Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Demian / Hermann Hesse -- W.J. Strachan, trans. -- London: Panther, 1971.

Nearly 40 years ago, I read Hermann Hesse's Steppenwolf.  It was a profound experience.  I immediately ranked it as one of the most intriguing and insightful books I had ever read. It is curious, then, that I read nothing else by him until just this month.  Part of the explanation certainly must be the ocassional disparaging comments that friends have made  about Hesse's novels.  "Adolescent" is a frequent epithet.  Still, I was curious enough about what might have attracted me to his work lo, those many years ago that I picked up Demian and read it on a transcontinental flight home. 

No doubt, there is something adolescent about Demian and appropriately so as it mostly chronicles the coming of age of a young boy.  Hesse masterfully depicts the anxiety of childhood moral dilemmas and the adventure of learning about the world beyond one's nuclear family.  If there is a weakness in Demian it is that it seems to take its metaphysics and metaethics a little too seriously.  The main character in the novel slowly enters a subculture of people who believe themselves to be the early adherents of a new religion, worshiping the god "Abraxas," who encompasses both the good of the Christian god and the evil of the Devil.  Along the way, the reader is treated to a spread of vaguely Jungian psychology and Nietzschean philosophy. 

For anyone sympathetic to these views, Demian must be a literary treat, but without such sympathies, it is notably dated.  Setting aside what seems to be the author's own sympathies for the psychological and philosophical backdrop, the description of the protagonist's excitement over his induction into an esoteric world is brilliant.  Anyone thoughtful enough to question the worldview of one's childhood and to seek a deeper understand of reality in the course of growing up will recognize the enchanting allure of entertaining and exploring mysterious, new philosophical ideas.  I suspect it is exactly this that attracted me to Hesse's work so long ago.

Perhaps the most grounding aspect of the novel is the sudden intrusion of war into the lives of its characters.  It is as if Hesse acknowledges that the religious and philosophical preoccupations of his characters are a small and private matter in comparison to the enormous currents at work in the world.  At the same time, one is left with the impression that the great currents of history are merely unavoidable interruptions in the spiritual and progress of the individual characters.  It is well worth reflecting on the contradiction.

The Bodhicaryavatara / Santideva -- Kate Crosby and Andrew Skilton, trans. -- Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press, 1995

Santideva's Bodhicaryavatara is among the most important works in the Mahayana Buddhist canon.  The title translates as the Way of the Bodhisattva.  As such, it provides a concise presentation of the six perfections that are characteristic of the bodhisattva: generosity, morality, forebearance, vigor, concentration, and wisdom. 

The work is composed of 912 verses divide into ten chapters.  Composed in the 8th century, the Bodhicaryavatara played an important role in the transmission of Buddhism to Tibet and has remained important to Tibetan Buddhism.  The Dalai Lama is among its admirers and Mahayana monks continue to memorize it today. 

Its verses are generally clear and direct; however, chapter nine -- it's most celebrated chapter -- is quite difficult.  Chapter nine address the perfection of wisdom as it is understood in the Madhyamaka tradition.  Briefly, wisdom is coming to know that ultimate reality is "empty."  This is the conclusion that is reached when all other metaphysical views about reality are refuted.  For the Madhyamika, ultimate reality is neither one nor many, neither static nor changing, neither conscious nor unconscious.  No analytic, discursive description of it is true.  Language is only able to articulate conventional truth and at most can point in the direction of the approximate ultimate truth. 

Chapter nine and the work in general owe much to the most important work in the Mahayana/Madhyamaka tradition, the Prajnaparamita.  While the Prajnaparamita is far longer (100,000 verses in its longest form), it communicates the difficult concept of emptiness much more effectively.  The Bodhicaryavatara is certainly worth reading, but other secondary material will make understanding its central ideas much easier.