March 26, 2019 Editor

The Journey to the East by Herman Hesse (1956): Part I/The Journey to the East: Part II

Ron Dart, amongst many scholarly pursuits and prolific writing, is an enthusiastic mountaineer!

WN: My friend Ron Dart is a prolific writer with wide-ranging subjects and invariably demonstrable wisdom.  These two reflections again attest to that sagacity, and are posted with his permission.

The Journey to the East by Herman Hesse (1956): Part I

Herman Hesse (1877-1962) was one of the most conscious spiritual seekers in his time and one of the finest and most consistent European doves in an age of two world wars and an ethos of overt hawkishness and militarism. Hesse fled Germany to Switzerland because of his opposition to German aggressiveness in WWI, and his many poignant anti-war writings were collected and summed up in If the War Goes On. Hesse settled in Montagnola (near Lugano in the Italian part of Switzerland) and he won the Noble Prize for Literature in 1946 for his classic and probing novel The Glass Bead Game. My wife (Karin) and I had the good fortune of spending time at Hesse’s home/museum in Montagnola in June 2012. It is 50 years in 2012 since Hesse died, and there is a variety of events celebrating Hesse’s prolific and committed life being put on in various parts of Europe in 2012.

Hesse became in the 1960s-1970s an iconic literary guide in North America. Many in the counter culture at the time avidly read Hesse with growing interest. Hesse provided much in depth insight on the spiritual journey at the time that many in a more secular age failed to do and many of a more religious bent lacked the ability to do also. Hesse has often been wildly misinterpreted to serve diverse ideological agendas, but when read in a meditative manner, Hesse still has much to offer the earnest and seeking pilgrim.

The Journey to the East seems to be at first glance, as the title suggests, about the turn by westerners to the East for insight, illumination and enlightenment. There is a standard and typical tradition of those in the West turning against the West and idealizing the East. Was this what Hesse was doing in The Journey to the East? Hesse was much too subtle a thinker and wise a spiritual guide to slip into the tendency to romanticize the East and demonize the West. The East is a metaphor in this tract for the times for something much deeper and more substantive. If the East does not mean the literal East, what does it mean then?

The Journey to the East is set within the context of the 20th century in which Christian states had bullied, fought and gone to war twice—was this what Christianity was about?—-wars, millions of deaths and a mindless nationalism in which brothers and sisters of the same faith viciously turned on one another because of nationality. Hesse was more than aware that when nationalism and statehood trumps the deeper truths of the spirit and mind, the richness and fullness of humanity shrinks to a barbaric level. The Journey to the East, therefore, is more about a journey to the mother lode of what it means to be human and humane.

The ‘East’ in this novella of sorts is about the League which draws together people from various times, places and cultures who know the future of humanity consists in those alert and aware to the real spiritual issues of human longing. The League brings together men and women who have drawn forth from the riches of both East and West the time tried gold from the best of their inherited traditions. All in the League are on a journey to deeper meaning. But what does Hesse mean by the East then if it is a metaphor for a higher spiritual vision?

If the journey is towards the East (the Home of Light) and those in the League are committed to such a journey, what is meant by such a turn? Novalis sums it up well: ‘Where are we always going? Always home!’. Or again, ‘For our goal was not only the East, or rather the East was not only a country and something geographical, but it was the home and youth of the soul , it was everywhere and nowhere, it was the union of all times’. Those in the League (of whom the author of the booklet was one) were in search of the homeland of the soul that transcended both nationalism and religions.

The League existed in The Journey to the East as a unified group in search of such a higher truth, but as the novella unfolds, frictions emerge as one of the servants, Leo, leaves the group. Leo appears in Book I not as the leader of the League, but as a quiet and contented servant to the group. There were the Masters in the League, there were the novices and there were the servants to the Masters and Novices: Leo was but a servant. Animals were drawn to Leo, and he had an attractiveness about him that was most winsome and winning, but most in the League only saw Leo as their faithful and dutiful servant who did as expected.

