Monday, April 18, 2005

Return of the Native

The following essay is largely a paraphrase of a biographical note about Hermann Hesse by the novelist, Thomas Mann.  The note is included as a foreword in some editions of Hesse's novel, Demian.

April 18, 2005


Hey, buddy.

Well, we met again on familiar territory on Friday April 15, 2005. I returned to the library. It wasn’t all I expected. It was really rather depressing, actually. I felt nervous and agitated. I experienced a bemused alienation and disconnection from what had been a second home for me these many – perhaps, too many years. Maybe I had spent too much time in the library in years past.

In any event, on Friday, you may have noticed that I logged on to the computer, but I left before my computer time arrived. I just couldn’t stand being in those surroundings anymore. I felt, perhaps, the way Captain Dreyfus might have felt upon his return to France after years of tormented exile on Devil’s Island. It was all too, too much.

For the last year I had arrayed myself as comfortably as possible like Robinson Crusoe on my lonely island. When I look back at that lonely year from the perplexities and pressure of the present, it seems to me like a beautiful and heroic era, oddly enough. The splendid isolation was not lacking in advantages and in charms; I was free to do as I chose; I read what I fancied in bare feet; and I didn’t have to put up with the blare of screaming children, as one must in the library. I was subject to no influences, and no pressure was brought to bear on me. I learned to feast on my solitude and I honed my skills as a letter writer.

If the truth be told I am not suited for the practicalities of life; my mind floats in otherworldly dreams, more preoccupied with the potential of the spirit than with everyday vicissitudes. I love language, books, and music, and the most splendid moments of my uneventful existence have been the few operas I have attended, or the books I have perused in isolation from my fellows. I treasure every detail of the times I have spent in isolation. As I read I imagine every sentence, every page and every chapter as a mirror of my life, my passions and my afflictions. I take refuge in this extravagant, romantic atmosphere whenever I feel weighed down by the vulgarity of life.

I am an artist, really. Or at least I am an individual with an artistic temperament. My moments of highest joy are those I have spent alone. And that is the triumph and tragedy of my existence. Despite the gratifications afforded by my splendid isolation I still long for the Other in my loneliness: the Other who might complete me. Failing to find that Other I live in perpetual disillusion and frustration.

I am a rebel individualist divorced from established dogma and institutions, a lonely incorrigible seeker of new norms. For me life presents itself as a struggle for individualism; I experience my life at times as humorously petulant and at other times as a mystically yearning estrangement from the world and the times. I sometimes feel, in my grandiose moments, that I belong to the highest and purest spiritual aspirations and labors of our epoch.

My spiritual and emotional struggles can be traced to my alienation from my family in childhood. The roots of my estrangement from established institutions and settled norms began in the peculiarities of my early family life. Like most parents mine were no help with the new problems of puberty to which no reference was ever made. All they did was take endless trouble in supporting my hopeless attempts to deny reality and to continue dwelling in a childhood world that was becoming more and more unreal. I have no idea whether parents can be of help, and I do not blame mine. It was my own affair to come to terms with myself and to find my own way, and like most well-brought up children, I managed badly. My parents seemed wedded to some vague suggestions of old-world, Victorian morality with its belief in the inherent sinfulness of man, in the necessity of breaking the will of the individual, and with its uncompromising renunciation of all that is of this world. My family was the first of many social structures which were to rouse the rebel in me.

I was a hypersensitive, imaginative, lively and extremely headstrong child, and proved to be a constant source of despair and annoyance to my parents and my teachers. School held as little attraction for me as it did for any incorrigible. Hardly had the fourth year of high school begun before I became delinquent and was almost dismissed.

