Hermann Hesse Hesse, Hermann (Vol. 17) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Hermann Hesse 1877–1962

German-born Swiss novelist, poet, short story writer, editor, and critic.

In 1946 Hermann Hesse won the Nobel Prize for Literature; at that time, he was virtually unknown outside German-speaking countries. Today he is admired by the youth of several countries as he was by earlier generations of Germans. Students readily identify with his characters who struggle within a system which seeks to stifle individual creativity. Hesse wrote from his own experience. By the age of thirteen, he had decided to become a poet. When he went away to school, he soon learned there was no curriculum for would-be poets as there was for teachers, doctors, and scientists. His school novel Unterm Rad (Beneath the Wheel) represents Hesse's own rebellion against such a system. It depicts the educational institution as being fatal to the human spirit that does not conform.

All of Hesse's major novels are autobiographical in some way. Demian reflects Hesse's experience with psychoanalysis and his abhorrence of war. Siddhartha is the result of an extended visit to India where Hesse sought the peace of mind that he believed could be found in oriental religions. Hesse even gave his characters names that have his own initials, such as Harry Haller and H. H., or forms of his name, such as Hermine.

Within many of Hesse's works there is a theme of the conflict of spirit and flesh within the individual. Der Steppenwolf is perhaps the best example of this struggle, in which the animalistic urges of the intellectual Harry Haller strive for release. Music is a major influence in Harry's beginning awareness and acceptance of the opposing elements in man. Hesse himself was devoted to the violin, which he learned to play at an early age. For him, music could be a harmonious blending of the inner conflicts and tensions which he sought to resolve in his writing.

In Das Glasperlenspiel (The Glass Bead Game or Magister Ludi) Hesse treats nearly all of the themes present in his previous works. He contrasts the active world with the contemplative world and this time finds the world of the spirit lacking. There are critics who feel, however, that Das Glasperlenspiel is Hesse's slightest work, for here he deviates from his earlier effective portrayals of passionate youth.

In 1912 Hesse left Germany never to return. In 1923 he became a Swiss citizen. Hesse could not associate himself with the German militarism and chauvinism of the two world wars. Still, his books were read by the youth of Germany. Hesse's work finds sympathizers in all generations and nationalities because he addresses the theme of the individual's search for truth and personal identity. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 3, 6, 11, Contemporary Authors, Vols. 17-18, and Contemporary Authors Permanent Series, Vol. 2.)

Felix Anselm

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Like every great artist [Hesse] has essentially but one theme, of which all his works are only maturing variations. Hesse's fundamental fable is the endless struggle of the individual for self-recognition and self-realization, and the resulting conflict with the equalizing forces, the temptations, and taboos of a given environment. (p. 355)

Hermann Hesse is neither a "realistic" nor a "symbolistic" writer, in the loose and hazy sense in which these terms are commonly applied, but it is his perfect integration of both spheres, of the real and the phantastic, the unbroken simultaneousness of the world without and the world within and their constant interplay that produce the "magic realism" (to give it a name) which is his rare achievement and the lure of his books and wherein lies his greatness as an artist. Contemplating the microcosmos of the human heart, he perceives the macrocosmos created in its image, and thus also are the characters that populate his books brought to life: from within, literally being part of their Creator, the blood and flesh images and projections of his encompassing self. (pp. 356-57)

None of his novels have what is called "social significance," they are concerned with the individual and his universal destiny, their underdog—being such by virtue of his character, not by economic deficiency—may be found in any stratum of society. In this and some other respects Hesse might be compared with Thomas Wolfe to whom he has a certain atmospheric affinity, insofar as Wolfe is...

(The entire section is 632 words.)

