Real Fiction

Exploring the nexus of reading and writing


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The Outsider

Starting one’s journey toward self-realization

This is one of those rare books by a contemporary author, or author of any era, which helps one understand the works of celebrated writers, philosophers, and a few artists, in this case, by putting them into perspective with each other and within a conceptual framework that gives the reader an overall comprehension of their respective contributions to man’s understanding of himself.

Another book which I found to be similarly helpful, although different in tone and approach, is one by philosopher and academic Philip H. Rhinelander.

I have long admired the written work of Colin Wilson and have also listened to him on taped radio interviews which, unfortunately, I have lost through being so peripatetic.

I believe the first book of Wilson’s I read is The Mind Parasites, around thirty-five years ago. Since then I have read many more of his books, having lent some out indefinitely, it seems. The ones I have managed to retain, in addition to The Mind Parasites, are:

The Outsider, first published in 1956 when Wilson was 24, rocketed him to fame, yet I hadn’t read his most widely known book until recently. Here is a synopsis:

…an insightful work of literary and philosophical criticism—a timeless preoccupation which perhaps garners more mainstream attention than his subsequent writings on the occult and crime. The book is structured in such a way as to mirror the outsider’s experience: a sense of dislocation, or of being at odds with society. These are figures like Dostoevsky’s “Insect-Man” who seem to be lost to despair and non-transcendence with no way out.

More successful—or at least hopeful—characters are then brought to the fore. These include Steppenwolf and even the hero of Hesse’s book of the same name—and these are presented as examples of those who have insightful moments of lucidity in which they feel as though things are worthwhile/meaningful amidst their shared, usual, experience of nihilism and gloom. Sartre’s Nausea is herein the key text—and the moment when the hero listens to a song in a cafe which momentarily lifts his spirits is the outlook on life to be normalized. Wilson then engages in some detailed case studies of artists who failed in this task and tries to understand their weakness—which is either intellectual, of the body or of the emotions. The final chapter is Wilson’s attempt at a “great synthesis” in which he justifies his belief that western philosophy is afflicted with a needless “pessimistic fallacy”—a narrative he continues throughout his oeuvre under various names… [Source].

Colin Wilson (1931 – 2013)

The Outsider has been and will continue to be, especially valuable to me because in it Wilson discusses many of the authors and their works I have read, some mentioned in the pages of this journal, including:

In no way have I given you the essence of The Outsider in this brief discussion. It is a very important book to start one on one’s journey to self-realization or to help the older of us to make course corrections toward realizing our fullest possible potential.

I can say that engaging in armchair philosophy might be helpful, but insufficient. One must act.


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“Buddenbrooks”, Thomas Mann’s First Published Novel

One can easily find a summary and analysis of the book on the Internet, such as this from “BookRags.” I have a different, but not contrary, view of the book which I offer below.

The edition I bought was published in 1952 when Thomas Mann was 77, three years before his death. It seems almost shameless for Pocket Books, Inc. to engage in such hyperbole in their presentation of this admittedly highly regarded novel, Mann’s first published novel at age 26. Mann’s being granted the Nobel Prize for literature was due at least as much for his later and more mature book, The Magic Mountain. In my view, Buddenbrooks is a wonderful and well-told story, but not as timeless as The Magic Mountain.

To offer more perspective for my comment, here are some of the other important living men (and women) of letters in Mann’s generation:

Robert Frost (1874-1963)
Carl Sandburg (1878-1967)
Upton Sinclair (1878-1968)
Wallace Stevens (1879-1955)
Dorothy Canfield Fisher (1879-1957)
Henry Louis Mencken (1880-1956)
Helen Keller (1880-1968)
George Jean Nathan (1882-1958)
William Carlos Williams (1883-1963)
Frances Parkinson Keyes (1885-1970)
Ezra Pound (1885-1972)
Edna Ferber (1887-1968)
Eugene O’Neill (1888-1953)
Raymond Chandler (1888-1959)
Christopher Morley (1890-1957)
Katherine Anne Porter (1890-1980)
Henry Miller (1891-1980)
Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971)
Pearl Buck (1892-1973)
Archibald MacLeish (1892-1982)
Joseph Wood Krutch (1893-1970)
James Thurber (1894-1961)
Dashiell Hammett (1894-1961)
Ben Hecht (1894-1964)

And, these are only the American men and women of letters during Mann’s lifetime.

