Hermann Hesse

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Hesse, Hermann (Vol. 1)

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Hesse, Hermann 1877–1962

A German-born Swiss author, Hesse wrote poetry, fiction, and nonfiction. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1946. His best-known works include Demian, Steppenwolf, Magister Ludi, and Siddhartha. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 17-18.)

[The] language of nature-mysticism [was] Hesse's answer to his religious problem up to the beginnings of World War I. One must avoid calling it pantheism, for pantheism means addressing nature or the cosmos or the universe as God. Hesse shuns every personal image or definition of God, but he still believes in the existence of a deity. Nature is its appearance, but not its essence. The proper term for such a view, in which God comes first and the universe second, is theopanism. (pp. 21-2)

Psychoanalytic concepts helped Hesse considerably. They also serve as a key to a better understanding of his later works. But he did not become an amateur psychologist who used psychoanalysis namely for artistic purposes. It made him more aware of the role of the subconscious in artistic creation. Life and thought now appeared as a battle between conscious and subconscious tendencies, and a total picture of man emerged which no longer was simple or one-sidedly rational. (pp. 49-50)

Stylistically, Demian signaled Hesse's definite break with his early regionalism and Impressionism. To be sure, his new style still preserved some realistic elements. Kromer, Demian, Pistorius, and even Demian's mother are entirely possible in real life and behave like human beings. But for Sinclair they represent archetypal experiences in his struggle for integration. They hold one meaning as persons of real life and another as archetypes of Sinclair's psychological world. The proper name for such a contrapuntal style would be Surrealism, if by Surrealism is meant the employing of real objects to express nonobjective experiences. In Hesse's case one can see the affinity of this style to Romanticism. (p. 55)

[With Siddhartha, Hesse came] to grips with the existential problem. The story also made Hesse's message universal by no longer addressing itself to occidentals only…. Still we must not forget that the book is a work of art, and not a philosophical treatise. Its ideas are implicit; they are never expressed outright. The charm of Siddhartha lies in its unforgettable images…. The final meaning of Siddhartha, just as the ultimate meaning of life, defies philosophic definition and can be hinted at only by the poetic symbol. It remains forever closed to the literal mind unable to read between the lines. (pp. 68-72)

Thomas Mann was undoubtedly right in calling Steppenwolf as audacious an experiment as James Joyce's Ulysses and André Gide's Faux-Monnayeurs. It was the first German novel to include a descent into the cellars of the subconscious in its search for spiritual integration. With Freud it recognized the libido, and with Jung it discovered in the subconscious a reservoir of spiritual archetypes and formative ideas. Because of its theme, Steppenwolf is part of the modern literature of disillusionment which started with Kafka, Gottfried Benn, and other writers who appeared immediately before World War I. (p. 96)

[In his poetry] Hesse has in no way created new lyric forms. He was satisfied to revive existing ones and through them convey his message. But it would be wrong to portray him merely as the late heir of a proud tradition, for he was already feeling the first drafts of a new wind. He must not be called the poet of the end, as his poetry is ultimately based, not on the unstable values of civilization, but on nature and cosmic realities, and nature is...

(This entire section contains 2498 words.)

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forever changing. In his most beautiful poems, Hesse is reconciled to the changes ordained by cosmic laws and watches them with serene equanimity. His hundreds of poems balance each other and in their entirety form an image of life which is centered on the golden rule. (p. 150)

Hesse's view of man can best be described as a poetic image of the total personality adumbrated by anthropological psychology. Here the individual stands in the spheres of nature and society just as much as he is indissolubly linked with history and with the forces of transcendency. Since we still largely connote scientific thinking with a strictly compartmental, rationalistic approach, Hesse's poetic vision for many contemporaries may provide an even better idea of modern psychological orientation than a strictly scientific description of it. (pp. 156-57)

Ernst Rose, in his Faith from the Abyss: Hermann Hesse's Way from Romanticism to Modernity, New York University Press, 1965.

