German anarchist Rudolf Rocker’s (1873-1958) little-known novel, Die Sechs (1938: The Six) is a philosophical allegory about a great and mysterious black marble Sphinx that stands in a desert. Six roads from widely separated lands converge on the desert sands; along these roads travel six well-known characters from world literature: Faust, Don Juan, Hamlet, Don Quixote, Medardus the Monk (from E.T.A. Hoffmann), and the bard Heinrich von Ofterdingen. The character of each is described individually (in the words of their creators) before meeting at the end to solve the ancient riddle of the Sphinx.
In The Six Rocker explores the mysteries of the mind or soul of man. In three pairs or contrasted types of men he has found the apparent contradictions of life capable of solution: that Faust and Don Juan may at last join hands in “a realm where intelligence and impulse are at one; that the gloomy reasonings of Hamlet may be dispelled and the madness of Don Quixote may be cleared away when deed is linked with understanding ; that there is harmony when the introvert soul of Medardus the monk and the extrovert spirit of Heinrich the poet, so futile when separated, may come together in the merging of the ego and the other, the “I” finding itself in the “We”. In the story these followed six several roads to the self-same goal. It teaches that these, each pursued alone, exhaust the spirit of man, but happiness and life will spring anew from the union of intellect and impulse, of act and understanding of inner and outer self. Together, Rocker believes, they solve the riddle of the Sphinx, the pains and sorrows of man’s inquiring nature that seems so hopelessly lost in doubt in the intellect of a Hamlet or Faust, or so madly alluring in the lust of Don Juan or the imagination of Don Quixote, in the frenzy of the poet or the dark stirrings of religious zeal trying to save its own soul.
In a review like this I cannot expand to include much of Rocker’s sympathetic expression of thought concerning the mysteries of the human spirit. I mention only a little to show his drift of humanism. He portrays Mephistoples entering the study of Faust and tempting and corrupting him with the promise of knowledge and understanding to depart from his belief and faith in God and to sink himself in the lust of love. But disillusioned Faust discovers that “God and Satan are of the same race”. No dependence is to be placed on either. Man must help himself, liberate himself, and save himself.
On the other hand, Don Juan is a cynical realist. He spends no time on ultimates like a philosopher does. He lives for and in “the pleasure of the moment”. He is not bothered by morals. But lusts at last burn out and leave the riddle of the Sphinx unsolved.
Is a Hamlet thrown upon the resources of his own brain any better off? Trusting to thought and reason his instinctive nature becomes confused and in that confusion he loses the strength of will and deed. Logic is just as powerless before the Sphinx.
But will that noble knight fare any better on the road, for all that he is attended be a realistic serving man deeply engrossed in the things of this world? No. For idealism and realism can never be known to each other. The Sphinx remains unanswered.
On the fifth road travels the monk, worshipping Mary, the Mother of God. But sinful thoughts obtrude upon the holy vision. And the Devil gets him. As in the Garden of Eden, self-knowledge betrays him. He knows himself as Jekyll and Hyde. The Sphinx is unanswered.
On the sixth road roams the poet, and seems to come from the great mystic realm of being in the pre-birth cosmos. The “I” comes out of the “All”. The poet dwells in the dream world. He is not burdened by the thralldom of the “I.” Verily the poet sheds beauty all about him as he goes. His songs make all the world to revel in beauty. He frees mankind. He goes seeking the beautiful blue flower in the valley. He can convince no one of its reality. At long last he finds it. He uproots it and wraps it in his bosom. He hurries back to the world of people, but it has become a place of horror and of pain. He finds the people and goes to deliver them. The little blue flower is their salvation. But when he withdraws it from its wrapping it “lies wilted in his hand.” His harp strings broken, the people drive him away. The social tragedy of the pure hearted dreamer, the poet. (Ibsen’s Enemy of the People. as Haldane thinks every benefactor of the race most inevitably be, to be rent, torn or killed by the mob), is the last sad beautiful figure of The Six.
And so he ends his journey at the feet of the Sphinx, sinking in the desert sands.
The story of The Six is a parable of the mind or soul. Is it reasonable that pursuing these six separate paths or roads, each one comes to the end of the journey and discovers there that all roads lead to the Sphinx and the riddle of life is answered by the merging there? Is it true that the vice and delusion of each is purged at the feet of the Sphinx? It sounds suspiciously like the solution of Nirvana. Despite the liberties I have proposed to take with Rocker’s thought, I hesitate to conclude as his conclusion what seems obvious to me, namely, that the cosmic Sphinx must continue to be a riddle, but in the spirit of man, and there alone so for as we may now know, may there be union of these several aspects of human nature. In the philosophies of Hume and Dewey, I find somewhat of a riddling of the riddle. They do not pretend to cosmic profundity but only to a working explanation of man’s behavior. But the Sphinx aside, I think Rocker has very profoundly plumbed these aspects of human nature and discovered a human unity or union which is workable.
— Dr Arthur E Briggs, Dean of Los Angeles Metropolitan University