Klingsor's Last Summer

by Hermann Hesse

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Themes and Meanings

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Style, point of view, symbolism, and theme combine to bring out the central meaning of the story: Klingsor’s search for the eternal, all-embracing, and universal nature of the individual self. The exaggerated and extravagant style, including the frequent use of apostrophe, reflects the passionate, luxuriant nature of Klingsor’s own personality, his way of seeing the world. Here, for example, are some of Klingsor’s typical thoughts:Ring high and blast your trumpet, cadmium! Boast loudly, lush crimson lake. Laugh glaringly, lemon yellow! Come here, you deep-blue mountain in the distance. Come to my heart, you matt dusty-green leaves. How tired you are, how you let your pious branches droop submissively. I drink to you, lovely things of the world!

The fact that the story is told entirely from Klingsor’s point of view by a sympathetic third-person narrator only adds to the force of Klingsor’s egocentricity, his need to subjugate the world. Other characters are seen only in terms of how he responds to them.

A central motif is that of the mirror. Klingsor’s life is referred to as a hall of mirrors; he tends to seek his own likeness in others, and he paints the environment as a reflection of his own image. His painting of a mountain, for example, looks like a crazy, masked face. Whenever he looks outward, he sees himself.

Along with this quest to find the self in everything, to expand his own individuality, is the quest for eternity—though, basically, the two quests are one and the same. Klingsor aims to abolish time and annihilate death through his art, and he complains about the very existence of time: “Why always this idiotic succession of one thing after another, and not a roaring, surfeiting,simultaneity?” He wants “the whole full symphony” playing at once, and he is temperamentally inclined to see totalities in things, multiple possibilities. A woman to whom he is attracted, for example, is “everything: mother, child, mistress, animal, madonna.” He also longs to paint so as to reveal simultaneously the totality of opposites in nature: birth and decay, God and death. Klingsor gets as close as he has ever got to the “whole symphony” in his self-portrait, which is the culmination of his quest. In a few days of glorious torment and ecstasy, he paints a thousand faces in the one face. The face blends with the natural environment; the hair is reminiscent of leaves and the bark of trees and the eye sockets are like clefts in rock. The portrait expresses not only the totality of his own life but also European man at this point in evolution, at once “Faust and Karamazov, beast and sage.” There are yet more faces, stretching through eons of past time, “as if the last man on earth in the moment before death were recalling once again with the speed of dream all the forms of past ages when the universe was young.”

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