Hesse, Hermann 1877–1962
Hesse, a German-born Swiss novelist, essayist, and poet, won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1946. The themes of love, art, and religion organize all of his fiction, including the later work in which he was increasingly concerned with psychoanalytic studies of artistic dilemma, alienation, and the duality of man's nature. Hesse became something of a cult figure for young people in the 1960s and is best known to them for Demian, Steppenwolf, and Siddhartha. There is little disagreement among critics, however, that his two great novels Narcissus and Goldmund and The Bead Game must be designated his intellectual and artistic masterworks. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 17-18; Contemporary Authors-Permanent Series, Vol. 2.)
Hermann Hesse was the poet of our youth, way back in Berlin during the turbulent twenties. We read him aloud and we worshipped him like a prophet. He was our living romantic poet, when we were under twenty and the century was in its twenties….
Both Hesse and Salinger [Pachter observes that the two are often compared] tell young people that the squares do not understand them; both convey the feeling of being crushed by the claims of a world which they fear. But Hesse compensates for the loneliness by asserting that he knows of another world, a dream world which belongs to poetic souls alone; Salinger knows no such world.
In other words: Hesse was a romantic, Salinger is not, and neither is Mike Nichols' Graduate. Moreover, Hesse deliberately reminded his readers of those first German romantics who flourished a hundred years before him. He imitated their language, their titles, the moods they created; he rewrote, re-created for us the romantic age because we had a renaissance of the romantic and of the gothic anyway. In reviewing these themes and recreating these poetic images Hesse was our contemporary. But what in the world is he, of all people, re-creating for American youth today? Why a Hermann Hesse renaissance? (p. 83)
I have reread Hesse in German and I am now sure that he was a poor writer, that when he did not know how to say it he expressed it with preciousness, that his romanticism was affected, a pose, a device or maybe a clumsiness, an unclever attempt to conceal his inability to say it. That he could not construct a story, yes indeed, that he was not a story-teller to begin with, that his people don't come to life, that they remain puppets or silhouettes from whose mouths are hanging like draperies the words that should characterize them, as they do on gothic church windows—there were no comics with balloons then in Germany.
The simile is not saying anything against Hermann Hesse, but may be high praise indeed. He always used the story to make a point; he invented the characters to make them say what he intended to say. He never saw the characters and the story first.
Yet I am angry at myself because I notice all this now. It did not bother me then and it probably does not bother the young people today. They like Demian not because they would ever recognize him should he be their schoolmate, but because he seems to know something about things which other people don't know or don't admit…. On re-reading Steppenwolf I find that this is hardly a novel but rather a psychoanalytical tract. Yet I also notice, like old friends, all the many things which attracted me when I was 16. (p. 85)
How we rejoiced then in this masterful diatribe against our humanist education, against the drabness of classes and the petty tyrants who dissected for us the most beautiful poetry. How the author understood our yearning to be one with the great ones without having to count their meter, to worship their genius without using it as a treasury of useful quotations! Going further, Hesse criticized the conventional wisdom and its purveyors, puritanical morality and its confessors; in Demian he firmly established the solidarity of the class against teachers and parent. We loved him because he understood us. (p. 86)
Hesse never shows the senses at work. He only relates that they were or that someone dreamt they were. He mentions "unimaginable, frightful, deathly love plays" but he never allows us to feel, see, experience love. His "arts" are very cerebral where he speaks of love. But, strangely, he does give us a full description when it comes to war, the art of destruction, and he does bring home the wantonness of it. For us the lesson was clear, whereas it does not seem to be clear to his new followers. Hesse said in so many words: We cannot go back to innocence, we must go through this hell which is ours. Americans could have learned the same lesson from Thomas Wolfe: you can't go home again. It is strange that American youths today should misunderstand Hesse to say that one must and can go home.
