Friday , March 1 2024
As we devour 21st century books about happiness, take time to learn how two 20th century Nobel-Prize winning authors found it.

Book Review: An Education in Happiness: The Lessons of Hesse and Tagore by Flavia Arzeni

An Education in Happiness: The Lessons of Hesse and Tagore examines the writing and lives of Rabindranath Tagore and Herman Hesse as they pondered the path to tranquility.

Tagore received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913. Hermann Hesse received both the Nobel Prize for Literature and the Goethe Prize in 1946. And probably few of us have read their works. Author Flavia Arzeni leads us through an interpretation of their writings and an inside look at their disparate lives as she explores the literary and artistic paths taken by these two very different writers.

The writers come to understand, as the author states, that “happiness is neither privilege of the few, nor a fleeting state of mind: it is hidden behind a door that every person can open once they have found it.” Arzeni’s qualifications stem from her work as Professor of Modern German Literature at the University La Sapienza in Rome.

It is her introduction that will pull you in, as she discusses Hesse’s background and his efforts to discover why we are here and how we can be happier.

She helps us understand these rare, isolated figures who enriched the century in which they lived. While they both found fame, it did not come without struggles as they sought harmony in the world around them. It’s also interesting to analyze the similarities in their lives, and the author’s choice to compare these two distinctly different people, who, in fact, never even met each other.

The interpretation of their works is greatly aided by Arzeni’s scholarly background. She knows Hesse’s essays well enough to teach us to interpret his writings. Many of his works feature characters in search of themselves, a problem she says tormented him. Through novels and travel diaries, he often took the reader along on a journey tracing the development of a character's mind and spirit.

In his many essays, Hesse wrote on topics as timely today as they were in the 1940s: living with the flow of time, the art of listening, the art of looking, war and peace, and the patience of a tree.

In the second section “The Thousand Talents of Rabindranath Tagore,” this Nobel Prize winners life was incredibly diverse, with the richness of his work as a poet, musician, writer, thinker and even a farmer

The author draws parallels to Hesse and Tagore who was also a “significant figure in the 20th century literature and one of the most unusual and charismatic personalities ever to have traveled the five continents from his homeland in India."

In all of his work, he aimed to rediscovering the distant roots of the Indian tradition – the secret of how to live in peace with our neighbors and how to combine that with other traditions and cultures. Tagore found the key to these secrets in nature – the most sacred place of every pilgrimage, a place where the soul attains knowledge.

Tagore felt men and women who aspire to attain joy and serenity in the course of their lives, must first rediscover, not only a love of nature, but the feeling that they themselves are part of the natural world:

“The water does not merely cleanse a man’s limbs, but it purifies his heart; for it touches his soul. The earth does not merely hold his body, but it gladdens his mind: for its contact is more than a physical contact, it is a living presence.”

Both Hesse and Tagore proclaimed that preservation of the environment and respect for nature are essential for the well-being of the collective and the happiness of the individual. They adhered to these principles, as well as writing about them, both by taking long, solitary walks, and living near nature, and far from congested cities of their respective times.

Finally, in An Education in Happiness, the author teaches us how to apply these principles for ourselves, “when the sense of personal identity is in danger of becoming lost. The care of plants and an awareness of the simplicity and rigour of the laws of nature can lead man back to an exploration, knowledge and acceptance of self."

And if you are seeking happiness, you’ll find it, as Hesse says: “at the end of an arduous journey of self-discovery.”

(For further reading, Hesse's most well-known books are Siddhartha and Steppenwolf. Tagore's Nobel Prize winning work is Gitanjali, English poems.)

About Helen Gallagher

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