Longing for home


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Category: Profiles Date: 31 Mar 02

I regret I have come upon Herman Hesse, the German Nobel prize winner for literature this late. I should have read him at 18, even 24, because it would have given my rebellious adolescence and youthful womanhood, credence.


It would have given the stamp of literary approval to the slamming of doors, the risks of taking a fast, lonely train at night to an unknown destination in a continent where I didn’t speak the language, the often defiant, but ultimately, thoroughly predictable rebellious period of every fledgling adult.


I could have precociously held up Hesse as a defence to my parents who were often worried about what I would do next that my exploration of the unknown is a shield against a “toneless, flat, normal and sterile life”.


And yet, Hesse’s character, Harry in The Steppenwolf, is drawn to the lives he rejects.

“I imagine a home full of shining mahogany, and life full of sound respectability which smell of turpentine and soap and where there is a panic if you bang the door or come in with dirty shoes - early rising, attention to duty, restrained but cheerful family gatherings, Sunday church-going, early to bed.

The love of this atmosphere comes, no doubt from the days of my childhood, and a secret yearning I have for something home-like drives me, down the same old stupid road.”


Hesse throws open the door of human psyche as a thing that stretches endlessly through his character, Harry, who struggles to reconcile the wild primeval wolf and the rational man within himself. The division into wolf and man, flesh and spirit, by means of which Harry tries to make his destiny more comprehensible to himself, is a very great simplification.


Harry consists of a hundred or a thousand selves, not of two.  His life oscillates, as everyone’s does, not merely between two poles, such as the body and the spirit, the saint and the sinner, but between thousands and thousands.


Circumstances (overstuffed BWIA flights) have brought me to the unfamiliar in the form of isolation in a hotel room near JFK airport.  My view as I write, is opaque gray skies dripping like dirty tap water onto concrete structures, parking lots, brittle, brown, skeletal trees, parched grass, electricity poles - the debris of a metropolis accompanied by incessant machine noises, the drone of aircraft overhead, vehicles swishing beneath. It makes me long for home.


I read on.

Hesse is now deriding the ‘bourgeois’. Did I say I long for home?

“A man cannot live intensely except at the cost of the self. Now the bourgeois treasures nothing more highly than the self.

“And so at the cost of intensity, he achieves his own preservation and security. His harvest is a quiet mind which he prefers to being possessed, as he does comfort to pleasure, convenience to liberty and a pleasant temperature to that deathly inner consuming fire.”


Hesse’s alternative to this weak and anxious ‘bourgeois’ is the strong and wild nature who share the life of the fold of the Steppenwolf - who plumbs the depth of his soul and has a great capacity for suffering and happiness.


“Thus, like a precious, fleeting foam over the sea of suffering arise all those works of art in which a single individual lifts himself for an hour so high above his personal destiny, that his happiness shines like a star and appears to all who sees it as something eternal and as a happiness of their own.”

At a cost.

“To such men the desperate and horrible thought has come that perhaps the whole of human life is but a bad joke, a violent and ill-fated abortion of the primal mother, a savage and dismal catastrophe of nature.”


An example of a Steppenwolf is Halle Berry, a lovely, talented Oscar-winning actress who replied to Barbara Walters quizzing: “What turned you around from someone on the edge of suicide to this incredible personal and professional success story?”


Her answer: “I used to depend on others approval for my identity..,” she said “Now I depend on what feels right for me.”


We can all remember the time in our lives when the journey was the arrival.  And we have all longed for home, although hopefully without going down the “same stupid road”.


This, I suppose, is what Hesse meant about peoples lives oscillating between thousands and thousands of poles, of the sheer scope of what we can be, if we give ourselves permission.

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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur