Hermann Hesse

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Hesse, Hermann 1877–1962

Hesse, a Nobel Laureate, was a German-born Swiss novelist, essayist, and poet. His novels of self-definition (Demian, Steppenwolf and Siddhartha, among others) gained wide popularity as the Eastern religions which informed them became increasingly attractive to Western young people. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 17-18.)

It is not so much that Hesse dramatises or even popularises ideas as that he takes the stiffening out of them, sandpapers the sharper edges away, and hands them over to his readers to play with as they will. A highly cultivated person, he is the ideal second-order writer for the sort of serious-minded reader desirous to believe that he is grappling successfully with intellectual and artistic profundities of the first order. Best among his books, I would say, are Steppenwolf for queer fun and mystification and some shrewd comments on the bourgeoisie, and Narcissus and Goldmund for a fair-minded (if not consciously intended) assessment of some of those polar opposites so interesting to us all (for who wants to feel himself underprivileged in the matter of souls?) and so obsessively fascinating to the romantic German mind.

D. J. Enright, "Hesse Versus Hesse" (1968), in his Man Is An Onion: Reviews and Essays, Chatto & Windus, 1972, pp. 64-73.

Guruhood is nothing new for Hesse—I know Germans in their middle sixties who devoured each new book during their own adenoidal phase—and the role fits him rather well. His art springs from an unshakably profound infatuation with adolescence, and his vision of youth is underwritten by his incapacity to break loose from youth's fascination. His only interesting material is the passions of twenty-five and under: the pangy vertigo of limitless prospects, of the utterly pure, corny tenderness of narcissism, or the wild thrill of discovering feelings that are entirely new, never felt before. When he turns to other materials—as he does in the inexpressibly boring final two thirds of The Bead Game, he can be a fusty drag, with all his limitations showing. Like everything else in his work, Hesse's thought is irretrievably adolescent, so that in his chosen role of artist of ideas, he is invariably second-rate, although unlike the other prophets of the New Age, he is never less than second-rate. His thought is never cheap, never trashy, but neither is it ever intellectually exalting, the way the professorial, unfashionable Mann so often is. Almost without exception, Hesse's ideas are derivative, schoolboyish, traditional to the point of being academic, influenced by all the right people, and boringly correct….

Flawed though it sometimes is, Hesse's aesthetic sense … does does sometimes rise to extraordinary levels, does transform itself into "something else," as the kids say. The final third of Steppenwolf is one of the great moments in modern literature, a moment original to the point of being in a class by itself, and one with an importance to future art which is not to be patronized.

Stephen Koch, "Narcissus and Goldmund" (1968), in The Critic as Artist: Essays on Books 1920–1970, edited by Gilbert A. Harrison, Liveright, 1972, pp. 222-27.

Hermann Hesse, the artistic conscience of his race, has repeatedly portrayed the conflict between spirit and world, self and society, mind and reality, thought and truth, consciousness and reality. Magister Ludi , a philosophical fable, a utopian novel that seeks to discover the kind of ideal society to be established in the future, describes how a group of intellectuals organize the Castalian Order and devote themselves assiduously to the Bead Game. Their object is to synthesize all the arts and sciences. Absorbed in the life...

(This entire section contains 7152 words.)

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of meditation, the chosen ones find music and mathematics the noblest expression of the spirit of man….

Hesse is obviously composing a disguised philosophical allegory on the major conflicts of his age. Though we never get concrete examples of how the Bead Game is played except that it utilizes all the arts and sciences, relying particularly on abstract mathematical formulas and symbols, the presumption, of course, is that it is more than a game. It serves to support a new world and a new culture in the making. The game represents in symbolic form "the quest for perfection, a sublime alchemy, a self-reproach to the inherent spirit beyond all images and pluralities—and thus to God." The goal sought is that of "realization," the discovery of the path from becoming to being….

Life, which perpetually renews itself, cannot be confined within the hermetic ritual of the Bead Game. There is no magic formula that can plumb the cosmic mystery. When Joseph Knecht perishes at the end, he has already left behind him the world of "fictions" and "games." Hesse, unlike Schopenhauer, is not convinced that the Idea can conquer the Will. A tragic writer, Hesse is saying like Pirandello that the answer to the riddle of life is not to be found. It is a dangerous temptation, this idea of playing the Bead Game by withdrawing from the world of mundane, human reality. The mystery abides all questions. Paradox pervades all of existence.

