Saturday, 29 June 2019

The Prodigy - Hermann Hesse

I have recently resolved to re-read the works of the great German author Hermann Hesse, and as part of this process I revisited his novel The Prodigy, which has also been published under the alternative title Beneath The Wheel.

The novel tells the tale of a gifted young man called Hans from southern Germany who works hard to attain admission to a prestigious theological college, but is subject to constant pressures from his father, schoolteachers and others.  Once at the aforementioned college, he becomes friendly with a young man who questions the value of "abstract" scholasticism. Hans falls from favour with the college hierarchy, his academic performance diminishes, and he suffers from a breakdown, and returns home, eventually enrolling as an apprentice in a manual occupation.

As ever with Hesse's works, there are lots of pleasing passages concerning a person's oneness with nature, and an immersion in the simple pleasures of life. Again, in keeping with the regular Hesse style, there is not much in the way of direct social criticism, and much of his message can be found between the lines, as it were. There is the occasional slice of sarcasm, which underlined for me that the topics covered in this novel were of particular moment for the writer.

The preamble, covering the time prior to our hero's admission to the theological college, is a delight, and worth the "admission fee" on its own.

This novel is ostensibly a critique of the educational system which prevailed in the early twentieth century. More broadly, it explores themes of regimentation, oppression, the folly of some academic pursuits, and conformity as a route to stagnation and decay. Hesse extols the virtues and value of work which brings one closer to nature, which has a tangible result, and which activates and nourishes all of our senses.  For me, it brings home the necessity for a balance in our lives.

Another strand which runs through the story for me is that people should be allowed to find their own path, and that we should not let the success or acquiescence of others become the measure of our own self-esteem, value or prestige.

This is a highly affecting novel, and is to my mind one of the more straightforward and linear of Hermann Hesse's works. Although the story is told from the standpoint of early twentieth-century Europe, the issues are still relevant. Perhaps some of the ills discussed here are less "institutionalized" nowadays, but they are still pervasive and important.

Saturday, 8 June 2019

News From Nowhere - William Morris

During my adult life I have tended to read fewer fictional works than I would have preferred, and generally those novels which I have enjoyed have been of the more "philosophical" variety, including some utopian and dystopian science fiction. William Morris' 1890 novel News From Nowhere pretty much corresponds to these tendencies of mine.

In this novel, a man falls asleep in Victorian London, and apparently wakes up in a future society which styles itself as a socialist utopia, and which is agrarian in character.  He is given a tour of this "new world" by the people who he meets, and this takes in boat journeys along the River Thames.

Even allowing for the times when the work was composed, I found the writing style to be an acquired taste. Although not quite archaic in its flavour, in places it may be difficult for some to follow and even understand. Of the novel itself, I was pleasantly surprised by how enjoyable and absorbing I found it.

The fact that the new society outlined in this book is agrarian in nature means that it probably made more sense back in the late nineteenth century than it does to a twenty-first century audience raised in an age of globalization and rapid technological progress. Despite this, some aspects of the utopia envisaged here are very much relevant to our own modern concerns and problems. Perhaps Morris was prescient and astute in observing that technology does not necessarily emancipate the people, or rather is not allowed to emancipate the people.

Whilst the agrarian society portrayed in News From Nowhere seems impractical and implausible to us in our hi-tech world, and the old arguments concerning incentives and competition remain very valid, facets of this utopian vision are worthy of consideration and scrutiny, as part of piecemeal social and economic reform to improve our world and make it more humane, stimulating and equitable.

One feature of the novel which I found slightly disconcerting was the revelation, or insinuation, that all the people were happy, and that they evince a certain kind of serenity.  This seems unlikely and even undesirable.  A place where there is a uniformity of expressions and moods sounds to my antennae like more of a dystopia!

Some of the language used, and the arguments advanced, are quite persuasive, certainly of the evils of 19th century society and its contemporary industrialism, but whether this means that the agrarian route was a practical and workable solution is another matter entirely.  Perhaps there is a gap in the market for someone to write a novel where a person falls asleep in a 21st century environment and wakes up in a future libertarian socialist set-up?  Maybe we are currently at a similar stage, "spiritually" if not materially speaking, as the Victorians were?

I was heartened that some form of "explanation" was offered as to how the old society of "commercial slavery" gave way to the brave new world, but I found myself wanting more.  For example, what was the full human cost of the transition?  In fairness, we are left wondering whether our hero's "experiences" were from a dream, and some minutiae may not have been imparted in such a dream....

Moving on, I was intrigued by one of the central tenets of this utopia; the notion that work can be pleasurable, and vice-versa, and of the idea that the barriers between work and art can be eroded. Weren't we once told that technological advances would allow people more time and space to indulge in stimulating and rewarding artistic, intellectual and leisurely pursuits?

My interpretation of the utopia proclaimed in this work was that it was too uniformly "nice", with little time for dissenting voices, which appeared to be treated with disdain. The tone of the characters seemed to me unduly smug and complacent, with scant allowance for the co-existence of philosophies or the possibility of syncretism. People in that situation may be too comfortable and serene to notice anything sinister or insidious in their midst. In addition, I think there was too easy an assumption that the old habits and vices would simply disappear or fade away.

Much play is made of the populace of this future community being at one with nature, and loving life as opposed to fearing death. Surely we can incorporate some of the more desirable elements of Morris' vision in our future, by way of gradual, rational reform, and the application of reason, if we put our minds to it, without dispensing with some of the dynamic forces which propel human progress?

Overall, I liked this novel much more than I had anticipated beforehand.  It is more "literary" than I thought it might be, and it is well worth a read.