The Strife of Life
It might be said that popular culture gives us expectations that leave our own lives inadequate next to the image it creates for us. This might take the form of body shopping in photographs, to lifestyle magazines showing the rich and famous. What it presents to us is an impossible ideal. But how is this so different from what we find for example in three important novellas of the 20th century, Strait is the Gate, Esther's Inheritance andGertrude, books that focus on characters for whom love is an ideal and reality somehow inadequately able to contain it? In Strait is the Gate the heroine chooses God over the man she loves; in Esther's Inheritance the title character's beau marries her sister, though always proclaims his love for her, and in Gertrude, the central figure is a young composer in love with the title character but where the love isn't reciprocal, and she marries a man, a famous singer, with whom she can't possibly live: a difficult, tortured figure who drinks and is often in despair. Yet for all the pain this singer causes, Gertrude knows he is the only man she will love, just as the central character knows Gertrude is the only woman he will love, even if she will never want him.
To try and answer our initial question, we will focus mainly on Hermann Hesse's novella first published in 1910, a year after Andre Gide's Strait is the Gate, and almost thirty years before Sandor Marais' Esther's Inheritance. The novel opens a little like a confession, but what is odd is that the writer doesn't have very much to be contrite over, and if we go back to the beginning of the book after reaching the end, it would seem to make more sense of the famous singer's feelings than the narrator's. "When I consider my life objectively, it does not seem particularly happy. Yet I cannot really call it unhappy, despite all my mistakes." Yet the greatest misfortunes in his life have not been readily of Kuhn's own making: he fell in love with Gertrude, but she never loved him in return, and years before, when still a teenager, he was in a toboggan accident that left him crippled. But the singer, Muoth, would seem to have a lot to feel guilty about, to have made many mistakes before taking his own life shortly before the end of the novella.
In an exchange between Kuhn and Muoth, Kuhn says: "all the same, you must turn over a new leaf, Muoth! It is not as if drinking made you happy. You are absolutely wretched!...and give up that stupid drinking! It is not only stupid, it is cowardly." Mouth replies: "oh yes...you go and dance a waltz some time. It would do you good, believe me! Don't always be thinking about your stupid leg. That is just imagination." Muoth is making the point that they are both impotent in the face of a disability - one is mental; the other physical. Kuhn however doesn't see it like this and insists: "you know quite well it is different. I would very much like to dance if I could but I can't. But you can quite well pull yourself together and behave more sensibly." Muoth's point is that it isn't possible, but are we implicitly agreeing with Kuhn over Muoth when we say that it might seem odd that Kuhn talks about his mistakes when we would be more inclined to claim it is Muoth who has made them? Muoth can stop drinking; Kuhn can't simply start dancing. We may be willing to accept alcoholism as a disease, but when Muoth draws analogies between his problem and Kuhn's we might see this as the difference between an excuse and a reason. The exchange takes place partly because Gertrude can't live with Muoth any more, his drinking and abuse means she must retreat and spend time with her father even though she still loves her husband. Kuhn wants Muoth to face himself and accept that his drunken antics are ruining his marriage. Muoth is well aware of this, still loves his wife, but cannot stop drinking.
Yet we know he can stop: he did so when he first fell in love with Gertrude and found it easy being pleasant and sober. But we also know that beyond a certain point in any relationship he turns into a monster: often violent towards the people he loves. One lover, earlier in the book, says of Muoth: "He is an emotional man: he has great vigour but no goal. At every moment he would like to taste the whole world...He drinks but is never drunk; he has women and is never happy; he sings magnificently and yet does not want to be an artist." Here she offers the paradox of character that near the end Muoth will speak about in philosophical form. "Well, either the world is bad and worthless, as Buddhists and Christians preach, in which case one must do penance and renounce everything - I believe one can obtain peace of mind in this way - ascetics do not have such a hard life as people think. Or else the world and life is good and right - then one can just take part in it and afterwards die peacefully because it is finished." Yet Muoth knows he lives these things paradoxically. Perhaps like most people, but in a much more troublesome way. "For instance, I believe as Buddha did, that life is not worth-while, but I live for things that appeal to my senses, as if this is the most important thing to do. If only it were more satisfying."
