Hermann Hesse Hesse, Hermann (Vol. 11) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Hesse, Hermann 1887–1962

A German novelist, poet, and essayist, Hesse became a Swiss citizen in 1923. His prose and poetry are often drawn from autobiographical sources and possess a lyricism sharing more with the German romantics of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century than anything found in modern literature. Thematically he is concerned with the plight of the artist in society as well as the psychological motivations of human behavior. Hesse became rather a cult figure in the 1960s for works like Siddhartha, which center on his romantic conception of the young alienated hero and reflect his unique blending of western and oriental philosophy. Hesse also wrote under the pseudonym of Emil Sinclair. He received the Nobel Prize in 1946. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 3, 6, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 17-18; Contemporary Authors Permanent Series, Vol. 2.)

Thomas Mann

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Even] as a poet [Hesse] likes the role of editor and archivist, the game of masquerade behind the guise of one who "brings to light" other people's papers. The greatest example of this is the sublime work of his old age, The Glass Bead Game…. In reading it I very strongly felt … how much the element of parody, the fiction and persiflage of a biography based upon learned conjectures, in short the verbal playfulness, help keep within limits this late work, with its dangerously advanced intellectuality, and contribute to its dramatic effectiveness. (p. 17)

This chaste and daring work, full of fantasy and at the same time highly intellectual, is full of tradition, loyalty, memory, secrecy—without being in the least derivative. It raises the intimate and familiar to a new intellectual, yes, revolutionary level—revolutionary in no direct political or social sense but rather in a psychic, poetical one: in genuine and honest fashion it is prophetic of the future, sensitive to the future. I do not know how else to describe the special, ambiguous, and unique charm it holds for me. It possesses the romantic timbre, the tenuousness, the complex, hypochondriacal humor of the German soul—organically and personally bound up with elements of a very different and far less emotional nature, elements of European criticism and of psychoanalysis. The relationship of this Swabian writer of lyrics and idyls to the erotological "depth...

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André Gide

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


With Hesse the expression alone is restrained, not the feeling or the thought; and what tempers the expression of these is the exquisite feeling of fitness, reserve and harmony, and, with relationship to cosmos, the interdependence of things; it is also a certain latent irony, of which few Germans seem to me capable, and whose total absence so often spoils so many works by so many of their authors, who take themselves terribly seriously. (p. 22)

Hesse's [ironies], so charming in quality, seems to me to depend on the faculty of leaving himself behind, of seeing himself without looking, of judging himself without complacency; it is a form of modesty that becomes all the more attractive because more gifts and virtues accompany it….

However diverse (in subject matter if not in tendency) may be Hesse's books that I have read, I recognize in each of them the same pagan love of Nature: a sort of devotion. The open air circulates through their pages that quiver with panicky breaths, like the leaves of forest trees. In each of them, too, I refind the same indecision of soul; its contours are illusive and its aspirations, infinite; it is infatuated with vague sympathies, ready for the reception of any chance imperative; little determined by the past to find in submission itself an aim, a reason for living, an anchor for his floating impulses. (p. 23)

[Hesse has said]...

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Jeffrey L. Sammons

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

For the Germanist of my own age, over thirty but not yet too far over, the great enthusiasm for Hermann Hesse among younger people poses a vexing dilemma. For the fact is that many of us, with important exceptions, do not think that Hesse is a writer of the first rank…. (p. 112)

Hesse's stylistic mediocrity directs attention to other problems. First of all, his characteristic stylistic posture is certainly willed. There is a certain amount of vivid writing in Steppenwolf, here and there in Narcissus and Goldmund, and elsewhere, while Siddhartha is, of course, exceptionally mannered, as is, to a lesser extent, The Glass Bead Game…. (p. 113)

The inner way and the search for wholeness [, Hesse's themes,] are aspects of a criticism of modern society with sources in the resistance to the developing phenomena of the modern world in German Classicism and Romanticism around the turn of the nineteenth century. As Hesse came out of his adolescent crisis in the mid-1890s, he began a lonely and isolated time during which he read deeply in this tradition. This reading was the formative cultural experience of his life, and indeed one that was not very different from what he would have acquired had he gone through a normal course of university education, for Goethe, Schiller, and the Romantics were the axis of German Bildung—although, to be sure, Hesse's point was the opposite, that he could learn as much by himself as at the university. For all that he protested against the vulgarization of Bildung, especially in Steppenwolf, he shared its assumptions: that in this unparalleled flowering of German culture, along with its assimilation of Classical antiquity, Renaissance art, and Indic studies, were to be found the guidelines for responding to and evaluating the experience of the present.

