The Journey Greater Than Ourselves – Hermann Hesse – The Journey to the East


Hans Selye, the discoverer of the biologic stress response and founder of stress research, published From Dream To Discovery in 1964. I had the privilege of being an editorial assistant of his in 1968-69 at his research institute at the University of Montreal. I would have been there longer if American funding for medical research had not been increasingly reduced because of its transfer to the fighting of the war in Viet Nam.

The book discusses problems of scientific research in the context of human behavior and thought. Its sixth chapter, “How to Behave,” begins this way:

“A sincere, well-balanced, and understanding attitude toward ourselves and others is the key to happiness and success in any walk of life…. The starting point for the construction of our personal code of ethics must be Gnothi Seauton (Know Thyself), the motto engraved on the temple of Delphi and which Socrates made his own. We must, above all, learn to act in harmony with ourselves. But man is singularly shy about looking at himself with cool objectivity; he is ashamed of seeing his most intimate parts naked. Yet neither our minds nor our bodies are of our own creation.”

We Are Eclipsed By What We Are Part Of

Die Morgenlandfahrt, the title of Hermann Hesse’s 1932 novella (translated by Hilda Rosner), is usually translated as The Journey to the East. The English implies or suggests an oriental mysticism that deflects the meaning of the title, whose more useful translation is ‘journey in the land of morning,’ the Home of Light. This implies or suggests a mortal, physical journey into tomorrow and a mortal, mental voyage towards the naturalism of death; that what we are is eclipsed by what we are part of and how we, through our endeavours to understand, create of ourselves an art that comes from but becomes independent of and greater than the artist.

This is a crucial understanding. It allows one, for example, to go beyond Richard Wagner’s virulent anti-Semitism to a better awareness of what Wagner has created in The Ring. This is also the case with Johann Sebastian Bach; the religious impulse guides his music, but the creative result encompasses far more than the composer. This understanding liberates one from the compulsion many teachers and students have to relate the artwork to the daily life of the artist; there is, inescapably, for life is at work, a relationship, but when the artwork succeeds it leaves the artist behind.

It is why the narrator, the self-accuser, must know why the archives of an enterprise are imperfect and incompletely representative, and why the artwork, or the art of one’s life, must free itself from place of origin, and, in travelling to the land of morning, in the ultimate abnegation of self accords the world the recognition that it, the art of nature, that is to grow, and not us, save for how we chose to grow within it.

There is a further intimation, namely, that the journey transfigures the individual as he moves towards, into, at, and beyond death. It is possible to prepare the first of these three, of which the first is life itself, the second the preparation of life’s completion, and the third the inevitable realization of the course of all nature, and so not to be feared, but recognized and understood.

The novella has five chapters, reminding of the arch of Béla Bartók’s fourth string quartet, composed in 1928 in Budapest.

Personal Destiny

The narrator is both a musician and a story-teller. The first chapter describes the intertwining of personal destiny within a League, which has existed for centuries, and to which a vow of no disclosure of the League is made, though the vow permits the communication without restriction of personal experience. With the context of the secret goals of the League, each participant was expected to have his own private goals. The narrator no longer has the personal documentation of his journey, retains recollections that are only incomplete, and has concluded that the League no longer has any visible existence. Many of the recollections that are recounted, however, are related to the world war, after which “the beliefs of the conquered nations were in an extraordinary state of unreality.” Moreover, the narrator refers to Siddhartha’s statement that “Words do not express thoughts very well.” The narrator amplifies further with the comment that “He who travels far will often see things / Far removed from what he believed was Truth;” and that “humanity’s most powerful and senseless desire [is] the desire to forget,” and not learn from the past—however important it was and however monstrous were its wars. The League, therefore, practises the commemoration and contemplation of the past and of the dead. In the application and derivation of artistry from such practice, it can be “discovered how a long time devoted to small details exalts us and increases our strength.”

The narrator also refers to a specific line from the German poet Novalis (1772-1801): “Where are we really going? Always home.” Novalis is said, like Wagner, to consider death as the romantic principle of life. But the even more immediate correlation is by T.S. Eliot in the concluding stanza of the last movement of the fourth Quartet, written, mid-war, in 1942:

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

There is a conflation of the composition of history, and its life in death, in a recounting of a celebration of the League at Bremgarten.

