The journey of life is undescribable because it exists and operates on many different dimensions at the same time. There is the hard physical reality. Material existence, then there is, the story that we hold in our minds of all that exists and occurs around us, our interpretation, the narrative that we write, and often we do not even realise that we are the authors of it. Then there is the magic of life. It does those elements of existence which connect us to a higher form of being- things like love, truth, poetry, music, literature, art, higher purpose, humility, gratitude, openness to grace, acceptance of what is as it is, heeding the call of your soul, believing in a greater cause and purpose for existence. Those are the things that help us step into a higher dimension of existence.
This celebrated book by the Nobel laureate, Hermann Hesse, somehow manages to touch upon reflect and express certain truths about all these three aspects of the journey of life. It is a difficult task skillfully done with the help of various esoteric allusions and mystical references.
The narrator H. H. is trying to recall a part of his life when, as a youngster, he had joined a League of extraordinary characters. The League was very ancient and it counted amongst its members Zoroaster, Plato, Xenophon, Pythagoras, Albertus Magnus and also persons who we only know as fictional characters such as Don Quixote, Tristam Shandy, dawn and Puss in Boots.
H.H. and some of his contemporary League members undertook a journey to the East, which they believed was a journey not just through geographic areas, but also through time and through reality itself.
Many decades later, the now aged Hermann Hesse recalls the journey being a failure. H.H. sadly reminisced that the league had died a long time back, but in his heart as he looked back at his life, he found that the most meaningful part of his life had been his short journey with the League. In an effort to find meaning in the life he had lived, H. H. set out to write a book about this magical journey and the wondrous League.
Writing the book was more difficult than H.H. had anticipated, because firstly his memory had been blunted by age, secondly, he was bound by a vow of secrecy to the League, and thirdly, so many of his experiences during the journey was so fantastical that he could not even himself be certain if they were actually true or just figments of his later imagination.
Still, while trying to write this book Hermann Hesse found that after ages, he was once again feeling what he had felt long back during his journey to the East, it was the feeling of travelling in the dark, not knowing the direction not having the slightest prospects yet within his heart having something stronger than reality or probability. That something was faith in the meaning and necessity of his actions. It was this that helped him find his way forward again.
While trying to gather information for writing his book, ultimately, H. H. discovered that the League had not failed or dissipated at all. It was he who had given up his belief in the League during a test which the League had conducted. The test was that when this happy band of League members was in a particular Swiss district, the most well loved and prominent servant Leo disappeared. Leo was in fact not a mere servant, but he was the man who had managed the cohesion and progress of the group, most subtly and unobtrusively. This is inferred from the fact that after the disappearance of Leo, the very purpose and sense of cohesion left the group. They began to fight with one another, and the journey dissipated. Therefore, they failed the test.
This reminds me of how people sometimes experience moments of higher consciousness. They're shown this by seeming acts of Grace, such as a moment of deep realisation of the truth, feeling unconditional love and fearlessness, but they feel them and walk right through them, unable to capture the essence of what they have been shown, or to find it again within themselves. To me, for now, this is the message of 'The Journey to the East'. To find what you seek 'within', and to never forget that life can be multi-dimensional, where the mundane and the extraordinary exist on the same plane together. As long as we allow the magic of life to occupy the most important space in our life, (our mind), every bit of our life can be meaningful, pleasurable and in sync with the music of existence.
Hermann Hesse ultimately finds Leo again and discovers that he is not a servant but the President of the League. H.H. is told by Leo that the test he had failed has now been passed by him after all these years.
The novel ends in a typical Hermann Hesse mystical mysticism, wherein H.H. is told that he must now pass another test where after he will become an official in the League. The test is to look at what the League's record says about him and his actions during the journey. What he find is an allusion to the fact that life, it's greatest achievements and it's greatest realisations are all very transient.