By most people's reckoning Muoth's problems are rather less serious than Kuhn's because we might believe that Muoth can readily do something about his vacillations, while Kuhn is unable to do anything about his disability. Muoth would seem to have a choice that Kuhn is denied. Yet shortly afterwards Muoth takes his life, suggesting that perhaps his affliction was greater than Kuhn's. He has chosen to kill himself as Kuhn did not choose to maim himself in a Toboggan accident, yet Kuhn is a young man 'entitled' to feel self-pity, while Muoth might be expected to feel self-loathing. The latter's behaviour has proved abominable: he has in the past been violent, verbally abusive and unfaithful to his lovers. Kuhn's has been impeccable: he looks after his mother when his father dies, he accepts that Gertrude loves Muoth rather than him without fuss, and he tries to persuade Muoth to sort himself out so that he can return to Gertrude: there is little sense of mixed motives in Kuhn's actions. He has not it seems made the mistakes Muoth has made.
But perhaps one reason why great literature is great rests on the question of the ideal, of finding a position upon which to address the everyday without at all being restricted by it. Muoth, Kuhn and Gertrude are characters caught in a fiction that contains within it an investigation into how to live ideally. The book won't have an answer to this, but that isn't the same thing as saying it ignores the question altogether. When we think of the images popular culture creates for us, this is a very different ideal, and one that we might call pragmatic rather than idealistic. Out of the former, movements like trans-humanism are possible, where the photo-shopping doesn't take place on a computer where an image of ourselves is touched up to become so much more beautiful than we ourselves happen to be. No, we become the equivalent of the computer image. Here the self is whatever it wants to be as technology can alter our nose, our muscle mass, our heart rate, and allows us to change gender and to alter our DNA. We can even increase our memory by implanting more of it inside us, rather as a computer can increase its RAM. This is the self seeking ever more perfection, but we call it pragmatic because the person wants to be more beautiful than someone else, fitter than his competitors, able to get a well-paid job. It is a prosthetic pragmatism that is, essentially societal. The sort of idealism we see in Getrude, and the other novellas we mention, goes beyond the everyday to some notion of a soul.
Many now of course are resistant to the use of such a word, as if its religious connotations are so problematic that to utilise it we are unavoidably carrying along with us numerous traces of spiritual assumption. Perhaps, but to eschew the use of a word because our 21stcentury self feels it smacks of religiosity would be to ignore its frequent use throughout literature, and its very presence in Hesse's work. Even if the narrator in Gertrude acknowledges that he has only seen the presence of God through music, nevertheless there is the idea that a certain type of divinity sits behind art. In Gertrude the narrator says: "however eagerly I sought salvation, oblivion and deliverance in many other ways, however much I thirsted for God, understanding and peace, I always found them in music alone." In Hesse's Klingsor's Last Summer the narrator says: "he saw now that the same key opened the mysterious sphere of art. Art was nothing but regarding the world in a state of grace: illumination. Art was revealing God behind all things." What that divinity might be we cannot know; we can only say that we sense something divine in art at its most achieved. Where a pragmatic view tries to perfect man all the better for competing with others in this world; the idealist suggests there is no competition, partly because there is no human standard that can match the ideal.
This can seem like an impossible notion that shrinks us all in the face of the absolute, but we can just as easily see it as a way of escaping from the demands of the world that can seem trivial, stressful and alienating. An athlete like Lance Armstrong who will take numerous performance-enhancing drugs, inject fresh blood into his body in the middle of a Tour de France event and lie for years about what he has been doing, is a move towards the trans-human. He creates a standard in this world that leads others to try and match it, becoming ever more alienated from their own bodies and their own sense of self as a consequence. Armstrong becomes the pragmatic ideal, but the opposite of the soulful idealist.
