Hesse, Hermann 1877–1962
A Nobel Prize-winning, German-born Swiss author, Hesse was a novelist, essayist, and poet. Among his highly imaginative works, often influenced by Eastern religions, are Demian, Steppenwolf, Magister Ludi, and Siddhartha. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 17-18.)
In a sense—and my apology to those who might object to an intentional confusion of art forms—Hesse is a literary Wagner, pulling out all the stops, fully orchestrated, performing all the available instruments of his art, and even devising some new ones, to produce a highly imaginative, fulfilling work of art. His prose is cadenced with rich, ravishing melodies and the crescendo-like power of his dramas have a transcendental quality that is reminiscent of a Die Walkure or a Parsifal. True, like the grandiose musical titan, Richard Wagner, Hermann Hesse can be accused of Teutonic extravagance, but unlike the former, never for a moment is he guilty of that unforgivable sin called boredom. For both, art is sacred, but of the two, only Hesse realizes its function as a commodity for human consumption and mercifully serves it in digestible portions. Admittedly Hesse is frequently message-ridden and occasionally prone to deliver preachments, but never for a moment is he uninteresting. A tidal wave rarely is….
He exhibits an uncanny comprehension of man's interior states and portrays them with awesome power and unusual artistic insight; he charts youth's constant search for self-identity and meaningful self-expression with uncommon poignancy; he strips the animal man down to the raw naked skeleton of existence and sets him on a dramatically moving journey to seek flesh by solving the riddle of his life, the only one he has. Having read Hesse you may dismiss him, but forget him? Never….
What is he really saying? Practically everything not a few young people are saying about religion, the world, institutions, the need "to do one's thing" amidst conflicting loyalties and confusing options. In Hesse, as indeed today, there is an awareness of the impersonalism of existence, the impoverishment of a materialistic culture, the struggle to construct spiritual moorings, the failure of structures to cope with human problems and the concomitant failure of those in positions of power and prestige to provide human solutions. There's a happy absence of clichés and enervating bromides in Hesse. His works are candid, straightforward documents delineating man's perpetual combat to know himself and at the same time attempting to define his relationship to others, especially to the Other.
Richard J. Ford, "Hermann Hesse: Prophet of the Pot Generation," in Catholic World, October, 1970, pp. 15-19.
Why should good, clean kids living in a high middle-class suburban area—the ones who "have it made"—revolt, destroy a comfortable system, search for a different way of life?…
[Having] begun their readings with a pervading anger and disenchantment with the world, its disorder, its disappointments, our young people found Hesse's stories identifiable with their own situations and captured some optimism. Siddhartha reaches into the finer inner fiber of the thinking adolescent and affects the searching spirit who wants to know his world, himself, and himself in relation to all that is the world. Siddhartha explores and experiences that which life presents to him, ever changing, ever growing, ever reaching that fulfillment of one's self. He knows the despair and aloneness that the adolescent must suffer before recognition of self. The theme plays on the hope and imagination of young people; the strong identification with a hero who finds his way revitalizes their outlook of themselves.
The appeal in Narcissus and Goldmund is in the controversy between traditional, monastic intellectuality, and modernistic worldly intellectuality. The...
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accumulated wisdom of the centuries is posed against the searching, sensitive, restless soul…. Narcissus is the exemplification of nobility, refinement, scholarliness. His impeccable manners plus a highly gifted capacity to sense character and the destiny of people are paradoxically posed against the arrogance, earthiness, intuitive and artistic talent that characterizes Goldmund. The man of wisdom and the man of the world are different in gifts and signs. There is a special mark of fate on each….
[In Demian, love] and strictness are allied and lead to model behavior. These straight lines and paths lead into the future. This realm allowed for bad conscience and confession, forgiveness, and resolution. Love, reverence, and wisdom pervade the atmosphere. Sinclair lived in this world but perceived the other, the world of the night with its rumor and scandals, slaughterhouses and prisons, drunkards, robbers, murderers, and suicides. This was the world where everything was wild, cruel, attractive, and hideous. Sheltered by one, he thought about the other. His first street encounter in the dark area reveals the evil in human beings; the innocent, light, free life is shattered. From that point, Sinclair lives in perpetual fear which arises from a sense of duty to self and family. The terrible guilt leads to a sense of alienation. The psychological truth of this situation is recognizable to students, and they respond to the underlying tremors of fear which pervade the book…. There are strong, supportive symbols in this book. Some are obvious; some extremely intricate….