Charles I. Glicksberg, in his Modern Literary Perspectivism, Southern Methodist University Press, 1970, pp. 56-8.

If Future Shock touches a raw nerve and compels the young reader to make some searching inquiries into his social structure, how is it that they find The Glass Bead Game by Hesse so appealing? Against the bizarre tapestry of 2000 A.D. which Toffler weaves is one projected into 2500 A.D. by Hesse. Hesse "hears music and sees men of the past and future." He sees "wise men and poets and scholars harmoniously building the valued and vaulted cathedral of Mind." Symbolically, in a game performed according to the strictest rules with supreme virtuosity, the mandarins of a new culture work out a mental synthesis of all the spiritual values of all ages. Castalia, Joseph Knecht's sanctuary (clearly Hesse's in his own continuing search for a spiritual dimension of life) becomes a realm where all of the best thoughts and values are kept alive through the practice of the Glass Bead Game. It is a future society in which our youth has learned to distrust. The game is superbly constructed, a product of tremendous experience and imagination and, because it incorporates so much of our irrational behavior, engaging and funny. Not to see the humor is to miss the fun and to miss the irony with which it was written.

When we follow Joseph Knecht through his experiences at Mariafels, a remote monastery where the contemplative life is pursued—not a new idea, we find it in Platonic academies or yoga schools—we become aware of the "radicalization of the intellectual" who moves from isolation into a responsible action controlled by dispassionate reflection. It is essential to understand that Knecht's defection from Castalia, far from implying any repudiation of the spiritual ideal, simply calls for a new consciousness of the social responsibility of the intellectual. He warns these intellectuals to give up their arrogant and self-satisfying game which can lead only to inbreeding and destruction. He makes a commitment by putting spirit and intellect at the service of the world. Thematically, it seems to have much in common with The Greening of America.

Hesse's book fictionalizes the admonitions of an outsider who urges us to question accepted values, to rebel against the system that humiliates us, to challenge existing institutions in the light of higher ideas. Hesse's age rejected his criticisms; our age was oblivious to it; the new generation applauds it. They believe the only true culture is Joseph Knecht's which responds to the social demands and requirements of the times. They see Knecht's resolution as the answer to Toffler's computerized society, to impersonal bureaucracy, to a technologically controlled human—rather inhuman—culture. The longer we consider Hesse's novel, the more clearly we realize that it is not a telescope focused on an imaginary future but a mirror reflecting with disturbing sharpness a paradigm of present reality….

Seeking a new morality, [the young] find a kindred wanderer in Siddhartha who, transcending the conventional dichotomy of good and evil, embraces all extremes of life in one unified vision. His has been a pursuit of self identity which takes him to the shores of sensuality and of asceticism. With experience comes insight and Siddhartha learns to travel the river of life which touches both shores and which ultimately—after sorting out his values—offers harmony, knowledge, and perfection. He reaches a level of awareness where one is capable of accepting all being. Isn't that what our young seem to hope for?

Hesse succeeded as very few have, in capturing the frustrations and sexual fears of adolescents who are engaged in a pursuit for identity. And if tranquillity is what they need to reflect upon these questions, then Gautama Buddha offers them serenity and contemplation, a pause in their twentieth-century race. Some hope, some insight to the essence of life is offered.

This leads to another aspect of Hesse's writings; namely, the philosophical, poetical nature of it. He finds a language both personal and symbolic, a simple but highly lyrical language, which corresponds to the young person's own thoughts. It is Hesse's language and vision which excite his readers. It is his form, which however repetitive, is consistent. After reading a few of his books—for rarely does anyone stop at Siddhartha—the young reader recognizes a basic structure to Hesse's books. In Hesse's own essays he says that the child is born into a state of unity with all being. This is the young Siddhartha—dutiful, respectful, loving, happy. When he learns about good and evil, he advances to a second level of humanization characterized by despair and alienation, for he has been made aware of laws and moral codes. But he feels incapable of adhering to arbitrary standards established by conventional religious or moral systems because they exclude so much of what seems perfectly natural. Siddhartha finds his "self" submerged in a culture in which he sees injustices and imbalance. This second level of awareness is that in which most men are condemned to live. Those like Siddhartha who are not willing to accept the lies, who are troubled by elders, or teachers, who point out sense, happiness, and beauty, move on to the third level of a spiritual kingdom, to experience pure thought, to an emerging new culture. The same resolution reached in The Glass Bead Game!

