Hesse and the Asian Dream

by Kenneth Champeon, Nov 30, 2002 | Destinations: China / India / Thailand


Lord Macaulay once famously declared that "a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia." It would be hard to imagine a statement more Eurocentric, yet so hard to dispute. For is not the Mahabharata rather bloated alongside the Iliad, or the Dhammapada so many raindrops in the thunderstorm of the Summa Theologica? On the other hand, we have the tendentious testimony of the Orientalist Thoreau, who believed that beside the timeless Bhagavad Gita "even our Shakespeare seems sometimes youthfully green and practical merely." In this view, whilst the West chatters away to no purpose, the East knows the truth to be ineffable, and accordingly it says - and writes - very little. But that little is correspondingly profound. To revise Macaulay, one might say that a single sentence of a good Asian book is worth the whole literature of Europe.

During the so-called Enlightenment, it was believed that humanity could be perfected through the application of reason. And by about 1914, humanity, or at least Europe, was looking pretty good. Then came the Great War, the war to end all wars, subsequently revised as World War I when the next last war occurred. Europe was coming to resemble not so much the Civitas Dei as a circle of Hell, and Europeans were forced to ask themselves: If reason has brought us to this, might not reason alone be insufficient? Might we not embrace faith again, else these ruins be impossible to bear? And if so, might not the East lead the way?

Such seem to be the questions asked by Herman Hesse's puzzling short novel The Journey to the East. Originally published in 1956, and now in its forty-first printing, Journey describes the efforts of a cabalistic "League" to travel from a wretched and defeated post-War Germany "towards the Home of Light."

The novel's German title is Die Morgenlandfahrt, literally "the morning land journey" - that is, in the direction of the rising sun. To Hesse and to my dictionary, the East denotes Asia, and Asia in turn denotes the world's largest continent, birthplace of Buddha and Confucius, Jesus and Mohammed. In this sense, practically every global religion has Asian roots.

Known in modern times chiefly for its excellence in engineering and organization (not to mention their synthesis in warfare), Germany has also possessed a peculiar bent for mysticism and abstraction. Cars and Kant. Writing of the Germanic tribes in the early centuries of the Christian Era, Tacitus notes that they "do not consider it consistent with the grandeur of celestial beings to confine the gods within walls, or to liken them to the form of any human countenance. They consecrate woods and groves, and they apply the names of deities to the abstraction which they see only in spiritual worship."

Nietzsche writes favorably of Buddhism in the same book where he attacks Christendom most virulently; his lippy Zarathustra is of Persian origin; and arguably his only admissible deity was what Tacitus' Germans worshipped as "Ertha, or mother-Earth." Max Mueller spearheaded the Sacred Books of the East, a kind of Asian Great Books. And then there was Hesse, author of Siddhartha, through which countless Westerners have encountered Buddhism for the first time.

Among the points raised by Siddhartha is that the Western emphasis on inquiry and the future is often inconsistent with the Eastern themes of contemplation and the present moment. The members of the League are obliged to make a journey, you see, when all along the East, like the Kingdom of God, is already within them. One can only smile at the misguided (Prussian?) determination of these Leaguers: "One of them was a treasure-seeker and he thought of nothing else but of winning a great treasure which he called 'Tao.' Still another had conceived the idea of capturing a certain snake to which he attributed magical powers and which he called Kundalini."

To be fair, Hesse sees the journey as a traversal of time as well as of space, and he therefore encounters numerous historical figures. "Zoroaster, Lao Tse, Plato" and so on are "cofounders and brothers of our League"; and the journey quickly departs from the recognizably German locales of Swabia and the Bremgarten to reach vistas far more surreal:

"We were guests in the Chinese temple where the incense holders gleamed beneath the bronze Maja and the black king played the flute sweetly to the vibrating tone of the temple gong. And at the foot of the Sun Mountains we came across Suon Mali ["garden of jasmine" in Thai], a colony of the King of Siam, where, amongst the stone and brazen Buddhas, we offered up our libations and incense as grateful guests."