Beneath the Wheel … strikes a sensitive nerve in those who feel pressured into careers they are neither interested in nor suited for. They see in the solicitous minister and teacher counter-parts of relatives and friends who urge them on to particular professions. They see in the father their own hopeful ambitious parents. They empathize with Hermann Heilner as they identify with the sense of obligation he feels to fulfill the goals set for him by well-meaning people….
In the pathos of Beneath the Wheel, the students recognize the crushing power of the establishment—family, career, politics—which opens emotional valves, ventilating their own hostilities and resentments. It [is] a way of noting the pertinence of the literature to their own impatience and anger with "the system."
Because this book with its underlying despairing tone differed from the more optimistic resolutions of the other books, the readers were obliged to reconcile the two points of view from the same author. They were able to see, after exchanging ideas, that Hermann Heilner was the antithesis of Siddhartha…. The contrast heightened their awareness of personal responsibility in determining and fulfilling one's self and one's talents.
Esther C. Gropper, "Literature for the Restive: Hermann Hesse's Books," in English Journal, December, 1970, pp. 1221-28.
Hesse called his books "autobiographies of the soul," and, indeed, the striking aspect of his work is its continuity of theme, through novels, poems and essays. It is a search which Stephen Koch has considered "adolescent," while Thomas Mann saw them as prophetic of the future," calling the novels "great works of longing."…
The expectation which constantly frustrates Hesse in his early novels is that of finding order through knowledge, of making an intellectual pattern out of chaotic interaction of the self and outer reality…. [The] vision of the "realm of pure intellect" haunted Hesse until it found full expression in the construction of Castalia in Magister Ludi….
Rosshalde heralds … new understanding about the self, which in the pivotal novel Demian (1919) explodes into the full-bodied self-assurance that comes of a fresh and sudden insight, illuminating all, changing everything. Demian represents Hesse's leap into existentialism…. In the fifteen years which had elapsed between the publication of Peter Camenzind and of Demian, the terms of the search had indeed changed for Hesse…. No longer concerned with unfulfilled artistic ambitions fallen short of prescribed standards of excellence, no longer determined that an intellectual order should re-establish the lost innocence of freshly perceived experience, Hesse now focuses inward….
Following Nietzsche, Hesse expects a new order based on a change in the very substance of man. Yet neither had a program for that change…. The task of Hesse's new man is not to create the new order but to recreate himself so as to be ready for it when it comes. This readiness means a complete self-knowledge, he must accept the potential validity of all ideas, the potential actualization of all deeds. For if a truly new man is to emerge, he must choose himself out of a full range of his potential, his choice must be made in full psychological and physical freedom, unhampered by past notions of "good" and "evil," of acceptable and unacceptable. Precisely because the new order is unknown, precisely because there is no program, there can be no predetermined choices. The evolving man must be able to "think of crime, to dream of it, to be acquainted with its very possibility," and yet to find his own basis for moral behavior….
All his subsequent work is an attempt to illuminate, work out, and understand, the consequences of that existentialism. What is fascinating about Hesse is that his personal turmoil so closely mirrors the philosophical gropings of his age, and we must be grateful that he gives us so much of himself in his work, for it is that blending of thought and experience which ultimately instructs us best.
Krystyna Devert, "Hermann Hesse: Apostle of the Apolitical 'Revolution'," in TriQuarterly (© 1972 by Northwestern University Press), Number 23/24, Winter/Spring, 1972, pp. 302-17.
[Hesse] maintained that he had always considered Notes of a Baden Patient to be one of his better books. It is not concerned with Baden, its countryside, or its people, but exclusively with the psyche of the patient, and ultimately once again with his whole personal attitude towards the world of normal people….
