Title: Journey to the East (1932)
Author: Hermann Hesse / translated by: Hilda Rosner
Pg count: 118
Genre: Fiction, Spirituality, Philosophy, Nobel Prize Authors
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ½ ☆ ☆
“Yet we had within us something stronger than reality or probability, and that was faith in the meaning and necessity of our action…”
The desecration of the human soul is a slow, solemn process. Despair is the flame and the soul the moth, while the distance between the two waits in silent transience. The light is warm, beckoning, and simple to embrace; attraction is natural. Yet, the very ruse of comfort is a conduit for [spiritual] decay and nothingness. The sick soul sees the light, feebly approaches it for rejuvenation, but what it receives instead is an inescapable void that permeates into the flesh and bone of its container. Despair is not darkness, it is darkness disguised as light, and the soul that cannot differentiate the factitious from the genuine falls victim to its own device.
This light, this device, this illness of despair are all manifestations of the sick soul. The sick soul is the erected mutation of the disillusioned Man. The disillusioned man is a Lost Cause and his heart beats for not even himself. The Lost Cause is the consequent of a Lost Journey.
Hermann Hesse knows this all too well, and in his novella Journey to the East shows an all too similar journey through the fantastic, spread across time and space, where the root of man’s being wavers between spiritual awakening and moral decay.
Written from the perspective of the story’s protagonist H.H, the novella follows the musings of H.H as he tries to recount the enigmatic League he was a part of and the journey he embarked on – to the East. The story unfolds with a peculiar simplicity. The Journey and the League are both full of wonder, mystery, and intrigue. Great fictional and non-fictional individuals from the past and present – such as Mozart, Don Quixote, Klingsor, Albert Magnus, and many more – make up the League and each member has their own desire that they wish to fulfill from the Journey.
“It was my destiny to join in a great experience. Having had the good fortune to belong to the League, I was permitted to be a participant in a unique journey. What wonder it had at the time! How radiant and comet-like it seemed, and how quickly it had been forgotten and allowed to fall into disrepute. For this reason, I have decided to attempt a short description of this fabulous journey…”
H.H wants to archive his experience about his Journey but his memory comes to a halt at one event that had left his party stranded at the edge of defeat. It is in this spirit that the story unfolds: peeling back the events of the superficial reality fragmented by memory that are lost within lingual limitations, and suppressed by the foreboding illness that blossoms insidiously within to reveal a grander truth about the representation of “the East”. It is also made clear that the truth and reality (often used interchangeably and falsely so) cannot be infused into words, for the reality often lies outside of the realm of language, objectivity, and logic, but it must be attempted, as subjective as it may be.
“One paradox, however, must be accepted and this is that that is it is necessary to continually attempt the seemingly impossible. I agree with Siddhartha, our wise friend from the East who once said: ‘Words do not express thoughts very well; everything immediately becomes a little different, a little distorted, a little foolish. And yet it pleases me and seems right that what is of value and wisdom to one man seems nonsense to another”.
And so appears the internal, intrinsic paradigm of Man in which fleeting, true thoughts bounce off each other with great momentum, each mirroring another, but never fully showing one cohesive picture. Such is the nature of Reality and such is the dilemma-at-hand for H.H.
The novella can be absorbed in two parts. The first part details H.H’s aforesaid ambitions nuanced by his recollection of his times and adventures with the League, while the second part reconciles the illusive reinforcements from the first section to elucidate the real purpose and meaning of the League and the East. The two section serve almost as a full-fledged dichotomy, juxtaposing memorial fantasy against collective reality, but they aren’t exclusive, since they both exist within the paradigm of the East.
The first part is especially interesting since it not only treads on the surface of H.H’s opaque remembrances but continually contradicts the fact-like recollection with subtle skepticism (which are materialized by Reality in the later parts). As H.H orates the time and place he walks through with his brethren, we too get lost in the enchanting world of the League easily forgetting the very reality that H.H aims for. It is then that H.H indulges in his indefinite happiness that he ensures is absolute and unwavering along with the events that he boasts with such clarity and precision, until the mythical core of his memory defaults into something far more translucent and disheartening. This unexpected realization sinks H.H’s ambition to write for he realizes his inability to do so. Something was lost, indeed. He must now discover the truth of this impasse and why his memories can no longer revel in the former glory and happiness he had always known and associated with the League and the Journey. It is this revelation that the second part of the novella unfolds.