College and law school were meant to end the morbid estheticism into which I had allowed myself to drift. I hoped thereby to become an established, respected member of society. This hope was never realized. Except for the first few years, my law school education did not alleviate my feeling that life is essentially meaningless, nor could my idyllic retreat into academia long contain my inherent restlessness. By 1984, upon completion of my LL.M. program at American University, the life in the law had lost any meaning at all. It had become quite apparent to me that I could not be both a creative dreamer and a "solid citizen," a Phantasiemensch and a Burger, as the Germans would put it.

I am but a gifted misfit. My life has long been restive and discontented. I am unable to bear a comfortable, established mode of existence for any period of time. My life is grim and I live in endless mental agony.

I live the life of a romantic vagabond, forever exhausted and distraught in my quest for solitude. Before life can ever become meaningful for me, I must find and come to terms with myself. I am forever taking painful stock of myself and devote myself assiduously to solitary pleasures. I live like a hermit in my emotional and financial poverty and for years now, I have rarely left my apartment for more than routine outings.

In 1993 I began a writing that was to occupy me for the next ten years. That writing would be my autobiography, “Significant Moments.” The writing reflected my relentless quest for my self, and it assumed a fresh impetus and a new stylistic direction from my restless spirit during those years. I became an uninhibited and exciting innovator. The autobiography was really a tense psychological study and reflected the intoxicating emotional release of a Buddha-like search for the basic unity and meaningfulness of life. I am sure if it were ever to be published it would be greeted with a curious mixture of awe, bewilderment, antagonism, and disgust. My own uninhibited self-exposure would no doubt trouble even the staunchest of my supporters. I must remind you, my friend, that my new literary venture was not an irresponsible deviation but a necessary culmination in my self-quest. It has always been my belief that repressions had to be exposed, even at the price of unpleasant notoriety.

The letters I have written to you, my friend, are actually an article of faith and not a document of despair. Yes, I wallow in despair but I live in faith, a faith in the ultimate meaningfulness of life. For me, life has never become the perplexing absurdity it was for Franz Kafka or the Sisyphean monotonous senselessness it was to become for Albert Camus. As I like to say, there is always tomorrow.

I am oppressed by my personal life, but also by the times we live in. Our era is for me one of moral depravity and intellectual mediocrity; of surface glitter, smug comfort, sham conventionality, and foolish optimism. Man has lost his soul in the world of money, machines and distrust. He has exchanged his spiritual peace for physical comfort. All vital rapport with God and nature has been lost, reason has supplanted faith and society has forgotten the individual. I’m starting to sound like His Holiness, the late Pope John Paul II!

But the fact remains that the middle-class core of our civilization has never ceased to be the butt of my ire. The bourgeois represents all that is negative. A stalwart and stodgy nonentity, he is governed in all his ideals and pursuits solely by the impulse of self- preservation. He fears individualism, and deliberately sacrifices the precarious but precious intensities of life for comfort and security. He is the characterless Philistine who epitomizes mediocrity, cowardice, compromise, irresponsibility, and servility. He is the strapping, insensitive, physical specimen who enjoys health and wealth but lacks all culture. He has a sound appetite but no taste, a good deal of confidence but no ideals. He possess a surfeit of zeal and diligence but has no lofty aspirations or worthy goals. It is to him that the world belongs, while persons like me -- the sensitive worshippers of beauty and the earnest seekers after truth and the meaning of life -- are misfits and outcasts.

Every day for me is an effort. A seemingly senseless effort to survive. So much of my day is marked more by strained effort than by spontaneity, more by futile persistence than by passion, and more by recollection than by new horizons. I relive the past day-by-day.

There has always been a very close relationship between the circumstances of my life and my artistic aspirations. Each represents a different stage in my struggle with myself and with life at large, and each reflects a correspondingly different phase in both the substance and the form of my art. My writings are replete with uncertainty and vague presentiment. I live as a sensitive outsider who cannot cope directly with my particular problem of existence. I resort instead to fantasy and withdraw into the realm of beauty there to indulge in the extremes of late esthetic gratification. My world is one of perfumed melancholy. It is characterized by exclamatory remarks and rhetorical questions, by sensuous adjectives and adverbs in languid cadence.

