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Hermann Hesse, Siddhartha

Herman Hesse, Siddhartha – New Directions Paperbook, 1957 Translated by Hilda Rosner

Read from September 4th to 12th 2014.

My rating: 4/5 stars

 

Like many other readers I guess, I initially thought that Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha would be some sort of biography of Gautama Buddha. Indeed, even the narrative structure seems to lead to Buddha’s teachings: the first part with its four chapters could hint to the four truths and the second part, with its eight chapters to the Eightfold Path. Even when Buddha himself appears as a character in the story, he might for a while be seen as the hero’s double, whom he confronts, denies and finally accepts as his other half.

However, this is not it. Siddhartha chooses his own path, refusing to be a follower of the “Illustrious One”. Therefore, the dual structure of the book reveals at a closer view three ages in the hero’s life, each of them completed with an “awakening”, an epiphany: the age of knowledge or of the first truth, in the hero’s young years, the age of experience or of the second and third truth, in his maturity years and the age of the wisdom or of the fourth truth, towards the end of his life. Thus the novel turns out to be, apart a novel of ideas, also a bildungsroman.

 

During his years of knowledge-seeking, the young Siddhartha acquires only a theoretical meaning of the first truth: the truth of dukka, the suffering. Leaving his home for a pilgrim life with the Samans, he frostily contemplates the pains of the people, despising the world with the arrogance and merciless of the youth. He is only an indifferent spectator who thinks he found the way to avoid dukka:

…and all were not worth a passing glance, everything lied, stank of lies; they were all illusions of sense, happiness and beauty. All were doomed to decay. The world tasted bitter. Life was pain.

Siddhartha had one single goal – to become empty, to become empty of thirst, desire, dreams, pleasure and sorrow – to let the Self die.

The encounter with Gotama Buddha makes him question whether knowledge is the answer. Although Gotama explains that his teachings’ goal is not the knowledge itself but the salvation from suffering, Siddhartha realizes that adopting Buddha's view he would only fill the Self with Buddha’s teachings, not truly find the Self. Realizing that Atman does not mean to mutilate and destroy the Self, he decides to leave the Samanas. This decision is his first awakening, his first rebirth:

I will no longer study Yoga-Veda, Atharva-Veda, or ascetism, or any other teachings. I will learn from myself, be my own pupil; I will learn from myself the secret of Siddhartha.

His second step, which could illustrate the second truth, of the origin of dukka, corresponds to the maturity years. Siddhartha decides to play the game of Samsara, that is to experience firsthand the cravings that originate suffering: the pleasure of the senses, the social power, the avoiding of pain. For twenty years or so he learns the art of love, the art of trade, the art of idleness, until one by one he drinks all three poisons that are the roots of dukka: he begins to ignore reality, he becomes attached to pleasurable experiences and he comes to fear for his possessions. The turning point is, this time, a symbolic dream in which, finding a rare bird dead in a cage he equates it with his soul, jailed and about to perish in this world of illusions:

…Samsara, a game for children, a game which was perhaps enjoyable played once, twice, ten times – but was it worth playing continually?

The third truth – of the cessation of dukka – has been revealed with his decision to distance himself from his lover, his friends and his material goods, and the hero takes the final step towards wisdom, the most difficult one, on his own Eightfold Path, that, by following an ethical conduct and continuous concentration will direct him towards the right view of the world. An exhaustive view, in which fits a little bit of everything that was or will be (to respect the time of the narrative) thought and said: animism, Platonic contemplation of ideas, Bergsonian intuition, Leibnizian monadic world, neoplatonic coincidentia oppositorum, and so on, in order to prove that the world is already “Om”, already perfect:

The world, Govinda, is not imperfect or slowly evolving along a long path to perfection. No, it is perfect at every moment; every sin already carries grace within it, all small children are potentially old men, all sucklings have death within them, all dying people – eternal life. It is not possible for one person to to see how far another is on the way; the Buddha exists in the robber and dice player; the robber exists in the Brahmin.

Siddhartha’s way to reach Nirvana is accomplished not only through acceptation (Right Intention) and contemplation (Right View) of the world, but also through love, in an act of Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration:

“It seems to me, Govinda, that love is the most important thing in the world. It may be important to great thinkers to examine the world, to explain and despise it. But I think it is only important to love the world, not to despise it, not for us to hate each other, but to be able to regard the world and ourselves and all beings with love, admiration and respect. (…)

I know that I am at one with Gotama. How, indeed, could he not know love, he who has recognized all humanity’s vanity and transitoriness, yet loves humanity so much that he has devoted a long life solely to help and teach people?”