Alfred Werner

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

German dualism shows itself in the young Hesse in the serious struggle between mind and matter, spiritual and physical life. The young Hesse longs for the simple, the unsophisticated. His most famous fictitious character, Peter Camenzind, gladly gives up art to be a child of nature, living close to lake and mountain. Peter Camenzind, published in 1904, is, to a degree, autobiographical: Hesse has always lived in small villages hidden somewhere in the mountains. Autobiographical too is Hesse's next novel, Unterm Rad ("Under the Wheel"), the story of a theological student who breaks down under the strain of study. There is a rebellious spirit in these early novels, a revolt against oppression by parental and professional authority, against the soul-killing tutelage to which modern society subjects the individual. Other novels, like Gertrude (in English "Gertrude and I") and Rosshalde, mirror the rebellion of an artist, a musician, and a painter respectively against the fetters of unhappy marriage. The restless, thwarted German youth applauded; these novels were a call for Innerlichkeit [inwardness], rather than wild attacks on the foundations of contemporary society such as the tales of Heinrich Mann or the plays of Frank Wedekind. Written in a lucid, simple, easy-flowing, and well-tempered prose, these romantic and slightly effeminate novels appealed to the average German citizen, who, however frustrated he may have been, would revolt only if he got his magistrate's permission in writing.

An entirely different Hesse—the one who merited the Nobel Prize that was given him—was thrust upon a desperate postwar world when his Demian appeared in 1919, originally under the pen name of Emil Sinclair. Like most of Hesse's novels, it is a typical German Bildungsroman, an account of the unfolding of a young soul to self-realization under the influence of a friend, but the relative meekness of earlier years is gone. A sincere book, as outspoken and frank as the confessions of a Saint Augustine or Rousseau, it shows the development of an adolescent, almost ruined by the domination of parents and teachers, maturing under the...

(The entire section is 896 words.)

Seymour L. Flaxman

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Hermann Hesse's Steppenwolf is a novel of ideas and a novel of character…. It is the delineation of character, after all, that gives a novel the power to stand alone, to resist the aging processes of time, and to appeal to a large audience. This is not to belittle or disparage in any way the ideas involved. For Hesse takes up many of the central problems of our time, problems which have still not been solved….

The hero of Hesse's novel is a middle-aged, middle-class writer and thinker named Harry Haller. A free-lance journalist by profession, Haller is certainly not the average man of his class or even of his group. His questioning, skeptical intelligence leads him to close examination of the affairs of the intellect and to art, music, and philosophy. Furthermore, the folly of attempting to separate the ideas from the novel itself is at once apparent when we realize that the central character is a man of ideas….

Thus we have in Der Steppenwolf the portrait of an intellectual. And one of the most striking things about this portrait is that it is a self-portrait. This close connection between author and hero is immediately evident in the names of the two most important characters. As he did in Unterm Rad, Hesse uses his own initials, merely coining the new name Harry Haller to fit them. It is no accident that the woman who works such a decisive change in Harry's life is named Hermine, the feminine form of Hermann. Her boyish face reminds Haller of his childhood friend, whose name was Hermann, of course.

But the resemblance between Harry Haller and Hermann Hesse goes beyond mere initials. It extends to the events of their lives. Perhaps no German author since Goethe has put more of himself into his work. (p. 349)

The resemblance … goes deeper than the events of their outer lives; it extends to their intellectual affinities, their spiritual sufferings, the depths of their souls. (p. 350)

From the moment we first meet Haller, we see an intellectual, a man "sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought."… The affairs of everyday life confuse and embarrass him, for his mind is on other things. Yet he is not the conventional absent-minded professor, nor is he an intellectual technician interested only in his own specialty. His passionate devotion to the affairs of the spirit makes it impossible for him to tolerate the narrow-minded Philistine who has invaded the world of ideas.

Forever in pursuit of the great and eternal truths, the wolf of the steppes will not be satisfied by little pleasures and mediocre happiness. It is not his destiny to be happy. There is something of Faust in his eternal discontent and in his intellectual cravings. Even Hesse compares the Steppenwolf with Faust, and his novel suggests a modern prose version of Goethe's drama. But unlike Faust, the Steppenwolf is faced with destruction in this world. There is a perilous danger in dedicating oneself completely to the intellect…. One cannot ignore the claims of nature…. That is where Harry stands, afraid to go forward to God and immortality, and unable to go back to Nature. There is no way back; birth has thrown him into the stream of human development, and even suicide will not solve his problem. (pp. 350-51)

Haller symbolizes the modern intellectual. He has shunned compromise, and for him the conflict has become a neurosis….

