No Comment — March 21, 2008, 10:01 am

The Passion According to Johann Sebastian Bach

emil-nolde

Occasionally I made an effort to imitate him, concentrating my will on an objective in a manner calculated to achieve it. I had desires, but somehow they never quite seemed pressing. But I could never bring myself to discuss them with Demian. What I wished for myself, I would never manage to confess to him. Neither did he question me.

My faith in religious questions had in the meantime developed some holes. Nevertheless, I was in my thinking thoroughly under Demian’s influence and stood quite apart from my fellow students who rushed to display their complete lack of faith. There were many of them and they frequently uttered phrases to the effect that it was ludicrous and unworthy of humans to believe in God. They held stories like the trinity and the belief in the immaculate birth of Jesus to be laughable and they considered it scandalous that people walked about with such nonsense in their heads today. I did not share this perspective. Even when I had doubts, still I knew from the totality of my experience as a child enough of the truth of a pious life, such as my own parents led, and that this was neither something unworthy nor hypocritical. To the contrary I continued to harbor the deepest respect in the face of religion. Yet Demian had led me to approach and understand the stories and parables in a freer, more personal, playful and more imaginative fashion. In any event, I followed the interpretations that he advanced with interest and pleasure. Much of it seemed crude to me, such as the story of Cain. And once during confirmation class he surprised me with a view which was still more clever. The teacher had spoken of Gologatha. The Biblical account of the suffering and death of the savior had made the deepest impression upon me from my earliest childhood. Often as a small boy I had, after my father had read the story of the passion on Good Friday, lived in this painfully beautiful, pale, ghostly and still powerfully living world of Gethsemane and on Golgatha. I had experienced it listening to Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, it had flooded me with the somber, powerful tones of this mysterious world, with its mystical drama. Even today I find in this music, and in Actus Tragicus the essence of all that is poetical and of all artistic expression.

And then at the end of class, Demian said something to me brimming with thought: “Something about this story seems wrong to me, Sinclair. Read the story again and test it on your tongue, something rings false about it. It’s the story of the two thieves. It’s terrific the way the three crosses are left together on the hill. But then this sentimental tractate story of the two thieves! First he was a thief and commited crimes, heaven knows what, and now he melts into this picture and celebrates a tearful act of improvement and contrition! What should we make of this act of contrition two steps from the grave, I ask you? This is a pathetic priest’s tale, saccharine sweet and dishonest. It’s filled with cheap sentimentality and its message is too simple. If you today were to win one of these two thieves as your friend, or had to decide to which of the two your would render your trust, then assuredly it’s the one who has converted in a veil of tears. But no, for me it would be the other–he’s the one who shows some character. He says to hell with your conversion, which in his case would be a cute little speech, he carries on his path to its logical conclusion and does not rid himself of the devil who has helped him up to that point in a cowardly manner. He is a man of character of the sort that these Biblical tales make short work. Perhaps he’s even a descendant of Cain. What do you think?”

. . . But Demain’s new thought struck me as fatal and threatened to overthrow my faith, the basic beliefs upon whose truth I felt a need steadfastly to hold. No, it wasn’t right to leap around with such fantasies, certainly not with things which were so holy.

Hermann Hesse, Demian. Die Geschichte von Emil Sinclairs Jugend, ch. 3 (Der Schächer) (1919) in: Gesammelte Schriften, vol. 3, pp. 154-55 (1957)(S.H. transl.)


Listening Recommendation:

Johann Sebastian Bach, The Passion According to Matthew (Matthäuspassion), BWV 244 (1727). Best recordings: Karl Richter and the Münchener Bach-Chor with Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (Archiv)(1957); Philippe Herreweghe and the Collegium Vocale Gent with Ian Bostridge (Harmonia Mundi)(1998).

Johann Sebastian Bach, Cantata No. 106, “Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit” (“Actus Tragicus”), BWV 106 (1708). Best recording: John Eliot Gardiner, The Monteverdi Choir (Archiv)(2000).

Today is the 323rd birthday of Johann Sebastian Bach.

Share
Single Page

More from Scott Horton:

From the April 2015 issue

Company Men

Torture, treachery, and the CIA

Six Questions October 18, 2014, 8:00 pm

The APA Grapples with Its Torture Demons: Six Questions for Nathaniel Raymond

Nathaniel Raymond on CIA interrogation techniques.

No Comment, Six Questions June 4, 2014, 8:00 am

Uncovering the Cover Ups: Death Camp in Delta

Mark Denbeaux on the NCIS cover-up of three “suicides” at Guantánamo Bay Detention Camp

Get access to 165 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

September 2015

A Goose in a Dress

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Genealogy of Orals

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Neoliberal Arts

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Gangs of Karachi

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
The Prisoner of Sex·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“It is disappointing that parts of Purity read as though Franzen urgently wanted to telegraph a message to anyone who would defend his fiction from charges of chauvinism: ‘No, you’ve got me wrong. I really am sexist.’”
Illustration by Shonagh Rae
Article
Gangs of Karachi·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“In Karachi, sometimes only the thinnest of polite fictions separates the politicians from the men who kill and extort on their behalf.”
Photograph © Asim Rafiqui/NOOR Images
Article
Weed Whackers·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“Defining 'native' and 'invasive' in an ever-shifting natural world poses some problems. The camel, after all, is native to North America, though it went extinct here 8,000 years ago, while the sacrosanct redwood tree is invasive, having snuck in at some point in the past 65 million years.”
Photograph by Chad Ress
Article
The Neoliberal Arts·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“College is seldom about thinking or learning anymore. Everyone is running around trying to figure out what it is about. So far, they have come up with buzzwords, mainly those three.”
Artwork by Julie Cockburn
Article
A Goose in a Dress·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“Through Itself is not a restaurant, although it looks like one. It may even think it is one. It is a cult.”
Illustration by Steinman and Tear

Percentage of Britons who cannot name the city that provides the setting for the musical Chicago:

65

An Australian entrepreneur was selling oysters raised in tanks laced with Viagra.

A naked man believed to be under the influence of LSD rammed his pickup truck into two police cars.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Subways Are for Sleeping

By

“Shelby is waiting for something. He himself does not know what it is. When it comes he will either go back into the world from which he came, or sink out of sight in the morass of alcoholism or despair that has engulfed other vagrants.”

Subscribe Today