Hesse, Hermann (Vol. 6)
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....
(The entire section is 2,590 words.)