Haller is of middle-class origins himself, but his zealous cultivation of Geist [spirit] has made him a misfit in middle-class society. He is "a queer duck," a Sonderling, who is conscious of his peculiar position…. Too much of a non-conformist to fit into the community, Haller feels cut off, he is filled with a sense of isolation, of...

(The entire section is 1562 words.)

Sidney M. Johnson

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

There is … one aspect of Glasperlenspiel which merits more than the rather cursory treatment it has received and which may contribute to a fuller appreciation of the fate of the central figure, Josef Knecht. I shall concern myself with the three Lebensläufe [biographical sketchs] appended to the main narrative….

The students of the province of Kastalien in Glasperlenspiel are granted an indefinite period of time for independent study after they have completed their years of formal education…. The only restriction placed on their activity is the requirement of composing each year a fictitious autobiography in which they portray themselves as imaginary persons, as they would...

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Joseph Mileck

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

A review of Hesse's prose and poetry reveals three distinct periods. Each represents a different stage in the course of the author's struggle with himself and with life as a whole, and each reflects a correspondingly different phase in his style.

The first of these three periods, the two decades preceding Demian …, is one of uncertainty and vague presentiment. These are the early years of a sensitive outsider who cannot cope directly with his particular problem of existence. He resorts instead to fantasy and withdraws into the realm of beauty, there to indulge in the extremes of late nineteenth-century aestheticism. The first prose of these years (Eine Stunde hinter Mitternacht, 1899,...

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Hans Beerman

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Hesse] produced some twenty-five important works. While some of these belong to the realm of poetry, his most important novels are autobiographical in nature or fall into the category of Erziehungsromane. The Erziehungsroman, or novel of education, commonly shows the protagonist in his effort to cope with the demands that life throws up to him. How do I live best? How can I master the art of living the abundant life? These are most often the problems confronting Hesse's leading personalities. In nearly every one of his works there is thus some attempt at soul-searching. Most of his characters try desperately to come to terms with themselves, and most try to achieve a certain measure of self-realization....

(The entire section is 1501 words.)

Kurt J. Fickert

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In all of his work Hesse has concerned himself with the individual and his quest for meanings in life. For Hesse the forms of the society which surround the individual are meaningless; therefore, the individual becomes the outsider, the Hessean hero who asks, "How shall I live?"… Although, then, the theme of the outsider underlies much of Hesse's work, there are three novels which, it seems to me, stand out as signposts, marking the direction of Hesse's thinking in terms of an outsider concept, in terms of the nature of such a being. First, Unterm Rad depicts the making of the outsider, the development of his awareness of the social organism and his separation from it, his becoming an isolated cell. In...

(The entire section is 1893 words.)

Eva J. Engel

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

With every new beginning, Hesse believed himself to be dealing with new problems and new figures. But on looking back in 1953 he realized that he had been concentrating all the time, from differing levels of experience, on "the few problems and types that are appropriate" to him. The demarcation of the poetic potential of his themes—though this seemed meagre to him then—is irrelevant, for at a later stage it enabled Hesse to look back on groups of individuals and to discern in them resemblances of character. He sees in them a multiform entity …, and thus he is confirmed in the belief not only that each individual needs to "awake" and be "reborn" but that this is the way in which the evolution of man will come...

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Ralph Freedman

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Hesse used romanticism as a tool for the development of a unique approach, leading to a sharp analysis of the self, the meaning of personal identity and the conditions of self-consciousness, which he explores in contemporary terms….

Hesse's postwar novels are concerned with the inner world turned inside out, yielding not only dreams, memories, or hallucinations per se but also the world underlying perception, which is dissolved and recomposed in the self's inner landscape. (p. 44)

The perennial split between the individual and the world beyond him is portrayed, not in dramatic action, but in symbolic or allegorical self-representation…. Hesse renders his conflicts as...