The form of my autobiography is loose: a random succession of vignettes and dramatic monologues, held together primarily by their common spirit of decadent romanticism. A Hoffmanesque fusion of fantasy and reality, which is both cynical and morbidly intimate. You, no doubt, would call it the work of a talented beginner whose world of experience is still too limited, and whose imagination is entranced by the facile flow of beautiful language. In the absence of discipline and restraint, I fear that the whole is sacrificed to the part, and what is meant to be art fails to become more than picturesque patter.

In the last year, in my extreme isolation, my writing has become more human and less shadowy; inertia and desperation yield to movement and humor. My prose has achieved a more narrative style, and my language has become leaner, crisper and more forceful.

And yet, despite the emotional gratifications of my splendid isolation in the past year, I was forced to face the overwhelming accumulation of tensions. I was compelled to realize that in my desire to make existence less painful I had been avoiding a close look at the true nature of my inner discord, and had blindsided myself to the morally and spiritually impoverished world around me. In my imagination I left the comfortable fold of the bourgeois world, which had never afforded me the security I had hoped it might, and accepted the more difficult existence of an outsider. Did I have a choice in the matter, my friend? In a desperate and determined effort to find myself, I began systematically to diagnose my inner conflicts, to go my long-shunned inward path. Only now did I finally come to grips with the intrinsic problems of human existence -- and of my place in the human world.

In my isolation escape became quest, and in quest my inner problems resolved themselves into the basic malaise humain, into the tension between the spiritual and the physical. For the past year I oscillated between these poles, acclaiming first one, then the other, then neither. I never ceased hoping for a harmonious accord, though well aware that for me this was impossible. I acclaim spirit, stressing self-knowledge and self realization with a Nietzschean emphasis upon the superior being. But spirit as a guiding principle of life can only mean greater individuation and more painful isolation. I still lack the firm conviction and the inner fortitude necessary to endure these consequences. The immediate reaction has been as extreme as the initial impulse. My assertive Nietzschean activism has yielded suddenly to a Schopenhauer-like passivity, a restless quest to a quietistic acceptance, and self-realization to a yearning for self-obliteration.

In the sober tone of acceptance which is evident in the present letter, I realize that despite all efforts to the contrary, my existence will probably continue as a restless tension, a constant oscillation between life's opposing poles.

My path to myself has reached its climax in a fascinating confusion of symbol and irony, fantasy and realism.

It is only now that I at last have found the peace of sincere self-affirmation and life affirmation. The individual must take and continue along that path which the predominant aspect of his nature impels him to choose. Each, whether given to the senses or to the spirit, must be prepared to suffer the lot of his kind; to attempt in curiosity or desperation to do otherwise is to foster a perpetual dissension of the divided self.

My center is the individual, opposed to society, its mores, and its institutions. And that individual is myself. I recall, nostalgically, the simpler years of childhood. I re-experience youth with its excruciating years of awakening. I think about modern man, the intellectual and the artist in particular, within the framework of a declining culture.

It is in this, its intimately egocentric nature, that my artistic temperament bears the stamp of its age, an age of cultural decline, of spiritual and moral distress, and of extreme loneliness.

I am predominantly an esthete who lives only in dreams, hopes, and anticipation, and who shrinks before realization. I am a self-preoccupied, temperamental artist who vainly seeks a kindred soul. I am paralyzed by chronic indecision and indulge in romantic morbidity. I am an outsider consumed by my own hopelessness and loneliness -- a misfit, to whom the art of life and the art of love are foreign, a timid soul who asks too little of life and expects too much of it. I live in perpetual frustration and disillusionment.

This is what the past year has taught me about myself. The past twelve months that I spent in exile from the library were not wasted months. I learned many things about myself and in these letters I have tried to memorialize my discoveries and share them with you, my friend.

Check you out next week, buddy.

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