19 February 2010

Hesse, Eliot, Salinger: An Eternal Golden Braid

Thanks to Douglas Hofstadter of Gödel, Escher, Bach fame for the title of this interim posting. In May 1922 T.S. Eliot visited Hermann Hesse at his villa in Montagnola, an isolated Swiss village above Lake Lugano where Hesse had recently settled and where he was to live until his death in 1962. Eliot had been profoundly influenced by a slim volume of Hesse's Blick Ins Chaos ('In Sight of Chaos.') He refers to it in his notes to The Waste Land. In his essay "The Brothers Karamazov or The Downfall of Europe" Hesse had detected the emergence of a new type of man - 'the outcome of a primeval, occult Asiatic ideal'. He called him ''Russian Man' and he signifies the decline of Europe in a '...turning back to Asia' and 'turning away from every fixed morality and ethic.'

Ex Blondie musician and now gifted mystic writer, Gary Lachman, sees this type as the progenitor of such disparate characters as Crowley, Manson, Neal Cassady, Alan Watts etc., They can as easily become criminals as ascetics, and as Hesse says 'believe in nothing except the insane uncertainty of every belief.' Heavy stuff with a touch of wu-wu but Hesse was undeniably a seer. In 1953 he wrote an interesting piece praising Salinger's Catcher in the Rye. Through reading the novel he finally understood the many letters he had been receiving from young American readers of his novel Steppenwolf. He sees Caulfield, despite his facade and the filth around him, as 'a completely beautiful pure lovable and loving soul..' The essay ends:
'Whether one reads this novel as the individual story of a half-grown problem child or as the allegory of a whole country and people, one will be led by the author along the beautiful road from dislike to understanding, from disgust to love. In a problematic world and time, poetry can achieve nothing higher.'
As for the 'golden braid' --it is theoretically possible to have a line of writers who praised one another going back to Chaucer. It might go something like this Salinger, Hesse, Eliot, Hardy, Wilkie Collins, Wordsworth, Blake, Burke, Sterne, Swift, Defoe, Wycherley, Milton, Ben Jonson, Shakespeare and beyond--all were living when the other had published so could have praised (or noticed) their work. The trouble is the golden linking stops or stalls in forward mode with Salinger. The only author he is known to have praised is Hemingway (the feeling was mutual--Hem said of him "Jesus, he has a helluva talent"). I guess one could move sideways using Hemingway- who praised Cyril Connolly - who, in turn, praised all manner of younger writers.

TRIVIA. Hesse has a tribute site at MySpace and has 2,027 friends ('Click here to add Hermann Hesse as a friend.')

The Hofstadter book Gödel, Escher, Bach from Basic in New York 1979 now goes for $300 as a fine first in jacket - but always read the small print as most people selling are under the impression that first edition, ninth printing is almost as good as a true first and charge accordingly, whereas what they have is an almost worthless reprint fit only for reading.

In 1999, the bicentennial year of Russian poet and writer Alexander Pushkin, Hofstadter published a verse translation of Pushkin's classic novel-in-verse Eugene Onegin. A good effort with Nabokov having set the bar so high. Hofstadter did not bother adding 3 volumes of footnotes...

Hemingway and Salinger had a good exchange of letters in the mid to late 1940s. Value? Possibly a staggering sum.

That's Hermann's desk below.


Anonymous said...

Greetings Nigel - "fit only for reading" is good, I like that. But Hesse's title is more usually rendered as "glimpse into the abyss", or something along those lines.
While I'm here, I strongly recommend Pevsner's first book, "Leipziger Barock", 1928: beautifully produced, it is still a useful guide book (despite some bomb damage), and the 1990 reprint can be bought even locally for under a tenner. Best, AO'N.

Anonymous said...

WU WU? What in Christendom is that!? Keep it up. DH

Bookride said...

Wu wu? When I used it I had a vague idea it meant flakily mystic, triumphantly born out by the scholarly Urban Dictionary who define it as:

Excessively new-agey, interested in astrology, non-scientific. Religious or mystically inclined. Sometimes abbreviated simply as "wu."
"Oh my god, Tarot cards are totally wu wu!" -- Lieva, physics major.
[flakey new agey faery cosmic intuitive]

As for Blick in Chaos I bow to your better German and certainly Glimpse into the Abyss is a better title but the 1923 UK first was called In Sight of Chaos (translated by Stephen Hudson.) Will check out the 1928 Pevsner--worth a detour.

Fnarf said...

I would have spelt it "woo woo".

Roger said...

Well, you can't fit Eliot and Hardy in your chain: Eliot disliked Hardy. Hofstadter's version of Pushkin is bad- as is Nabokov's- Charles Johnston's is the best I know of.

Bookride said...

Point taken Roger. These are merely examples. It is of course possible that Hardy liked Eliot, as an accomplished poet himself he might have appreciated the ambitions of 'The Waste Land.' Because one writer disapproves of the other it doesn't mean the feeling is mutual. Borges liked the prose of John Buchan but I doubt Lord Tweedsmuir would have appreciated 'Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius' (sadly published 2 months after he died.) As for Charles Johnston people often ask for his Onegin. I could use a stack of them, in a very saleable series-his is one of the fastest selling Penguin Classics...

Edwin Moore said...

Think there used to be a claim that there was a line of actors from Gielgud going back to Burbage who had each learned from a predecessor how to play Hamlet! Think the line has a few gaps though.

Think also Graves claimed to have been pated on the head by Swinburne who was patted on the head by Landor who was patted on the head by Johnson who was touched for the King's Evil by Queen Anne. . .

Facsinating piece. Never managed to read Hesse but clearly a very influential figure.