The Price of Art

Anyone who enjoyed Steppenwolf or Siddhartha should find The Fairy Tales of Hermann Hesse fascinating. These tales offer considerable insight into Hesse’s philosophy of life. The introduction by Jack Zipes, the translator of the tales, is quite informative about Hesse’s life and philosophical ideas.

My favorite tale was “Augustus” which questions whether it is better to be loved by everyone or to love everyone. Like any collection of short stories collected over a long period of an artist’s life, some are bound to be more interesting than another.Personally, I found the tales examining the life of the artist fascinating, while the tales about nationalism and war seemed dated and somewhat didactic. As Zipes points out in the introduction:

Most important, Hesse began to replace the Pietism of his parents with his own personal religion-aestheticism. If there ever was a creed that he devoutly followed, it was the German romantic Novalis’s notion that "Mensch werden ist eine Kunst"-to become a human being is art. For Hesse, art-the ultimate self-fulfillment meant connecting with a profound, essential feeling associated with "home." But this home was not the home of his parents. Home was something intangible that was linked to aesthetic intuition and nurturing maternalism but was unique to each individual. It was both a return and a moving forward at the same time, and it could be attained only through art, through the artful formation of the self.

Logically enough, some of the best tales deal with the artist’s attempts to attain this fulfillment of his life.

While I make no claim to be an “artist,” I faced some of the same dilemmas while pursuing my master’s degree and thinking about getting a PHD. I spent three summers getting my masters degree in literature, three years I missed spending time with my children, time that could never be recaptured. I sometimes referred to myself as a “print-orientated bastard,” inspired by John Barth’s Lost in the Funhouse. I finally decided that despite the economic advantages, and the sheer joy I got from reading and taking classes, I would not pursue a PHD because it simply demanded more time than I was willing to be away from my kids.

“The Poet” tells the tale of a man who sacrifices his marriage for his art. It seems typical of these stories and serves as a good introduction to the book as a whole. As the story begins the young Chinese poet Han Fook is attending the festival of the lights. As he is about to cross the river to join the festivities, he has a prophetic vision:

The young man’s heart pounded while he stood there as a lonely spectator, and he became enraptured by all this beauty. Yet as much as he longed to cross the river and become part of everything, to be near his bride and his friends and enjoy the festivities, he also desired just as passionately to absorb all of this as a keen observer and to capture it in a totally perfect poem: the blue of the night and the play of light on the water, as well as the enjoyment of the people and the yearning of the silent onlooker leaning against the trunk of the tree on the bank. He sensed that there would never be a festive occasion or any pleasure in the world that would make him feel entirely at ease and cheerful. Even in the midst of life he would remain solitary and, to a certain degree, a spectator and stranger.

Pondering this vision, Han Fook decides that “true happiness and deep fulfillment could be his only if he were to succeed one time in capturing the world so perfectly in his poems that he would possess the world itself, purified and eternalized, in these images.”

Immediately after this, Han Fook meets the “Master of the Perfect Word" and he feels like he has been “cut off from the cheerful people who teased him for being in love.” He tells his father that he wants to put off his wedding and sets off to find the Master. When he finds the Master, he settles down to learn the art of poetry. Time passes almost magically and “Two years later, the young man felt an intense longing to see his parents, his bride, and his native land, and he asked the Master for permission to travel home.”

Han Fook returns home only to discover that “home” is no longer “home” and that he has made the right choice in foregoing everyday life to become an artist:

When he compared all that he was now seeing with the picture that he had painted of it in his homesickness, he realized that he was very much destined to become a poet, and he saw that the dreams of a poet contain a beauty and charm that are sought in vain in the real things of the world. And he climbed down from the tree and fled from the garden across the bridge and out of his native city.

When Han Fook returns to the Master, “the Master recited two verses about the blessings of art, and the student’s eyes filled with tears upon hearing such profundity and harmony.”

Han Fook works many years on his art, throwing away piece after piece of poetry until:

And when people heard his words, it was not only the sun, the play of fish, or the whispering of the willow that they depicted. It seemed that heaven and earth chimed together for one moment in perfect harmony, and the listeners would think with pleasure or pain about something that they loved or hated-the boy about his games, the young man about his lover, and the old man about death.

In his pursuit of his art Han Fook finally loses sight of any life outside his art, and lives only to become a Master himself:

Han Fook lost track of the years that he spent with the Master at the source of the Great River. It often seemed to him as though it had been only yesterday that he had entered the valley and been received by the old man playing the lute. It also seemed as if all the times and ages of humankind had faded and become unreal.

Finally, though, Han Fook becomes the Master of the Perfect Word.

Returning home for a last time, Han Fook

… looked into the river where the reflections of the thousand lanterns were floating, and just as he could no longer distinguish between the reflections and the real lanterns, so he found in his soul no difference between this festival and the first one, when he had stood there as a young man and had first heard the words of the strange Master.

Depending on your viewpoint, Han Fook’s victory is either a triumph or a tragedy. Either you see it as a small price to pay to become a master artist, or you see it as a victory bought at the price of all that is precious in life.

Either way, the tale is a fascinating and thought-provoking look into the mind of an artist who has been recognized as one of the pivotal writers of the twentieth century.

The book is one that no fan of Hermann Hesse will want to miss.

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