Nonetheless, there is a great deal in Buddenbrooks making it commendable to your reading, if you can get past the initial tedium of necessarily learning about the family members and getting used to the social manners and ways of speaking at the time and place of the story (the nascent German state, around 1840-1880).

The full title of the original volume was (translated from the German) Buddenbrooks: The Decline of a Family.

Otto Eduard Leopold von Bismarck, Count of Bismarck-Schönhausen, Duke of Lauenburg, Prince of Bismarck (1815 – 1898)

Otto Eduard Leopold von Bismarck, Count of Bismarck-Schönhausen, Duke of Lauenburg, Prince of Bismarck (1815 – 1898)

My initial impression was that I was about to be immersed in a 19th century German soap opera about the middle and higher classes. I was determined not to let this deter me, and I was glad of this resolve not too shortly thereafter. The backdrop of this drama includes wars between various European entities including France, Prussia, some German city-states and Austria–all culminating in the unifying of the modern German state in 1871 under Otto von Bismarck.

The soulful underpinnings of this story, however, involve the clash of values between those represented by the Protestant church and those of the rising of mercantilist middle class. Additionally, there are the yearnings of the lower classes to be free of the ignominy of being, essentially, serfs to the noble classes and those of the middle classes attempting to emulate the nobility.

The fortunes of family Buddenbrooks are based on the family business, grain brokering for the most part. The business passes down the male line and ends with the death of the last of the male Buddenbooks who wished only to be a musician. This, of course, is a very simplified summary. There are many characters, related by blood, marriage, commerce and politics, carefully and fully drawn and with whom the reader can identify closely–with distaste or sympathy.

I was particularly moved by the religiously-oriented elder matriarch and the musically-oriented youth who ended the story. The two central characters are brother and sister, children of the matriarch and the last of those who were connected with the family business. The sister had the burden of marrying men (she divorced twice) whose positions seemed useful, at the time, to the family business or family fortune.

It seems a cautionary tale for those who are on a path to abandon soulful values for the lure of fortune and influence. Additionally, it shows what perhaps is the inevitable path of any family in its cycles of rising and falling and possibly, as in this case, disappearing.

I don’t read German so I can’t remark on the original prose. The translation seems to capture well the linguistic subtleties and regional differences (e.g., Hamburg vs. Bavaria).

An unexpected element of the story is how much the French language and some French manners were part of the family’s atmospherics. One male ancestor married a French woman whom we see briefly in the beginning of the book.

Having now read Buddenbrooks I feel I have done myself a favor. As a writer-in-training, I saw how the author cleverly structured the beginning of the novel to introduce the characters, and how he used a family diary to help us understand the history of the family. Such devices are invaluable in providing the detail necessary to understand the nature and trajectory of the novel’s characters and actions.

Aside from how it was instructive to me, I enjoyed the story and how it was told. In addition, I kept in mind my recent reading of Mann’s much later Novel, The Magic Mountain and could discern the author’s philosophical and literary trajectory thereby.

I suppose I should now read his Death in Venice which I have waiting for me in my bookcase.

So many books, so little time …


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The Law of Service…

… and Other Findings in Hermann Hesse’s Journey to the East

This is the law propounded by “Leo,” the “servant” to “H.H.” in the short novel, The Journey to the East, by Hermann Hesse. (It should be noted that “Leo” is loved by animals, as well as by his fellow humans). This is one of the books I occasionally re-read to my continuing edification and pleasure. Almost all of Hesse’s works fall into this category. Here is the passage in full regarding this “law:”

I (‘H.H.’) asked the servant Leo why it was that artists sometimes appeared half-alive, while their creations seemed so irrefutably alive. Leo looked at me, surprised at my question. Then he released the poodle he was holding in his arms and said: “It is just the same with mothers. When they have borne their children and given them their milk and beauty and strength, they themselves become insignificant and no one asks about them any more.” ‘But that is sad,’ I said, without really thinking very much about it. ‘I do not think it is more sad than all other things,’ said Leo. ‘Perhaps it is sad and yet also beautiful. The law ordains it should be so.’ ‘The law?’ I asked curiously. ‘Which law is that, Leo?’ ‘It is the law of service. He who wishes to live long must serve, but he who wishes to rule does not live long.’ ‘Then why do so many strive to rule?’ ‘Because they do not understand. There are few who are born to be masters; they remain happy and healthy. But all the others who have only become masters through endeavour, end in nothing.’

