Herman Hesse’s Joseph Knecht on awakenings

Crafting a glass bead

Crafting a glass bead
Image credit: eHow

How strange was his own situation, how strange the nature of Joseph Knecht’s own mind! In former days, and in fact only yesterday, had he not considered his own special kind of perception—that way of experiencing reality which he called “awakening”—as a slow, step-by-step penetration into the heart of the universe, into the core of truth; as something in itself absolute, a continuous path or progression which nevertheless had to be achieved gradually? In his youth he had thought it right and essential to acknowledge the validity of the outside world as Plinio represented it, but at the same time deliberately hold himself aloof from it. At that time it had seemed to him progress, awakening, to make himself a Castalian. And again it had been progress, and his own truth, when after years of doubting he had decided in favor of the Glass Bead Game and the life of Waldzell. It had been the same again when at Master Thomas’s command he entered the service, was inducted into the Order by the Music Master, and later when he accepted the appointment as Magister. Each time he had taken a larger or smaller step on a seemingly straight road—and yet he now stood at the end of this road, by no means at the heart of the universe and the innermost core of truth. Rather, his present awakening, too, was no more than a brief opening of his eyes, a finding himself in a new situation, a fitting into new constellations. The same strict, clear, unequivocal, straight path that had brought him to Waldzell, to Mariafels, into the Order, into the office of Magister Ludi, was now leading him out again. What had been a consequence of acts of awakening had likewise been a consequence of partings. Castalia, the Game, the magistracy—each had been a theme which needed to be developed and dismissed; each had been a space to pass through, to transcend. Already they lay behind him. And evidently, even in times past when he had thought and done the opposite of things he was thinking and doing today, he had somehow known or at least dimly divined the dubiousness of it all. Had he not, in that poem written in his student days and dealing with stages and partings, placed above it the imperative title “Transcend!”?

Thus his path had been a circle, or an ellipse or spiral or whatever, but certainly not straight; straight lines evidently belonged only to geometry, not to nature and life. Yet he had faithfully obeyed the exhortation and self-encouragement of his poem, even after he had long forgotten the poem and the awakening he had then experienced. Granted, he had not obeyed perfectly, not without falterings, doubts, temptations, and struggles. But he had courageously passed through stage upon stage, space upon space, composedly and with reasonable serenity—not with such radiant cheerfulness as the old Music Master, but without weariness and dejection, without disloyalty and defection. And if at this point he had at last become a defector from the Castalian point of view, if he were flouting all the morality of the Order, seemingly serving only the needs of his own individuality—still, this too would be done in the spirit of courage and of music. No matter how it turned out, he would do it with serenity and a clean tempo. If only he had been able to clarify to Master Alexander what seemed so clear to him; if only he had been able to prove that the apparent willfulness of his present action was in reality service and obedience, that he was moving not toward freedom, but toward new, strange, and hitherto unknown ties; that he was not a fugitive, but a man responding to a summons; not headstrong, but obedient; not master, but sacrifice!

And what about the virtues of serenity, firm tempo and courage? They dwindled in size perhaps, but remained intact. Even if he might not be advancing on his own, but was only being led, even if what he was undergoing was not independent transcending, but merely a revolving of the space outside him around himself as its center, the virtues persisted and retained their value and their potency. They consisted in affirmation instead of negation, in acceptance instead of evasion. And perhaps there might even be some small virtue in his conducting himself as if he were the master and an active focus, in accepting life and self-deception—with its corollary self-determination and responsibility—without examining these things too closely. Perhaps it was inherently virtuous that for unknown reasons he was by nature more inclined to acting than acquiring knowledge, that he was more instinctual than intellectual. Oh, if only he could have a talk with Father Jacobus about these matters!

Thoughts or reveries of this sort reverberated in him after his meditation. “Awakening,” it seemed, was not so much concerned with truth and cognition, but with experiencing and proving oneself in the real world. When you had such an awakening, you did not penetrate any closer to the core of things, to truth; you grasped, accomplished, or endured only the attitude of your own ego to the momentary situation. You did not find laws, but came to decisions; you did not thrust your way into the center of the world, but into the center of your own individuality. That, too, was why the experience of awakening was so difficult to convey, so curiously hard to formulate, so remote from statement. Language did not seem designed to make communications from this realm of life. If, once in a great while, someone were able to understand, that person was in a similar position, was a fellow sufferer or undergoing a similar awakening.
Herman Hesse in The Glass Bead Game: (Magister Ludi), (New York: Henry Holt and Company, Inc., 1990), p. 378-80. Translated from the German by Richard and Clara Winston in 1969. Originally published as Das Glasperlenspiel: Versuch einer Lebensbeschreibung des Magister Ludi Josef Knecht samt Knechts hinterlassenen Schriften, (Z├╝rich, Switzerland: Fretz & Wasmuth Verlag AG, 1943).

Herman Hesse Posted on behalf of on Tuesday, April 27th, 2010 under Quotations.

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