Friday, March 12, 2010

Hesse on Humor


I was struck a while ago when on The Daily Show, John Stewart spontaneously began quoting a pivotal discourse from Herman Hesse's "Steppenwolf". Naturally it focused on the power of humor and was a brilliant bit of theatrical intellectualism. John Stewart clearly knows his audience. But I was so moved by what he quoted that I realized it was time for me to investigate Hesse's writings further.

Years ago I'd read "Siddhartha" because it was a retelling of the life of the Buddha and because at the time it was the only piece of literature I could get my hands on without going to the library. I was impressed that the story was worth reading and compelling enough to keep my attention throughout. It also became a sinker in my mind for all the trivial bits and disconnected impressions I had of Buddhism: the figurines my father had collected and displayed at home through my youth, the knowledge that a great uncle had been a devotee, the tidbits of zen I learned from my mother that she'd picked up while my family was living in Japan and learning about that culture, four years before I was born.

Hesse seems a controversial figure for some people. Laurie Anderson tells a story about visiting his grave and being put off by his wife's gravestone which was outside the family plot and carried her maiden name, Auslander. There are those who praise his writing and many who cannot be bothered. So I was quite surprised to find on reading "Steppenwolf" for myself that he placed within its pages many notions and ideas I could personally relate to. I have yet to finish the book as I am a slow reader and often need to contemplate what I've read before I can focus again on the title, but it seems to me that Hesse was inspired by the modern Germanic philosophers, going back to Goethe.

Anyway, as promised here is the quote:

"Humor alone, that magnificent discovery of those who are cut short in their calling to highest endeavor, those who falling short of tragedy are yet as rich in gifts as in affliction, humor alone (perhaps the most inborn and brilliant achievement of the spirit) attains to the impossible and brings every aspect of human existence within the rays of its prism. To live in the world as though it were not the world, to respect the law and yet stand above it, to have possessions as though "one possessed nothing," to renounce as though it were no renunciation, all these favorite and often formulated propositions of an exalted worldly wisdom, it is in the power of humor alone to make efficacious."

--Herman Hesse, "Steppenwolf"