1. My days pass in a whirl of salad. i have begun to experiment with healthy foods after noting the onset of middle-aged girthiness, brought on by Schnitzel & booze. At first i thought it mere Winterspeck (winter fat), as i put it on over Xmas, but it’s been in my possession for 10 months now so could well be a permanent addition to the elberry physique (woe).
2. In addition to a paunch, i’m developing my Boschesprache. Thus far i’ve read 3 children’s books in German, without a dictionary or parallel text, and am halfway through my fourth, Hermann Hesse’s Demian. i read most of Hesse’s work in my early 20s, and divided it into the very good (Siddhartha, Steppenwolf, Demian), the interesting (The Prodigy/Peter Camenzind, Narziss & Goldund and The Glass Bead Game) and the atrociously dreadful (everything else). Most of my favourite bloggers hate Hesse and want to burn his books and slaughter everyone who reads him, so i was curious to see how i’d feel about the chap now, with my girth.
i gather that Demian is reheated Jung but it has an inextinguishable power; i feel that, even if i read all of Jung, it would still be good. Perhaps it’s that Hesse’s characters are interesting, unusual & sometimes weird, but also convincing; and the situations & emotions – the fear, anger, wonder, etc. – draw me. i like philosophy but on the whole it lacks this fictive immersion, this sense of being within a situation, a character, feeling fictive emotions. And perhaps for Hesse’s work in particular, this makes a vital difference. There are books (much of Thomas Mann) where one sees the theoretical framework too clearly, and one can resent having to read all these speeches & events when the whole thing is neatly reducible to a bit of Nietzsche/Jung/Freud – though with Mann, it may be different in German. Hesse’s (good) books are in a sense reducible to an idea one could elaborate on a single side of A4, but the experience of understanding the idea is profoundly altered when one, as it were, comes to the idea through the perceptions, thoughts, & emotions of a character; then, the idea can alter you, because you live it.
3. Demian, like Siddharta and Steppenwolf is an initiatory work. That is, it describes the experience of seeking, then finding a spiritual power; and then the entrance into this power. It begins with the protagonist, Emil Sinclair, as a small child at school. He is troubled & intrigued by the “two worlds”: the lit, familiar, safe world of his family and the dark, sordid, violent world he sometimes glimpses, the world of screeching fishwives & drunk yokels. When he’s about 10 he is blackmailed by an older boy, who takes advantage of a bragging lie to demand money and favours in return for silence. The older boy has no real power over Sinclair, and it seems, in a sense, so trivial; at the same time, we feel Sinclair’s anguish and daily fear, which i remember from my own childhood – the way that a fear can become all-encompassing, coterminous with the world.
Sinclair is rescued in the end by Max Demian, an older boy who in an instant sees the situation and has words with the blackmailer. Sinclair finds Demian alarming and years pass with little contact between the two. When he is in his late teens, Sinclair starts to feel lost in the world, bereft, and in need of something beyond a career, prospects, drinking. At this point he once more encounters Max Demian, who is now something of a spiritual master.
There is almost no plot to the book; the external scenes merely act to develop the initiatory experience. i found it astonishingly good when i was 20: i read it then as a book about “becoming the being you are”; now – fat and old and sorcerous – i see it is an initiatory work. It describes the process of becoming openly at odds with the world; then of seeking a way of becoming reconciled to, or escaping, this world; of taking the first steps on the path of the magician.
4. One (non-Hesse-hating) blogger noted that most of his or her favourite books are what you could call “spiritual”. And at the time i was reading Viking sagas (for my rune work), Dante, Spinoza, Wallace Stevens, and Alan Garner’s latest book, Boneland. i do like evidently ordinary books, PG Wodehouse for example, though there is something superbly unworldly about his worldliness. However, on the whole the books that mean most to me are about reconciling oneself to the world or escaping it. There is no obvious escape, at least not as far as i’m aware – but one can become subtly free, within the world (a note in Wittgenstein’s journals: a man suspended by a rope above the earth; his feet touch the ground but he is able to perform extraordinary movements because his weight does not rest on the ground).
5. Emil Sinclair talks of finding himself, or the way to himself. i naturally want to sneer at this, since every drooling hippy freak and Starbucked hipster talks the same “hey man, I went to India to find myself, man the people there are so spiritual, we smoked weed every day” jive. But as is often the case, the cloud of bullshit conceals a core of wisdom. One requires both the internal movement, in introspection & self-analysis; and the external movement towards others, to learn things, to help others. My father spent most of his life solely in the latter, with the result that he knew a lot about cars and was an excellent doctor, but an appalling human being; and aged 65 or so realised he had no idea who or what he was. A friend likewise avoided introspection and lived for her children and her students: she was, and is, a lovely person and has done a great deal of good, but was also staggeringly ignorant about not merely herself but other people too (with almost disastrous consequences for herself). It’s more common that people avoid introspection, than that they take no interest in the world.
For myself, i feel that one requires some self-knowledge to apprehend the world (hence my father and friend, neither of whom seemed to understand others), and this will only come through solitude, thought, and – probably – reading (Dr Johnson “he who never thinks never shall be wise”; i would add “to think deeply, you must read”). A passage i read today in Demian:
Die Dinge, die wir sehen sind dieselben Dinge, die in uns sind. Es gibt keine Wirklichkeit als die, die wir in uns haben. Darum leben die meisten Menschen so unwirklich, weil sie die Bilder außerhalb für das Wirkliche halten und ihr eigene Welt in sich gar nicht zu Worte kommen lassen. Man kann glücklich dabei sein. Aber wenn man einmal das andere weiß, dann hat man die Wahl nicht mehr, den Weg der meisten zu gehen. Sinclair, der Weg der meisten ist leicht, unsrer ist schwer.
6. When my father was about 65 he became so ill he was unable to work. He fell back upon himself, and realised he was wholly self-ignorant. This was not an easy experience for him. He began to read a great deal and the old house is now full of books; they have an almost talismanic quality for him, as mine have for me, because they represent the keys to one’s own soul.
Self-knowledge sounds a little prissy and la di da but without it your life will be built on sand; and sooner or later the structural weaknesses and damage will become apparent, in collapse or just increasingly tortuous warping. i went through a collapse akin to my father’s when i was 19 or so, and found it spectacularly unpleasant. In this state it is impossible to conduct a normal life, to have discourse with others, to do anything except attempt to shore up one’s damaged, imploding world. It reminds me a scene in Das Boot, where the submarine sinks to about 400 metres and the men have to repair the electrics, the walls, the communications, the steering, the compasses, etc., as water floods in through the bursting hull.
7. It is only when one has some deep equilibrium that it is possible to perceive & experience the world without disastrous imbalance. i think of certain craftsmen – mostly fairly uneducated – who almost seem to become one with their tools & materials; and even without their tools they seem at one with things. Alas, in addition to being useless at everything, my opposition to the world and to other human beings goes deep. i require more unusual means of reconciliation; this takes the form of an escape from the world, but as i am coming to see, this escape is more an adjustment of balance. It seems very slight but takes enormous work.
Because my problem is so fundamental, i can’t make use of ordinary solutions – Christianity, career, drugs, etc. To become reconciled to the world i must escape it. Hence, the path is now the wizard’s way. And for all that, i am in the world, with my girth and my salads and my German books. It is by means of the friction between myself and the ordinary, that i leave it.