Lady Gaga illuminated inside California’s burning.
The heat waves of her sex shimmer the coastal sage into nothingness.
A firefighter army wetting down her canyons with stiff hoses.
She comforts the weeping, who have lost all, with Shiva’s wisdom: “Just dance!”
Jospeh Mileck is a fine biographer, but he has no sensitivity whatsoever to poetry. His scholarship is excellent — cataloging variants of manuscripts, listing biographical details, collating primary documents — and he provides a fantastic list of sources and notes for the deeply curious to pursue on their own terms. The biography is worth reading for all of these things — but it would have been much better had he not tried to interpret Hesse’s writing. He would be a good interpreter for Eliot or Pound, who consciously use symbols almost as words — to indicate specific thoughts — but Hesse is someone who writes primarily from feelings and Mileck seems unable to resist the temptation to turn symbolic relationships into allegorical ones. His abuse of Hesse’s written works is tolerable until he get’s to Damian, which he mauls and makes ugly. I have read the book perhaps 100 times, and to claim, for instance, that Damian is nothing more than a pure allegorical substitution for the Socratic Damian is pure heavy handed abuse. Damian is powerful because it is a fable, certainly, but like a fable (and in a manner which Hesse gives us the key to in his description of the art of sculpture in Narcissus and Goldmund) it draws it’s life from ambiguous characters who are first of all — characters. In this Mileck reminds me of 19th century mythologists who protest that the actions in fairy tales are unlikely, or impossible. As if that was saying anything new or significant.
Where he fails with Damien, he triumphs in his explication of Klein und Wagner which is passionate, immediate and brilliant. His closeness to the facts of Hesse’s biography unlock a tale which is very close to psychological realism — and this raises an interesting question: Does spiritualization obfuscate understanding? Because Hesse is asking the same question that Milek is asking (Who is Hesse?) and while Damien is one very beautiful and coherent answer to that question, it is a fable. As a fable does it obscure precious detail which might in fact contain the answer to the question Hesse is asking? I want to be delicate with this question — because it contains an indictment of art and poetry the consequences of which I am not sure I am comfortable with. Which doesn’t prevent the question from being there.
Where Milick’s diligence truly pays off is is explication of Steppenwolf. He fails miserably with Siddhartha, which he seems to hold himself above and experience as a treatise on religious or philosophical ideas and (as with Damien) completely misses the significance of the work, but then turns around and skillfully exposes all of the magicians tricks in creating Harry Hallar — right down to the factual existence of the mirrored ball of the costume ball at the climax, and the identity of Hermine (Julia Laubi-Honegger). He also makes a significant point about drug use, which seems to be suggested in Stepenwolf — that hallucinogenic drugs were around at the time, but that Hesse describes hallucinogenic experiences far earlier than this — in short that drugs were available, but that he wouldn’t have needed them.
The inability of Milick to follow Hesse into his magic theater when he goes (the world inhabited by Damien and Siddhartha) illustrates an interesting fact about Hesse — that he is writing about his experiences — he is not a philosopher discussing ideas — he is living his subject matter. His world weariness is not an intellectual affect, it is felt, as is his passion. This is what gives Hesse his depth — one cannot just think one’s way to the bottom of his works — he is calling us on a journey. The journey can be thought about for sure, and this may even deepen it, but ultimately it is an experiential journey, and it must be experienced as an experiment, as a risk. If you do not posses courage, then Hesse will have very little to offer you.
Mikick’s complete otherness to Hesse is shown in a single sentence: “He realizes that the woman whom he has imagined to be his kindred soul and more is nothing other than a common harlot.” — it is impossible to imagine Hesse making this statement or judgment. Milick belongs almost completely to the bourgeois world rejected by every one of Hesse’s characters. It is astonishing that this sentence would have survived the editing process, it is so utterly tone deaf to everything in Hesse’s work. It is almost simpering — pathetic.