It is in the mystique of Demian that the young feel Hesse is the interpreter of their innermost lives. Following the format, Sinclair is the young one born into an orderly world—unsullied, gentle, clean. He lives in this world but perceives the other. Inevitably, he is drawn into it and lives through the terrors of the streets. Alienated from the innocent world, he suffers terrible guilt for the pain he brings to his family…. Demian made Sinclair face his own weaknesses, his own cowardice. But there must be parting even with a good friend because that dependence can become exacting, repugnant, demoralizing. True independence, responsible action, means some isolation. Sinclair accepts that premise and ultimately achieves independence.

Hesse plays the theme through his hero in Beneath the Wheel, this time a tragic one. Caught up in the snarl of values, restricted by conventions which he does not dare to question, alienated in a society which doesn't respect his limitations, unable to find solutions, Herman Heilner commits suicide. So many students recognize their own sense of inadequacy, their own isolation from the world, the bitter disappointment in an education system, in this character. In this one pessimistic work—for all his others seem to reach more optimistic conclusions—there is strong, possibly too strong an identification. It helps to make students see that turning away from society, walking alone, leads to failure. He has to examine the complexity of the world; not to do so is suicidal.

Steppenwolf has extremely strong appeal for the young. Steppenwolf takes them into a mystical world and, admittedly in his magic theater sequence, into illusion that is produced by hallucination and drugs. Some have even criticized this book for young people because the fantasies, while bizarre, sound enticing…. Had they completed "the trip" recounted in this book for the truth, as I see it, they would see Steppenwolf emerge not half man and half wolf but as one with a unified vision of man who cannot hope for the answers in phantasmagoria but in a reality which takes all matters into account. Hesse, in this book, attacks the popular concept of the intriguing, mysterious duplicity of man. He discounts that as a deception. Man is not merely saint or profligate!… [As] Hesse said, there is not a single human being, not even the primitive, not even the idiot who is so conveniently simple that his being can be explained as the sum of two or three principal elements. No! Man consists of a hundred or a thousand selves, not two. His life oscilates, as everyone else's does, not merely between two poles, such as the body and the spirit, the saint and the sinner, but between thousands and thousands….

From my point of view, Narcissus and Goldmund is the richest novel Hesse wrote. His keen insights to the complexities of life entice the reader to outward exploration of the whole range of beauty and depravity that man encounters; his understanding of man's emotional turmoil pulls inwardly towards a responsiveness to the symbolic truth of the search for meaning in a paradoxical world. Narcissus and Goldmund represent the basic worlds that Hesse plays out: the intellectual and the sensual, the possibilities of withdrawal or involvement, and the ultimate union of the aesthetic and the practical.

Man's life and terrors are explored in all of Hesse's works, but the strength in them is that he reaffirms some basic aspects which not only have served humanity in the past but which are supportive for the future. He eliminates those that have hamstrung us to a feudal culture. He releases us for an attack upon technology which destroys individuality. He makes us believe there is hope for those who will not be button-controlled, gene-controlled, and that there may be a culture for the mandarins of the future.

Esther C. Gropper, "The Disenchanted Turn to Hesse," in English Journal, October, 1972, pp. 979-84.

First, Hesse believed that the universe makes sense; we need such affirmation today. Second, Hesse believed that the best way to realize that affirmation is to realize yourself. It is that obligation that brings the young again and again into conflict with their more conforming elders and rulers. Self-realization requires great freedom and great tolerance of differences…. In a world that complicates their difficult journey by its fear of their example, the young need assurance and guidance through the hazards of creating a new culture counter to our conformist, organized, mechanical technocracy so stifling to the new individualism that it, ironically, gave the environment to develop. By his novels and by his life (they unite), Hermann Hesse gives them the assurance and guidance of a man who sought himself through eighty five years of the most disastrous events of our age. (p. 20)

For [Hesse], the universe hung together. It was harmonious. It included man. It was folly to focus upon the ego, to consider oneself a discrete individual. Certainly, the individual is isolated in some very important and fundamental ways even from the individual closest to him. Certainly, the individual will die. But to Hesse the most important fact about each of us was not our individuality but our relationship to the whole universe. Siddhartha elaborates upon the point with the metaphor of the stone…. [The] stone has the potential of everything it has been or participated within in the past—plant, animal, man—and it has the potential of everything that it will be or participated within in the future; given an infinity of time, it has the potential of becoming everything in the universe. Finally, if the distinction between been, being, and becoming is artificial and arbitrary, the stone is now everything it has been and everything it potentially will be. And so is man, as is Siddhartha himself when Govinda kisses his brow and sees thousands of selves, man and animal, flow beneath that face which has now become like the surface of the river from which Siddhartha learned so much. And yet, Siddhartha points out, the stone is a stone, individual and unique and quite concrete as well as a universe of possibilities. And, in that sense, each of our egos does exist. Neither they nor the death, isolation, and pain they suffer are illusory. But these defeats are only part of reality. Beyond our egos is the universe to which they belong, with which they will merge, from which they will re-emerge. (pp. 24-5)

