Sunday, July 11, 2010

21. "Beneath the Wheel" by Herman Hesse

Hesse, Herman. Beneath the Wheel. New York: Farrar, Strous, and Giroux, 1968.
Translated by Michael Roloff
187 pages

Reviewed by J. d’Artagnan Love

The first book I read by Herman Hesse was Siddhartha. I read that book when I was sixteen and it changed my life. Beneath the Wheel hasn’t been as life-altering, but it is a novel that has an uncanny parallel to some of the decisions I’m making and issues I’m struggling with in my own life. Herman you rascal, you’ve done it again.

Herman Hesse (1877-1962) was a novelist, a poet, and a painter. Originally from Germany, his work frequently explores an individual’s search for self-knowledge, authenticity, and spirituality. He struggled with depression most of his life which he illustrates in Beneath the Wheel.

Beneath the Wheel was Hesse’s second novel and was originally published in 1906. It closely parallels parts of Hesse’s own life, making it a semi-autobiographical work. The novel is about Hans Giebenrath, a young, and vastly intelligent man. The story begins with Hans in the thick of studying for an important state examination. He feels pressure from every part of his community save one—Flaig, the shoemaker. When asked about Hans the school principle states, “Just look at him. He’s the veritable incarnation of intellect” (Hesse 8).

Hesse creates a contrast between academia and creativity. For the sake of the novel, academia seems to represent logic, intellect, ambition, and discipline to the detriment of creativity, spirituality, emotion, and instinct. The biggest struggle Hans deals with is learning to balance all of these parts of himself in a way that will make him happy. Pressured by friends, teachers, and his father, he suffers from constant headaches and various other health issues.

At the Maulbronn Academy, Hans meets Herman Heilner, a sensitive, and creative boy. Heilner is described as a genius who resists all of the academy’s attempts at molding the young man. Constantly in trouble with the Headmaster, Heilner’s creativity flourishes despite the school’s attempts to squelch it. Hesse writes,

“Teachers dread nothing so much as unusual characteristics in precocious boys during the initial stages of adolescence. A certain streak of genius makes an ominous impression on them, for there exists a deep gulf between genius and the teaching profession. . . . A schoolmaster will prefer to have a couple of dumbheads in his class than a single genius, and if you regard it objectively, he is of course right. His task is not to produce extravagant intellects but good Latinists, arithmeticians and sober decent folk. The question of who suffers more acutely at the other’s hands—the teacher at the boys, or vice versa—who is more of a tyrant, more of a tormentor, and who profanes parts of the other’s soul, student or teacher, is something you cannot examine without remembering your own youth in anger and shame” (99-100).

Heilner is expelled leaving Hans friendless and alone at the academy with no emotional outlet or social support--not even from his teachers.

Beneath the Wheel is an exploration of humans’ duality. Hans craves the solitude of being in nature and going fishing but another part of him thirsts for knowledge and finds great pride in his academic success. The novel explores Hans’ attempts at balancing his life’s ambitions which is something I am grappling with in my own life right now. Academia consumes lives. It is highly competitive, highly demanding, and not very nurturing as is seen in the examples of Hans’ experiences at the Maulbronn Academy. You either keep up with the pack or are crushed beneath the wheel.

4.5 darts out of 5
Bookshelf Project Status: KEEP

No comments: