Friday, 14 June 2013

Character Strengths and Virtues

The Little Lame Prince

I've had this story in my library since I was a girl. Last night, I poured over the tiny volume. It wasn't the story I was expecting. The little illustrations were delights, the characters caught my heart. Maybe it was the time of day, or my state of mind, but I did feel transported when the prince and I climbed aboard his magical travelling cloak. I've never read a better description of what the world might look like to a child who had only learned what he knew through books. And if I had read it as a girl, I would have felt as if I had really seen the things he had for the first time. Obviously, being a children's book, the language was simple. But it was less so (or at least less noticably so) because of the author's elegant prose.

Mulock included a cryptic sort of message at the beginning of one chapter. "If any reader, big or little, should wonder whether there is a meaning in this story, deeper than that of an ordinary fairy tale, I will own that there is. But I have hidden it so carefully that the small people, and many larger folk, will never find it out". I can't help wondering if I've gotten the right message. The story flows very clearly, I think: the prince draws an unfortunate lot, he's helped by his godmother to bear it, and he develops a great sense of empathy because of it. I was so happy to see that not a single mentioning of providence or 'God's will' was made even with the theme being obviously ethical. The prince never tells a single lie, and makes bad people uncomfortable in his presence -- that seems significant -- and his just and fair rule as a king is a result of the empathy he developed riding along on the cloak... I think. But what is the cloak, for regular boys and girls? I'm torn. I feel like the cloak (and especially the golden spectables and the silver ears the prince wears) are indicative of the cloak's ability to make the prince feel like someone else, developing his sensitivities for the feelings of others. He certainly uses the cloak this way later in life, as a king. Does the Little Lame Prince really just amount to an exposition of the golden rule? Even if that's really all there is to the 'meaning' bit, I really liked this piece of writing.

Monday, 10 June 2013

The Not-So-Secret Garden

For the last few days, Colin and I have
been pulling weeds out of this little plot.
We dressed it with soil and turned
over the earth. We moistened the ground
with water from the Seine. The borders
are trimmed with dark red mulch.
Silver wire is strung up by bamboo
stakes around the perimeter.

Inside the little fence are tiny seeds
freshly sowed, maybe even beginning to sprout.
The tiny tomato vine must be like a giant to them.
There's something of the magical inside seedlings.

Isn't it lovely? I'm excited to watch our plants grow.
If the deer haven't already eaten them up, that is.


The third work of Hesse's that I've read. His writing style is especially calculated in Demian. The book demands re-reading; every phrase is polished, every bit of symbolism is perfectly timed. I especially liked how Hesse portrayed Sinclair's dreams. I learned after finishing that the work is semi-autobiographical, dealing with Hesse's experience with Jungian therapy, and his experience as a child in a home like Emil's.

Every mentioning of the 'completeness' theme brought my thoughts back to the inner work I've been trying to do lately. I think this idea of wholeness was clearer to Colin during his reading that it was to me; he's further along that line of thought than I am. Still, I gleaned useful thoughts from that theme and I feel motivated to think about wholeness (I believe Hesse was thinking along the lines of Gnosticism when he wrote Demian, the theme stands without it anyway).

The well-defined 'eras' of Sinclair's life have some meaning for me. "Fate and temperament are two words for the same concept" says he. With each successive phase, S. gets closer to his destiny. His behaviour predicts his future. It does for all of us. The final breaking of the egg must be the death of Demian -- or perhaps it's meeting Eva. I don't really know. Anyway, the paradigm shift which S. constantly experiences is only possible for those who bear the mark of Cain. The mark is common among all of Demians friends, and Sinclair finds it also on Pisorius in a limited way. The feature they all share must be some divine knowledge. Demian gives us the image of evolution to describe the mark, but also that of Cain and Abel. The mark is inexpressible and it torments the bearer. For the sparrow-hawk, the feeling of constantly being born is both a torture and an ecstasy. That's the feeling, it seems, that all the characters who bear the mark have. Sinclair is released from the 'egg' in the final paragraph. After a second reading, the narrative could be that of a baby being born. He's found his destiny at last, and is reborn as Demian.

Thursday, 6 June 2013


Just as gripping and as soul-wrenching as Narsissus and Goldmund. Luckily I was (somehow) able to catch some sleep between readings of this one. Hesse has such a way of reflecting the soul back to the reader. Steppenwolf forced me to look at the ugly underbelly of humanity. He's relentless, too. Hesse's writing attaches an eye speculum which prevented any observable diversion from the theme. I felt trapped and oppressed, free, or emotional at his whim. Mostly, I felt torn, just like Harry. And just like Harry, I was wrapped in a flurry of intention, illusion, action and fantasy.

I particularly liked how humour was defined and introduced through the magic theatre. It paired well with a book I read today -- which was not quite worth its own entry, unfortunately -- Social Anxiety, by Alain de Botton*. Humour provides a release from the perpetual fear of failure. Finding folly in the rediculousness of man and his society protects us from the agony of their rejection. Maybe it's Pablo's sanguine nature which repulses Harry most of all. In the final pages, the Steppenwolf is able to look at his geminist soul and laugh. The novel ends (and Hesse stressed this to his critics) with a hopeful note. Man can raise himself above the level of the wolf, and see joy.

*Darn it. After On Love, I had such high hopes for this new one by Botton. Evidently, he knows more about romantic love than 'love from the world' (his term).

Sunday, 2 June 2013

Madame Bovary

I really felt close to this book. George Orwell put it best when he said “the best books... are those that tell you what you know already”. Emma's seeking, her dreaming, and her romanticism aren't unlike my day dreams. Her fate was a startling warning to me. We cope with adversity the same way.

But what is Emma? Is she ambition, fate, humanity? She's sensitive, Flaubert reminds us by having her faint frequently. And she desires wealth and status. She's only happy with her husband twice in the novel -- after his apparently successful clubfoot surgery, and just before she dies. She's never honest. Very secretive. Strikingly beautiful. Easily influenced. Totally selfish.

She could be rebelling against her fate, lamenting the life of a farmer's daughter and a doctor's wife. If that's the case, the blind old man wandering the roads is certainly an image for Oedipus (I would have missed that if I hadn't just read it!). All Emma wants is to return to the
ball given by the Marquis d'Andervilliers. Life for her is endlessly disappointing when she is acting any role but rich wife (or mistress). Then what of her increasing ambivalence during her affair with Leon? Emma is an addict of the bourgoise. She catches it from romantic novels, nurses it, and finally falls victim to its emotional and fiscal symptoms.

Such an absolutely perfect narrative. Some of the greatest novelists in the world call it the best book ever written! So much is written into the detail -- and I can only imagine what the process of translation left out -- that it would take much longer than the couple days I devoted to find all of the subtleties.