Monday, October 20, 2008

The duality of human nature (Books - Beneath the Wheel by Hermann Hesse)

After having the mother of bw over for dinner last night (tortellini con brodo - I had made homemade broth on saturday when we had our first really chilly day) I settled in with Hermann Hesse's Beneath the Wheel, which I haven't read in about 25 years. I'm surprised how much of the story I remember. Hans Giebenrath is the young pride-and-joy of a small Swabian mill town, being the first young student gifted enough to sit for and pass the exams to attend the state theological academy. The book's opening first describes the father and then the son:
...jobber and middleman, possessed no laudable or peculiar traits distinguishing him from his fellow townsmen. Like the majority, he was endowed with a sturdy and healthy body, a knack for business and an unabashed, heartfelt veneration of money; not to mention a small house and garden, a family plot in the cemetery, a more or less enlightened if threadbare attachment to the church, an appropriate respect for god and the authorities and blind submission to the inflexible laws of bourgeois respectability. Though no teetotaler, he never drank to excess; though engaged in more than one questionable deal, he never transgressed the limits of what was legally permitted. He despised those poorer than himself as have-nots and those wealthier as show-offs...

In every respect, his inner life was that of a Philistine. The 'sensitive' side of his personality had long since corroded and now consisted of little more than a traditional rough-and-ready 'family sense,' pride in his only son. and an occasional charitable impulse toward the poor...Enough of him. It would require a profound satirist to represent the shallowness and unconscious tragedy of this man's life. But he had a son, and there's more to be said about him.
Hans Giebenrath was, beyond doubt, a gifted child. One gathered as much simply by noting the subtle and unusual impression he made on his fellow students. Their Black Forest village was not in the habit of producing prodigies. So far it had not brought forth anyone whose vision and effect had transcended its narrow confines. Only god knows where this boy got his serious and intelligent look and his elegant movements. Had he inherited them from his mother?
Hesse's chief obsession was the duality of human nature - the natural and impulsive along side the measured and ambitious - and his books waged a campaign for the value of cultivating the individual, creative, soulful side of ones nature. This book observes how the German educational system of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, and indeed a whole way of life that might be termed 'traditional' crushed the life out of the individual spirit. The style of education at that time was predominantly classical. The basis of one's education was learning Latin and Greek, alongside German and some math. Seminary students also learned Hebrew. It's fascinating to me to read a fictionalized case for overthrowing tradition in a story that itself seems so representative of what is traditional, but that may be because half my family comes from Southern Germany. I really recognize this lyrical story-telling style, the romanticizing of childhood, the ways Hesse describes the natural world - they are very familiar to me. I am also re-reading this book, having read all of Hesse's book when I was in my teens and twenties. My reading then was partly about absorbing this part of my heritage at a time I was forming a sense of who I was. I really identified with my maternal grandparents, and a lot of the things that formed my intellectual and spiritual identity come from them. I tend to rebel against the predictability, the sureness of the bourgeois side of that culture, but a lot of this book feels like what I come from. Part of that impression might also be created by Michael Roloff's 1960s translation. I don't know if it is his style or Hesse's own that, even in talking about overturning tradition, reads as so quotidian and measured. I suppose one also might say that it reads as unambitious - getting out of the way of the story - and is, in that sense, fitting.

At the academy, Hans Giebenrath - the naive boy trying to live up to his Village's ambitions for him - meets Hermann Heilner a sensitive,rebellious and creative boy, and his sense of what life can be begins to open up. Hesse seems to offer these characters as externalizations of the two sides of human nature, at least that is the impression I am forming half-way into Beneath the Wheel. I see my own dualities - the creative and the scientific, the impulsive and the controlled - playing out before me in this novel.

1 comment:

Matt said...

I grew up resisting the traditional educational system in Hong Kong, which contrives to imbue as many facts and formulas as possible into young minds. I was striving for creativity and understanding, not nuts and bolts that helped pass the exam.