The characters in Gertrude, Strait is the Gate and Esther's Inheritance are much more the latter; with our narrator in Gertrude it is partly the accident that gives him the opportunity to become the important composer he will eventually be. As he says of his life before the Toboggan incident, "I now saw that with all my modesty I had considered myself some kind of genius and had considerably underestimated the toils and difficulties encountered along the path to an art." The accident allows him to view the world in a way that can see through things that are fake and insincere, with the lame leg allowing him to observe what is essential. When someone looks at his work and talks about the sins of style, he feels that "it seemed to me that one should be able to look at a piece of work and see immediately whether it was done as a game and pastime, or whether it arose from necessity and the heart." Of course he knows he has to put the work in, but knows also that the path to art is not chiefly one of technique, but of sincere feeling. Now this of course is what is so irrelevant to the pragmatic ideal, but for the soulful idealist art and God are the higher goals, and partly because these activities possess an abstract or disinterested purpose. To seek the best one can in one's art is not the same as to achieve a personal goal. This is one of the advantages of art over sport: because competition is quantitative and art qualitative, the notion of being better than anybody else is sublimated into a certain experience generated that can't easily be quantified. The pragmatic ideal in this sense is a quantitative notion of self; the soulful idealist a qualitative one.
Is it possible that Muoth confuses the two; that he feels he should be pursuing experiences but doesn't quite know how to enjoy them qualitatively? We don't want to turn an early 20th century novel into a 21st century problematic, but perhaps part of Muoth's unhappiness resides in a properly misplaced idealism. He says "oh yes, when one has had as many friends as I...I could make quite a catalogue." But he doesn't know how to keep them, adding "I have always thought more of the moral ones and those are just the ones who discard me. One can find friends amongst rascals any day, but it is difficult to do so amongst idealists and ordinary people if one has a reputation." He is aware that he is popular, someone who can be successful with women and have numerous friends, but who cannot sustain these friendships, nor have meaningful relationships with women. Not long after Muoth's comment about friendship, and during the same conversation with our narrator, Muoth says: "I'm very curious about growing old. Youth is a real swindle...old people always seem much more contented to me...Suicide rarely occurs amongst old people." By the end of the book, though, Muoth will have taken his life. Yet there is integrity in this death, with Muoth's living self unable to live up to the ideals he seeks, and can only find them in death. After all, it is on the very evening when he will kill himself that he talks to Kuhn about Buddhism and life not being worthwhile.
What we are left wondering is whether Muoth's suicide is a pragmatic acceptance of failing powers, or a spiritual need that sees his life cannot attain the idealistic realm and that he must achieve it instead through dying. Not long before, Kuhn informs us that Muoth cannot enjoy himself without wine, saying "I felt pleased about the unexpected enjoyable evening and let him help himself liberally to the good wine, without admonishing him. I knew how rare these moods were with him, and how he cherished and clung to them when they occasionally came, and they never did come without the aid of wine." If we can only live the life of the spirit in the punning possibilities of alcohol, then perhaps life really isn't worthwhile. It is as if we are running on the spiritually empty and topping it up with a strong beverage of our choice. Muoth chooses the chemical component over the metaphysical option, and really is a man of wine, women and song.
In perhaps Hesse's most famous book, Steppenwolf, the narrator says of certain people: "to such men the desperate and horrible thought has come that perhaps the whole of human life is but a bad joke, a violent and ill-fated abortion of the primal mother, a savage and dismal catastrophe of nature. To them, too, however, the other thought has come that man is perhaps not merely a half rational animal but a child of the gods and destined to immortality." Muoth would be by his own reckoning a bad joke, but what would a good joke be? Perhaps somewhere between the animal and the spirit; the sort of figure Nietzsche invokes when saying we have interpreted it "far too long in a false and mendacious way, in according with the wishes of our reverence, which is to say, according to our needs. For man is a reverent animal." Nietzsche then says "we are far from claiming that the world is worth less; indeed it would seem laughable to us today if man were to insist on inventing values that were supposed to excel the values of the actual world." (The Gay Science). Yet perhaps we do, though not in the Platonic sense of working from ideal forms, but instead generating an aesthetic surplus. We cannot easily live up to ourselves, so we create the realm of art in which we can register thoughts and feelings not always manifest in our lives, but ideally so in art works. Kuhn is disabled in life but enabled in the process it might seem to produce meaning through creativity.
