Hesse, Hermann (Vol. 3)
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 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...
(The entire section is 7,152 words.)