 

It was the easiest way for me, because of the title and the mythical references in the text, to offer bits of Buddhist philosophy as lecture keys. However, knowledge of it is not necessarily required, for in the end, the book simply describes the archetypal quest towards the meaning of the world and the Self. And little by little, page by page, the erudite allusions become less important, whereas Siddhartha’s journey becomes our own journey, touching and forever changing our soul by making us believe, even it is just for a while, that we lifted the Veil and caught a glimpse of the unknown.  

Evelyn Waugh, Brideshead Revisited

Evelyn Waugh, Brideshead Revisited – e-book

Read from August 28th to September 4th 2014.

My rating: 4/5 stars

 

A Catholic Epiphany

Brideshead Revisited is the third novel I’ve read by Evelyn Waugh after A Handful of Dust and Vile Bodies and I found it so different from the other two that I almost suspected someone stole his name and put it on the cover. Gone is his original and controverted technique of the external approach that used the dialogue, juxtaposition and the annihilation of the cause-and-effect chain to suggest the lack of values, the emptiness and the senselessness of the society, technique that singularized his voice in a time of the triumph of subjectivity, of stream of consciousness and other discoveries of the modernists in the interwar London. As David Lodge pertinently observed in his Modes of Modern Writing,

“In Work Suspended (1942) and still more obviously in Brideshead Revisited (1945), Waugh made a radical change in his technique. His style became heavily metaphorical, given to long, elaborate analogies, but at the same time the narrative itself became more conventional in structure, following the fortunes of a group of interrelated characters as they unfolded in time and space.”

Does this mean Brideshead Revisited is inferior to the interwar writings? No, it doesn’t. it is only different. Furthermore, what it apparently loses in originality gains in narrative tension: instead of the literal presentation of the absurd and outrageous, the inner monologue; instead of the objectivity in depicting the social theme of conventionalism, the subjectivity in developing the emotional theme of memory. The author seems to return to former literary paths, to rely on the old, good techniques for even though the story is in first person, it never aspires to stream-of-consciousness-like narrative, or to the modernist anti-hero.

I said “…seems to return”, because the traits I listed below are misleading: Waugh simply mimics the traditional techniques, while subtly improving them with his own: the use of the detail to recreate the absurd atmosphere of the army camps; the sharp irony of Lord Marchmain’s views of the others, the empty endearments of the narrator’s wife, the superficiality of the public taste, the caricature of the politician Julia’s husband embodies, all these and many others are the author’s habitual means to penalize vulgarity, to create a distance from the loathed spectre of common-sense. As Anthony Blanche, this alter-ego of the Waugh’s former novels narrator keeps warning:

“Charm is the great English blight. It does not exist outside these damp islands. It spots and kills anything it touches. It kills love; it kills art; I greatly fear, my dear Charles, it has killed you.”

Not even the theme is developed in the usual way. Apparently, the theme is lost friendship and love and the narrative is built towards identifying and explaining the causes through the memory of the happy times. But this trip in the past gradually uncovers another theme: the Catholic faith, and the impact it has to a total stranger to it, the narrator. The three visits he makes to Brideshead gain thus new connotations: it is through Sebastian that he learns, as an adolescent, the power of religion to guide and destroy human relationships; it is through Julia, ten years after, that he learns the power to sacrifice and to cure of the same religion; and it is through himself, in the little abandoned chapel during his last visit at Brideshead that he finally fully understands its meaning:

Something quite remote from anything the builders intended has come out of their work, and out of the fierce little human tragedy in which I played; something none of us thought about at the time: a small red flame — a beaten-copper lamp of deplorable design, relit before the beaten-copper doors of a tabernacle; the flame which the old knights saw from their tombs, which they saw put out; that flame burns again for other soldiers, far from home, farther, in heart, than Acre or Jerusalem. It could not have been lit but for the builders and the tragedians, and there I found it this morning, burning anew among the old stones.

This understanding, born from resignation and the blunt Biblical philosophy of vanitas vanitatum is the final step in Charles Ryder’s transformation. He lost his friend and his lover, but he finally made sense of their struggles and obsessions. Therefore, if one suspected that, in the good Waughan tradition, the last lines in the book are ironic, maybe one’s wrong and they are not, and the cheerfulness of the narrator, in contrast with the melancholic tone of his memories, is genuine. It is a revelation bliss:

I quickened my pace and reached the hut which served us for our ante-room.

“You’re looking unusually cheerful to-day,” said the second-in-command.

Julian Barnes, The Lemon Table

Julian Barnes, The Lemon Table – Vintage International, May 2005 ISBN: 1400076501 (ISBN13: 9781400076505

Read from August 26th to September 4th 2014

My rating : 4/5 stars

 

The Table of Silence

 

The Brancusian table with twelve seats, eleven of them duly occupied by eleven characters, each of them waiting to take his lemon. The twelfth is forever empty for is forever reserved to the lemons’ distributor – Death. But before leaving with the yellow fruit in hand, each occupant has to tell his story, has to make sense of his life and to acknowledge his place in the world.

