By Les Blough. Axis of Logic
In Loving Memory of Hans Garrett Blough (1972-1990)
Hans died in an accident at the age of 18 on June 28, 1990, two months before he was to begin studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Thus, yesterday was another anniversary of his death and were he alive on earth today we would have celebrated his 40th birthday on January 1, 2012. Each year on this date I beg indulgence to remember him publically on this website. This year, rather than writing more about the wonderful human being, son, brother and friend Hans was throughout his brief life, I offer a tribute to Hans through the work of Hermann Hesse and excerpts from his first novel, Peter Camenzind, published in 1904. The drama, values, insight and spiritual depths expressed in this novel have somehow helped me place Hans' life and death into a new, refreshing and living perspective.
Hermann Hesse: Before introducing these excerpts from the book, I want to sing a brief praise to a truly great German poet, author and painter whose work, wisdom and values should be widely recognized and appreciated among the so-called "literati" and in high school and university classrooms around the world. Instead Hermann Hesse has been one of the most neglected or arguably, marginalized, of 20th century writers. For example, in a memorial, the New York Times described his work as "inaccessible" for U.S. readers. Nevertheless, Hesse's novels became popular in the 1960s among a new generation of youth, looking to escape the infantile formula writing on the NYT "best sellers list" that passed for literature then. Hungry for fresh and penetrating insight into the world around us and into life itself Hesse's work became required reading for us - novels like Narcissus and Goldmund, Siddhartha, Journey to the East, Steppenwolf, Rosshalde, Demian, his last novel, The Glass Bead Game and others.
|Statue of Hermann Hesse in his hometown of Calw, Germany.
In 2007, I carefully selected books from my library in Boston to bring with me when I moved from the U.S. to live in Venezuela. To make this passage, my books had to pass my criteria which included a number of standards, one of them "repetitive readability." All of Hesse's books passed this test with muster for each time I re-read any one of them it is almost as though I am reading it for the first time ever.
From the 1960's forward, the popularity of Hesse's novels expanded from the U.S. throughout the world and back to Germany. In his biography of Hermann Hesse, Bernhard Zeller told how the author became the most widely read and translated European author of the 20th century and how young readers in particular came to love him. Many schools have been named after him throughout Germany and in 1964 the Calwer Hermann-Hesse-Preis was founded, a prize awarded every two years, alternately to a German-language literary journal or to the translator of Hesse's work to a foreign language.
In my discussions about Hesse with various acquaintances they often responded curiously to the fact that I am "still reading" Hermann Hesse with words like, "Oh, yes, I remember his name from back in the 60s." Even visitors in my home are often surprised to see a shelf filled with Hesse's books in my personal library, offering slight remembrance of him as a forgotten relic left behind in some university classroom but not relevant to their lives today. These reactions sometimes suggest to me a paucity of intellectual, spiritual and cultural depth in the post-modern, western world. On the other hand, one visitor was pleasantly surprised to see this collection and asked to borrow Peter Camenzind for another reading. It turned out that he actually translated Hesse from German for his post graduate dissertation in modern languages.
"My God, we've only one life and we don't want to spoil the few pleasures we have left by being sentimental."
- Mr. Fox, Peter & Boppi's
animal friend at the zoo
I have selected Hesse's first novel, Peter Camenzind for this remembrance of Hans and perhaps to harvest a few lessons about life and death this year. Peter Camenzind is the the main character and narrator in the book who tells the story of his life, beginning as an only child, a young farm boy in Nimikon, a small village nestled in the German-Swiss alps. Peter's father was a farmer who worked hard and loved his wine, perhaps as much or more than his family. His mother was "...beautiful ... tall, vigorous, industrious and quiet ... with lively dark eyes." As a boy, Peter held her hand and watched her die in her bed while his father slept alongside her. He was a mountain climber and loved nature and his poetic pictures of the lake that fronted their cottage, the meadows dressed in flora, the magnificent "needle-sharp peaks" surrounding their village and his first climbing expedition at the age of 10 are other worldly. Peter aspired to become a great poet and left the small village of his youth seeking higher education, life in European cultural centers and ultimately success as a writer.