Hope and Fear are Emotional Obstacles

Chapter II is concerned with the effects of the loss of the travellers of guidance and support; and that the longer these are looked for, without any attempt to develop these within themselves, simply inculcates more confusion, frustration, and futility. In other words, hope and fear become prominent, oppressive, and detrimental. It the same point Goethe makes in Faust, Part Two. Furthermore, the development of a constantly enlarging sense of loss imposes a loss of the present, its vitality, and its possibilities; and introduces into it imaginary difficulties and disillusionment; and so, weakness of character, of action, of thought, of purpose; and perplexity threatens values and meaning. The obsession with current loss then obscures, through exaggeration of the indispensability of it, the consequent loss of consequential perspective and equilibrium. The fixation is on the negligible at the expense of the fundamental and great; what is thought to be missed in fact causes the grave loss of what we could have. It is an unwillingness to acknowledge the evanescence and impermanence of things and relationships, and unnatural resistance to accepting, understanding, and coming to peace with this, which are inescapable conditions of existence and being. And the falsity of interpretation of the lessons that are to be drawn from what now is past incites disagreement and dispute that in turn empty from memory and the factuality of knowledge their application to the actions that determine the present and the future.

“In order that something like cohesion, something like causality, that some kind of meaning might ensue and that it can in some way be narrated, the historian must invent units, a hero, a nation, an idea, and he must allow to happen to this invented unit what has in reality happened to the nameless.”

The communion of minds, with its spiritual exaltation without spiritual dependence, that had been sought and thought to have been achieved, thus decays and disappears. “Everything slips away and dissolves….” No more what Schiller and Beethoven knew was necessary:

Freude, schöner Götterfunken,
Tochter aus Elysium,
Wir betreten feuertrunken,
Himmlische, dein Heiligtum!
Deine Zauber binden wieder
Was die Mode streng geteilt;
Alle Menschen werden Brüder
Wo dein sanfter Flügel weilt.

Joy, beautiful spark of divinity,
Daughter from Elysium,
We enter, drunk with fire,
Heavenly One, thy sanctuary!
Your magics join again
What custom strictly divided;
All people become brothers,
Where your gentle wing abides.

“This doubt does not only ask the question, ‘Is your story capable of being told?’ It also asks the question, ‘Was it possible to experience it?’”


Without Reason, There Can Be No Faith

Chapter III considers the nature of faith and of reason. And that faith can become meaning through the exercise of the will, “mindful … never to rely on and let myself be disconcerted by reason, always to know that faith is stronger than so-called reality.” The lost journey becomes a source for research that asserts, and assents to, what is then considered an episode, however serene and joyous, of what necessarily could have had no more than temporary value and effect, and however momentarily it was seen to be triumphant, cannot be lasting. And that, in its ending, generated the creation of a multiplicity of false Messiahs and prophets who were only of the moment.

Words cannot accurately convey experience; they can only describe its physical and mental environment, to some extent its context and consequences, and its manifestations. A corollary, therefore, is that words are not equivalent to communication, but are but one tool in its realization. One who particularly recognized this, in the artistic, and specifically the theatrical, sphere, is Richard Wagner, with his attempt at the creation of Gesamtkunstwerk, his aesthetic of an art form that embraced and synthesized into a greater whole all of many of the arts. Hence, Wagner’s attention to folk legend, transmuted into humanist fable, and overlaid with social and political perspective. Wagner’s point of departure were the tragedies of Aeschylus. There is also the remarkable example of Johann Sebastian Bach, in his weaving together of word (often Scripture, or cantata text), sermon, ecclesiastical setting, and music.

Despite the shortcomings inherent in words, they are essential to communication. Their necessity in the creation of written works makes possible the book; and the writing of the book, for artists, is necessary to save the artist from despair, “the only means of saving [one] from nothingness, chaos and suicide.” The book is written under such pressure and then has brought “the expected cure, simply because it was written, irrespective of whether it was good or bad. That was the only thing that counted.”

The narrator concludes that, if all human action is attributed to egoistic desire, then he “cannot indeed see that a man who serves a cause all his life, who neglects his pleasures and well-being, and sacrifices himself for anything at all, really acts in the same way as a man who traffics in slaves or deals in munitions and squanders the proceeds on a life of pleasure.” The narrator determines all that he considered good and fine, for which he sacrificed, has been no more than egoistic desire; and realizes that aiming at the writing of a history of the League, he is saving his life “by giving it meaning again.”

The Illusion of Accurate Perception

The subject of chapter IV is the illusion of recognition. The more one thinks one is approaching what has been as if, in the present, it remains what it was, the more does the illusion upon which this fantasy of recognition is based become the manner through which the conviction of recognition wants to be established. What one actually discerns are glimmers of the past in the present, but the glimmers are remembrances, not actualities. In fact, this form of discernment does not even take into account the passage of time, in two ways: one, the subject seems not to age, and, two, the subject, not being physical, is not one that ages in that sense; it may change in relevance or effect, but it is outside of physical senility, and remains what it was. This point is pressed further in the narrator’s selling of his violin, not for money, but because he has renounced his artistry. The cause is despair, the first consequence increased despair, the subsequent consequences agitation, hastiness, distortion, and illness.