So maybe Julian Barnes’s Lemon Table is not about old age and death after all, just as Brancusi’s  sculpture is not about waiting. But both are surely about the power of art to give sense of the human feelings, of human existence. Like Anders Bodén, the hero of the brilliant Story of Mats Israelson, who, for more than twenty years polishes an old story as a gift for the woman he has loved, thus rising not only the narrative but also his own feelings above the oblivion:

…he worked at the story until he had it in a form that would please her: simple, hard, true.

In fact, the main theme of the book is love, be it creative or procreative. For the retired major Jacko Jackson, who has visited his mistress Babs once a year for twenty-three years, love is a means to escape the dullness of the quotidian: “She was – what was that phrase they used nowadays? – his window of opportunity” (Hygiene) For the 81-year-old man who leaves his wife to settle with his mistress of 65, love is his mutiny against decrepitude but also against the preconception that old means already dead or waiting for dying (The Fruit Cage). Reading, even cooking recipes, is love that slows the falling into Alzheimer nothingness of the beloved one (Appetite).

And then there is love as a source of creation. In the last story, The Silence, an old, drunken and apparently embittered Sibelius is evoked, whose love for music cannot be turned into creation anymore, but who is well aware that it is this love that defines him:

'Certainly, I am neurotic and frequently unhappy, but that is largely the consequence of being an artist rather than the cause.'

Finally, the two kinds of Eros are harmonized in The Revival, the story of the 65 year-old Turgenev’s last love for an actress of 25. A bittersweet love which “move il sole e l’altre stele” precisely because it is unfulfilled:

Like most of his life’s writing, the paly was concerned with love. And as in his life, so in his writing, love did not work. Love might or might not provoke kindness, gratify vanity, and clear the skin, but it did not lead to happiness, there was always an inequality of feelings or intention present. Such was love’s nature.

Each of the eleven stories in the volume is about love in one sense or another. In each one of them, love is sought to escape time.

Each stool around Brancusi’s table has the form of an hourglass. However, there is no sand dripping the time. The occupants are gone; their voices are but vague memories, their individuality already forgotten. But the seats are there, frozen into eternity. They will continue to speak about love, and suffering, and human imperfections and of death as not the end of all things as long as someone will listen to them. Like Barnes’s book does. 

Aldous Huxley, Island

Aldous Huxley, Island – Perennial Library, Harper & Row, Publishers, 1989, ISBN 0-06-080985-X

Read from: August 12th to September 3rd 2014

My rating: 3/5 stars

 

Strange things, these novels of ideas. You read, you read, so charmed and challenged by the intellectual debate that somewhere along the road you completely forget to pay attention to the plot, to the characters and generally to all that makes the essence of a novel. And only in the end you ask yourself if it is a novel what you’ve just read after all. The explanation is of course quite simple: plot and characters are only embodiments of ideas and such writings, while mimicking the narrative structure, with its setup, conflict and resolution, follow subtly in fact either the Hegelian dialectic of thesis-antithesis-synthesis or the essay questioning parts of what-how-why.

Island, the last Huxley’s book, is the perfect example of such writing. It was seen as the utopian answer to the dystopian Brave New World, but is it? It seems to me both novels develop, in different ways, the same thesis: that mankind cannot stay beauty. Oh, humans may create it, recognize and even admire it for a while, but in the end they always pervert and destroy it. And beauty is not artistic creation, at least not only. Beauty is superior knowledge and constant seek of harmonious relationships – be it in or between people, or between people and nature, or between people and gods. In the name of this coveted harmony was built the World State with its strict regulations and its five casts and its fix-numbered population and its soma to appease any metaphysical anxiety, the perfect, brave new world where happiness was induced artificially from birth and knowledge was forbidden as dangerous. This is civilisation way, Huxley warned then, the Gotterdammerung of mass culture.

Thirty years after, he imagines another way to reach harmony: isolation from civilisation, reinterpretation of all the values of the society, from family to economy and politics. After identifying all the wrongs in human civilisation and finding a solution for every one of them, Pala becomes a true terrestrial paradise, whose inhabitants are in permanent touch with nature and themselves helped by (this time) a beneficial drug, moksha medicine, and by a deep and original understanding of Tantra philosophy:

If you’re a Tantrik, you don’t renounce the world or deny its value; you don’t try to escape into a Nirvana apart from life, as the monks of the Southern School do. No, you accept the world and make use of it; you make use of everything you do, of everything that happens to you, of all the things you see and hear and taste and touch, as so many means to your liberation from the prison of yourself.