In the eyes of Hesse the poet, Hesse as visitor to the health resort lives in contradiction with himself and his environment. Like the poet, he suffers from the antinomies of life, from the tension between its two poles…. Hesse concerned himself constantly with the question of how a man, particularly the artist, who faces the normal healthy man much as one who is sick does, can happily acclimatize himself in the world of reality, of how he can free himself from its relativity. But only in this short complex book, this attempt 'to exhibit a tiny piece of life with maximum truthfulness and honesty', did he manage it with such mastery, self-irony, and humour….
The search for truth drove Hesse to a renewed analysis of himself and of his times. His own existence, his activity, and his environment, had become hateful to him…. It was not only the satiated, self-satisfied, bourgeois world that Hesse found intolerable, but above all the technological world and a civilization that saw itself as its own end, and that in his sensitive eyes was endangering the spirit and soul of mankind…. In this mood he wrote the story of Harry Haller, the Steppenwolf, which can also be seen as a cathartic release of many of the statements Hesse wanted to make about himself. Haller's crisis, as he rises in revolt against the world that had been carrying him so far, can be seen as analogous to the pathological crisis of a man who has reached the age of fifty. But the diagnosis reveals the neurosis of a whole generation, the sickness of the age to which Haller belongs….
The book centres on [a] self-encounter, the journey inwards through hell. The self-encounter takes place in a strange twilight zone between dream, vision, and reality, a structural device that lends the encounter a particular intensity. Haller traverses dark labyrinths of emotion, depravity, and error, and of nihilism and cynical disgust that drive him almost to suicide. His own past is reflected in a box of many-faceted mirrors and Haller learns that that other reality that he longs for is to be found in his own inner being….
Like the earlier books, Narcissus and Goldmund is a spiritual biography. But, since in this particular book the antitheses of logos and eros, the paternal and the maternal principles, are embodied in the two different forms of a complementary friendship, the tension does not end in dissonance, but resolves itself in genuine polarity…. Erotic love hardly occurs at all in Hesse's other books but it is poetically expressed here…. The story is a parable in which the old contrast between the artist and the thinker, between the creative representation of the world and the intellectual's reflective penetration of it, is resolved into harmony and higher unity.
Bernhard Zeller, "Hermann Hesse: Steppenwolf & Montagnola," in London Magazine, June/July, 1972, pp. 85-106.
The publication of Hermann Hesse's Autobiographical Writings, a set of twelve essays gathered into one volume for the first time, should awaken further interest in one of the more striking paradoxes of recent cultural history. It should also add one more contrasting layer to the paradox. For these sunny, humorous, mildly self-deprecatory essays are not at all what might have been expected of an author whose current revival is largely due to his romanticism and preoccupation with Oriental philosophy, especially Buddhism, and whose public image, especially among those of the young who have not read him, is that of an exponent of anguished alienation, and a rather high exponent at that.
None of these essays, however, is at all alienated, and there are passages in the most enjoyable of them, "A Guest at the Spa" and "Journey to Nuremberg," that express the point of view of a more reflective Robert Benchley. The prevailing note in the Writings is simple sanity heightened by a wry sense, relieved by humorous detachment, of the inevitability of human suffering….
Hesse's attitude toward suffering must … appeal very strongly to the counterculture. The chances of survival under the deprivation and stress of life on the road or even in a commune are better the less hung up on either courting or avoiding pain you are. Martyrdom is ostentatious, but suffering is unavoidable; and those who do not fear or flee it may learn something from it and reduce its ravages as they learn proper philosophy. The only possible triumph over pain is through tranquil acceptance of it as a necessary consequence of participation in life. Neither a sadist nor a masochist be; but never fear the beast in the jungle either. This is quite explicitly the message of Narcissus and Goldmund; it is literally the story of Goldmund's life. It is also meant, I believe, to be the central idea of Siddhartha, Hesse's Buddhist novel—Buddhist, and then some, for Siddhartha meets Gautama early on in the book and regretfully dismisses him as being, perhaps, not quite Eastern enough. It is one of Hesse's most popular novels among those of the young who are most heavily involved in their own bead game; but it also, I think, narrowly misses being comic. All that saves it is its (for Hesse) unusually spare style; otherwise, it is so mannered as to invite comparison with an earlier (1938) Nobel Laureate, Miss Pearl Buck.
Hesse is indeed an exceptionally groovy writer. Why, then, should his status in the counterculture as an Urhippie be regarded as paradoxical at all? Because, surely, of the singular contrast between his own life-style and that which his work commends to his modern, youthful readers…. The irony is multigrade: Hesse writes with acute prescience of the decay and death of the bourgeois world; but the very texture of his writing and his life show him to have been very much a part of it—so much so that it seems unlikely that he really thought it would, in fact, fall apart before everybody's eyes, still less that his writing would become an ideological touch-stone for those of the young who most delight in its dissolution and are most dedicated in their search for alternatives to it….
The Autobiographical Writings are not really that at all; certainly, they were meant to be. Each of the twelve essays has a subject other than its author; and Hesse himself never gathered them together for any purpose, self-explanatory or otherwise; quite different selections from his prose work might have been included. What one learns of the events and circumstances of Hesse's life emerges from Theodore Ziolkowski's lucid introduction, not from the Autobiographical Writings themselves. The last thing "the old somewhat anti-social and lone wolf Hesse," as he styled himself in "A Guest at the Spa," would have wanted to do was give an account of himself. He loved to discuss his response to places and to his own perceptions, and especially catching himself out at his old, comic tricks; yet his life remains not a closed but an unwritten book….
Surely, one of the essential services Hesse performs for the counterculture is to assure its devotees that, even feeling as they do, they needn't go too far and be swept away. Wolf of the steppes, indeed! Have we not here, rather, the faithful German Shepherd, guarding what he finds best in his social tradition from the Charles Manson in all of us, and specially self-trained to smell it out. This is not a function to be despised at this juncture in history; it is, perhaps, thoroughly appropriate that Hermann Hesse should just now be accorded the recognition his peculiar virtues earn him.
Edgar Z. Friedenberg, "Hermann Hesse's Ironic Revival," in Harper's (copyright © 1972 by Minneapolis Star and Tribune Co., Inc.; reprinted from the July, 1972, issue of Harper's Magazine by special permission), July, 1972, pp. 88-93.
The cult reputation of Hermann Hesse is largely based on his novel Steppenwolf, with its portrait of an outsider who challenges authority being read by American youth primarily as a celebration of sex, jazz and drug addiction. But it is really a much more serious work, one of Hesse's characteristic searches for eternal values in transitory experience, a quest for identity in a chaotic world, The Glass Bead Game, often regarded as his best novel, is an even more complex and difficult book, which explores one of his major themes, the contrast between the active and the contemplative life….
Hesse was writing and gestating The Glass Bead Game for 11 years, during which time his own ideas and consequently the emphasis of the novel changed. It was begun in 1931 as a hymn to the aesthetic kingdom of the spirit, but by the time of its publication in 1943 it had become a repudiation of disengagement in favour of personal commitment. This progression from aestheticism to engagement parallels Hesse's own development, for the horrors of Nazism had opened his eyes to the futility of purely aesthetic ideals in the world of reality. Hesse's last and greatest novel is a plea not only for a life enriched by art, but for an art nourished by life.
Lavinia Marina Learmont, in Books and Bookmen, September, 1972, p. 82.
Two decades ago one could scarcely have foreseen [the] current popularity of Hesse among the young. Yet here is a clear case of art's being prophetical of life. Forty or fifty years before the hippie culture was to erupt among us, Hesse was its prophet—even down to the Oriental trappings with which it fits itself out. And rereading him now should help us to see what the revolt of today's youth is really about. It is only secondarily political. Sometimes political causes are grasped only in order to externalize or objectify the more nameless malaise within. At bottom, however obscurely grasped, the revolt is for some psychological and spiritual wholeness which our civilization seems to these young to frustrate.