He began his journey into the world beyond his tiny village confessing, "Though I can scale a mountain, row for more than ten hours at a stretch, and if necessary kill a man singlehandedly even today, I am as incompetent as ever in the art of living." As Peter grew older he gradually realized that he disliked people, first and foremost himself but that he loved and pitied nature:
"I would lie for hours by the window gazing down upon the black lake and up at the mountains silhouetted against the wan sky, with stars suspended above. Then a fearfully sweet, overpowering emotion would take hold of me -- as though all the nighttime beauty looked at me accusingly, stars and mountain and lake longing for someone who understood the beauty and agony of their mute existence, who could express it for them, as though I were the one meant to do this and as though my true calling were to give expression to inarticulate nature in poems."
Compared with this, he saw human beings as living in an illusion, filled with pretense, lies and arrogance and he developed a contempt for "overblown metropolitan modernism" in circles of erudition and haute couture in Paris and Berlin. In his many travels, he found unrequited love ... twice ... with two beautiful women and ended up as a bachelor. The only male friend he ever had (until Boppi, the character in this excerpt from the book) was a companion named Richard. Peter and Richard loved each other dearly and ultimately took a vacation to Italy where they discovered history, architecture, art and more importantly, the first people known to Peter whose lives seemed to be closer to nature in honesty and authenticity.
But after Richard drowned suddenly, Peter became more and more cynical about human beings ... until he discovered a carpenter in Basel and became part of his family. Peter noticed that their little daughter appeared frail, "Her name was Agnes, and she was called Aggie. She was blonde, pale, fragile, and had large, timid eyes and a gentle and shy nature." Then, on a family outing in the Jura Mountains the carpenter told him that Aggie was gravely ill. "Haven't you seen? he said. Aggie's dying. I've known it for a long time, and I'm only surprised she's lived as long as she has. She's always had death in her eyes, and now there's no doubt."
A couple weeks later, Peter sat in the workshop as the carpenter took great care to use "a good, sound, unblemished piece of pine" to build Aggie's coffin,
"Every day I would sit with Aggie for an hour or two, telling her about lovely meadows and forests, holding her frail hand in my broad palm, my whole being absorbing the sweet clear grace that was hers to the last day.
"Then we stood anxiously and sadly by her side as the small, emaciated body gathered its last strength to wrestle with death; but death vanquished her easily."
After Aggie's death, Peter left Basel for a trek through the Black Forest and then on to Aschaffenburg, Nuremberg, Munich, Ulm and Zurich. But when he returned to Basel and visited the bereaved carpenter's family, he "found a great and unexpected change." It was then and there that he met "Boppi" for the first time.
"Between the window and the table was crouched a grotesque figure in something like a baby's highchair. This was Boppi, the wife's brother, a poor, half paralyzed hunchback for whom no other place had been found after his mother's death. The carpenter had taken him in quite reluctantly, and the cripple's presence was like a dead-weight on the desolate household. They had not grown used to him. The children were frightened; his embarrassed sister pitied him halfheartedly; and her husband was obviously disgruntled ... Boppi had no neck. His was an ugly double hunch on which rested a large, sharp-featured head with a strong nose, a broad forehead, and a beautiful, languishing mouth. His eyes were clear and calm, yet frightened, and his small, delicate hands lay white and unmoving on his narrow breast. I too felt embarrassed and put off by the pathetic intruder....
Peter continued this story about Boppi when he went on holiday together with the carpenter and his family, leaving Boppi behind to sit all day in the apartment. He began by telling about the family sitting at an outdoor restaurant enjoying their day in Boppi's absence:
"The carpenter complained what a burden the lodger was, sighed at the room he took up and the expenses that were incurred on his account, and finally laughed, saying, 'Well, at least we can be happy for an hour out here without him disturbing us."
