Cultural Frustration and Heinrich Hesse

I feel underserved by nearly all the contemporary cultural production I come across. It all seems to fall into one of three categories:

A. Escapist: typically on the “they killed him but he ran away” model. This is often entertaining, sometimes very well done, and certainly has its place in the lives of many people. But it usually fails to keep my interest for long. (I really couldn't care less who done it, and remember nothing whatever of Star Wars).

B. Engaged art: this sets out to publicize the plight of various disadvantaged. (Most Scandinavian film and drama falls in this category). It is often worthy and sometimes also well done but if one is not so disadvantaged himself, the whole business fails to speak to him personally. (Take The Elephantman, for instance: how tragic to suffer from elephantiasis! -- but what does it have to do with me?)

C. Dummy Realism: This “tells it like it is”, but it takes as its topic the very ordinary – lower-middle-brain, to employ sociological terminology -- criminals, bakers, undertakers, working girls, frustrated suburban housewives, advertising canvassers walking aimlessly about Dublin while talking to themselves, etc. The reason for this is perhaps that writers are not, by and large, a brilliant lot (what possible incentive can there be for writing this stuff for hours and hours each day?); and it is impossible to write convincingly about people more intelligent than oneself. So writers, wisely, write "down". (As in "girls marry up, boys marry down"). And that's alright, but why do I have to read down?

This is why I enjoy reading Hesse: his heroes -- like Knecht of The Glass Bead Game -- are upper-middle brain and neither disadvantaged nor politically engaged; they are thus free to direct all of their considerable brain power to the pure task of cultivation of that brain power; which is a life-style anyone with a brain and the freedom to pursue it well might. It is, in other words, a life we all could live if we only could live it; perhaps even the life we will all live one day, all our disadvantages have been removed and all our brains powered-up by way of a special chip. The project is not without its problems -- but they are not explored in art; and that is too bad because, certainly, to me at least, such art would be a lot more interesting than A-C above.

But while I praise highly Hesse's gumption to go after a good topic, I praise his execution less enthusiastically. His description of the sculptor's creative process in Goldmund and Narcissus is a pious fabrication; his description of meditation in Glasperlenspiel, also. Perhaps Hesse, too, was too busy writing books to find out properly about the things he was writing about.

The old dictum regarding pornography comes to mind: the reason why it is so bad is because those doing it have no time to write it, and those writing it have never done it. Good literature has the odds stacked up against it.


Andrew W. said...

You remind me that I need to pick up and read My Name is Red again. I nearly finished it but stopped due to time constraints, and will probably need to start from scratch...

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