But there is one part of Hesse's message that his youthful admirers tend to forget. His theme is the polarity that divides human nature. The opposites are not so much isolated traits as whole constellations of qualities that tend to make up two eternal manifestations of the human psyche. On the one side, the constellation revolves around: reason, reflection, tradition, discipline, social order, bourgeois steadiness and reliability and, in its inferior manifestations, respectability. In the other constellation are: spontaneity, emotion, intuition, instinct—and the product that issues from them, art. Nietzsche had spoken of these as the Apollonian and Dionysian sides of human nature, borrowing the names, respectively, of the gods of enlightenment and of enthusiasm. In an older philosophical tradition they had been referred to as the opposing claims of culture and nature which man is forced to live by. Hesse's theme, repeated from story to story and novel to novel, is the conflict between the two. But—and this is precisely where his youthful admirers are apt to miss his point—victory cannot belong to either side. One force cannot conquer the other without also eventually inflicting defeat upon itself. The triumph of reason and order can bring about emotional paralysis, neurosis, and the blank wasteland of Nihilism where all values lose their meaning. But pure spontaneity of emotion could turn life into a blob without form or order…. Man is condemned to live forever in the tension of the opposites; but his salvation lies in maintaining, not civil war, but a fruitful dialogue between them. In the ancient Chinese symbol of psychic wholeness the dark and the light lie down beside each other and each must give to and receive from the other.
William Barrett, "Journey to the East," in his Time of Need: Forms of Imagination in the Twentieth Century (copyright © 1972 by William Barrett; reprinted by permission of Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc.), Harper, 1972, pp. 187-213.
In the course of a very long and productive life—he died in 1962 at the age of 91—Hermann Hesse received his fair share of recognition, including the Nobel Prize; but the real Hesse boom, still cresting, did not get under way until after his death. The apotheosis of the Swabian mystic and his posthumous emergence as a paperback prophet honored—now that he is safely dead—in his own country as well as in ours, is not devoid of ironies that he himself would have been among the last to appreciate; Whatever his gifts, a sense of humor and self-irony were conspicuously missing. But the craggy figure of the solitary dreamer refurbished as a pop idol tends to obscure his genuine achievements as well as the larger meaning of his unlikely transfiguration in our own time….
[What] this collection ["Stories of Five Decades"] in fact demonstrates is the essentially static nature of Hesse's vision, his steadfast refusal to outgrow adolescence and his commitment to it as a permanent state of being. The stance marks him as a man ahead of his time and anticipates currently fashionable attitudes; but its implications are certainly too problematic to justify unqualified admiration for Hesse's ability to remain—in the editor's phrase—"faithful to his essential self."….
[What] provided the creative spur and largely determined the direction of his quest was self-absorption, a self-involvement truly heroic in its intensity. Like most of his fiction, these shorter pieces all testify to an obsession with his own consciousness so exclusive as to almost obliterate the shape and substance of external reality, which impinges, if at all, only as an ominous shadow fraught with terror. Stylistically he in time outgrew the treacly fin-de-siècle romanticism of his youthful efforts…. But his gradual shift toward a quasi-existentialist mood, while adumbrating broad developments in European literature and deflating his prose, implies no substantial maturation. His existentialism amounts to no more than romanticism turned inside-out and stripped of the silver lining—a self-indulgent solipsism raised to a more or less fine art….
The effects [of Hesse's contact with Jung] are strikingly apparent in all of Hesse's post-crisis fiction. His ornately lyrical Weltschmerz gave way to the even-voiced and somewhat hypnotic prose of his best and best-known novels, "Siddhartha," "Narcissus and Goldmund" and "The Glass Bead Game," perfectly attuned to the posture of wise man at peace with himself and the world beyond worlds. Yet no matter how hard he tried to convince himself, Hesse was too honest a writer ever to be wholly consistent, and even the most didactic of his later writings contain rumblings of continuing conflict. For the truth he found was not his own; traces of Western skepticism, of that rationalist despair against which he struggled all his life, persistently lurk just beneath the calm surface of his carefully crafted serenity.
It is, in fact, this very conflict which raises Hesse above the level on which his new-found popularity has come to rest. The message, as so many of these stories suggest rather in spite of ourselves, is clearly not the man; but he wanted desperately to believe in its simplistic banality, and in this at least he is not alone.
Ernst Pawel, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1973 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), February 11, 1973, p. 7.