Maya culpa

A new year resolution is falling apart rapidly. With my track record I’m only amazed it has taken a month.

I’d decided that this year I really must read something more challenging than the literary equivalent of comfort food. There is no excuse. The more I root round my excellent town library, the more hidden gems I discover. In the last couple of weeks alone I found an entire aisle of world literature by authors even I’ve barely heard of or never read.

It was all going so well until this morning, when I relapsed. And the fault lies entirely with Herman Hesse, not me. But then, me and Herman the German have history, so maybe I should have known better.

The thing is, almost 40 years back I was a recent school-leaver on a night shift in one of those Victorian mental hospitals – a real gothic pile on the edge of Dartmoor, would you believe. Back in the days before round-the-clock TV I’d been warned to take a book, as nothing happened for hours and the senior nurses inevitably left us trainees to mind the fort while they slipped into a side-room and slept.

Now this was just at that cusp between the hippy and punk era, when Hesse, Huxley and similar Mystic Megs were required reading, so I thought I’d better give Siddhartha a go. It’s only 100 pages, just long enough to fill all the hours between the ward of neurotics going to bed, dosed to the gills with major tranquillisers, and the idle sod who was supposed to supervise me waking up to raid the breakfast trolley before any patients could get near it.

So, around 5 AM I was some 80 pages into this psycho-babble (and being a mere callow youth totally convinced) when a very worried patient burst into the office. He’d woken up to answer the call of nature, only to find a dead bloke in the ward toilets. The bloke had apparently gone in some time before, sat down, had a coronary and quietly died.

This, by the way, isn’t as unique as it might sound. Older patients often had bad hearts, got no exercise because they were too under the liquid cosh to walk more than a few yards and constipated due to atrocious diet, with inevitable results. I suspect that if a researcher was able to make exhaustive surveys of death certificates from such places before they all finally vanished in the 1990’s the two leading causes of death would be (1) pneumonia (known in those days as “the old man’s friend”) and (b) coronary induced by over-exertion on the WC. Of course, grieving relatives were always spared the information about the location and cause of the coronary.

Somehow, sheer coincidence as it was and completely not my fault (as I was assured at length by hospital management afterwards), I was never able to reconcile the ponderous message of the novel about everything being right in the world providing you contemplated your navel 24/7 and that some poor, totally innocent sod had died a painful, lonely death in what was supposed to be a safe place while I was so absorbed by this hippy-trippy claptrap. I have never gone near a book by Hesse or any similar writer from that day until this morning.

When I thought I should give him another chance, and within an hour of opening it at home wished I had never bothered. This time I had a fit of the giggles within two pages, was laughing like a drain within 10 and eventually chucked the book aside in sheer exasperation after about 40.

Seriously – what a premier league wibble merchant. So self-absorbed it’s a wonder he never vanished up his own anus.

I couldn’t help noticing that neither the heroic truth seeker nor any other space cadet in the book seemed to have a job, any responsibilities, or indeed any real world distraction to prevent them sitting under a shady tree for hours, days or even years contemplating the mysteries of the universe. They took it for granted that this was such vital “work” that if they needed a meal, clean clothes, or money they could stand at some ordinary person’s door until they got it, without thanking the donor, or indeed feeling the need to even speak. Apparently that would have been beneath them and the donor should just feel grateful they were chosen. And only one solitary woman made an appearance in the pages, as a courtesan, allowing our hero yet another chance to be smug.

From what I’ve read elsewhere, that seems to about sum up the lives of Hesse and his circle too – the 1920’s equivalents of trustafarians. On the other hand, people who are genuinely on the streets, reduced to begging for small change, routinely have some angry office worker snarl “Get a job” at them. If only a few world leaders (or just Hollywood airheads) could say that when the likes of the Dalai Lama or Pope are tapping them for funds, there might be less trouble in the world.

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