When we get to the Glass Bead Game I think the basic flaw in Milick’s approach becomes clear — he sees Hesse on his return leg of the hero’s journey and mistakenly thinks that the point was that the journey was never worth taking. There is a reason that the Glass Bead Game is the central symbol of the book — but Milick wants to see in it only a sterile diversion. Like many English majors I have known look at math — some kind of formal virtuosity which can only attract deviant obsession — but Hesse clearly sees more in the game — just as he clearly (as Milick correctly and clearly shows) also experiences an ethical awakening and a recognition of the importance of life as life. While Milick does get so much of Hesse so right — he does not understand the real significance of Hesse’s inward world. He does not understand the personal and completely asocial component of enlightenment — he only sees the part that points back to the world, and that is because he himself has never left the world — he stands at the edge of the town and looks into the forest in disapproval of irresponsibility and selfishness and sex and visions. He is the good citizen who as Hesse warns us, in his heart hates the vagabond.
Where I am critical of Mileck’s poetical understanding of Hesse let there be no doubt that the biography itself, where it does not try to interpret Hesse’s work, is extraordinary. Mileck is a careful scholar who collates, fact checks and draws connections and confirms them. But if your soul has been touched by Hesse — trust that and not Mileck’s observations as to questions of meaning.
God what a relief after drudging through that awful Heidegger crap.
Hesse writes in two voices. One is the almost medieval voice of Siddhartha, Narcissus and Goldmund, and Peter Camenzind — and the other is the more contemporary voice of Steppenwolf, Magister Ludi and Rosshalde. Rosshalde is not really a novel so much as a gesture — it should almost be a painting, and in it a painter contemplates a single fact — which is his inability to have a normal life. I say normal, but I should say mundane — the gesture is that of recognition of the state of being an artist. An ordinary man is allowed certain things, and certain things are expected of him. An artist, or saint — more to the point — a philosopher in the sense in which Nietzsche uses the word when he does not use it with scorn, is not capable of those things.
At the beginning of Rosshalde we have a manor house novel, where the lord of the manor has become estranged from his family who neither understand nor appreciate him. We see him first as desperate and scorned, and later as strong and distant — but what he is not is a capable husband and father. And what his wife and children are not are significant friends. Through the intervention of his friend, and fate, he recognizes the futility of his situation and leaves it. It is a single gesture — there is no struggle, which is why it is really a painting and not a novel. It must be a confusing book to read for someone who does not already understand it, because it makes no argument.
I have heard it said that ‘just because something has happened does not make it a fit subject for art’ — but this novel feels as if this is exactly what happened — I suspect that Hesse lived through the truth of these emotions (if not the actual events) and wrote this down as a way of explaining it to himself. You could see either Siddhartha or Harry Haller writing this in their notebook as a way of dealing with the pain of losing their earthly attachments before coming to their different philosophical positions on it. This book would make a good companion piece to “The Awakening” by Kate Chopin — as it deals with the inadequate environment of social convention to satisfy an awakening human soul.
This is not a book which should be meaningful to an ordinary man who wishes to remain ordinary and find meaning in his family and profession. This is a book about the ruthlessness required of those who are called on to a different kind of life.
While I deeply love it, I don’t know that I would recommend it as easily as I would recommend Demian, or Steppenwolf — even though it speaks to that same transformation. I think that if someone has read Demian and Steppanwolf, and has been moved by them — if the character of Harry Haller particularly moves you — if you can see why he is the way he is, then Rosshalde is a further meaningful meditation on the subject which you might find to be bracing — something to give you courage.
This book has a bad smell. I am 30 pages in and I see much Heidegger and little Nietzsche. Heidegger’s main thesis so far seems to be that we must not be confused by previous readers of Nietzsche — so far so good — but then the reason for that is that Nietzsche seems to have stumbled upon Heidegger’s main idea. To justify this we will look at a work which Nietzsche did not complete — didn’t even edit. And by the way have you heard of the book Being and Time (product placement on like the 10th page.) This is all the worse as Heidegger seems to be a philosophy teacher. He speaks as if he has tenure — as if you need to count on him for a grade. I would never finish 4 pages of him if he didn’t have a reputation. I think he’s blowing smoke. Nietzsche, on the other hand is so lucid, so clear. One would read him even if his name was not attached. His words speak for themselves — and here Heidegger seems to want to use the occasion of Nietzsche’s name to talk about his own bullshit.