This is quite different of course from the trans-human notion, and even its benign equivalent: the sort of operation that could have returned Kuhn to healthy mobility. The pragmatic ideal wishes to keep perfecting in this world, no matter the metaphysical cost accumulated. It demands know-how rather than wisdom, reckons there is a solution to every problem, and takes over the arena of the miraculous from the abstract realm and turns it into a living reality. The ultimate result might be living for ever, in an eternal return quite different from Nietzsche's and showing up all the more the worthlessness of a life that has no end in sight, and thus creates no pressure to live meaningfully. In such notions it is as though life is not a problem but only death. Yet suicide makes clear that life for many is a bigger problem than death happens to be, and they would thus prefer the latter to the former. No doubt a trans-human optimist would say that many of the problems evident in the suicidal mind would be cure by nanotechnology and neurosurgery, but what if the suicidal is part of being human: a Freudian acceptance that we have both a life and a death drive?
Is this not what Muoth argues for not long before he kills himself? When he talks to Kuhn about whether the world is bad and worthless or good and right, in this sense being human is a regulating principle between life drives and death drives, between pleasure and pain, will and weakness. Man struggles: a vital dimension to Hesse's work, and probably part of his debt to Nietzsche. Hesse's passion for Nietzsche might have quickly subsided, according to biographer Joseph Mileck, but it was intense nevertheless. When we read Robert Wicks differentiating between Nietzsche's ethical system and Kant's, there is no doubt which one reflects much more Hesse's own position. "In the Kantian example...the person who is helpful by nature, who experiences no struggle to do the right thing...within this logic neither deserves much credit for their actions, because they simply act as they are naturally disposed to act." (Nietzsche) "Such people" Wicks says, "who are naturally akin to their environments have less to overcome, and are deprived of many spiritual trials that would allow them to grow." The Nietzchean figure needs these trials as this is part of being human, and this is partly why we suggest that being human, as opposed to being transhuman, contains an optimism it ostensibly appears to resist. Muoth takes his own life; but that is the very point: he takes it as a choice, no matter how much this happens also to be a dimension of his disposition. Just as Alissa chooses God over Jerome in Strait is the Gate, and Esther chooses to sign away the house to the man she had always loved in Esther's Inheritance, so Muoth with choose to kill himself at the end of Gertrude.
There is a struggle in the self that finds a higher value out of suffering, even if the decision might seem to others absurd, inexplicable or despairing. They are people who would nevertheless have been human, all too human, rather than transhuman. Do we need the 'fiction' of the soul, and the soul in fiction, to counter the onslaught of a mode of being in the world that has little truck with being at all? In a Guardian article on transhumanism by Mark Honigsbaum, he quotes Nick Bostrom saying: transhumanism "challenges the premise that the human condition is and will remain essentially unalterable". "It seems to me fairly obvious why one might have reason to desire to become a posthuman in the sense of having a greatly enhanced capacity to stay alive and healthy," he writes. "I suspect that the majority of humankind already has such a desire implicitly." Some years earlier, at the beginning of the nineties, Donna Haraway would say: "I would, however, like to displace the terminology of reproduction with that of generation. Very rarely does anything really get reproduced, what is going on is much more polymorphous than that." (Cultural Studies) This might seem to be taking us quite far away from Hesse's novel, but our point is to suggest what sort of world view is being offered in Gertrude, and in many other Hesse books as well, including those like Steppenwolf and Klingsor's Last Summer. Do we move towards the world of spirit as the source of our being or towards the material as the goal of our existence? Is it too easy to say that most great writing acknowledges the former, while it is often the lesser genres like sci-fi that emphasise the latter?
