Hermann Hesse (1877-1962) was viewed, in the 1960s-1970s, in North America, as a spiritual and literary icon of sorts. He embodied the best of the counter culture in a probing and poignant manner. He was, as Theodore Ziolkowski rightly notes, “Saint Hesse among the Hippies”. There were few in the high noon of the counter culture who had not read Hesse. In fact, knowing Hesse was a rite of passage into the counter culture family. Hesse was the guru that many turned to for wisdom and insight in an age and ethos in which much seemed askew and out of joint. Many of Hesse’s early and more immature works seemed to pander to the “I’m spiritual but not religious” dogma that is so trendy today or he anticipated the Christianity without Religion (CWR) religion that is the cause de jour of many reactionary types (an ideological position more dogmatic than most 16th century confessions).
Hesse won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1946, and his more mature books, The Journey to the East and The Glass Bead Game are a missive and tome not to missive on the religious journey. There is a decided shift in Hesse’s writing in these two burnished gold beauties and such splendid works of literary art draw the reader into Hesse’s comprehensive fullness. The younger Hesse was a reactionary of sorts (turning his tender back against his German pietistic upbringing) who elevated the notion of the lone individual contra church, state, history and society (all oppressive) in search of meaning and purpose. But, by the time Hesse came to research, write and publish The Journey to the East and The Glass Bead Game, he came to recognize the folly, reductionism and thinning out of the pilgrimage by turning against religion, history, state, society and the vast riches of the institutions that carry civilization forward.. The lone individual isolated from such imperfect historic and communal dimensions tends to shrink and shut off fuller possibilities. The same theme, in English literature, was played out earlier by Bunyan and Milton (liberal individualism in its emerging phase--today a fragmentary viral postmodern reality).
Leo was also the guardian and bearer of the grand intellectual tradition and institutions of western civilization (and other cultures and their wisdom traditions). When Leo disappears, the League fragments and H.H. loses his way. But, Leo remains a polaris of sorts and H.H. goes in search of him and, as the tale unfolds, finds Leo. The finding of Leo by H.H. seems to offer hope to H.H. again and the longing of sorts to return to the League. The journey home to the League hinges on H. H. heeding and following Leo through a maze of twisting streets (the richness of intellectual history and the institutions that embody such ideas) to the sacred centre and building that houses the League. The leaders of the League bring H.H. before them to ponder how and why he had lost his way. A variety of questions are firmly put to him about why he disappeared when imperfection emerged, when tough questions took front stage and dogged him, when schism and fragmentation occurred in the once unified League. H.H. had taken the easier path of rejecting the League because of unresolved issues (and all it culturally stood for), and his unhealthy need for a sort of purist position in thought, word and deed (even though he was none of the above). But, the real kicker takes form when Leo takes his chair (who, H.H. discovers, is the head of the League) and raises the telling critique of H.H.’s shallow rejection of the League (and all it stands for in terms of the best that has been thought, said and done throughout history). The passage is one not to miss.
Do you remember how we passed the Town Hall, the Church
of St. Paul and the Cathedral in order to kneel and pray awhile,
and how you not only refrained from entering with me to
perform your devotions----but how you remained outside,
impatient and bored, waiting for the end of the tedious
ceremony which seemed so unnecessary to you, which was
nothing more to you than a disagreeable test of your egoistic
impatience? Yes, you remember. By your behaviour at the
Cathedral gate alone, you have already trampled on the
fundamental requirements and customs of the League. You
have slighted religion, you have been contemptuous towards
a League brother, you have impatiently rejected an opportunity
and invitation to prayer and meditation.
In short, those who never pass through the Cathedral gate (because of their laundry list of questions) will never understand or receive all the Cathedral of religion can offer. It is not that the gates are closed. It is more a case of H.H. (and his progenitors) being unable to go through because of their cynicism and skepticism).
I could continue with the passage in The Journey to the East, but there can be no doubt that Hesse via Leo is highlighting the fact and failure (a sort of spiritual boorishness) of H.H. when he turns against the mother lode of religion and all it can offer for a deeper and fuller faith journey.
H.H. has, aIso, in abandoning the layered wisdom of the past as embodied in the historic church, culture, civilization, history, memory, arts and literature, philosophy and theology, politics and society deprived himself of a more spacious and mature mind and imagination. I might add that The Glass Bead Game goes much further on this pathway with Joseph Knecht than does The Journey to the East (Knecht being a subtler version of Leo) , although The Journey to the East is the primer for The Glass Bead Game. The mature Hesse, in short, would certainly question the spirituality contra religion clan or the Christianity without Religion tribe—he would see such a position as short sighted and quite indulgent. Perhaps, there is much yet to learn from Hesse’s counter culture insights in an age in which spirituality contra religion, Christianity without Religion or the postmodern and emergent church notions have become their own establishment, religion and dogma. It is also important that the more mature Hesse be read rather than his younger and more immature writings to get a good sense of the real Hesse rather than a caricatured version of him.
Amor Vincit Omnia