"These thoughtless words made me realize that the helpless cripple, beseeching, suffering Boppi, whom we did not love, whom we wanted to get rid of, sat sad and alone, locked in one room. It would be getting dark shortly and he would be unable to light the lamp or move closer to the window. He would have to put down the book and wait in the dark, with no one to talk to or pass the time with, while we drank wine, laughed, and enjoyed ourselves. And then I remembered that I had told the neighbors in Assisi about St. Francis and had boasted that he had taught me to love all mankind. Why had I studied the saint's life and learned by heart his hymn to love and tried to retrace his footsteps in the Umbrian hills, when I allowed a poor and helpless creature to lay there suffering though I could help him?
"The weight of an invisible, mighty hand fell on my heart, crushing it with shame and hurt, and I began to tremble ... Abruptly I rose and left, finishing neither my wine nor my bread, and rushed back to town. In my excitement I was tortured by the unbearable fear that something might have happened to Boppi: there might have been a fire; he might have fallen from his chair, might lie suffering, perhaps dying on the floor. I could see him lying there, myself standing by his side, forced to endure the cripple's reproachful looks.
"Breathlessly I reached the house and stormed up the stairs. Then it occurred to me that the door was locked and I had no key. Yet my fear subsided at once, for even before I reached the door I heard singing inside. It was a strange moment. With trembling heart and completely out of breath I stood on the dark landing and listened to the cripple's singing within. Slowly I calmed down. He sang softly and gently and somewhat mournfully. It was a popular love song, 'Flowers, pink and white." I knew that he had not sung for a long time and I was deeply moved that he used this quiet hour alone to be happy for a while in his own way.
"That's the way it is: life loves to put serious and deeply emotional events in a humorous context. I perceived at once how shameful and ridiculous my position was. In my panic I had run for miles, only to find myself without a key. Now I could either leave again or shout my good intentions through two closed doors. I stood on the stairs, wanting to console the poor fellow, to show him my sympathy and help him pass the time, while he sat inside, unaware of my presence, singing. It undoubtedly would only have frightened him if I had called attention to myself by knocking or shouting. So I had no choice but to leave..."
Looking back over his life Peter thought about his friend Richard and about Elizabeth, the object of his unrequited love, and of Signora Nardini who showed him kindness in Italy, of Aggie ... and now of Boppi. When Peter Camenzind could no longer tolerate the treatment Boppi received from his ill-tempered host, he took him away from the carpenter's home to live with himself. It was the first time Peter did not roam freely and live alone since the time he left his father years before. But he was surprised to discover that he did not miss the independence and freedom he had coveted for so long.
"It seems to have been my bad luck always to receive more than I could return, from life and friends.... Now, a full-grown man who did not think all that badly of himself, I found myself the astonished and grateful pupil of a wretched cripple.... If ever the time comes when I complete and publish the work I started long ago, it will contain little of value not learned from Boppi. This was the beginning of a good and happy period in my life and I have drawn sustenance from it ever since. I was granted the privilege of gazing clearly and deeply into a magnificent soul left unscathed by illness, loneliness, poverty, and maltreatment."
Peter explained what it was that cultivated this beauty in Boppi whom he had unexpectedly come to love ...
"All the petty vices that spoil and embitter our beautiful, brief lives -- anger, impatience, mistrust, lies, all these insufferable, festering sores that disfigure us -- had been burned out of this man through long, intense suffering. He was no sage or angel but a person full of understanding and generosity who, under the stress of horrible agonies and deprivations, had learned to accept being weak and to commit himself into God's hands without being ashamed."
Peter tells how Boppi came to terms with his suffering and wonderful stories with great humor about how he and Boppi regularly visited the zoo where they participated in the lives of the animals whom Boppi loved so much. He described Boppi as an observer:
"The fine art of observing mankind, which hitherto had cost me so many miles on foot, I now pursued effortlessly at Boppi's side. For Boppi, a quiet and acute observer, was filled with pictures of his previous surroundings and, once he got started, could tell marvelous stories. During his entire existence he had probably known no more than three dozen people and had never been part of the mainstream of life, yet he knew life much more accurately than I, for he was accustomed to noticing even the smallest details and finding in every person a source of experience, joy, and understanding."