One thinks not, and it resides partly in seeing being not as a teleological task towards greater perfection as Bostrom seems to propose, but towards an ongoing ethical relationship with consciousness. When we suggested that we found it odd that Kuhn can look back on his life and talk about his mistakes, it resided in Muoth making far more obvious ones. Yet to feel like one has lived without making mistakes is to assume one has lived without making choices, and perhaps Kuhn offers the idea of making them as a way of feeling he has lived decisively. For he also says in the first paragraph: "After all, it is quite foolish to talk about happiness and unhappiness, for it seems to me that I would not exchange the unhappiest days of my life for the happy ones." This is where fate meets choice, an always entangled existential problematic, but one that can find its resolution in the lucidity of a consciousness that distinguishes the events that happen to us, and how we can then choose to react to those events. Kuhn cannot help being disabled, but he can choose how he lives with the disability. He cannot force Gertrude to love him, but he can choose to retain some dignity in the rejection. Or at least feel that he can. The unhappiness of losing the full use of his leg, the misery of loving someone who does not love him back, he would nevertheless not swap for happier times. The happiness must take place elsewhere, and we might usefully not call it happiness at all, as though a certain communing with one's being, and the being of others, goes beyond the happy and the unhappy towards an essence of beings.
We might think not only of the conversation Kuhn has with Muoth just before Muoth takes his life, but also Kuhn's conversation with his father shortly before his father passes away, and another with his old teacher, Mr Luhe. In the chat with his father, the older man says: "when one is young, one has only oneself to think of and care for, but when there is a household, there are other things to attend to...I was very much in love with your mother; it was a real love match. But it only lasted a year or two." With so many responsibilities, passion faded, but then later, deep love returned, even if took on a different form. Kuhn admits he takes little heed of his father's observations, but he is happy that they are capable of a very cordial relationship. Later, after his father's death, he speaks to the teacher. When Kuhn says that everyone thinks about himself first, the teacher replies: "you must overcome that. You must cultivate a certain indifference towards your own well-being...You must learn to love someone so much, that his or her well-being is more important than your own. I don't mean you should fall in love! That would give the opposite result!" Kuhn wonders who he should try and love, and the teacher suggests Kuhn's mother. "She had a great loss; she is now alone and needs someone to comfort her."
When Kuhn talks of making mistakes, he is acknowledging problematic paths that nevertheless need to be walked down so that he can see alternatives avenues. These three important conversations in the book (with Muoth, with his father, with the teacher), leads to a greater understanding, perhaps a value worth rather more than happiness or unhappiness, which can seem transient and too concerned with the self. As Kuhn talks about no longer endeavouring "to find his place in the sun", and "accept what was allotted to me", he adds, "although life continues independent of such reflections, sincere thoughts and resolutions leave the soul more at peace and help one bear the unbearable."
This notion of a place in the sun is an idea the philosopher Emannuel Levinas invokes when discussing Pascal in an essay 'Non- Intentional Consciousness' in Entre nous. Levinas wonders if there is another self possible other than the "affirmation of a being persisting analytically - or animally - in its being". This is one "where the ideal vigour of the identity which identifies and affirms and confirms itself in the life of human individuals and in their struggle for existence, vital, conscious and durational), [is] the wonder of the I claimed by God in the face of my neighbour." Levinas adds, it is "in the deposition by the I of its sovereignty of self, in its modality as hateful self, ethics, but probably also the very spirituality of the soul, signifies." Levinas concludes, the human, or human inwardness, is the return to the inwardness of nonintentional consciousness, to bad conscience, to its possibility of fearing injustice more than death..."
