Tuesday, October 21, 2008

The Tragedy of Insistence on Conformity (Books - Beneath the Wheel by Hermann Hesse)

Hermann Hesse's second novel, Beneath the Wheel, is an indictment of the seminary-based educational system available to young men in late ninetheenth century Germany. A system full of intense pressure, overbearing workload, and insistence on conformity. Hesse himself fell victim to it, attempting suicide in his youth, so the passion of his argument should come as little surprise. But this is a novel too, full of rich evocations of youthfull landmarks - intense friendships, fear of authority, and first stirrings of sexual passion. These are lyrically expressed, the passion is served up poetic, rather than raw. The result is a little over-romanticized for my taste. One could argue that Hans Giebenrath's realm of experience (or, indeed, Hesse's) was this innocent, that it was a function of the time, or his villagae upbringing. It is hard for me to believe that any teenager grew up this chastely.

Hans is not only an innocent, but a serious student, bearing the full weight of his teachers' and his father's expectations fully on his back. The most formative and beautiful experience Hans has at the academy is his friendship with Hermann Heilner.
With some astonishment Hans discovered how different all things looked to his friend than to him. Nothing was abstract for Heilner, nothing he could not have imagined and colored with his fantasy. Mathematics, as far as he was concerned, was a Sphinx charged with deceitful puzzles whose cold malicious gaze transfixed her victimes, and he gave the monster wide berth.
Ultimately, however, the story is not a sweet, but a tragic one. Hans only has his eyes opened to a few new experiences, something one would hope for anyone preparing to move from childhood to adulthood. But these philosophical and physical stirrings make it hard for him to relate to any part of his life as he did before. His world becomes larger. The old rules no longer hold. And the adults in his midst are unable to show him ways he might continue to stay interested, other than simply to be obedient.
All these conscientious guides of youth - from the headmaster to Father Gibenrath, professors and tutors - regarded Hans as an impediment in their path, a recalcitrant and listless something which had to be compelled to move. No one, except perhpas Wiedrich, the sympathtic tutur, detected behind the slight noby's helpless smile the suffering of a drowning soul casting about desperately. Nor did it occur to any of them that a fragile creature had been reduced to this state by virtue of school and the barbaric ambition of his father and his grammar-school teacher.
I wonder what Hesse would have thought of today's famously over-scheduled children, running from soccer, to play practise, to SAT prep course every afternoon of the week?

One of the lovliest sections of writing is occassioned by the greatest tragedy, the accidental death of a student named Hindinger, the son of a tailor from Allgau.

The teachers apparently regarded a dead student very differently from a living one. They realized for a fleeting moment how irrecoverable and unique is each life and youth, on whom they perpetrated so much thoughtless harm at other times...

Then came the burial. The coffin was given a place of honor in the dormitory and the tailor from Allgau stood beside it, watching everything that was being done. He was a tailor from head to toe; skinny and angular, he wore a black dresscoat with a greenish sheen to it, and narrow skimpy trousers. In his hand he held a shabby top hat. His small thin face looked grieved, sad and week, like a penny-candle in the wind; he was both embarrassed and overawed by the headmaster and the professors.

At the last moment, just before the pallbearers picked up the coffin, the sorry little man stepped forward once more and touched the coffin lid with timid tenderness. He remained there, helplessly fighting his tears, standing in the large quiet room like a withered tree in the winter - it was sorrowful to behold how lost and hopeless and at the mercy of the element he looked. The pastor took him by the hand and stayed at his side. The tailor put on his fantastically curved top hat and was the first to follow the coffin down the steps, across the cloister, through the old gate and across the white countryside toward the low churchyard wall. While singing hymns at the graveside the students annoyed the music-teacher by not watching his hand beating time. Instead they looked at the lonely, wind-blown figure of the little tailor who stood sad and freezing in the snow, listening with bowed head to the pastor's and headmaster's speeches, nodding to the students, and occasionally fishing with his left hand for a handekerchief in his coat without ever extracting it.

Beneath the Wheel is a swift moving, tragic yet passionate novel. I admire work that comes from strong feeling but nonetheless displays evidence of craft. I am glad that the German lit challenge floating around grabbed my will-o'-the-wisp attention so that I might re-read some Hesse. I think I might try a few more. In the meantime, here is my other post about Beneath the Wheel.

1 comment:

JCR said...

This made me think of "Bartleby, The Scrivener" by Herman Melville, a short story I teach every year to my students... it is also a scalding criticism of Emersonian Self-Reliance/Non-conformity ideas. It's a great read, pick it up! JCR