Leo disappears from the League in Book II, and with the passing of Leo, the League begins to have internal problems. Members in the League begin to differ and divide on how the Ancient ways are to be interpreted, and, in time, those who were once close and united about the meaning and purpose of the League and the East part paths and go in different directions. The League seems to be, for all intents and purposes, dead and a thing of the faded past. The author of The Journey to the East commits himself to write about the League and the journey now the League seems over and done. The painful task of writing about the eclipsed League raises all sorts of questions for the author—it seemed so solid, it was period of his life when all seemed so meaningful and focussed—–what had happened? Why did the League and Journey seem to have dissolved and the author left a spiritual orphan?

The author in Book III knows he must write about the League (it was so important at a strategic part of his life), and he knows Leo’s parting has something to do what he thinks is the passing of the League. A sort of despair has settled into the author’s life (the euphoric phase seems over and the League that once gave life seems gone and done). The author is warned to forget about Leo and get on with the history of the League as a cathartic experience of sorts. The writing of history, of course, is a step removed from the living of history, but when the living seems tepid and thin, the excitement of lived memories offers a vicarious sense of meaning.

The years pass and the author does his best to retrieve old and faded stories in documents as he cobbles together what he can of the League. The journey seems over, but is it? Does the League still exist, and, if so, can it yet be found? Leo will not leave the author’s mind and imagination. Decades have passed, and hope is strained, but the thin thread of hope persists. Book IV deals with the rediscovery by the author of Leo (who seems an older man now and quite uninterested in the League and the Journey). In fact, Leo seems almost aloof and distant when confronted by the author about the League. The one connection with the past seems futile and doubly painful. But, the author persists with his questions, and Leo relents and asks him to join him for a slow journey through the streets.

Book V brings the tale to a close. The author discovers that the League still exists, and it was not the League that had vanished but the author who had failed to understand why the League existed. It was the author who left the League not the League who left the author. Leo the servant and seeming enemy of the League appears as the ‘head of the whole League’. Who would have guessed that Leo, the servant, who seemed to have deserted the League, was in fact that Pope of the League? Leo’s true role was only revealed at the end when the author’s eyes and soul were cleansed. Until then, Leo was but a romanticized servant or challenging nemesis. It was only as the author persisted with his questions and journey that the real meaning of the journey to the east made sense.

If the East in the novella is a metaphor for home, then the homeland of the soul, as embodied in Leo, is the life of quiet service. Leo, the true Master, was the servant of all the Novices and Masters. Only those with eyes to see the true nature of what is the real home of the soul could see Leo for who he was as the servant Master of the League. Leo, of course, is also the metaphor of the lion who rules through kindness and service rather than through dominance and control. Hesse had a great fondness for Francis of Assisi, and Leo was Francis’ true servant companion and soul friend.

What then is The Journey to the East about? It is not about idealizing the Orient and denigrating the West. It is about pointing the way to where the soul must go to find rest and peace. Is such a path defined by political or religious Masters and Novices who dominate others or control them through fear? Or, is it about quiet Leo like service and discipline of passions and longings for a higher and greater good? Leo had faced many a demon and dark night of the soul to reach the place he had as leader of the League. The author had now to make such a journey—so must we—such is the perennial parable and lesson of The Journey to the East.

Ron Dart

The Journey to the East: Part II

Hesse’s two works of these crucial years—The Journey to the East composed in 1930 and The Glass Bead Game, written between 1931 and 1942—were deeply political books in a sense quite different from the previous novels.

                                                                   — Ralph Freedman

Hermann Hesse: Pilgrim of Crisis: A Biography p. 339

There has been, gratefully so, a Phoenix-like resurrection in the last decade in the life and writings of Hermann Hesse. Hesse was, in many ways, a rite of passage must-read author in the counter-culture of the late 1950s-1960s-1970s. Sadly so, he was, mostly, misread by those who misunderstood his layered inward and outer journey as a writer steeped in the best of the European literary and cultural, religious and political ethos and tradition. As the counter-culture of the mid-20th century moved on, Hesse seemed to disappear with it, his fate and future too linked with such a period of history. But, a more mature, subtle and sophisticated read of Hesse is afoot these days, and as such a return to Hesse occurs, much gold is to be mined in Hesse’s perennial insights and wisdom.