The syllable Om which Siddhartha apparently uses as a mantra (it begins and ends all Brahmin prayers) is important to this novella, for it is the syllable that the river utters at a crucial moment in the conclusion. Its three letters (actually A-U-M) stand for the three most important Vedas; the three elements of the universe; the three gods Brahma, Vishnu, and Siva, and so on—in short, as a friend of mine has remarked, "Om summarizes all of Hinduism." The stress that Hesse places on the syllable concerns this unifying or summarizing power. Thus in the chapter "Om" Siddhartha, after hearing in the sound of the river every possible voice, finally perceives that they all blend together: "the great song of a thousand voices consisted of one word: Om—perfection."… (p. 29)

Such a book is best approached by those who seek calm. It is written in a low key. The plot does have moments of drama…. Yet the tone in which these [dramatic] incidents are presented and the emotional texture of those incidents which surround them, the rhythmic nature of the sentences and the plot-delaying passages of imagery, all unite to present the reader an experience which leads to tranquillity. The events and people are far away in space and in time as are the events and people of legends. There is little sense of conflict between the hero and those about him. There is even little such sense of conflict within him—such a prominent feature of Steppenwolf and Narcissus and Goldmund. (p. 31)

Siddhartha is a good introduction to the other major novels, for it develops in a simple, schematized structure characters and situations, attitudes and ideas which will repeat themselves throughout Hesse's work—each time with a fresh perspective…. Characteristic … are such details as the slow opening followed by more vigorous plot and character development, hostility toward the "Kamaswami" people and the fondness for such intellectual beauties as Kamala, the use of dreams as symbolic keys to character and theme, the delight in nature imagery, the view of the universe as harmonious rather than absurd, the favoring of sense over intellect and of transcendent spirit over both. Hesse's dualism—here expressed in Siddhartha's alternate explorations of the intellect and of the senses—appears in Steppenwolf as Harry Haller and the wolf; in Narcissus and Goldmund as the titular characters; in Magister Ludi as Castalia and the outside world. (p. 53)

Steppenwolf presents a contemporary, Harry Haller, struggling to become a Siddhartha. Tortured by twentieth century dualism, confused by its chaos, Harry progresses disappointingly little in proportion to his great effort. And he is exceptional, a disciplined intellectual whose repeated survival of traumas has given him an unclouded insight into his society. Paralyzed by equal commitments to the moderation and security of the middle class and to a Siddharthian self-realization, all he finally manages is to overcome this conflict to be able to take the first step toward godhood. (pp. 55-6)

Hesse was deeply influenced by Jung, both through having been psychoanalyzed by a Jungian and through conversations with Jung himself—some of which may have occurred during the period of the events in Steppenwolf. Jung's object in psychotherapy was to enable the patient to attain individuation, that is, to achieve self-realization by bringing together both the conscious and the unconscious worlds, represented in Steppenwolf by Harry and the wolf respectively. As long as this synthesis has not been made, the unconscious works independently of and often in conflict with the conscious which ignores its existence. Jung believed not only in Freud's conscious and unconscious, however, but also in two types of unconscious, the personal unconscious, created by the repressed episodes in an individual's history, and the collective unconscious, an inherited memory of central episodes or recurrent conditions in the history of the species. This collective unconscious manifests itself in widespread symbols and figures (archetypes) appearing in myths, literature, art. (p. 59)

I consider Harry Haller to be Hermann Hesse's conscious ego (note the initials). The "wolf" that Haller thinks he becomes at times is simply his uninformed cover-name for the total unconscious that he is denying. The most prominent elements of that unconscious which begin to emerge as he comes to terms with it are represented by Hermine and Pablo-Mozart. Hermine is the anima (note the first name). Pablo-Mozart is the Self; the Magic Theater is the dream world which the Self invents and organizes to communicate its real nature. (p. 61)