Hesse rejected the destruction of the self as well as its attempts to lose itself in "trips" and other drug experiences. In our time it was cocain, now it is LSD; marijuana was not known to us or to Hermann Hesse, but the medical inoffensiveness of pot is not the issue. The issue was, for Hesse, whether we are permitted to cop out, and the verdict was a clear NO, though it does not follow from the story. He saw the problem of modern living as a judgment on human nature; he considered us condemned to live, but free to consider life as a dream—maybe a bad trip—and to laugh at it. The most impressive part of his philosophy is his faith in our ability to overcome the curse of existence by humor—in that respect he was close to Thomas Mann…. Hesse did not really have a sense of humor …, he only saw that he needed it…. The desperate relativism of Hermann Hesse was inaccessible to our generation of protesters because we, like Steppenwolf, wanted to have our full substance recognized as a valid alternative to the Establishment. Hesse, in all his endings, says exactly the opposite. He says that man can be a hundred different things at the same time; that there is no dichotomy between Steppenwolf and the Establishment, or Youth and Age, or good and evil; that each man can re-arrange his personality by putting the pieces together in different ways—and consider it all a game. In his old age he reiterated this faith in The Glass Bead Game. (pp. 87-8)
Can it be an accident that two different generations in two different countries misunderstand an author so thoroughly? Was he not guilty of seducing us first? Though at heart a humanist, he rejected the culture that had been built on the humanist values; though as intellectual as the great classical writers, he renounced their reliance on man's intellective capacities, and he opened the way for the great succession of anti-intellectualistic writing, for the great evasion from the technocratic XXth into some utopian century where magic would provide for the material and spiritual needs of mankind. Above all, I think we were attracted by his message that the age of individualism had passed and some new community was called for. It was not his fault that others interpreted this new community as the community of the trenches, the suppression of the individual, the cult of the state. Here you have the Hermann Hesse of my youth—we had better put him on the shelf of poisoned books, next to Zarathustra. (pp. 88-9)
Henry M. Pachter, "On Re-Reading Hermann Hesse," in Salmagundi (copyright © 1970 by Skidmore College), Spring, 1970, pp. 83-9.
Hesse's accessibility to readers around the world today is due in no small measure to the parabolic form of his narratives, which enables readers to transpose their meaning to other times and places. This quality, strikingly evident in "Vom Steppenwolf", also characterizes Hesse's novels from Demian to The Glass Bead Game. But it is a relatively late development. Almost without exception the stories before 1914 belong to what might be called the "Gerbersau" type, after the South German town that Hesse created—like Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County—as the fictional world of his pre-war stories. Like the three tales of Knulp, these works portray the poignant romanticism in the lives of provincial tramps, servant-girls, schoolboys, and shopkeepers. The moist-eyed humour of these idylls won Hesse his first large audience, which was put off by the mocking irony of his later works. Their bittersweet melancholy always backs away from tragedy at the last moment, and they end with a sigh of resignation rather than an angry interrogative. Above all, the tales are so totally localized that they cannot easily be read as anything but comments on life and society in Wilhelmine Germany, although a modern drop-out might well understand the "nostalgia for freedom" proclaimed by Knulp, that flowerchild ante datum….
[His] allegorizing tendency shows up clearly in the fairy tales that Hesse began writing during the war years…. [As] such astute readers as Thomas Mann and André Gide noted, Hesse manipulated conventional forms to express contemporary ideas…. In general, the fairy tales, by enabling Hesse to filter experience of the most personal nature through the objectifying lens of the parable, anticipate the movement toward mythic generalization that characterizes his later works from Demian to The Glass Bead Game. (p. 990)
Hesse's disengagement from partisan politics stems from his conviction that one must commit oneself fully or not at all. Despite his pacifism, he had nothing but contempt for many pacifists who spent their time signing manifestoes and attending rallies yet disdained practical service in the cause of peace (such as Hesse's own war-relief work). By the same token, he urged his sons to join no political party unless they were prepared to carry its principles to their logical conclusions—which, in the case of revolutionary parties, often means killing. To belong to a party without that final commitment is political dilettantism. Since Hesse was unwilling to accept the consequences of the leading political platforms of his age, he chose to withdraw from direct political action….
[Each] age sees the writer it wants and needs to see; and therefore the objections of the cultural elitists, that young readers today lack the background to appreciate Hesse, are partly invalid. The Hesse we read today is in fact no longer the bittersweet elegist of Wilhelmine Germany, the anguished intellectual entre deux guerres, the serene hermit of Montagnola après Nobel. The cult has adjusted the kaleidoscope of Hesse's works in such a way as to bring into focus a Hesse for the 1970s: environmentalist, war opponent, enemy of a computerized technocracy, who seeks heightened awareness (through poetry rather than pot!), and who is prepared to sacrifice anything but his integrity for the sake of his freedom. (p. 991)
"Cultivating Hesse," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd., 1973; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), August 31, 1973, pp. 989-91.