Levinas is here addressing certain questions of phenomenology in Heidegger and Husserl, but what interests us chiefly is the question of one's place in the sun, of believing that we are the centre of the universe rather than always from another perspective on its periphery. Kuhn understands his peripheral status as a disabled figure and someone who is not loved. This is why he can say to Muoth central to the singer's problem is that he is an egoist. He possesses in Levinas's terms a strong intentional consciousness, but lacks a non-intentional one. He cannot quite live outside his ego and in his soul, and lives tormented. The only way he can escape his ego and find his soul is by taking his own life. Kuhn on the other hand can find it in life and goes on living. Something of the same, however problematically, is pertinent to Strait is the Gate and Esther's Inheritance too. In the former Alissa gives herself to God rather than to Jerome, and in Esther's InheritanceEsther fully consciously knows the man she loves ia a cad and a liar, but will give him the estate anyway. They act selflessly, however perversely. This notion of selflessness is of course absent from any notion of transhumanism. Bostrom says, "It seems to me fairly obvious why one might have reason to desire to become a posthuman in the sense of having a greatly enhanced capacity to stay alive and healthy." Alexander Chisholm in another Guardian article on transhumanism says: "Imagine, years and decades from now, you are wretchedly ill with the diseases of old age. The only cure is to reverse the ageing process. And don't imagine this as an abstract philosophy problem. This is you. Would you say no? Would you turn down the chance to live again?"
Both Bostrom and Chisholm offer the pragmatic ideal as opposed to Levinas's soulful idealist that we find evident in Hesse's novel, as well as numerous others including Marais's and Gide's. We can see personally, pragmatically, that Bostrom and Chisholm have a point, but it is one where the self is at the centre of the world, one which seeks happiness over understanding. Yet surely what makes life meaningful as opposed to merely enjoyable is a sense that our place within it is ours alone and yet inexplicable; our place beyond ourselves enormous and finally unknowable. As the Christian philosopher Jacques Maritain says: "...the intuition which surrenders no essence to us. We know that which we are by our phenomena, our operations, our flow of consciousness. The more we grow accustomed to the inner life, the better we decipher the astonishing and fluid multiplicity which is thus delivered to us..." (Existence and the Existent) We don't have to share Maritain's general belief in God to comprehend a value that places us both at the centre of the world and at the periphery at the same time; after all nothing is more likely to do this than an awareness of our own mortality, our own limited temporal place in the world. At one moment in Gertrude Kuhn says: "although life continues independent of such reflections, since thoughts and resolutions leave the soul more at peace and help one to bear the unalterable...at least, it subsequently appeared to me that since I had become resigned and indifferent towards my personal fate, life had treated me more gently." Is this what great literature, great art can do, help us to accept not so much death but the values that are contained within its inevitability, one that gives our actions meaning because we are caught in the limits of time, and one that can even give our escape from time through suicide meaning too?
Both Kuhn and Muoth are very different figures in the novella, but they are both soulful idealists, men who need to communicate their meagre existence in the world, but give it meaning by exploring it. When Muoth says that he has up until recent months always found some consolation or narcotic, he adds: "sometimes it has been a woman, sometimes a good friend - yes, you are also included - at other times it has been music or applause in the theatre." Muoth has not used his time well, and used it so badly that he cannot continue, but as he chooses death he also chooses a certain type of dignity to escape the indignity of the spirit of alcohol, and moves towards a spirit that is rather more encompassing. It is perhaps this sense of temporal spirituality that transhumanism seeks to annul. If Nietzsche could propose that God is dead, man had to create himself in the image of time, and not eternity; hence the existential interest in time and choice evident in the titles of books by Heidegger and Sartre. But to 'destroy' time, to eradicate our notion of being for a bit of pragmatic happiness, and a more 'perfect' self, might not be a price worth paying. Better the weakness and failings of a Muoth than the prosthetic ubermenschen that would no doubt have Nietzsche spinning in the grave.
© Tony McKibbin