It is only the Steppenwolf who can preserve the middle class from itself. The Steppenwolves are those artistic, spiritual, scientific, or political intellectuals who have an intuition of the Immortal (Siddharthian) consciousness. Yet they are the sons and daughters of the middle class and are so trapped by its fears that they believe that to destroy their inherited conceptions of self would be suicide. They rationalize that the drive to enter into the hazardous experience that would ultimately win them Immortal vision is merely the temptation of the "wolf" in them, their base animal desires. Although their intimations of immortality could make them charismatic guides for the middle class, many (like Harry) are paralyzed by the conflict between the desire to stay put and the desire to risk psychic or physical death for a relevant life that they can find nowhere in the "normal" society. Only the Steppenwolf who has humor can function. (p. 63)

As always, Hesse's most important concern in Narcissus and Goldmund is realization of the Self and therefore synthesis of the two worlds. Harry Haller has vowed to "traverse not once more, but often, the hell of my inner being."… Goldmund is one of the thousand souls of Herman Hesse, and a very important one for him to explore.

For all its perplexing concerns, Narcissus and Goldmund can be enjoyed as a medieval romance, as indicated by its great success among its first German readers, who had deplored the shocking incidents and puzzling experimentalism of Steppenwolf. In a series of conversations between the two protagonists, one main issue of the novel is spelled out: the relative values of the world of the ascetic intellectual (Narcissus) and the sensual artist (Goldmund). The central section—over half the novel—dramatically presents the erotic and violent adventures of Goldmund. There is, in short, plenty to satisfy either the intellectual or the sensualist.

Like Siddhartha and Steppenwolf, Narcissus and Goldmund has a basic three-part structure: it begins in a world dominated by the intellectual, enters into the rehabilitating world of the sensualist, and re-emerges—in the final conversations of the two main characters—in an integration of the two world views. Instead of Siddhartha's mystical self-immersion or Haller's humor, the integrating element is now art. (pp. 101-02)

Set in the future, [Magister Ludi] presents the career of Joseph Knecht, the finest representative of human knowledge, as he works out his fate in the twilight of the Age of Reason. At the outset, the period seems far from a "twilight": through synthesis of all intellectual disciplines and development of an elite intelligentsia, the intellectual has freed himself from all bondage to society except an economic one which at the moment exacts no repressive control over the intellectual establishment centered at Castalia; the damage caused by twentieth-century political and military control of the intellectual has brought society to its senses. The intellectual is free. But he uses his freedom to worship Truth in itself in the form of the Glass Bead Game ruled by its priest, Castalia's most influential member, the Master of the Game—the Magister Ludi. Truth worshipped without an ethical obligation to human nature becomes, however, worship of something else: Beauty, a beauty of the symmetry and harmony of the systems of Truth appealing alike to the pure mathematician and the pure musician. Meanwhile, society is left to its own devices. Human nature responds to itself alone. And war rumbles.

Joseph Knecht, whose name means "servant," will sacrifice himself to demonstrate to Castalia its danger. He is a man so completely devoted to his vocation that he has become the human embodiment of the Game. What it is and can be and will not be determines his life and death; he has the beauty of the Game and its awareness of the relationship of Truth to the Whole, he has its inclination to descend from Truth-as-Beauty to include Nature in its sphere to realize it as an embodiment of the Whole, and he has its terrible vulnerability. His effort to include Nature is a failure. He dies. The Game will vanish. But through Knecht's sacrifice, humanity's awareness of the beauty, truth, and reality of the Whole will continue to remain the goal of human evolution….

The Glass Bead Game is a ceremony partially academic and partially religious in character. Although Knecht's biographer states that its details are too complex for the layman to comprehend, its basis seems to be a symbolic language uniting the content and methods of all the arts and sciences; as the twentieth century logic so important to our computers has derived from a merging of logic and mathematics, so did the Game derive from a merging of mathematical and musical symbolic systems, which in turn was extended to express and unify the rest of the academic disciplines. Its potential is limitless; it can produce "the entire intellectual content of the universe" through infinite combinations of themes from different disciplines brought into different harmonies unique to the individual player…. (pp. 141-44)

In strong reaction to the twentieth century's devaluation of the intellect, the Castalian hierarchy has emphasized the preservation of culture above its educational function. Whereas the twentieth century had debased truth by popularization, the twenty-fourth has overreacted by purifying it into a Glass Bead Game quite beyond the comprehension of all but a handful of elite intellectuals who have considerable influence in establishing the values of the whole educational system; the purest intellects receive the highest rewards while the coarser ones are ejected into society to teach. (pp. 158-59)

As Knecht has died, the Glass Bead Game will die. War will destroy it and much of Castalia, too. Castalia is no longer a civilization that can produce art; it contemplates the art of the past and arranges it into the beautiful rhythms of the Game. It is a distillation of art—a beautiful process but one without material, the human material of society and nature. The world has run down again, and will pass.