It is stated, metaphorically, once again that human beings are not amenable of understanding nor deserving of special interest, for humanity is but a part of the greater, the natural whole, and must respect it.

As the illusion begins to disintegrate, and disgust with and disbelief in oneself and one’s abilities further atrophies one’s worth and spirit, the hope arises that what remains worthwhile is “to cleanse and redeem” oneself, “to some extent” through one’s work, through one’s “service to the memory of that great time,” to resume the active and conscious contact with the inescapable environment we are part of.

The Inexorability of the Natural State

Part V deals with apotheosis. The narrator is brought face to face, or, metaphorically, mind to mind, with the natural state in which one exists, and the reconciliation of personal goals within it, how such goals either improve the articulation, or destroy the capacity to pursue and attain such goals. Fundamentally, the natural state or environment, however modified by individual consideration, is perpetual, whereas the individual is not. Hence, inasmuch as the individual seeks to corrupt the natural state, the natural state ultimately will extinguish both the individual and the corruption that the individual sought to introduce.

When the narrator reaches to place of meeting to which he has been summoned, “a gigantic archive, a vast chancery. Nobody took any notice of us; everyone was silently occupied. It seemed to me as if the whole world, including the starry heavens, was governed or at least recorded and observed from there.” It becomes clear that the narrator is self-accused, and that the League is to judge the effect of this self-accusation. The judgment is this: “The self-accuser is herewith empowered to reveal publicly every law and secret of the League which is known to him. Moreover, the whole of the League’s archives are placed at his disposal for his work.” In this, I am reminded of the archives of Dr. Hans Selye, the discover of the biologic stress response, and from whom I worked at l’Université de Montréal. His over a thousand articles and books all had the prefix, “NA,” that is to say, ‘Nature’s Answer.’

It becomes clear to the narrator that his task cannot be completed without the League, and that any completion, especially those that aspire to worth, can never equal the League; for it, and its archives, are not only inexhaustible, but also understandable to those who will understand. The dream is the meditation, the fragrance of what is naturally true overwhelms with its magic, the act, to be meaningful, must be for all those other individuals who recognize the import of each individual act. The only sin is to discard the natural state; and, more detrimentally, to be choose to be unaware of it; for, from this, all error flows, and all opportunity for appreciation and veneration vanish. Hence, such an individual becomes unrecognizable as a meaningful individual, becomes an individual that the natural state turns against, and eventually burns in a hell of his own making.

This is nicely rendered in Hesse’s text by its allusion to the conclusion of Don Giovanni. When, near the end of the opera, the dissolute Giovanni is offered a final chance to repent by the statue of the murdered Commendatore, Giovanni still refuses. The statue becomes inanimate and disappears, and the dissolute is surrounded by demons who drag him down to hell. The immediately subsequent, and concluding, ensemble delivers what da Ponte and Mozart made the moral of the opera – “Such is the end of the evildoer: the death of a sinner always reflects his life” (Questo è il fin di chi fa mal, e de’ perfidi la morte alla vita è sempre ugual). Da Ponte terms the opera a dramma giocoso, a mix of serious and comic action; but Mozart terms it an opera buffa, a blend of comedy, melodrama, and the supernatural.

The President of the League, in pronouncing judgment, adds this: “I turn to you now, my officials. You have heard how things have been with [the self-accuser]. It is a lot that is not unfamiliar to you; many of you have had to experience it yourselves. The defendant did not know until this hour, or could not really believe, that his apostasy and aberration were a test. For a long time he did not give in. He endured it for many years, knowing nothing about the League, remaining alone, and seeing everything in which he believed in ruins. Finally, he could no longer hide and contain himself. His suffering became too great, and you know that as soon as suffering becomes acute enough, one goes forward. [The defendant] was led to despair in his test, and despair is the result of each earnest attempt to understand and vindicate human life.”

This makes plain that one must strive to know oneself. That truth is compromised by dissimulation. That the lesson of history is altered by distortion. That the duality of mind and body is wholeness that they flow one into the other to be the one that is.

The narrator recalls a conversation at the celebration of Bremgarten, in which he and the President of the League, and “had talked about the creations of poetry being more vivid and real than the poets themselves.” That what we are is eclipsed by what we are part of and how we, through our endeavours to understand, create of ourselves an art that comes from but becomes independent of and greater than the artist.


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