I cruised along for a couple more chapters thinking I had been unfair while crafty Heidegger recycled material from his Aristotle lectures, engaged in shallow etymological observations (providing a number of rich loci for multiple choice and fill in the blank questions in undergraduate philosophy quizzes) referenced Aquinas and Hegel and passionately defended German Idealism — which I suspect Nietzsche would loathe — and finally I came upon this statement:
“That is what Nietzsche’s thought wants to achieve: it wants to give things weight and importance again.” Could you imagine a more ludicrous passage to be written about Nietzsche? This was true of Kant, certainly, and likely of Heidegger himself — it is nostalgic and sentimental — even effeminate. Only someone who is unsure of himself requires “things” to posses weight and importance. If Nietzsche was concerned about “things” at all it was their lightness. Heidegger is the misty eyed closet-romantic nationalist reactionary — not Nietzsche.
He very strongly reminds me of Kant, particularly in that he tells us over and over again what he is going to do, but he never actually does it. He gives us a structure where he says he is going to unveil Nietzsche’s thought, that we must listen to Nietzsche, that we must be sensitive to what he is saying — and then he goes off on long unrelated tangents projecting and misreading fragments and creating arguments on the fly. Like Kant — his fans accept it when he says “We will do thus and so.” — perhaps because these are the only clear thoughts in the soup. So we read him and walk away saying “Well whatever else I know he said he did thus-and-so.” — so that is what goes in the essay. He reads like someone free-associating, and remembering every once in a while what it is that he is writing about and putting down a couple words about it. His proclamations are homilies — we cannot disagree with them, they are too vague. But after asserting them he does not live up to their demands.
I cannot imagine that the book would be worth reading even for a fan of Heidegger. It has nothing to offer on the subject of Nietzsche — Heidegger never understood Nietzsche because Nietzsche undertook a practice of honesty with himself, and Heidegger lived constrained contentedly within the bounds of a comfortable conceit which wants nothing more than to convince others of it’s good grounding. To read Heidegger on the subject of Nietzsche is as absurd as reading an apology of Socrates written by Gorgias. I am not going to read the remaining volumes.
I am suddenly suspicious of Derrida — who I have always liked. He refers so much and so often to this buffoon — was I reading him naively?
and cold in my chest
I was not expecting your disdain
your habitual ugliness, competitiveness, game playing, deceit, manipulation, cowardice, viciousness, arrogance and/or vanity.
I had forgotten them.
Like I will forget them yet again.
You say (again) that I should have thicker skin.
I say that my religion is to shave it down,
ever thinner. Ever thinner.
My faith is that when I am fully, painfully present
you will be worth it.
95% of the time things are. I am
with a falling leaf
with a rain puddle
with a child playing in the park
I forget myself
and all my dodges and shenanigans
and skip off for some ice cream
until you come round the corner
your face all tight
showing scorn for my abandon
for my ratty shoes
And another ripping knife cuts out my breath
(Oh! I am supposed to own things. I am supposed to beat people
down. I was supposed to win something!)
Frozen-stopped, shamed, startled-quiet
I trusted your judgment and was rewarded.
That election felt different than any other I’ve ever witnessed.
I’m taking the rest of the night off for history. Congratulations everyone.
Even you, Stefan. 😉
A couple of things — I am still using LibraryThing, but I am posting my progress as I go on Visual Bookshelf on Facebook. I like LibraryThing better but it doesn’t interact with Facebook — so I’m split for now.
My progress is not fast enough to make my goal. Going straight by the numbers, I would need to read 250 books this year — so I would need to have read 40 books by now to be up to date. I have finished about 10 — the reviews and associated material (including prior projects that were similar in tone) are listed under the 40th Birthday Project category tab.
I was anticipating a slow start, so since my progress has been at least steady, I’m not going to sweat the lag. I have really enjoyed having focused reading be a part of my life again — it is providing a welcome counter to the increasingly technical nature of my work and education. I anticipate that my first quarter will end with me being at least 30 books behind.
I have not been reading every day — and when I let even one day slip I am likely to let a week slip, so I think that keeping in mind that this is a loose daily project (as opposed to a strict daily project) is going to help.
I am using the original post and updating to track my project on a book by book basis — and when I complete a book I move the review off onto its own post. If you want to root for me you can keep track of the project here.