Finally, Hesse is talking about us, not about Castalia. And he is talking about the best of us, as well as the worst of us. The best that we value, the most heroic and valid efforts of the finest men in our Age of Reason, will be destroyed as were other worlds just as admirable: the magic world of the primitive; the civilization of Egypt, Greece, and Rome; the spiritual temple of the Church; and now the square, granite office buildings of the State and the ivory towers of the University. With this withering vision before us, shall we give up or throw ourselves insanely into the dance of death that Goldmund watched? We may. But someone will not. Joseph Knecht. Through him—through the servant, the increaser, the teacher—the new civilization will become enriched by the old as ours was enriched by the old. The spiral is upwards: towards the Whole. (pp. 185-86)

Throughout these novels there is a … unifying factor—the personality of Hermann Hesse striving for self-realization through trying to live in his art the solutions that his own life have made attractive. While making an affirmation through following one course of action to its conclusion, Hesse has simultaneous awareness of other courses to be followed. Siddhartha succeeds through meditation and withdrawal. But Steppenwolf begins with a Harry Haller who has tried such spiritual discipline and found it lacking. Ultimately, he withdraws also but into the chaos and horror of his own existence to find a necessary complement to all he esteems in himself. Goldmund leaves the spirit and the psyche altogether; he actively lives through his senses, body, and emotions in a violent and beautiful world. Only when he has exhausted his body can he withdraw to transcend it. Joseph Knecht also lives a life of action in the equally intricate and complex world of the intellectual. And only when he has exhausted its potential does he leave it. As varied as the approaches are, the process is the same: Hesse realizes himself by living through each life to its conclusion. He begins with an idea, tests it by experience, follows it to its end without ever losing sight of his ultimate belief in universal harmony. And then he begins with another idea. Each life is enriched by the experience of the former life. Each novel has more dimension. Each solution seems closer to the solution. (p. 192)

Edwin F. Casebeer, in his Hermann Hesse, Warner Paperback Library, 1972.

In 1921 Hermann Hesse's publisher urged him to prepare a selected edition of his works. But as Hesse read through the products of his past twenty-two years of literary activity, he came to the sobering conclusion that "there was nothing there to select."… For all his works, he belatedly saw, dealt not with the world but only with his own "secret dreams and wishes," his own "bitter anguish."…

True storytelling, he argues, is possible only in societies in which the narrator can take for granted a common basis of language, values, and understanding between himself and his readers. But the fragmentation produced by the proliferation of beliefs and ideologies in the twentieth century has destroyed that common ground, isolating the author as merely one among countless alienated individuals in a pluralistic world. In his own efforts to use revered models of the past in order to come to grips with his essentially modern experience, Hesse had been, as he put it, a "deceiver deceived." As a result, he made up his mind hence forth to eschew "the good old tradition of storytelling" and to seek new modes of expression that, though less perfect and less beautiful, would provide a more honest reflection of the consciousness that he sought to render. These attempts, which produced his major novels beginning with Demian (1919), are the works with which most readers now identify Hesse….

The reevaluation of all his beliefs, sparked notably by the writings of Jung and Nietzsche, prompted him to turn frankly inward to the problems of his own consciousness. As a result, narratives that can be called "stories" in any conventional sense virtually disappear from his work. Instead, Hesse increasingly favored literary forms that enabled him to examine his own past and present, singling out for particular scrutiny those moments at which individual experience achieves the level of universal validity…. The forms that Hesse favored in the second half of his life—essay, autobiography, and mythic-symbolic narrative—constitute three different modes of access to the single problem that obsessed him: his own consciousness and its place in a timeless reality that transcends immediate temporal concerns….

Hesse's first published prose piece ["The Island Dream"] opens when a "shipwrecked dreamer" lays down his oars to greet the isle of his dreams. But his eye is suddenly caught by his reflection in the dark-green waters of the bay, and for two paragraphs, until he finally turns his attention back to the shore, he loses himself in the contemplation of his own image….

[The] image of narcissism betrays an introspective consciousness that has rejected the world outside for the sake of its own inner reality….

