Peter Camenzind and Re-envisioned Christianity

I was inspired to re-read Hermann Hesse's novel, 'Peter Camenzind', after many years, having completed Barry Stephenson's admirable book, 'Veneration and Revolt: Hermann Hesse and Swabian Pietism'. Hesse is often seen simply to be in revolt against his family's perceived narrow and moralistic Protestantism. Its strictures were such that they triggered his adolescent revolt from his seminary and their persistent mishandling of his poetic aspiration deepened his antagonism towards them and their background culture.

The truth, as is often the way, was more complex. German Pietism often sat alongside a deep appreciation of the wider culture (and in the case of German Romanticism actively contributed to the development of that culture). Though German Pietism was arguably in its decline by the time of Hesse's birth, becoming more conservative and identified with state nationalism and bureaucracy, the strand with which Hesse's family identified had a greater breadth and retained its internationalist and quietist flavour towards politics. Stephenson convincingly shows that Hesse remained in lifelong dialogue with it, that it shaped many of his attitudes, positively as well as negatively; not least in ultimately bringing Hesse to describe himself as a Christian - though in Blake's terms, a Christian radical embracing a truth that ultimately was one and unitary, enfolding all authentic traditions. Stephenson's criticism is beautifully nuanced and a model of the interplay of religious, historical and literary study whose complexity I cannot contend with here but re-reading Peter Camenzind I could see its value.

Value not least because you realise how deeply Christian Camenzind is even if this is always perceived with a certain ironic detachment. Peter born in a high Alpine village lives a quasi-paradisical life steps out into the world of experience - of art, journalism, thwarted love - and returns to his Alpine world wiser yet suffused still with a bewildered innocence about the world's ultimate meaning. Yet the journey is a validated one, he would not have wished it otherwise and two patterns of revealed meaning abide.

The first is that of nature itself - the world into which we are born and connects each and every one of us. It is a world both majestic and grand, wholly itself, and yet one that can be greeted as 'brother', whose moods, whatever they are, can be welcomed. Here the archetype is St Francis with whom Peter is in love and whom he greets as a fellow spirit. St Francis embraces the world in all its diversity - light and dark - as companion. There is a self in all of us that steps beyond time and difference and sees unity in every particular moment.

The second is care for one another - beautiful when reciprocated but beautiful too when simply offered with no expected return. Peter comes to befriend and care for Boppi, a handicapped man, who initially repels him, and yet they become friends, companions on the way, until and into and through Boppi's death. But equally Peter returns to his village and cares for his father, whom in the past he has never loved, without regard for a returning affirmation, simply because here lies obligation freely entered into.

Thus does the book follow a transformed Pietist motif - paradise inhabited, lost to experience and regained in a recognition of a deeper, binding unity and in the service of others - the irony being that here there is no discussion of 'sin' of the need to break the will of the sinner into repentance - the patterning is a natural one, lived out of the self-propelled, reflective nature of a human being, being themselves, attuned to the natural gracing of meaning, not a busying anthropomorphic God. We are in the world of original blessing rather than original sin and God as the munificent holder of unity in diversity, striving with their creation towards wholeness, not an outside entity peering in judgementally (but that too, as William Blake found, was one of the possibilities of 'Pietism' too, as expressed in one of its mystical founders, Jacob Boheme).

It too is a book of the most wonderful descriptions of nature - in which we live and move and have our becoming - of mountains and lakes, of trees and flowers and, most especially, of clouds minutely observed in the ways in which they reveal the changing patterns of weather and time.


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