From an e-mail I sent to friends after reading "Concerning the Soul," [pdf] an essay from Hesse's My Belief:
...I went looking for more and found My Belief, a collection of (almost) all of Hesse's non-fiction. It's in the same spirit as Siddhartha or Demian but more direct. And the best essay there so far, beside the one excerpted above, is "Concerning the Soul." Here are some bits and pieces:If I inspect a forest with the intention of buying it, renting it, cutting it down, going hunting in it, or mortgaging it, then I do not see the forest but only its relation to my desires, plans, and concerns [. . .] So it is with people, and with people's faces too. The man whom I look at with dread or hope, with greed, designs, or demands, is not a man but a cloudy mirror of my own desire.
I believe this is roughly what we (N., C., and I) were talking about in the bar that one night. More:At the moment when desire ceases and contemplation, pure seeing, and self-surrender begin, everything changes. Man ceases to be useful or dangerous, interesting or boring, genial or rude, strong or weak. He becomes nature, he becomes beautiful and remarkable as does everything that is an object of clear contemplation.
Hesse goes on to construct a concrete example of soullessness, which Eliot might call endemic to the modern world:When one observes the behavior of two average men of today who have just met by chance and really want nothing of each other, one can sense almost palpably how thick and oppressive is the atmosphere surrounding each one, how defensive his protective crust, how he is swathed in a net woven of distractions from the spiritual, of intentions, anxieties, and wishes that are all directed toward the nonessential and that separate him from everyone else.
If you excuse all that talk about "essence" and "the spiritual," you'll see that he hits on a wonderful, concrete point. Consider what linguists call "phatic speech," or what Hesse might call "the calcified hieroglyphics of that soulless world," when you say "How are you?" or "May I?" or "Thanks, you too."
"Meaning is completely lacking in the words, they are simply the ritual of primitive man," says Hesse. These are speech acts, not words between you and I.
Hesse imagines what would happen if we spoke genuinely, say, to the barista or bus driver:Now if one of these two men were to behave as he would like to and as he really feels [guy 1, Hesse imagines, is in a great mood], he would offer the other his hand or clap him on the shoulder and say something like this: "God, what a fine morning, everything's like gold, and I'm on vacation! How do you like my new tie, beautiful, isn't it? And by the way, I have some apples in my bag, will you have one?" If he actually spoke like this, the other would experience something uncommonly cheering and touching, something like a laugh and a sob, for he would realize that now the soul of the other was speaking [. . .]. That's what he would feel, but he would not acknowledge it. He would take recourse in some mechanical, defensive action.
I find it hard to believe, even, that anyone would get that far. The barista has other customers in line; the bus driver could be pissed off. But I've seen it happen.
Example: during the first two weeks of college, you simply can't afford to be phatic. Your speech may still be a bit mechanical ("Where are you from? What classes are you taking?"), but you actually give a shit about the answer. The same thing happens when you're in a room alone with someone with nowhere to go. Ritual melts away—you can have a real conversation (keeping in mind that a conversation need not be soul-searching to be soulful).
Here's my takeaway: if you were reading the newspaper one morning at your cottage somewhere in the Laurentians north of Montreal, looking across the lake, and all of a sudden a giant moose climbed out onto shore, you'd be awed. You'd stop and stare, admire every feature you could see, wonder where it got that scar and smile. You'd fall in love with the goddamned thing.
And that's just a moose! People are wonderful, too.