But it is not only in the early escapist pieces and the late surreal stories that we find Hesse's characteristic tendency toward subordination of external reality to inner vision. It is also evident in many of the prewar stories, despite their ostensible "realism" after the fashion of Gottfried Keller. For all these schoolboys, students, missionaries, and apprentices turn out to be outsiders just as much as the magnificent wolf that, in the story of 1907, is struck down by the peasants. The action in these stories is never narrated for its own sake, as Hesse realized in 1921. Everything happens for the benefit of the hero, who is shocked out of childhood innocence into the consciousness of maturity by the events that he witnesses…. Storytelling for its own sake recedes, in other words, as external action is reduced to little more than material for the meditations of the hero on his road to self-awareness. Characteristically, in most of these stories the hero is not so much a participant in the action as, rather, a witness of it; and he often turns out to be a first-person narrator like the shipwrecked dreamer of the first prose piece—a Narcissus obsessed with the image of his own consciousness….

[Twentieth-century] literature—from Joyce's Ulysses and Thomas Mann's Doctor Faustus to Eliot's The Waste Land and Brecht's St. Joan of the Stockyards—has made us increasingly conscious of the basic "literariness" of literature, which has come to be considered not so much an imitation of life in the Aristotelian sense as a playful manipulation of elements that already exist in an autonomous world of art. Precisely this kind of manipulation of existing forms occurs in Hesse's major novels. Demian is indebted, as many of the chapter headings and quotations suggest, to episodes in the Bible, from Genesis to Revelation. And Siddhartha (1922) gets its title as well as its basic outline from legends surrounding the life of Buddha. So the allusion, in "The Island Dream," to Odysseus among the Phaeacians anticipates the prefigurational techniques that Hesse, along with many of the other major writers of the century, was to develop with considerable sophistication.

The use of literary sources is related, moreover, to the tendency toward introspection. For the realm that Hesse opposes to everyday reality—in An Hour beyond Midnight as well as such later stories as "Dream Journeys"—is explicitly a realm of art. It became increasingly clear to Hesse, in the course of his life, that "eternity" is a frame of mind: the ability to perceive what Harry Haller, in Steppenwolf, calls "the golden trace" that gives life its meaning. Hesse was much more at home in that timeless spiritual realm than in the "real" world…. The Glass Bead Game, in the novel of that title, is Hesse's most brilliant image for the timeless realm of culture: for that institution has the sole function of enabling the men of Castalia to play with the cultural values of the past and present just as easily as one plays upon the various consoles of an organ. In those early stories, with their literary allusions and their rich associations of quotation and form, we sense the inchoate outlines of that cultural realm to which Hesse's introspective tendency ultimately led him.

Apart from literature and culture, the second principal source of Hesse's fiction is his own life…. [Increasingly] during the twenties Hesse turned to pure autobiography in the attempt to come to grips with his past. Up to that point, however, his stories represent the best reservoir of biographical information…. But in all these stories, as well as the novels from these early years, biographical experience serves not as a starting point for the exploration of reality and other people; rather, it leads him inevitably back into his own consciousness for the encounter with himself….

If we return for a final time to Hesse's earliest story, we can see a clear indication of the difference between his juvenalia and the works of his maturity. There, as the shipwrecked dreamer approaches the island of his dreams, his attention is distracted by his reflection in the waters of the bay. Almost fifty years later, a similar situation recurs in Hesse's recollection of "The Interrupted Class." Sent on an errand by his teacher, the twelve-year-old pauses on a bridge to watch the fish in the river below; but as he looks into the water he falls into a state of rapt contemplation in which he forgets all temporality until he is startled by the chiming of the church clock, which summons him back to reality. This parallel exemplifies the fact that to an astonishing degree Hesse's works consist of varying configurations of the same limited group of images—in this case, an epiphany produced by gazing into a body of water. But the image first occurs in a fictional setting that represents an escapist flight from reality. The shipwrecked dreamer, after all, has left the world behind for an aesthetic realm where nothing interferes with his rapturous contemplation of his own reflection. The late variation of the image has an entirely different context: for the autobiographical reminiscence forces Hesse to come to grips with an episode from his childhood that he had successfully repressed for many years. The first image stands under the sign of Narcissus, who is lost in worshipful contemplation of himself; the second leads the author into a consideration of the individual's ethical responsibilities in the world into which he has been thrust and with which he must somehow cope. The first image represents the young Hesse, still trying to express himself by means of literary forms appropriated reverently from respected masters; the second reveals the old Hesse, who has reverted frankly to autobiographical reminiscence in an effort to understand his own consciousness, since "the questionable art of storytelling" has unmasked itself as inadequate….