After finding and cultivating this deep and fascinating relationship in which Boppi became something of a teacher or guide for Peter, Boppi became very ill. He always stoically hid his pain but this time his suffering seeped through and Peter asked. Boppi replied ... "It isn't all that bad ... only a tightness around my heart when I move in a certain way, and sometimes also when I breathe." As he lay dying, Boppi went on to talk with Peter about his mother whom he feared would be forgotten. He regretted that he had not told Peter more about her.
" 'I've told you far too little about her,' he said sadly. 'you must not forget what I tell you about her; otherwise there'll soon be no one left to remember her and be grateful to her. You see, Peter, it would be a wonderful thing if everyone had a mother like that. She did not have me put in an institution when I couldn't work any longer ... You mustn't forget my mother, Peter. She was very tiny, even smaller than I perhaps. When she put her hand in mine, it was just as if a tiny bird had perched on it. 'A child's coffin will be large enough for her,' that's what neighbor Rutiman said when she died'."
At Boppi's bedside in the hospital, Peter thought privately that Boppi "... would fit in a child's coffin too ... small and shrunken ... his hands like those of a languishing woman, long, slender, white, and a little gnarled." And when he stopped talking about his mother, Boppi worried about Peter, talking about him as though he were not there: 'He's not had much luck, of course but it didn't really do him any harm. His mother died too early'."
"... He is approaching the end," said the nurse.
"But he opened his eyes once more, gave me a roguish look, and move his eyebrows as if trying to reassure me. I stood up, placed my hand under his left shoulder, and lifted him a little, which always afforded him some relief. Leaning against my hand, he let his lips twist once more briefly in pain, then he turned his head a little and shuddered, as though suddenly cold. That was his deliverance."
|Hermann Hesse in 1925. Photo by Gret Widmann
Conclusion: I hope this account of Hermann Hesse's book, Peter Camenzind, has been at least in part, as endearing and enriching for you the reader as the book has been for me. Even though I quote extensively from Peter Camenzind, it would be a pity to allow my humble narrative on this brilliant literary work to rob the reader of the author's poetic prose and rich insight which await all who read the book.
Of all that we experience, death is the most constant, reliable and unforgiving event in our lives. It is present all around us and awaits each one of us, yet we are more ignorant of it than any other of life's treasures. Fear and denial of death and of nature are woven around our lives in today's world "with random precision." When people approach death personally or experience death among their loved ones they are generally silenced by a society that fearfully hides its face from the real living life of death. We have been so conditioned to dread the word itself that people reflexively call it "morbid," assign it names such as the "reaper" and we prefer "he passed away" to "he died" and buffer ourselves against the word with nervous humor. We even make horror movies depicting death as terrifying, horrifying, macabre and ghoulish - a means of tapping our fear while only pretending to confront it, in a strange way making death unreal, fictional ... something that is too fantastic to actually exist ... something we can dismiss without ever really coming to terms with it ... that is, until it is required of us.
This ignorance results in a host of mental and physical maladies in-stead-of the peace and tranquility that accompany a mature and humble understanding and healthy acquaintance with death, an acceptance of death as our companion throughout life, inhabiting the very cells in our body and ever present whether by illness, accident, aging or otherwise. In Peter Camenzind, Hermann Hesse weaves both, birth and death into our everyday existence, learned from the greatest teachers of all ... the mountains, trees, lakes, plants, rain, savannahs, storms, birds, flowers, valleys, wind, snow, sun, insects, animals and oceans. But we must sit at their feet silently ... for long periods ... if we are to learn from them ... from them and from those rarest of human souls in our presence ... people like Aggie, Boppi ... and Hans.
BIO AND MORE ESSAYS AND POETRY BY LES BLOUGH