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Rudolf Koester

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Youth is one of Hesse's major literary themes. (p. 181)

[In his work, there] is one recurring theme, essentially a reiteration of that of Demian, the tortured development of genuine individuality.

According to Hesse, this development, however painful, is the primary responsibility of the adolescent…. "Becoming a personality" means something very specific to the writer, namely, the privilege to feel, act, and think independently of the masses, the obligation to adhere exclusively to the guidance and high demands of one's inner self and the right to encourage the unhampered efflorescence of this self…. The reason why most youths fail to persevere in meeting the challenge of...

(The entire section is 830 words.)

Thomas E. Colby

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[The] figure of the Prodigal Son, or as he is known to the Germans, the Lost Son, corresponds to Hesse's self-image as well as to the image of his protagonists.

The epithet verlorener Söhn is first specifically used by Hesse in the poem "Die Entgleisten."…

This Lost Son is but the first of many. Knulp, Emil Sinclair, Harry Haller and Goldmund are all explicitly called verlorene Söhne either by the narrator in editorial comment, by the characters themselves or by another character. And even where the identification is not explicit, we shall find the figure of the Prodigal haunting virtually every work, major or minor, of Hesse's long literary career....

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Mark Boulby

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[In] Peter Camenzind we have an essentially reflective work; the hero, in recounting his experiences, distances himself from them, mulls them over, extracts lessons from them with which he does not fail to instruct the reader, and uses them as a starting point for a generalizing, rather sententious commentary upon life. To assist in this, the technique is essentially one of retrospect, and the wisdom is one of hindsight…. His self-knowledge, when he painfully achieves it, acquires for him the quality of dogma. Armed with such dogma, he frequently addresses the reader in his didactic style…. And this movement, from the direct communication of recalled experience to detachment from it and eventually to...

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Theodore Ziolkowski

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The fact of the current Hesse vogue in this country is easier to ascertain than its causes….

It should be noted at the outset that the phenomenon is less aesthetic than cultural. This means, first, that any discussion regarding Hesse's purely literary merits is irrelevant to the subject. Whether Hesse is a "good" writer or not, he has touched a chord that resounds in the hearts and minds—probably "soul" would be the proper word since it is a common denominator in the vocabularies of Hesse and contemporary youth—of thousands of young Americans. Secondly, anyone wishing to understand the phenomenon must be concerned not so much with what Hesse actually says in his works as with what his readers...

(The entire section is 820 words.)

Eugene F. Timpe

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

One of the most important reasons for [America's] overlooking Hesse … was inherent within his own form of writing. He once said, "I know that I am not a story teller," and it is evident from his writings, especially those of his later period, that narration was often sacrificed to didacticism. He believed that "the true profession of man is to find his way to himself;" and the search for this way became a metaphysical search, associated with and intensified by Oriental philosophy. The wisdom of the East was to broaden and strengthen the potentialities for self-realization within the human products of a declining western civilization. If this was the way to self-discovery, it was not the way to popularity, at least...

(The entire section is 918 words.)

Egon Schwarz

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

What do the American dissidents see in Hesse? (p. 981)

Hesse's works, from the earliest to the latest, are written for and about young people…. Problems of school, of growing up, of finding one's place in the world predominate in most of his novels. When a novel exceptionally deals with an older man, as does Steppenwolf, it is characteristically the problems of rejuvenation, of a second adolescence, that are in the foreground. Only Hesse the novelist is being appropriated by the American dissidents. The poet, the essayist, even the short-story writer, have so far been ignored.

Rebellion is another principal theme. All of Hesse's major characters are alienated outsiders…....

