THR Web Features   /   June 29, 2021

Writing a Life

Imagination in search of a chastened humanism.

Alan Jacobs

( Bookstore mural in Ann Arbor, Michigan, Hermann Hesse at center; via Wikimedia Commons.)

A few years ago I published a book called The Year of Our Lord 1943, in which I describe a curious phenomenon: a series of Christian thinkers who, in the middle of the most truly global war that humanity has ever seen, turned their thoughts and their hopes to the future of education. When I first became aware of this strange convergence of interests, reaching a point of particular intensity just as the Allied leaders at Casablanca were striving to come up with a plan for concluding the war, I thought it required some explanation. And my book is my best effort at such an explanation. 

Only since the book was completed have I realized that my five protagonists—Jacques Maritain, T.S. Eliot, C.S. Lewis, W.H. Auden, and Simone Weil—had a kind of fellow traveler in Switzerland. He was not a Christian, though he had been raised in a theologically conservative Pietist home in Germany: He was a famous novelist, perhaps more famous than any of my protagonists. His name was Hermann Hesse, and in the year of our Lord 1943 he published his last novel, about a network of scholarly communities—a “pedagogical province” in an unnamed European country, an archipelago of the learned called Castalia. The Glass Bead Game features a protagonist who becomes a leading figure in Castalia, and yet is noteworthy primarily for his ongoing uncertainty about the value of a scholarly life set apart, consecrated to learning that might, or might not, touch the rest of the world. 

A book that asks hard questions about the value of an education that does not serve, that does not care about, that probably does not even know anything about the Issues of the Day is by any measure a book for our moment. I could write about it at great length. But for now there is just one element of the story that I want to call attention to. 

When a member of the Castalian community completes his formal schooling, he (and yes, it’s always “he”) becomes free to pursue any course of study that he desires to pursue. Only one requirement is imposed upon him: Each year he must write a Life. 

A what? A Life—an autobiography, and yet not an autobiography. The scholar must write a narrative of his life as it would have been if he had been born in another time and place. Some of the Castalian scholars enter into this task with great verve, deciding, for instance, that a Life of oneself as a medieval Dominican requires a composition in scholastic Latin. Some of the scholars who wrote such lives were led, in the end, to a belief in reincarnation—surely they had indeed lived the Life they had just written. But these were in the minority. For most “it was an exercise, a game for the imaginative faculties.” 

(It’s perhaps noteworthy that one of the Lives drafted, though not completed, by Joseph Knecht, the novel’s protagonist, imagines himself as an eighteenth-century German pietist—that is, a man precisely like Hesse’s own ancestors. Which raises the possibility that Joseph Knecht himself is a Life written by Hesse, though one set in the future rather than the past.) 

The question I want to ask is simply this: Is the writing of a Life a game that, in our current moment, can be played? Hesse described each imagined Life as an “entelechy,” that is, the realization of a potential—but perhaps that assumes something like the pre-existence of souls, an Identity that somehow exists before it is embodied in, realized in, a particular culture, a particular gender, a particular ethnicity. In other words, it may be that the very concept of writing a life presupposes a humanism, an idea of the human spirit that precedes any particular embedding. Can we, dare we, think this? 

It’s easy for such a “game for the imaginative faculties” to go wrong. There’s a wonderful example in Flannery O’Connor’s great story “Revelation,” in which Ruby Turpin imagines being faced by God with the choice of being remade as a “white trash” woman or a black woman, and fearfully but firmly chooses the latter: “And he would have made her a near clean respectable Negro woman, herself but black.” It never occurs to Mrs. Turpin that if she had been born black, in her time and place, her life wouldn’t in any way resemble the one she now lives. Her imagination is merely cosmetic, focused only on skin color. 

I have often wondered whether in writing that scene from “Revelation” O’Connor had in mind John Howard Griffin’s famous 1961 book Black Like Me; in her letters O’Connor refers to Griffin scornfully as a practitioner of a kind of minstrel-show blackface. Surely at least some of O’Connor’s revulsion was prompted by her dislike of the ways Griffin’s book was used to condemn her native South—in one of the letters that mentions Griffin she expresses ambivalence about Martin Luther King Jr. and outright hostility towards James Baldwin—but Mrs. Turpin’s imagining of her alternate self suggests that O’Connor was also aware of the intrinsic limits of an exercise such as Griffin’s. 

The American public, generally speaking, was fascinated by Griffin’s adventure, which was turned into a film starring the blue-eyed James Whitmore in 1964 and effectively repeated by a journalist named Grace Halsell, who in 1969 published a book called Soul Sister. But there were skepticism and discomfort as well, perhaps best illustrated by Saturday Night Live when in 1984 it brilliantly satirized such experiments in a mockumentary starring Eddie Murphy and called “White Like Me.”

If such impersonation can seem indefensible today, the notorious case of  Rachel Dolezal, the white academic who proclaimed herself black, illustrates why: It is sometimes possible now, as it certainly was not in the American South in 1959, to benefit socially and professionally from presenting as black. Dolezal has consistently said that this was not her goal, that she was simply changing her appearance to match her self-understanding, her internal experience. She has compared herself to transexuals: “It’s very similar, in so far as: this is a category I’m born into, but this is really how I feel,” and has argued that race is in fact more of a “social construct” than gender. But such arguments are not always well received, as can be seen by the controversy surrounding Rebecca Tuvel’s 2017 article “In Defense of Transracialism.”

It’s obvious that these are vexed matters: People desire to reach across social, racial, and sexual barriers but simultaneously fear being presumptuous; others want their neighbors to empathize with them but fear the tyranny implicit in “cultural appropriation.” In an essay written to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of Black Like Me, Bruce Watson notes that Griffin eventually stopped lecturing about his book because he felt that his fellow white Americans would be better off listening to the voices of actual black people than listening to the voice of a white man who pretended for a short time to be black. 

All of which takes us back to the monkish scholars of Hesse’s Castalia writing their Lives. To imagine yourself as you might have been in another place and time is to practice the dialectic of sameness and difference in a way that enhances your self-understanding, your experience of the human lifeworld, without risking damage to a neighbor. As I argue in my book Breaking Bread with the Dead, one of Thomas Pynchon’s characters was right to say that “personal density is proportionate to temporal bandwidth,” and reading works of the past is an excellent way to increase that bandwidth without suffering from the tensions associated with projects like John Howard Griffin’s. But to imagine yourself into another life can be a powerful application of the argument I make there, and I am tempted to argue that the writing of a Castalia-style Life would make an excellent senior project for every university student. 

It is a task that can, again, be done badly. It is all too easy to turn historical engagement into a form of cosplaying—movies do it all the time—and the people who believe that if they had lived in seventh-century Byzantium they would have been passionate defenders of diversity, equity, and inclusion are pretty much at Mrs. Turpin’s level of imagination. But this is a reason to think seriously about the kinds of imagination that would be required for writing a Life well, not a reason to abandon the project. 

What I am suggesting here is a thought experiment that replicates on the personal level the thought experiment suggested by John Rawls when he argued that political systems should be designed behind a “veil of ignorance”—that is, by people who do not know what their position will be in the order they design. In writing your Life you will not have the benefits (or for that matter the deficits) of your current cultural and personal formation; your formation will be something quite other, and it is your primary job to imagine yourself into that otherness. The result, if you do it right, will be a kind of chastened humanism, an awareness of all that we humans share and an equal awareness of the ways in which we are experientially divided. Now: Begin.