Keely's Reviews > The Journey to the East

The Journey to the East by Hermann Hesse
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Oct 17, 12

bookshelves: germany, novella, fantasy
Read on May 22, 2012

Why is Hesse's concept of enlightenment indistinguishable from mental illness? First, in The Glass Bead Game, we get the depiction of a 'secular saint', and the signs of his enlightenment are that he has stopped all his creative work, often sits lost in thought, making no sign he understands anyone speaking to him, and when he does respond, it is with a brief non-sequitur. He otherwise wanders the gardens day and night with a bland smile frozen to his face. Perhaps it's only me who looks at those symptoms and sees not enlightenment, but full-fledged dementia.

In this work, we get a picture of a secret organization of enlightened individuals who seem to be a collection of homeless vagrants that wander the countryside obsessed with certain mythical objects, and convinced that an ancient, powerful conspiracy is running the world. Once again, my brain keeps telling me that Hesse must be writing satire, since there is nothing that separates this vision of enlightenment from mental disorder.

The secret organization itself is the most interesting part of the narrative. It is a fantasy of magic, time travel, and Illuminist philosophy reminiscent of Italo Calvino's 'magical realism'. This odd vision of a world- and time-spanning sect of spiritual sorcerers was the most enjoyable and promising aspect of the book, so it was disappointing to me that it served only as a backdrop for a fairly bland story.

The narrative is also full of allusions to various historical and literary figures, events, mythologies, and philosophies, but I didn't feel that Hesse did enough to connect them together into something meaningful. As usual, his spiritual philosophy was only as powerful as its vagueness. I did like the notion of a narrative which created allusive meaning like a metaphysical poem--combining references with a central argument to create depth--but Hesse failed to resolve it into anything so insightful.

The weakest aspect of his presentation was the single-voiced, confessional style--something like a journal. Our narrator is constantly referencing interesting things that happened to him, but we don't actually get to experience them or understand them. Once again, vagueness is mistaken for profundity.

I would have been interested in seeing more of this journey, and the odd experiences that made it up, instead of them being merely name-dropped. I'm not saying Hesse should have made everything clear or provided some grand meaning--I think an in-depth description of these fantastical events would have helped deepen his conceptual world, and provide for the reader symbolic examples to help lead us along.

It's like those Lovecraft stories where the hero says 'the vision was too horrible to describe, its terror was beyond the meagre power of words to encapsulate it'--but then Lovecraft usually goes on to explain it, anyways--or at least he has an exciting, fast-paced story to make up for it. No such luck in Hesse.

Once again we have a central, masterful figure who knows all but reveals little--the notion of the great teacher who has the greatest of reputations, despite the fact that we never see him do anything to deserve it. Hesse helpfully tells us that people like him and feel comfortable around him, but I wish he had just made the reader feel that way about him instead of trying to convince us of the inner life of a flat character. If you cannot believably write the Master, then do not make him a character. As depicted, he could have easily been a charlatan as a guru.

Once again, I am reminded why I do not find bland spiritual wonderment enticing: the world is full of joy and wonder and mystery in infinite variations, so it always feels petty and false to me to try to encapsulate that in a vague symbolic experience, asking no questions and revealing nothing. I find it more enlightening to read an author with a hundred powerful and contradictory insights rather than a single, unified, featureless vision like this.
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Keely Well, it wasn't stupid or poorly-written, I just found it conceptually lacking. That's two stars for 'it's okay'. The third star is purely because of the unusual time-traveling secret cult. It was curious enough to get me through the book without ever being bored--though if we had half stars, it wouldn't have made it all the way to three.


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