Hesse's works are filled with symbols of unity and totality. Most of them, of course, can be fully comprehended only within the context of the work itself, but by way of anticipation let us mention briefly a few of the more outstanding symbols. In Demian Hesse employs the god Abraxas, who represents in Gnostic mysticism the unification of God and Satan; and in the same novel he makes use of the egg, traditionally a symbol of totality. The Magic Theater in The Steppenwolf, as a projection of Harry Haller's inner nature into the outside world, is an externalization of the multifarious poles of his existence that, as he discovers, are by no means mutually exclusive. Here also, as in Demian, totality and delimitation are symbolized by the hermaphroditic nature of the women loved by the heroes…. The Glass Bead Game, in the novel of that title, is an abstraction of all values of human culture that are invoked simultaneously in the game itself. Finally music, for Hesse…, represents in almost every instance the symbolic manifestation of totality because in the counterpoint and harmony of music the most disparate elements can be brought together in a harmonious whole. It is not an exaggeration to say that every important symbol in Hesse's works is basically a representation of totality. (pp. 26-7)

[Like] every major artist of his generation, Hesse faced the central problem of the early twentieth century: the breakdown of traditional reality in every area of life. The solution he found is explicitly a "magical" or mystical one that manifests itself in magical symbols and motifs in his works. To this extent Hesse represents one of the strong currents in modern literature, for the resolution of conflict on a super-rational level is a central theme of the reaction against positivism. (p. 28)

Hesse's novels from Demian on represent the search for a realm of timeless values that he ultimately defines most perfectly in the ideal vision of Castalia in the introduction to The Glass Bead Game. In this sense, his works after the years of crisis are a journey to Castalia, the aesthetic realm in which all values are reunited in an all-embracing totality and in which the threat of death is canceled out. To this extent Hesse's work is representative of his generation—the writers who, like him, sought the answers to life in an absolute world of art. (p. 50)

[The] traditional form supplied only the starting point for Hesse. He rarely took over an older form without shaping it, adapting it, modernizing it in accordance with his awareness of the crisis of language. With the vocabulary of Novalis and the structures of E.T.A. Hoffmann he dealt with the problems of psychoanalysis and existential thought. Within the transformed framework of traditional Romantic genres he created paradigms of the twentieth-century dilemma. (p. 84)

No one, today, would call Hesse a romantic writer, without qualifying the term rigorously. At the same time, while several critics have pointed to existential tendencies in Hesse's work, he is obviously no existentialist in any systematic sense of the word. The only "ism" really applicable to Hesse, as Franz Baumer argued, is individualism or non-conformism…. As an advocate of historical Romantic forms in the broadest sense, Hesse is a romantic writer; and precisely this distinguishes him sharply from most major writers of the twentieth century, who rejected the older forms for more experimentally new ones. But this proclivity for the trappings of Romanticism is misleading and has perpetuated, I think, a mistaken conception of Hesse's intent…. For the rearguard of romanticism tends at many points to blur almost imperceptibly into the vanguard of existentialism…. If Hesse looks to writers of the past like E. T. A. Hoffmann in the form of his works, he faces the future in his thought, anticipating existential thinkers such as Albert Camus…. Like [Sartre and Camus, Hesse] is interested in the ethical responsibility of the individual who peers into chaos and assumes "the new, perilous, terrible sanctity" implied by "the turn away from all established ethics and morality."… We can observe over and over again in Hesse's major themes a reduction of transcendence to immanence, of the ontological to the ethical, of the speculative to the existential. With romantic tools he seeks to analyze the existential encounter with reality. (p. 341-60)

Theodore Ziolkowski, in his The Novels of Hermann Hesse (© 1965 by Princeton University Press; Princeton Paperback, 1967; reprinted by permission of Princeton University Press), Princeton University Press, 1965.

[Hermann] Hesse has moved away from the position of pure contemplation that seemed to constitute his ideal in the 'twenties and early 'thirties. In the terms of the novel he is striving for a synthesis of the vita activa and the vita contemplativa. In [The Glass Bead Game] the ideal is symbolized by music, which requires a constant compromise between practice and theory, the abstract and the concrete, the spiritual and the sensual…. Hesse's last novel is in no way a depiction of the charms of disengagement, but rather a plea for human commitment and for an art nourished by life, for a life enriched by art. (p. 44)

