Art and action

Hermann Hesse: Baum, Häuser, 1922

I recall my first reading of Hesse's 'The Glass Bead Game' (the third of his books that I read) as a seventeen year old, fledged Romantic, and being shocked at the death of Joseph Knecht its central charcter. I had not realised that the book comes in three parts - Knecht's biography, his poems and the three lives, exercises in imaginary biography that he wrote as a student. I was expecting a continuance of his life, now that he had laid down his position as Master of the Glass Bead Game and taken on the challenge of tutoring his friend's gifted, imperious, problematic son. I had not expected his death. I remember it as a wrenching shock accompanied by a real grief. No rejoinder that this was 'merely' a book and Knecht a character would have made any difference to me. I had stepped into the book's life and it had become my own.

This is the theme of Sven Lindqvist's classic text, 'The Myth of Wu Tao-tzu' that I have just read. Wu Tao-tzu was a legendary Chinese painter who having one day painted a beautiful landscape on a wall, clapped his hands and walked into his own painting. Lindqvist's book is an extended meditation on what this might mean: what does it mean to inhabit a work of art and what might its relationship be with a fracturing, conflict bound world? Like all Lindqvist's work this book is an unclassifiable melange of reflection, travelogue, philosophy and reportage but the work that most helped him ponder his questions was Hesse's last, great novel.

Lindqvist's 'answering' is that inhabiting a great work of art does offer the possibility of helping shape a self responsive to its values and yet, as you step into the world, you find a tragedy that is not receptive to being moved from its course of violence by transformed selves. It is in the grip of structures of collective human life that cannot easily be diverted.

I, though a 'idealistic pessimist', as I think Hesse was, hoping for everything because it is possible but expecting nothing, beg to differ.

One differing is given by history. One of Lindqvist's negative scenarios is South Africa (he is writing in the the late 60s) and yet see what was wrought there with the connivance of two very different yet sympathetic leaders. One of whom, Nelson Mandela, had endured a forced inhabitation in the art that is making, surviving a life in prison (and importantly the creating of a work of art in his gardening - a great working that Hesse, gardener and celebrator of gardens, painted and written of, would have recognised. If you have not read Mandela on the importance of his gardening, do, it is an eye opening account of the meaning of creative making and its relationship to self-making, forgiveness and subsequent action).  South Africa's outcome was transformed by men, at least one of whom, had inhabited a work of art and found their selves there.

The other differing is my own witness. When Joseph Knecht stepped out into the world from the safety of his contemplative and cultured order, so did I. In parallel to reading Hesse, I had wanted to step out and back into monastic life: a form of habitation that struck me then, and now, as eminently attractive and yet every attempt to do so, beyond necessary and temporary retreat, has been marked by a threshold I cannot cross. I was compelled to follow Knecht out into the world. Does the reading of the Glass Bead Game create or reinforce the conviction? Probably both. Out I went and the consequences, though less world shaping than the history above, have, to my great surprise, been shaping of better possibilities in the world in whose participation I am and remain deeply grateful.

Art can shape lives but only if the understanding of what is seen is matched with a will to bear the responsibility of it. Hesse's Glass Bead Game is a classic account of the nurturance, practice and traditions that need to be in place (or created) to make that so. It is a deeply 'contemplative' novel yet all true contemplation can only find its reality in action.


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