I have been fortunate to spend time at Hesse’s home in Montagnola in southern Switzerland and have lingered long with his writings and sensitive and often troubled life journey. I posted an initial reflection on one of Hesse’s shorter novels, The Journey to the East, and this will be a companion to that article. The title of the book, in some ways, misrepresents the content of the book. Many who merely read the title falsely assume that the book is about a journey to the East in a spiritual way as a counterpoint to the decadent and unspiritual west. There is an unfortunate and somewhat superficial approach by many on a conscious contemplative journey to idealize and romanticize various types of Oriental religions and spirituality and caricature Western culture as secular, too beholden to science and religiously agnostic,  atheistic or superficially religious (lacking a contemplative and meditative depth). This means that a journey to the east must be taken to recover or refind what is longed for at the centre and fount of the soul and spirit. But, Hesse, was much too bright and wise to slip into such a simplistic dualism and either-or approach to the religious crises of our age and ethos.

How might we read The Journey to the East in its context and for our troubled times? There are five points I want to briefly mention as pointers into understanding this superb classic of a book.

First, The Journey to the East was written and published in the early 1930s and, as such, nationalism was very much on the rise in Germany (Hesse had strong German connections but he consciously chose to live in neutral Switzerland). The rising nationalism in Germany in the late 1920s-1930s held the attention and hearts of many Germans. The notion of a people regaining and recovering their damaged reputation in the midst of both economic depression and the failure of capitalism and communism motivated many. It is in this context that significant leadership in the church (certainly not the best or all) linked the fate of the church with National Socialism—the state and religion had a symbiotic relationship. It is essential to note, though, many were the German Christians that opposed such a dysfunctional relationship of sorts. Hesse was acutely aware of such a reality and, in many ways, The Journey to the East, is a political rebuttal to such a notion, Hesse’s vision of “The League” upping the spiritual and political ideal to a higher and more demanding unity than nationhood or race, the “Great War” ever the backdrop to this novel.

Second, how did Hesse deal with the two types of communities that confronted him at the time? If the German race and nation was an option that held many and became an absolute centre of commitment, were there higher ideals that transcended such a questionable vision?

The League of spiritual searchers, as I mentioned above, brought together men and women (past and present) who acted as countervailing thinkers and activists, beacons of inspiring light and life that would not be taken captive by the blood and race ethos of the time. Most of those on such a quest in the League had a symbiotic relationship of sorts with those in the past who lived well and wisely—they were, in many ways, icons and mentors to the searchers, teachers who stood in opposition to Hitler and tribe. Most of the names and times Hesse mentions in The Journey to the East are unknown and foreign to most readers, but this speaks much about the literary and cultural illiteracy of our age and ethos, memoricide a dominant disease we live with. But, for Hesse (and others), such names and times offered an alternate vision to live by, a counter-culture to heed and live into. Who did Hesse point to as a model contra the Wille zur Macht of the 1930s?

Third, the narrator of the novel begins his journey and continues such a quest in a utopian community of sorts, the League consciously committed to living a deeper and more meaningful faith journey, heeding and hearing the best and wisest from history and diverse faith traditions, the “Great War” as mentioned above the ominous canvass on which this beauty of a text was painted.   But, in time, the League fragments and dissipates. The main protagonist in the tale reflects back on such a significant phase in his journey and wonders why and how such a thing occurred, the best of intentions deteriorating into failed hopes and dreams, despair his growing companion. It seems, as the novel unfolds, the age of innocence now past, the age of experience pointing in two directions: cynicism and despair or the quest for deeper insight and wisdom the guiding light. It is significant to note that for Hesse the East is, in a deeper sense, the “Home of Light” and “towards home”. This is the challenge of the narrator—-which internal and external voices will he listen to and why? Is there a commonwealth of spirituality and the virtues that transcends time, place, space, race and nation? Such a question is very much with us these days as peoples and borders are being drawn to keep foreigners out.