Timothy Leary, 1920-1996

The “Journey” this story nominally chronicles is a mystical one, through time and earthly space, populated with historical figures and events. This edition’s “Introductory Chapter” by Timothy Leary of LSD fame (Turn on, Tune in, Drop Out), although quite useful as a review and commentary on much of Hesse’s work, is somewhat spoiled by a clumsy attempt to imply Hesse might have used psychedelic drugs to achieve certain states depicted in some of Hesse’s writings. It seems clear to me Leary used this Introduction as a vehicle for his endless proselytizing for the asserted “spiritual” benefits of ingesting the drug. I am, reminded, however, of the statement attributed to “Don Juan Matus” in Journey to Ixtlan by Carlos Castaneda, that hallucinogenic drugs were used primarily in the early stages of training because Carlos was, “really dumb,” and needed to be shocked out of his normal reality in order to accept that there may be more to the world than meets the eye. Once the reality of magic became accepted in Carlos, drug use stopped. The lion’s share of a sorcerer’s development, it was explained, could only be achieved with the clearest and most sober frames of mind. (Source). I am inclined to believe that if, indeed, Hesse achieved the transcendental states he so vividly describes, he did it through the exercise of eastern or other disciplines he is known to have studied. (A compilation of all don Juan Matus’s teachings to Carlos Castaneda can be viewed here, at the site of Rick Mace.) Here is more to consider from The Journey to the East:

The whole of world history portrays humanity’s most powerful and senseless desire—the desire to forget. Does not each generation, by means of suppression, concealment and ridicule, efface what the previous generation considered most important? Have we not just had the experience that a long, horrible, monstrous war* has been forgotten, distorted and dismissed by every nation? And nor that they have had a short respite, are not the same nations trying to recall by means of exciting war novels what they themselves caused and endured a few years ago? [*The Great War, later call World War I, or the war to end all wars].

After the first world war, Hesse moved from his home in Germany to Switzerland and remained there, becoming a citizen. He was terribly affected by the war, as was another writer of the time, Thomas Mann, evident in the latter’s novel The Magic Mountain. “H.H.” meets a writer who is writing about the Great War, just concluded. Here is what the writer tells him:

I finally wrote my war-book and…it is now read and discussed a great deal. But do you know, I do not think that ten books like it, each one ten times better and more vivid than mine, could convey any real picture of the war to the most serious reader, if he had not himself experienced the war.

Here is more that touches on how “history” is interpreted and presented:

I imagine that every historian…when he he begins to record the events of some period…wishes to portray them sincerely. Where is the center of events, the common standpoint around which they revolve and which gives them cohesion? In order for something like cohesion, something like causality, that some kind of meaning might be revealed and that it can in some way be told, the historian must invent units, a hero, a nation, an idea, and he must allow to happen to this invented unit what has in reality happened to the nameless.

The above notwithstanding, Hesse quotes himself, through his character “H.H.” from his (Hesse’s) novel Siddhartha, thus: “Words do not express thoughts very well; everything becomes immediately a little different, a little distorted, a little foolish. And yet it also pleases me and seems right that what is of value and wisdom to one man seems nonsense to another.” (The character “Siddhartha,” in the book of the same name, was a holy man who achieved enlightenment). The book ends quietly, playing a recurrent theme: “…the creations of poetry (are) more vivid and real than the poets themselves.” I wonder if the artists and others that serve us best are those that live longest? If so, does Hesse imply corporeal life as the measure? Or is the proper measure how long the “servants” live within the nervous systems of those that follow, no matter how many decades, centuries and millennia may ensue from the end of their physical lives? Many musicians (e.g., Chopin, Schubert, Mozart) lived less than 40 years, but who is to say they are not still living within us?