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Peter D. Hertz

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[When] I say that Steppenwolf functions as a "bible" I mean that it seems to serve as THE book for certain people, as the one book that says it all, that grabs you and will not let you go, to the point of physical as well as mental commitment. (p. 440)

A book that is to produce martyrs or converts among its readers need not show the balance of a genuine "classic," need not fulfill the highest aesthetic standards of harmony and bearing and sublimity…. Common to a "bible," however, is a despairing attitude toward the very possibility of interpersonal relationships. The overriding issue in a "bible" is not basically aesthetic, ethical, or social in nature, but religious. It is a question of...

(The entire section is 2063 words.)

Colin Butler

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Siddhartha is a fictitious biography. A sort of Bildungsroman, it records the passage of a special individual through selected key experiences until he attains to a position of competence in dealing with what little life is left to him. The nature of Siddhartha's preoccupations and development, and the stylistic devices used to relate them, suggest that the work is the repository of certain truths regarding human existence in general…. (p. 117)

Siddhartha is not content. He is conscious of a discrepancy between conventional assumptions and personal satisfaction which neither adulation nor material advantage nor received interpretations of life's meaning can overcome. The apparent...

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Vicki Arnolt

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Existential philosophers argue that man's existence precedes his essence. Unknowingly, the infant is "thrown into existence" at birth; he is awakened to find that he "is." Then, as [Van Cleve] Morris says "… we commence the long slow journey to find our essence." Hermann Hesse in his famous novel Steppenwolf emphasized this very point, "Every created thing has been thrown into the muddy stream of being and may never more swim back again to its source."…

Between existence and non-existence is the paradox of knowing that one is of absolute value in the world—that the cosmos wouldn't be quite the same without me. On the other hand, one could be of absolutely no value—the world...

(The entire section is 493 words.)

Alan Brownjohn

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Beneath the Wheel proscribes teachers as the enemies of genius, but a strong thread of reverence for the teacher and scholar runs on throughout Hesse, culminating in the reverence for the sages of The Glass Bead Game. Again, the bourgeois, his material possessions and pretensions—the conventional bourgeois which Hesse would have become had he completed his schooling—is constantly reviled; and yet the bourgeois life-style (while he is A Guest at the Spa or is Moving to a New House) is something he resists only by recording his doubts about it. And then, while much of Hesse's lyrical and fantastic writing is a hymn to the pleasures of the solitary imagination, the world of child-like...

(The entire section is 789 words.)

Oskar Seidlin

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Hesse's] entire work seems an endless recording of the process of awakening. The very word fascinates him, and in his last work, the monumental Glass Bead Game (1943), published in this country under the title Magister Ludi, we find the protagonist's admission that "awakening was to me a truly magic word, demanding and pressing, consoling and promising." (p. 52)

In the early novels, Peter Camenzind and Beneath the Wheel (1906), this "exercise" was still so much shrouded in psychological realism that Hesse appeared to be one more of the many sensitive and delicate anatomists of puberty…. Yet, in the light of Hesse's later development, it becomes quite obvious that the...

(The entire section is 2498 words.)

Robert Nye

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The central statement of ["My Belief"] is made in its title essay….

Far from playing about with ideas of an imminent apocalypse, or vague romantic notions of self-liberation through "magic," or what the more scientifically-inclined barbarians call "consciousness-expanding drugs," Hesse was a deep and original thinker who prescribed ways by which a man might make his way "from the realm of the spirit to the realm of the sense" before finally achieving "the liberating synthesis on the river that flows between the two realms."…

This volume is significant in that it fills a gap by presenting us with Hesse's mind unclouded by the symbolism which sometimes disfigures his novels....

(The entire section is 331 words.)

Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Hesse] is deeply loved by those among the American young who are questing.

His simplest, clearest, most innocent tale of seeking and finding is Siddhartha….

Hesse is no black humorist. Black humorists' holy wanderers find nothing but junk and lies and idiocy wherever they go…. Not so with the wanderers of Hesse; they always find something satisfying—holiness, wisdom, hope. (p. 108)

[An] easy explanation of American youth's love for Hesse is this: He is clear and direct and well translated, and he offers hope and romance, which the young play hell finding anywhere else these days….

But there are darker, deeper explanations to be...

(The entire section is 369 words.)