“And now I want to hold fast to and describe this most important thing, or at least something of it, everything is only a mass of separate fragmentary pieces which has been reflected in something, and this something is myself, and this self, this mirror whenever I have gazed into it, has proved to be nothing but the uppermost surface of a glass plane”.
Hesse – being the master of metaphysical thought and worldly philosophies relating to self-actualization – fills the pages of this story with wondrous insight and profundity. The novella reaches far and wide across the cosmos, holding in its bare hands the essence of man’s plight and how each soul’s journey must find its way to the “East”. And just what is East? I suppose what it is for me, might be different for you, but interpret it as home, the final abode, the particular which seeps into the universal. However, leaving it at that is grossly oversimplifying the intricate nuances and multicolored shades that Hesse imbues here.
“Yet I was only aware of this for a moment, and therein lay the reason for my great happiness at that time. Later, when I had lost this happiness again, I clearly understood these connections without deriving the slightest benefit or comfort from them. When something precious and irretrievable is lost, we have the feeling of having awakened from a dream. In my case this feeling is strangely correct, for my happiness did indeed arise from the same secret as the happiness in dreams…”
Therefore it is only natural to state that the biggest strength of this work is undoubtedly the ideological grounding of the novella that transpires strong thematic evolution and resonance. The story moves with the assumption of a higher plane of existence, where the soul dwells, where each experience is a culmination of everything preceding it, and consciousness coexists with the mystic past and the tangible present. And insofar as there is meaning, the Journey continues onward. Yet, it isn’t the journey of H.H or the League that concerns us, it is the soul aching for meaning that hangs at the crossroads of faith and doubt that matters. What H.H represents and by extension, the motives and utility of the League represents are just part of the picture. It is the allegorical account of the East (and the meaning it prescribes) that Hesse wants to emphasize with each and every word, description, and elaboration.
” Once in their youth the light shone for them; they saw the light and followed the star, but then came reason and the mockery of the world; then came faint-heartedness and apparent failure; then came weariness and disillusionment, and so they lost their way again, they became blind again.”
The dissolution of self or the reawakening of it is essentially the “end”, with one’s self and soul at risk. Wagering it is inevitable on this Journey but winning it depends on the unexplainable, the grayed out area that lies between black and white. There is a call to return to a higher spiritual element which is simply correlated to the East and to reach there, one must confront a series of tests. There are recurring dualities here of decay and rejuvenation, of faith and reason, of surrender and revival, of victory and loss, despair and happiness, and it is up to the traveler to consciously make that leap towards one or the other. Through H.H (or who I like to playfully call Hermann Hesse ), the spiritual battle against disillusionment and decay is actualized in a race for moral revival and self actualization.
As grand as the core ideas of this novella are, there are some rather disillusioning aspects. The problem of spiritual decay is grandiosely constructed through H.H, the League, and the conflicts that circulate around the Journey regarding the two, however, some of religious meanderings that occur later on in the novel left me extremely jaded. This novella felt extremely close to Hesse’s life who was incredibly influenced and impacted by his Christian faith* (as estranged it had made him in his earlier life). His works are built upon those influences while also combining the ideologies and teachings of the Eastern doctrines, but the nature of this religious aspect in this specific work felt more as a imposition rather than a solution. It didn’t do anything to bring solidarity or unity to his vision: to compensate a spiritual dilemma with one’s own religious musings feels like a cheap trick, especially when in the beginning there were these beautiful notions about mirroring Realities and Truths that weren’t linear, but like matter, everywhere, reflecting off one another but never showing the same thing. This point gets unfairly suppressed by offering sanctuary through one way or emphasizing one religion. The particular is as important as the universal that it flows into and continuance of that is contingent on variance of paths dictated by those particulars.
Nevertheless, Journey to the East is a fantastic, short novella written by one of the greatest writers of the 20th century, detailing a particular crises of the self contained within the universal that binds us all. Filled with wondrous characters, fantastical settings, and impeccable themes this novella is a worthy read and the ideal introduction to the oeuvres of Hermann Hesse.
*This was a surprising revelation in the book and I’m not entirely sure how intentional it was of Hesse to incorporate it as a device. It is especially interesting to see the strong Christian odes here considering how against singular dogma and doctrines Hesse was. It seems Hesse was torn between established dogma and universal oneness that he believed extended beyond name and scripture.