Leaving aside the question of what exactly a Maja is, or where the Sun Mountains are, I do wonder whether Hesse was aware that the Kings of Siam have often been every bit as ruthless as have Germany's Kaisers. Which brings us to this matter of the League, of which, like Fight Club, the first rule is: you do not talk about it. The League apparently has four precepts. Was Hesse thinking of the Four Noble Truths? Perhaps, but the only precept he divulges is the fourth, which is vaguely related to performing religious devotions. The League promotes faith over reason, and is therefore open to astrological guidance, fond of poetry, and well versed in spiritual arcana. It is opposed to modernity, as symbolized by clocks, trains, and money. The League has a President, a court of sorts, and - wait a minute - it's starting to look a lot like a Church, or - religious opiates to one side - dread Communism.

The book's narrator H.H. leaves the League. Why? Because his particular chapter takes to bickering over the mysterious disappearance of a servant named Leo, who later resurfaces as the League's President. H.H. is then called before the League to make a "self-accusation", suggesting Maoist "self-criticism" or Catholic confession. All the Leaguers are brothers (or fratri: Hesse was a devout Latinist) and egoism is pooh-poohed. A repentant H.H. declares, "I was ready to obey."

Fight Club suggested that while beating each other up is better than languishing in an office, the glorification of violence can eventually lead to militarism a la Nazi Germany. The Journey to the East seems to suggest that while sing-a-longs are to be preferred over slashing one's wrists, the glorification of togetherness can eventually breed totalitarianism a la Maoist China. One can abide being neither an alienated individual nor an indistinct glob. Yet there is no in-between. Or, at any rate, Hesse the existentialist failed to find it in his lifetime. Thus The Journey to the East is a critique of organized religion as well as a paean to the religious impulse. The East may symbolize unity, which is better than the discord that spawned the Great War; but unity comes at a cost. Note Hesse's ambivalence in the book's near-conclusion:

"I perceived that my image was in the process of adding to and flowing into Leo's, nourishing and strengthening it. It seemed that, in time, all the substance from one image would flow into the other and only one would remain: Leo. He must grow, I must disappear."

Hesse has quite rightly been called a literary forefather of the Flower Children, those groovy fabricators of love and not war, who fought the Man, embraced Ginsberg, dropped acid, and misplaced their chakras. Inserting a flower into the barrel of a gun aimed at your face is an eminently Hessean gesture, a bold and seemingly irrational defiance of the West's squealing machinery of death. But Hesse's adoption of the geographical East as mankind's salvation was premature. Dead by 1962, Hesse missed out on the blood-orgies of the Cultural Revolution and the Khmer Rouge regime. And lucky him. But he was aware that the East was less a place than an idea: "the home and youth of the soul", an escape from the "the soundless deserts of mapped out reality."

We all know the American Dream. Put crassly, it is that hard slog should be rewarded with an SUV or the Presidency. As an alternative, Eddie Izzard offered the European Dream, which is to cruise around on a Vespa scooter, flash the peace sign, and purr the word "Ciao". What then is the Asian Dream? I would say that it is harmony, were harmony not used as a pretext for a massacre in Tiananmen Square. Or I would say that it is the power of faith, were this power not used as a pretext for mass murder in Manhattan. I think the closest Hesse comes to formulating the Asian Dream is when, told by the brooding H.H. that life is not just a game, Leo replies:

"That is just what life is when it is beautiful and happy - a game! Naturally, one can also do all kinds of other things with it, make a duty of it, or a battleground, or a prison, but that does not make it any prettier."

Beauty and happiness. Well, it ain't much -- neither a Vespa nor a six-figure salary (of which, incidentally, today's Asians are increasingly fond.) But what else should one expect of a dream except...hope?

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Review of Herman Hesse's The Journey to the East, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2001.

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Available at ThingsAsian Books.