Hesse's gloomy rejection of his early work in 1921 did not mark a radical break with his past but rather a turning point. Far from toning down the "secret dreams" that he detected in his prewar stories, Hesse transposed them from minor into major, proclaiming the realm of his imagination as his characteristic and principal theme.

Theodore Ziolkowski, "Introduction," in Stories of Five Decades, by Hermann Hesse; edited, and with an introduction by Theodore Ziolkowski; translated by Ralph Manheim (reprinted with the permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc.; translation copyright © 1954, 1972 by Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc.), Farrar, Straus, 1972, pp. vii-xx.

All of the tales [in Strange News From Another Star] are pervaded by a magic spell—a childlike playfulness and a sense of wonder. Inner and outer world, dream and reality are presented in perfect fusion….

Unfortunately, the tonal qualities of the original German are not carried over into the translation. This is not the translator's fault—he is entirely competent—but it proves once more that the simplicity of Hesse's prose is deceptive and that it is at times untranslatable.

The Antioch Review (© 1973 by The Antioch Review, Inc.; first published in The Antioch Review, Vol. 32, No. 3; reprinted by permission of the editors), Vol. 32, No. 3, 1973, pp. 498-99.

Sporting the magical letters HESSE on its cover, Stories of Five Decades contains an important preliminary essay by Theodore Ziolkowski and twenty-three sketches and narratives arranged in the order of their compositvon—twenty published for the first time in English, and all written, of course, by a Nobel Prize winner and sometimes adulated novelist. No doubt a large, curious audience will welcome this systematic introduction to Hesse as a writer of short fiction; but those readers burdened with the unreasonable expectation of discovering a group of neglected masterpieces, some type of belated and mind-expanding gift from the muses, will be deservedly disappointed. Stories of Five Decades is a readable collection of fiction, and it is designed primarily to clarify and illustrate Hesse's "development" during his long, productive career….

To my knowledge, Theodore Ziolkowski's introduction is to date the most useful survey of Hesse as a writer of short fiction, but this introduction is also an example of the critical intellect forcing the creative record to yield too much consistency. Ziolkowski emphasizes Hesse's consistent "introspection," "criticism of the world," "use of literary sources," and repetition "of the same limited group of images." Given the twenty-three representative selections, all of these points seem to have some validity but are expressed in an exaggerated manner. For instance, Ziolkowski is quite unconvincing when he asserts that "Hesse's characteristic tendency toward subordination of external reality to inner vision" is evident even in the early realistic narratives. True, some of these stories do have autobiographical sources and do portray young men gaining in self-awareness, but that, I think, is not precisely the same as "introspection" and "subordination of external reality to inner vision." Ziolkowski is something worse than unconvincing when he cites two characters who stare into water (the "shipwrecked dreamer" of 1899 and the child in "The Interrupted Class" of 1948) and then declares that "this parallel exemplifies the fact that to an astonishing degree Hesse's works consist of varying configurations of the same limited group of images—in this case, an epiphany produced by gazing into a body of water." Nonsense. The point could be a valid one, but as stated and exemplified here, it appears to be unworthy of any serious attention. (If one needs parallels, I would cite a link between Hesse's precious adolescent "Dream" and Steppenwolf: the early "shipwrecked dreamer" encounters in an ideal realm "all the beautiful women I had ever known and admired," just as years later Harry Haller in the Magic Theater sees passing before him, "like beautiful flowers, Ida and Laura and all whom I had loved for a summer, a month, or a day." An interesting link, but hardly an example of astonishing consistency.) Lest these comments seem too negative, I need to emphasize that Ziolkowski clearly outlines the changes in Hesse's "storytelling" and judiciously refrains from overestimating the selections.

As presented in Stories of Five Decades, the short fiction of Hesse appears to me to have the virtue of variety, and the very great virtue of clarity. This fiction certainly is not trivial, but it also does not seem to require strenuous contemplation. It is good, readable fiction, to which youthful admirers of Hesse's novels and those academic critics who particularly value complexity probably will remain indifferent. My feeling is that some of the newly translated selections deserve to be reprinted in our anthologies and that a few studies more detailed than Ziolkowski's introduction need to appear in our journals.

Daniel P. Deneau, in Studies in Short Fiction, Fall, 1973, pp. 425-27.


Hesse, Hermann (Vol. 25)


Hesse, Hermann (Vol. 6)