos of overt hawkishness and militarism. Hesse fled Germany to Switzerland because of his opposition to German aggressiveness in WWI, and his many poignant anti-war writings were collected and summed up in If the War Goes On. Hesse settled in Montagnola (near Lugano in the Italian part of Switzerland) and he won the Noble Prize for Literature in 1946 for his classic and probing novel The Glass Bead Game. My wife (Karin) and I had the good fortune of spending time at Hesse’s home/museum in Montagnola in June 2012. It is 50 years in 2012 since Hesse died, and there is a variety of events celebrating Hesse’s prolific and committed life being put on in various parts of Europe in 2012.
The Journey to the East seems to be at first glance, as the title suggests, about the turn by westerners to the East for insight, illumination and enlightenment. There is a standard and typical tradition of those in the West turning against the West and idealizing the East. Was this what Hesse was doing in The Journey to the East? Hesse was much too subtle a thinker and wise a spiritual guide to slip into the tendency to romanticize the East and demonize the West. The East is a metaphor in this tract for the times for something much deeper and more substantive. If the East does not mean the literal East, what does it mean then?
The Journey to the East is set within the context of the 20th century in which Christian states had bullied, fought and gone to war twice---was this what Christianity was about?----wars, millions of deaths and a mindless nationalism in which brothers and sisters of the same faith viciously turned on one another because of nationality. Hesse was more than aware that when nationalism and statehood trumps the deeper truths of the spirit and mind, the richness and fullness of humanity shrinks to a barbaric level. The Journey to the East, therefore, is more about a journey to the motherlode of what it means to be human and humane.
The ‘East’ in this novella of sorts is about the League which draws together people from various times, places and cultures who know the future of humanity consists in those alert and aware to the real spiritual issues of human longing. The League brings together men and women who have drawn forth from the riches of both East and West the time tried gold from the best of their inherited traditions. All in the League are on a journey to deeper meaning. But what does Hesse mean by the East then if it is a metaphor for a higher spiritual vision?
If the journey is towards the East (the Home of Light) and those in the League are committed to such a journey, what is meant by such a turn? Novalis sums it up well: ‘Where are we always going? Always home!’. Or again, ‘For our goal was not only the East, or rather the East was not only a country and something geographical, but it was the home and youth of the soul , it was everywhere and nowhere, it was the union of all times’. Those in the League (of whom the author of the booklet was one) were in search of the homeland of the soul that transcended both nationalism and religions.
The League existed in The Journey to the East as a unified group in search of such a higher truth, but as the novella unfolds, frictions emerge as one of the servants, Leo, leaves the group. Leo appears in Book I not as the leader of the League, but as a quiet and contented servant to the group. There were the Masters in the League, there were the novices and there were the servants to the Masters and Novices: Leo was but a servant. Animals were drawn to Leo, and he had an attractiveness about him that was most winsome and winning, but most in the League only saw Leo as their faithful and dutiful servant who did as expected.
Leo disappears from the League in Book II, and with the passing of Leo, the League begins to have internal problems. Members in the League begin to differ and divide on how the Ancient ways are to be interpreted, and, in time, those who were once close and united about the meaning and purpose of the League and the East part paths and go in different directions. The League seems to be, for all intents and purposes, dead and a thing of the faded past. The author of The Journey to the East commits himself to write about the League and the journey now the League seems over and done. The painful task of writing about the eclipsed League raises all sorts of questions for the author---it seemed so solid, it was period of his life when all seemed so meaningful and focussed-----what had happened? Why did the League and Journey seem to have dissolved and the author left a spiritual orphan?
The author in Book III knows he must write about the League (it was so important at a strategic part of his life), and he knows Leo’s parting has something to do what he thinks is the passing of the League. A sort of despair has settled into the author’s life (the euphoric phase seems over and the League that once gave life seems gone and done). The author is warned to forget about Leo and get on with the history of the League as a cathartic experience of sorts. The writing of history, of course, is a step removed from the living of history, but when the living seems tepid and thin, the excitement of lived memories offers a vicarious sense of meaning.
The years pass and the author does his best to retrieve old and faded stories in documents as he cobbles together what he can of the League. The journey seems over, but is it? Does the League still exist, and, if so, can it yet be found? Leo will not leave the author’s mind and imagination. Decades have passed, and hope is strained, but the thin thread of hope persists. Book IV deals with the rediscovery by the author of Leo (who seems an older man now and quite uninterested in the League and the Journey). In fact, Leo seems almost aloof and distant when confronted by the author about the League. The one connection with the past seems futile and doubly painful. But, the author persists with his questions, and Leo relents and asks him to join him for a slow journey through the streets.
Book V brings the tale to a close. The author discovers that the League still exists, and it was not the League that had vanished but the author who had failed to understand why the League existed. It was the author who left the League not the League who left the author. Leo the servant and seeming enemy of the League appears as the ‘head of the whole League’. Who would have guessed that Leo, the servant, who seemed to have deserted the League, was in fact that Pope of the League? Leo’s true role was only revealed at the end when the author’s eyes and soul were cleansed. Until then, Leo was but a romanticized servant or challenging nemesis. It was only as the author persisted with his questions and journey that the real meaning of the journey to the east made sense.
If the East in the novella is a metaphor for home, then the homeland of the soul, as embodied in Leo, is the life of quiet service. Leo, the true Master, was the servant of all the Novices and Masters. Only those with eyes to see the true nature of what is the real home of the soul could see Leo for who he was as the servant Master of the League. Leo, of course, is also the metaphor of the lion who rules through kindness and service rather than through dominance and control. Hesse had a great fondness for Francis of Assisi, and Leo was Francis’ true servant companion and soul friend.
What then is The Journey to the East about? It is not about idealizing the Orient and denigrating the West. It is about pointing the way to where the soul must go to find rest and peace. Is such a path defined by political or religious Masters and Novices who dominate others or control them through fear? Or, is it about quiet Leo like service and discipline of passions and longings for a higher and greater good? Leo had faced many a demon and dark night of the soul to reach the place he had as leader of the League. The author had now to make such a journey---so must we---such is the perennial parable and lesson of The Journey to the East.