Fourth, the north star of sorts in the novel is Leo. The League was held together, for the most part, when Leo, the seemingly innocuous servant, was present. Most in the League ignored Leo even though they appreciated his quiet, consistent and servant-like commitment to those on the quest. The animals saw Leo for who he truly was but, the irony of the tale, was those who seemed to be the most conscious in their quest did not see the deeper meaning of their quest, Leo, servant-like, in their midst. Hesse had written, earlier in his life, a short biography of St. Francis and Francis figures prominently in his first successful novel, Peter Camenzind. Hesse, being the poet and myth-embodier that he was, tapped into the significance of Leo both as Francis’ dearest friend and supporter and the myth of Leo the Lion (passions and strength transformed into generous service and kindness). When Leo slipped away from the League, the deeper meaning of the League vanished and the spiritual questers lost their ability to both remain together and find their way. Obviously, in such insights, Hesse is speaking much about the deeper meaning of spirituality, politics and identity. The narrator of the novel discovers, as his journey matures that, in fact, Leo is the head of the League and, as such, clarifies the more significant meaning of the East (light, home, rising of the sun and day).

Fifth, if Hesse in The Journey to the East was questioning and undermining the political ethos of the time with a vastly different understanding of community and leadership (spiritual insights of the best of history and religious traditions an antidote to nationalism, blood and race—–such is very much with us again today), Hesse was also engaging, at a deeper level, probably, a thinker he had grappled with most of his life: Nietzsche. It is virtually impossible to read Hesse’s novels without Nietzsche appearing on front stage again and again. Leo, of course, can be the powerful lion whose will shapes and makes the world, who dominates and faces into the tragic and, again and again, wills an overcoming of sorts. It is significant to note that the lion is at the beginning of Thus Spoke Zarathustra in “On the Three Metamorphoses”. Hesse’s Leo as model and mentor of the new being is an alternate to Nietzsche’s Zarathustra. Hesse was, of course, not only dealing with the obvious political turmoil of the 1930s but he also saw beyond such a period of time the issue of ‘identity” and “human nature” in the West would become a contested issue—-Leo or Zarathustra? Which and why? It is somewhat interesting that Nietzsche has held court for many a decade but Hesse has been ignored and yet Hesse is, probably, when understood aright, one of the best and finest dialogue partners of Nietzsche. Those who are seriously interested in a thoughtful engagement with Nietzsche do need to immerse themselves in Hesse’s lifelong dialogue and dance with Nietzsche.

The Journey to the East is, therefore, a counter political novel to both the overt nationalism of the 1930s in Germany and Europe (offering a higher ethic) in which identity is defined by political power (and who has it) and an emerging notion of personal power in which identity, Nietzsche style, is about making and willing into reality, in a creative and constructive manner, against much cultural opposition and odds, the self-creating new being. Hesse offered, in his many novels, from Peter Camenzind to Siddhartha to The Journey to the East and culminating in The Glass Bead Game the notion of the self as a kindly and thoughtful servant of civilization and culture as an antidote to both the political power-mongering of the 1930s and the questionable Nietzschean notion of willing into being an ever-making self. Hesse’s novel, Narcissus and Goldmund, in many ways, highlights how the faithful Narcissus (Hesse’s deeper probes into the meaning of the word) was the real builder and preserver of all this is good and beautiful in a cultural way that only the creative Goldmund understands at the end of his all too human journey—much the same theme is played out in a rawer and more graphic manner in Demian and Steppenwolf.

 The Journey to the East does need to be set both within the context of Hesse’s larger literary vision and the historic times in which he lived—often neither is done, hence the book is misread. And, to conclude, there is a significant if indirect political dimension at the core and centre of The Journey to the East that is often missed also. Hopefully, this missive might correct some obvious omissions and oversights in a reading of this timely (then and now) beauty of a book.

Ron Dart     

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Wayne Northey was Director of Man-to-Man/Woman-to-Woman – Restorative Christian Ministries (M2/W2) in British Columbia, Canada from 1998 to 2014, when he retired. He has been active in the criminal justice arena and a keen promoter of Restorative Justice since 1974. He has published widely on peacemaking and justice themes. You will find more about that on this website: a work in progress.

Always appreciate constructive feedback! Thanks.