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Last year I read Hesse’s The Glass Bead Game (Magister Ludi), a book I picked up because our reading circle had not read any works of German literature and I wondered if this one might fill the bill. In the end, although I was glad to have read it, I felt the heavy weight of philosophy and relative paucity of plot would not be welcome to the group as a whole. We may take the Thomas Mann route, but if anyone has other suggestions, send them my way.
More recently there came into my hands (due to a friend’s downsizing her library for a move to smaller living quarters) a volume of Hesse’s entitled Reflections, an expanded version, first published in Germany in 1971, of a smaller book of brief passages the author had had privately printed from his novels, letters and other writings. “Aphorisms are something like jewels;” he notes in the book’s epigraph, “rarity increases their value, and they are enjoyable only in small doses.” He is probably right about the small doses -- I seldom read more than two or three pages at a time from Reflections -- but it is rewarding to dip at random into this box of jewels and pull out a treasure to admire and pass along. One of the first I wanted to share with friends was this:
If here and now, in the face of today’s difficulties and requirements, we behave with a certain amount of human decency, it is possible that the future, too, will be human.
Many friends approved and liked this quotation, but my friend Helen pointed out, quite rightly, that everything hangs on the big “If.” Hesse wrote the lines in 1922, she observed, and could hardly have imagined what would come to pass in Germany (he had moved to Switzerland) in the next two decades – a nightmare that was anything but decent. Helen and I have no quarrel over the facts. What I must hope, however, is that in our ‘today,’ knowing what grew out of that earlier European ‘today’ when decency was abandoned, we will remember that nightmare and not accept behavior that would bring on a repetition of history’s modern European Dark Ages. The danger, I agree, is very real.
The Hesse book remains by my side. After having written a response to something I’d seen and been troubled by on Facebook, I found last night a couple of quotations appropriate to the subject of heroism and courage. The first is short and to the point:
As I see it, the love of heroism is permissible only in those who risk their own lives; in others it is not only a delusion but also, I believe, a ruthlessness, which fills me with shame and anger.
Ruthless encouragement to others to risk their lives while we remain safely at home, handing out judgments: that aspect of a modern “warrior culture” should give us reason to pause and reflect.
The following passage in the book enlarges on the theme of courage by examining its opposite:
Anyone who shirks the labors, sacrifices, and dangers that his people must undergo is a coward. But no less a coward and traitor is the man who betrays the principles of thought to material interests, who, for example, is willing to let the holders of power decide how much is two times two. To sacrifice intellectual integrity, love of truth, the laws and methods of thought to any other interest, even that of the fatherland, is treason. When in the battle of interests and slogans the truth, like the individual, is in danger of being devalued, disfigured, and trampled under foot, our one duty is to resist and save the truth – or rather, the striving for truth – for that is our highest article of faith.
Do these statements seem controversial?
· “[A] coward and traitor is the man who betrays the principles of thought...”
· “To sacrifice intellectual integrity ... is treason.”
· “...[O]ur one duty is to ... save the truth.”
Do you think Hesse exaggerates?
These are heavy thoughts, but I hope the small doses, if it did not win for them a warm welcome, at least allowed them a fair hearing. Anyone interested can read more about the life of Hermann Hesse here. For other books of quotations, less scolding and more can-do in nature, look here.
And if you look to movies for inspiration, look no further than “Broken Trail,” a surprising Western starring Robert Duvall that brings together historical detail, believable dialogue, and stunning cinematography. The story has a Western’s requisite heroes and villains but manages to feel real and gritty and dangerous without plunging into a cesspool of four-letter words. And the horses! The horses are magnificent!
The beauty of horses, the companionship of dogs! What would the world be without them? Bleak indeed!