Hesse's growth as a writer parallels the development of literature in the twentieth century from aestheticism to engagement. But he was always an amused observer, never a member of movements of a frantic participant in the contest to keep abreast of the times. He was drawn to themes that are perhaps more urgent today than in ages with accepted patterns of belief, but still universal: the quest for identity, the search for personal values, the impulse to moral commitment. Just as he was reluctant to concern himself with issues that are merely timely, he also refused to engage in pure innovation and stylistic experimentation. Even in the least conventional of his novels he simply reshapes existing forms. It is his achievement to have shown to what extent modernity is traditional, in its thought and in its form; his works bridge the gap, so to speak, between romanticism and existentialism. His range was narrow and his expression essentially lyrical, for he rarely went beyond himself. At most, after 1917, he transposed his themes from the minor key of the private to the major key of the symbolic. For this reason Hesse does not rank, as a novelist, with Proust, Joyce, or Thomas Mann; and in his poetry he never approached Rilke, Eliot, or Valéry. But in the realm of poetic fiction—a province marked out by his favorite romantic authors and explored by Rilke, Hermann Broch, Virginia Woolf, André Gide, and others—his best works are unsurpassed. Sometimes, in this difficult terrain, he stumbled through a landscape cluttered with thickets of allegory. But with The Steppenwolf, The Journey to the East, and The Glass Bead Game he added lasting names to the map of our poetic imagination. (pp. 45-6)

Theodore Ziolkowski, in his Hermann Hesse, Columbia University Press, 1966.

Hermann Hesse is perhaps one of the most paradoxical and enigmatic of modern writers. An image of the self defined by fierce individuality is matched by an author who is many things to many men. A persistent thematic current running through all of Hesse's books, the search for stability above the chaotic pressures of contemporary life, is accompanied by characters who, for the most part, are notoriously unstable in confronting their demons of uncertainty. Hesse is an original inventor of unique fictional devices, yet his work is shot through with borrowings from his contemporaries and predecessors until the reader wonders whether he can find an original bone in his literary body. He has been praised as one of the masters of the modern German novel, yet he has also been criticized for his lack of comprehension of the novel's form, for the flatness of his characters, for the poverty of his imagination. Academic critics have praised him for his intelligent use of ideas and art forms, and of various literary traditions, while anti-intellectual readers have valued him precisely because he eschewed intellectual complications and because, with Gide, he has supposedly jettisoned all books. Hesse has been seen as belonging within the broad stream of European fiction by some and as decisively outside it by others. He has exemplified the changes in society since the beginning of this century and at the same time has remained resolutely aloof.

By taking Hesse's work as a whole … the critic can trace the extent and meaning of his appeal, as well as the impulses behind his work. For it is these impulses which made it so original and derivative at the same time, so unlike novelistic practice and so deeply part of the history of the novel. Such a critique, by implication, also sheds light on the intensity of Hesse's effect on his readers. His deepest appeal had not been anti-intellectual or even anti-cultural, as it is often assumed to be in America today, but had been rooted in a very different kind of rejection of contemporary reality. The famous statement by his friend and early biographer Hugo Ball, that Hesse was "the last knight in the splendid parade of romantics," has often been dismissed, since it was made too early in Hesse's career, but it does point out the meaning of Hesse's quest, its continuity as well as its changes. For most of Hesse's works can be seen in a romantic light, modified by perpectives lent by his different interests at various times of his life.

Ralph Freedman, "Hermann Hesse," in Contemporary Literature, Vol. 10, No. 3, 1969 (© 1969 by the Regents of the University of Wisconsin), pp. 421-26.

In calling Hermann Hesse "the last knight of Romanticism," Hugo Ball contributed to a misunderstanding of his place in literature, for this phrase was caught up and echoed by many critics. It represents, of course, a certain truth, but only a partial one…. But Hugo Ball's phrase has an unfortunate ring that suggests that Hesse faced the past. Thomas Mann judged far more preceptively when he wrote that Hesse had produced a more avant-garde work in Der Steppenwolf than Gide had in The Counterfeiters. He went on to say that the best servitors of the new are those who do not discard the old but carry it forward, transformed, into the present and future. (p. 173)

Of Hesse's permanent place in twentieth-century literature there can be little doubt. How many of his works will remain standard texts is a more problematical question, but probably all his major works of fiction from Demian to Das Glasperlenspiel will remain literary landmarks. (p. 174)

George Wallis Field, in his Hermann Hesse, Twayne, 1970.


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Hesse, Hermann (Vol. 11)