The transplantation of the effort of German Classical-Romanticism to find an alternative for society into the crises of the early twentieth century is the key to neo-Romanticism, of which Hesse is one of the major exemplars. It may be seen most clearly in Steppenwolf, for despite the change Harry Haller undergoes in his way of dealing with the strains between the ideal and the real, nothing has been altered in his secularized and aesthticized scheme of redemption. Salvation and truth lie in exactly the same place at the end as at the beginning…. Except for Dostoevsky and Nietzsche, there is scarcely an artist or thinker to whom Hesse alludes who lived later than the 1830s. These spirits are in a profound sense all alike, insofar as they are in touch with the one and all, that timeless realm where the poles of opposites touch and spark ethereal comets. This fraternity hovers above life and history, and it is only with infrequent intermittence in touch with the feeble and shabby emanation that is our environment. Harry Haller believes this at the beginning, and the truth of it is demonstrated to him at the end. (pp. 118-19)

[To Hesse], pitiable and disreputable turmoil is the life of man in society, that part of human existence that is beneath the concern of the wise man. The inner way escapes and withdraws from it; the search for wholeness transcends it and discovers the cosmic unities that ultimately govern the world.

This search for wholeness, to which every one of Hesse's major works bears testimony, probably does not arouse active uneasiness in the ordinary American reader…. But to anyone sensitive to such matters in the German tradition, the theme is acutely troubling. For it is one thing to seek after unity in the world or in our perception of it; it is another to postulate ultimate unity and to regard all disharmonies as regrettable excrescences or ignorable and trivial aspects of an unimportant "reality." It is not wholly clear just where Hesse stands in this matter. (p. 122)

[The] use made of the organic metaphor through the nineteenth century and up until the advent of Fascism made it a dubious legacy indeed. The chief mischief it caused was to make the Germans incapable of dealing with the class conflict and of constructing a society that would accommodate it. Class conflict was simply impermissible, for society was to be a harmonious, organic whole. Although Nazism can hardly be called either harmonious or organic, many Germans thought it would be. Hesse never saw the connection between totalitarianism and the organic metaphor…. (p. 124)

Furthermore, unike such contemporaries as Musil, Thomas Mann, or Hermann Broch,...

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Terry Eagleton

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Hesse is, of course, one of the most significant of 20th century novelists, and his poetry … is for the most part engaging enough; but it has little of the potency of his fiction. In a familiar modern way, poetry is content to be, self-consciously, a "minor" mode; Hesse is a skilfully lyrical, sometimes poignant poet, but in what one must confess is a fairly conventional manner…. [Intellectually] speaking, Hesse is rather second-rate; and whatever one might think of this as a judgement on his novels, it certainly seems an apt characterisation of his delicate, but somehow dreamy and depthless poetry…. (p. 74)

Terry Eagleton, in Stand (copyright © by Stand), Vol. 19, No. 3 (1978).

Mark Boulby

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Apart from their astonishing success in America, [Hesse's] works seem to be surviving in Germany despite the adamant hostility of many worthy critics, and his reputation there is probably on the rise….

Das Glasperlenspiel is quite properly seen by Hesse himself as a work of contemporary relevance…. There is in the early versions some revulsion against art and learning, against "bourgeois" prejudices. His outlook, in 1936, is however clearly revealed in the figure of Dasa ("Indischer Lebenslauf") who is unmoved finally by the demands of society and refuses to have recourse to violence….

One finds, if one looks for it, much that is a pointer to the later Hesse in his early writings….

A dissatisfaction with stereotyped everyday life and with immobility shows itself early. What is called (by [Volker] Michels) "die Aktualität der Alternative" is offered as a new path.

It was in the pauses between his major works that Hesse wrote much of what appears in Kleine Freuden (as also in Die Kunst des Müssiggangs). As time goes by, so one finds him more willing to be explicit and in certain directions uncompromising. By the early 1930s, in fact, he has become an adamant pacifist…. [He] is convinced that the world is sick above all else from a lack of brotherly love….

Hesse's path, he felt, was an inevitable choice, even if it might appear "der Weg eines Don Quichote"…. From 1933 we have the "mature" Hesse before us, still given at times to shrill moments of depression, but fundamentally unchanging in his conception of the world, which is pacifistic, rationalistic, and full of hortatory idealism.

Mark Boulby, "The Quixotic Emigrant," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1978; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), October 20, 1978, p. 1230.