Can drinking tea bring you back to your true self? According to Twinings’s new marketing campaign it can. Their latest adverts feature, in various wistful scenarios, someone making a perilous journey to meet what is ostensibly another version of themselves. As they eventually encounter their other half, whether on a beach or a mountain top, they entwine and become one.
Although a seemingly innocuous advert, it is rather telling about the way in which we perceive the route to wellbeing and harmony. It suggests that happiness and satisfaction can be realised by simply getting back to our old selves and our default setting. In this way, happiness does not come from accepting and acknowledging our misgivings and faults, but rather from being able to navigate two versions of ourselves and getting back to the truest, most virtuous one. Twinings new motto sums it up neatly: ‘Twinings gets you back to you’.
This brings to mind Herman Hesse’s existential novel, Steppenwolf. Set in the 1920s, it tells the story of an intellectual man of middle age who, becoming disillusioned with bourgeois society, racks his mind to find the source of his unhappiness. In the process he becomes even more disturbed and on numerous occasions plans to take his own life. Part way through the novel, the lead character, Harry, comes upon a small book entitled ‘Treatise on the Steppenwolf’, which appears to describe in exact terms the condition from which he is suffering.
The source of his angst, the book says, is his obsession with splitting himself in two (man and beast) and according blame to either ‘self’ depending on what best suits his circumstances. As Hesse writes, With the ‘man’ he packs in everything spiritual and sublimated or even cultivated to be found in himself, and with the wolf all that is instinctive, savage, and chaotic. What Harry does is clump different parts of his ‘soul’ in only two parts, Jekyll and Hyde-like, not realising that in fact his life oscillates, not between two poles, such as body and spirit, the saint and the sinner, but between thousands, between innumerable poles.
This means of defining himself in such crude dualistic terms causes him immense damage. As he battles to pin down his ‘true’ self – whether that is man or wolf – while apprehending the other, he inevitably tears himself apart in the process. He fails to acknowledge that he does and should harbour not just two but thousands of selves, and instead searches sentimentally for some genuine, true, original entity that simply does not exist. Hesse writes that rather than attempting to simplify his soul, Harry’s true route to happiness and harmony is to at last take the whole world into your soul, cost what it may.
Having read through the whole of Steppenwolf and returned to certain passages at numerous points, I still feel as though I’ve yet to get a firm handle on what the notion of a ‘mulitutude of souls’ really means, why it’s significant, and, possibly most important of all, how to realise this state of being. I see some connections to mindfulness and Buddhist concepts of higher fulfilment – Hesse references Buddhism and Indian poetry at regular points in the text – but it all feels too ephemeral to grasp. And I’m sure you feel the same.
Nevertheless, the idea that we are endlessly pursuing a return to an original, innocent version of ourselves – and to treat that as our most virtuous best 'half' – is an experience I'm sure many of us can relate to. Indeed, all too often we appear to expend great efforts in returning to some ideal archetype, no doubt causing ourselves numerous headaches in the process. Not least because we feel incapable of reaching or sustaining these high aspirations.
So in short, as comfortable as it may be to picture ourselves as made up of two entities, it does us no good to restlessly pursue either. Better to see things through a kaleidoscope than through a crude dual lens of black and white. While one swallow obviously doesn’t make a summer, the Twinings advert, like a lot of other product marketing out there, suggests that we’ve got a while to go before our understanding of wellbeing and harmony gets beyond the binary.