I must confess that I have never been an admirer [of Hesse's work], and find the cult disturbing. The ideal of the moral hero in Hesse again and again is that of the bookish, unhappy adolescent who cherishes his sense of superiority—he's pale, hypersensitive, sorrowful, egotistical, apart, like generations of German Romantic heroes. What makes this digestible and convincing in Hesse is his painful recall of the emotions of late childhood—particularly clear … in 'The Cyclone'—and his genius for adumbrating the survival of these agonies in adults. Isolated from the values of the community about him, the typical Hesse hero responds to his community with contempt, sometimes latent, sometimes explicit. This hero must go upward into mysticism or sainthood to escape emotional ruin. When Hesse writes about animals his prejudices show up with chilling clarity: wolves and panthers are preferable to people, being aristocrats where most men are peasants. (p. 355)
Peter Straub, in New Statesman (© 1974 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), September 13, 1974.
Because of its importance for any discussion of Hesse's concept of time and history and his whole intellectual evolution, Das Glasperlenspiel, his last and perhaps most important work, must be considered in greater detail than the earlier works. Much longer than its predecessors, The Glass Bead Game (1943) took the form of a historical biography written around the year 2400 by an anonymous narrator. Contrary to Hesse's practice in the earlier novels, almost as much emphasis is placed upon the institution of the Bead Game as upon the experiences of the central figure in the narrative, Joseph Knecht…. The major portion of the book relates the story of Knecht, a famous Magister Ludi or Master of the Bead Game…. It relates, in fine, the momentous change which occurred in Hesse's thinking during the late thirties and early forties, especially as regards the scope and validity of time and history.
The Bead Game itself cannot be described with precision since Hesse himself avoided doing so. Generally, it represents a very complex and sophisticated symbolic sign system designed to encompass and summarize all human knowledge around a central idea. Hesse apparently initially conceived of the Game as a cure-all for the ills of modern pluralistic civilization, as a refuge for sensitive souls like Siddhartha, Harry Haller, and H. H. Believers in values and culture could therefore rally around the Game and devote themselves to the affirmation of timeless truth rather than being condemned to sterile criticism or ironic detachment. It was to function, in other words, much like the Church during the Middle Ages was supposed to have functioned. (pp. 351-52)
But Das Glasperlenspiel required nearly a decade to complete and Hesse's thinking changed considerably. Most significantly, his rejection of time, his ahistorical proclivities deriving primarily from Nietzsche, suffered considerably as a result of his sensitive reading of Nietzsche's older contemporary, the historian Jacob Burckhardt…. The novel represents, paradoxically, Hesse's greatest attempt to define a way out of time and, concomitantly, his ultimate recognition of the futility of this effort. (p. 352)
[Despite] his apparent disavowal of the radical "time philosophies" of the twentieth century, Hesse ultimately rejected the eternalization of Being which he had so long and so avidly sought. Joseph Knecht arrives at a conception of existence in which time, rather than being interpreted from the standpoint of and in opposition to eternity, is considered in its own right. While remaining the great destroyer and the harbinger of death and decay, time can also be creative and fulfilling. As long as he attempts to remain aloof from the existential reality, Knecht fails. By abandoning this attempt, he succeeds in discovering a sense of permanence within the transitory, the continuity which, according to Burckhardt and the later Hesse, lies at the heart of time itself.
And so Hesse came full circle. His final vision was of the changeable, the transitory. Not without great foreboding, he cast his lot with Heidegger, Bergson, Thomas Mann, and all of the other twentieth-century thinkers who have found time unavoidable. But, rather than succumb to nihilism, he chose to nurture the only meaning left for the inquiring mind of the contemporary age. He paid homage, finally, to the great mystery discovered by Knecht, that life and time bear some curious and necessary relationship to each other that is not shared by inanimate things. True spirit and culture, he concluded, require time. (pp. 353-54)
Gary R. Olsen, "To Castalia and Beyond: The Function of Time and History in the Later Works of Hermann Hesse," in Arizona Quarterly (copyright © 1974 by the Arizona Quarterly), Vol. 30, No. 4, Winter, 1974, pp. 343-54.