Friday, December 24, 2010

Beneath the Wheel

In high school I sold my soul to academia. This was not a conscious decision, if I'd known my soul was involved, I probably wouldn't have agreed.  I just thought I was being a good student. In fact, I was obnoxiously proud of being a good student. I don’t mean that I was brilliant, I mean that I was stupidly good, the kind of person who never got a detention and would rather be trampled by rampaging elephants than turn in a homework assignment late. In other words, stupefyingly boring.

I went to a college preparatory school where the teachers kept the piles of homework coming, the students saw themselves as walking college applications, and the person who got the least amount of sleep got bragging rights. (We were scintillating conversationalists.) If you wandered around the hallways during free periods you could see students fast asleep on benches.
Selling your soul is exhausting

By the time we crossed the stage during graduation we were hollow-eyed zombies,  run down by years of sleepless semesters, the stress of trying to stay on top of the work, of constantly feeling like we should be doing more, doing better.

But this, we were convinced, was worth it, because we were getting an excellent education, an education that would enable us to live successful lives.

Four years later, I don’t know. I’m about as self-actualized as a peanut (fine, self-actualization was never promised to us in the package), and I don’t even know what success is let alone how to acquire it. I still have nightmares about tests I’ve forgotten to take. Worse, I don’t remember the math and science I studied, just the misery of waking up at 4:00 a.m. to complete problem sets, the bitterness of coffee I chugged to stay awake, the rising panic as the minutes ticked by and my homework was still not finished.

Enter Hesse’s Beneath the Wheel, the story of Hans Giebernath a gifted young boy growing up in a small Black Forrest town. His talents are recognized early on and they are cultivated by the entire community, which is proud, if a little wary, of their resident genius. Under the watchful eyes of his community, Hans studies day and night. Occasionally he gets wistful about fishing or raising rabbits but he mostly studies, and he studies, and is admitted into an elite academy where he….wait for it…studies some more. The rabbits become a distant dream. Hans becomes progressively more miserable. True scholarship becomes a euphemism for soul death.

(It really killed me that Hesse wouldn't let Hans have his rabbits. I feel like Hans could have kept a hutch in his room and petted them while he studied Greek. No one would have minded. It wouldn't have lessened the horror of Hans's education...okay, fine it would have.)

I’m nursing a hardcore Hesse addiction, partly because of his prose which is so limpid, reading it is like eating white beams of light: 

It was remarkable how everything had changed, how beautiful and exciting it had become. The starlings which had fattened up on the apple-pulp shot noisily through a sky that had never looked as high and beautiful, as blue and yearning. Never had the river looked like such a pure, blue-green mirror, nor had it held such a blindingly white roaring weir. All this seemed a decorative newly painted picture behind clear new glass.

Mostly, I love Hermann Hesse because his books ask troubling questions, the sort of questions that will occasionally occur to you and then must be buried under a pile of mundane routines if you expected to carry on the business of daily living with any success. Hesse isn’t afraid to root through the pile and dig them all up: Why live? Why follow society’s rules? And in, Beneath the Wheel, what’s the value of the educational system?

The disappointment of reading Hesse is while he offers insight on how to begin answering the questions he raises, he rarely ponies up a satisfactory answer.

Very well, the educational system where students grind away at books without resting is bunk, much of what academia has to offer is out of touch with reality, but what should replace it? Hesse shuffles his feet and mumbles something about the satisfaction of working with your hands, but that isn’t quite a satisfactory answer. Not everyone is good with their hands, some people really do yearn for thick books--but do thick books have a place in society? Much of education is out of touch with providing real and tangible job skills. Should education be changed to a more vocational system? Tell us what you want Hesse, just tell us what you want!

No go. Hesse stares at the ceiling, whistles, and winds up his book by taking the easy way out.

 But because this is Hesse and I am biased, I’m going to theorize that possibly Hesse is saying there is no one good answer, that we must arrive at our own conclusions, and that his gift to us—he gets us thinking and keeps us thinking long after we've finished his books.



  1. I first read this line as "the sort of questions that will occasionally -pour into- you and then must be buried under a pile of mundane routines..." which doesn't really change the meaning, but makes me think of all those questions that pop into my head without a seeming connection to whatever I was thinking before that point. What connection to this profound question did my subconscious make that the rest of me wasn't even willing to consider?

  2. @Sabrina
    I like pour better as if the questions are just dropped on your head and you have no choice but to let the infiltrate your body!

    The subconscious...jolly lot going on in there. Sometimes I'm rather glad it's murky.

  3. Hey.. it's a nice post!
    Well I agree with you about selling our souls... yeah, it's not worthed. Better to follow your hearts.

    And, I have answer your question on my blog =) Thanks for commenting.

    Btw, it's nice pic... from what camera did you take it? May I know? Thanks

  4. I first read that novel when I was a senior in high school, in the middle of the mad chase for a university place and it touched me at the time. I have often thought I should re-read it and you have again reminded me,thank you. Lovely post, lovely blog!

  5. I like you and I like your review style, and while no you haven't inspired me to read Hesse, you have inspired me to keep reading your blog, in case something you do read sparks my interest.

  6. @Miss Reith:
    It really isn't. Sometimes it's hard to remember this though when you talk to other people or think about how terrifying it is to follow your dream--because what if you land in trouble?! Who can you blame? Yourself...

    I took the pic using a Nikon CoolPix I bought in Jakarta.

    @Book pusher
    Thanks! I wish I'd read this earlier--maybe it's good that I didn't, I probably would have rebelled against the whole system right there and then.

    I'm touched! You made my day. ;)

  7. I love Hesse- especially Steppenwolf and Demian. The ideas are definitely very complex, and I love the influences of Nietzsche and Jung that are woven into the text. Great post!

  8. @treesandink

    I adore Hesse. I adore that he addresses the big scary questions that haunt people's thoughts but often are not addressed.

    I don't know much about Nietzsche and Jung, at least not enough to identify their ideas in literature. That's fascinating that Hesse weaves them in. What particularly comes out as Nietzsche or Jungish?