Book Review: From East to West and Back Again

From West to East and Back Again: An Educational Reading of Hermann Hesse’s Later Work by Peter Roberts

Rotterdam: Sense Publishers, 2012. Pp. 108. Hb. $99.00.

Reviewed by Elias Schwieler

In his book From West to East and Back Again: An Educational Reading of Hermann Hesse’s Later Work, Peter Roberts attempts, as the title suggests, an educational reading of Hesse’s two novels The Journey to the East and The Glass Bead Game. It is important to emphasize the qualifying adjective ‘educational’ here since it has bearing on Roberts’s analysis both of the literary texts and of education. The book is divided up into six chapters preceded by an introduction in which Roberts addresses the significance of literature to education and also, more specifically, Hesse’s relevance to education. Roberts identifies Hesse’s importance to education mainly through the German tradition of the Bildungsroman and what he calls ‘the process of educational transformation’ (Roberts, Introduction, note 1, p. 6.). Hesse’s two novels can be seen as confronting the same problem, or as Roberts writes: ‘The Journey to the East poses an existential problem for which an educational “answer” is to be found in The Glass Bead Game’ (Roberts, 2012, p. 9). The problem with which Hesse’s texts concern themselves is how an individual can develop authentic self-realization.

In Chapter One, Roberts explores Hesse’s The Journey to the East and how the protagonist’s journey can be related to education as the development of the self. Roberts argues that although the protagonist H.H. seeks and seemingly finds the solution to his troubles this is not an authentic solution. Rather, Hesse reaches the answer to H.H.’s troubles in his last novel The Glass Bead Game in which education as development is intimately related to the self’s willingness to open-mindedly question authority and given truths.

Chapter Two of Roberts’s book continues and deepens the analysis of The Journey to the East. Roberts argues that since H.H. cannot take in and process the knowledge that he is confronted with and exposed to he will inevitably fail in his quest for self-development. H.H. still has a long way to go to attain authentic self-realization at the end of the novel.

In the following four chapters Roberts focuses on The Glass Bead Game and how it can be read from an educational perspective. In the process of doing so Roberts provides relevant critique and development of earlier educational readings of Hesse’s last novel. These readings, Roberts suggests, have limited themselves to the first part of the novel and in so doing have disregarded the educational significance of the second part of the book. Moreover, previous analyses of the novel interpret the game named the Glass Bead Game as a metaphor, a move which, according to Roberts, narrows the educational importance of Hesse’s novel. In Chapter Three Roberts maps ‘the process of educational transformation’ that he identifies in the book. Roberts argues that the contrast between the protagonist Knecht’s life and the ideals of Castalia expose the problematic complexities inherent in the educational province of Castalia. Chapter Four analyses the novel in terms of self and society. Roberts suggests that Hesse views these concepts as ‘dynamically intertwined’ (Roberts, p. 5) and that education is extremely significant as the link that connects self and society. In Chapter Five Peters conducts an analysis of Hesse’s novel by way of Paulo Freire’s theory of education. Roberts introduces Freire’s terms ‘conscientisation’ and ‘contemplation’ in relation to one another and also in relation to The Glass Bead Game. He also discusses how death can be seen as an important theme in Hesse’s novel. The concluding chapter of Roberts’s book extends the theme of death in the novel and analyses the significance of death as an event from an educational perspective.

Taken as a whole, the chapters in Roberts’s book provide a lucid and in depth analysis of Hesse’s two novels The Journey to the East and The Glass Bead Game as texts with significant educational value. Roberts’s main thesis is that what is needed for authentic self-realization and self-development is not a faith separated completely from reason. Rather, faith is part of the educational experience, but it should be a critically induced faith that recognizes the necessity of reason. However, neither faith nor reason are in themselves enough to achieve educational transformation leading to authentic self-realization, but must both be part of a dialectical play leading to an aufhebung (to use Hegel’s term) that, in turn, leads to educational transformation and by extension authentic self-realization. This means, as Roberts puts it, ‘coming to accept – indeed, to celebrate – uncertainty’ (Roberts, 2012, p. 18). Uncertainty is, in other words, a vital and essential part of the process of educational transformation. This is Roberts’s thesis with his book and what he finds at work in Hesse’s two last novels, a process beginning with The Journey to the East and finding, according to Roberts, at least a partial resolution through Knecht’s death in The Glass Bead Game.

Roberts’s book is in itself an ideal model and learning experience of how to approach education and its relationship to philosophy and literature, as separate disciplines. It is stringent yet open, and anything but pretentious; it is learned and insightful, and portrays a humility that can be found in the foremost teachers and scholars. He balances education and literature as disciplines well and avoids falling into a shallow eclecticism, which is often the case when trying to deal seriously with scholarship in two or more disciplines at once. Nevertheless, it is here that my only reservation is raised regarding Roberts’s approach. There is a risk that the singular literariness of Hesse’s work disappears in favour of mere illustration, that is, the analysis becomes a reading of the plot in order to illustrate educational issues, a reading in which the text as language, and literature as a specific instance of language, is not properly considered. Nevertheless, Roberts’s book raises many important questions about education, of which the most important perhaps is the necessity of education as Bildung for any formalized kind of educational program. This is something that is very clear in Hesse’s work and that Roberts in an admirable and initiated way highlights in his reading of Hesse.

In conclusion, Peter Roberts has with is book made an important contribution, not only to the philosophy of education, but also to literature studies, and, more specifically, to Hesse studies. From West to East and Back Again is of interest to scholars both within philosophy of education and those in literature studies who want to understand Hesse’s involvement with and interest in education. In particular, I would like to stress the importance of the way Roberts’s book deals with Bildung in relation to formalized education, and the necessity of taking into account existential questions even in the most specialized programs of study. I would also like to stress the importance of Roberts’s method of analysis in the book, which considers each discipline (education and literature) seriously and in depth. In other words, Roberts’s book is well worth reading both for scholars within education with limited knowledge of Hesse’s work and scholars of literature with little familiarity with philosophy of education.

Correspondence: Elias Schwieler, Center for Learning and Teaching, Stockholm University, 106 91 Stockholm, Sweden.

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