But of course, such a society cannot compete with the human genius of destruction. Furthermore, it is not allowed to exist (I cannot help thinking this was Huxley’s foreboding of Tibet). The brave new world is waiting just around the corner for the moment to step in and swallow this world and re-create it in its image. Why?

First, because it simply isn’t possible for Pala to go on being different from the rest of the world. And second, because it isn’t right that it should be different.

And third, because the world as a rule has no place for Karuna, that is for compassion. The people of Pala will always be “the savages” of the World State as John was, to be isolated, ridiculed and finally destroyed. The conclusion is therefore identical in both novels: humanity cannot to be saved, for even when it is shown a glimpse of happiness it does its utmost to destroy it. And it is only natural to be this way, since the purpose of the society has never, never been to turn its members into “full-blown human beings”:

What are boys and girls for in America? Answer: for mass consumption. (…) Whereas in Russia there’s a different answer. Boys and girls are for strengthening the national state. (…) And in China it’s the same, but a good deal more so. What are boys and girls for there? For cannon fodder, industry fodder, agriculture fodder, road-building fodder.

 

…I close the book with a sad smile and I realize that I probably forget one day Will Farnaby, and Robert MacPhail and Murugan and the Rani, but I will never forget the utopic society of Pala, which really believed that Shiva-Nataraja would forever dance for them, while stamping on Muyalaka, to free them of the world’s malignity.

Saul Bellow, Herzog

Saul Bellow, Herzog – e-book

Read from August 20th to 27th 2014

My rating: 5/5 stars

 

Pray tell me, Sir, whose dog are you?

What is the world for the intellectual? The playground of his ideas or the hell of his emotions? For Moses Hezog, a forty-seven-year old former Professor in a mid-life crisis is certainly both. Recently gone through a messy divorce and the tragi-comedy of a marital triangle, the hero looks for the cathartic liberation from this emotional ballast in two ways: by writing letters to acquaintances and strangers, to the living and the dead, and by remembering the past. The result? A very exquisite mixture between epistolary and psychological novel intertwined with cleverly hidden intertextual dialogues, in a perfect narrative structure and a memorable collection of characters. A masterpiece signed Saul Bellow.

The novel follows Herzog’s quest to make sense of the world either following Tolstoy’s belief – that freedom is personal and indifferent to historical limitations, or Hegel’s conception – that freedom begins with the knowledge of death, knowledge fed by history and memory.

Therefore, the letters are not necessarily a way of communication (he never sends nor finishes them) they are a way of self understanding, Tolstoyan way: “I go after reality with language.” Thus, he keeps arguing with Spinoza whether the desire to exist is enough to lead to happiness, he feels like rejecting Nietzsche’s view of any present moment as a crisis, a fall from classical greatness on the principle that he had a Christian view of the history despite his accusation that Jesus Christ enslaved the world with his morality, and finally he find a new interpretation of Kirkegaard’s belief that knowledge can be acquired only through hell by seeing suffering as a personal choice, not by playing at crisis, alienation, apocalypse and desperation, but as an antidote to illusion:

…people of powerful imagination, given to dreaming deeply and to raising up marvelous and self-sufficient fictions, turn to suffering sometimes to cut into their bliss, as people pinch themselves to feel awake.

Together with Samuel Johnson, Herzog discovers that suffering can acquire an almost hedonistic quality:

Grief, Sir, is a species of idleness.

If the letters are the intellectual dialogues with the world, memories are the emotional ones. Through personal history, this time in a Hegelian way, Herzog rebuilds his own image, since: “I am Herzog. I have to be that man. There is no one else to do it.” On these grounds he recalls all his “reality instructors”: his parents who taught him to love and to lose the loved one, his women who taught him that “not thinking is not necessarily fatal”, that is he can divorce intellect from emotion unpunished, his friends who taught him that generosity has sometimes an unbearable price tag. Two memorable, Dostoyevskian figures emerge from this recollection: his second wife, Madeleine, who, according to Herzog, tried to steal his place in the world and his rival and former best friend Valentine Gersbach, who tried to become him, emulating his opinions and gestures. The only form of the self preservation. Herzog discovers, is detachment, so the final lesson the hero is gradually taught is the acceptance of death, be it physical or emotional:

And you, Gersbach, you’re welcome to Madeleine.

Enjoy her – rejoice in her. You will not reach me through her, however. I know you sought me in her flesh. But I am no longer there.

However. However. Which is the door to freedom – intellectual or emotional? Tolstoy or Hegel? For it is sure you cannot go through both at the same time, since they are rather opposite. Herzog clams up in the end, refusing either word or feeling, or simply refusing to tell. It‘s up to us to open whichever door we seem fit – for him and for ourselves, in a dignified answer to the mocking question of Longfellow’s dog at Kew: “Pray tell me, Sir, whose dog are you?”