Prose & Poetry - Hermann Hesse

Hermann Hesse photograph German poet and novelist (1877-1962), who has explored in his work the duality of spirit and nature and individual's spiritual search outside restrictions of the society.  Hesse was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1946.  Several of Hesse's novels depict the protagonist's journey into the inner self.  A spiritual guide assists the hero in his quest for self-knowledge and shows the way beyond the world "deluded by money, number and time."

"For even the most childish intoxication with progress will soon be forced to recognize that writing and books have a function that is eternal.  It will become evident that formulations in words and the handling on of these formulations through writing are not only important aids but actually the only means by which humanity can have a history and continuing consciousness of itself." (Hesse in Reading in Bed, ed. by Steven Gilbar, 1974)

Hermann Hesse was born into a family of Pietist missionaries and religious publishers in the Black Forest town of Calw, in the German state of Württemberg.  His parents expected him to follow the family tradition in theology - they had served as missionaries in India.  Hesse entered the Protestant seminary at Maulbronn in 1891, but he was expelled from the school.  After unhappy experiences at a secular school, Hesse left his studies.  He worked a bookshop clerk, a mechanic, and a book dealer in Tübingen, where he joined literary circle called Le Petit Cénacle.  During this period Hesse read voluminously and determined the become a writer.  In 1899 Hesse published his first works, Romantische Lieder and Eine Stunde Hinter Mitternacht.

Ich soll erzählen
die Nacht ist schon spät -
willst du mich quälen,
schöne Elisabeth?

Daran ich dichte
und du dazu,
meine Liebesgeschichte
ist dieser Abend und du.

Du musst nicht stören
die Reime verwehn.
Bald wirst du sie hören,
hören und nicht verstehen.

Hesse became a freelance writer in 1904 after the publication of his novel Peter Camenzind.  In the Rousseauesque 'return to nature' story the protagonist leaves the big city to live like Saint Francis of Assisi.  The book gained literary success and Hesse married Maria Bernoulli, with whom he had three children.  A visit in India in 1911 was a disappointment but it gave start to Hesse's studies of Eastern religions and the novel Siddhartha (1922).  It was based on the early life of Gautama Buddha.  The culture of ancient Hindu and the ancient Chinese had a great influence on Hesse's works.  For several years in the mid-1910s Hesse underwent psychoanalysis under Carl Jung's assistant J.B. Lang. 

In 1912 Hesse and his family took a permanent residence in Switzerland.  In the novel Rosshalde (1914) Hesse explored the question of whether the artist should marry.  The author's replay was negative and reflected the author's own difficulties.  During these years his wife suffered from growing mental instability and his son was seriously ill.  Hesse spent the years of World War I in Switzerland, attacking the prevailing moods of militarism and nationalism.  He also promoted the interests of prisoners of war.  Hesse, who shared with Aldous Huxley belief in the need for spiritual self-realization, was called a traitor by his countrymen.

Hesse's breakthrough novel was Demian (1919).  It was highly praised by Thomas Mann, who compared its importance to James Joyce's Ulysses and André Gide's The Counterfeiters.  The novel attracted especially young veterans of the WW I, and reflected Hesse's personal crisis and interest in Jungian psychoanalysis.  Demian was first published under the name of its narrator, Emil Sinclair, but later Hesse admitted his authorship.  In the Faustian tale the protagonist is torn between his orderly bourgeois existence and a chaotic world of sensuality.  Hesse later admitted that Demian was a story of "individuation" in the Jungian manner.  The author also praised unreservedly Jung's study Psychological Types, but in 1921 he suddenly cancelled his analysis with Jung and started to consider him merely one of Freud's most gifted pupils.

Leaving his family in 1919, Hesse moved to Montagnola, in southern Switzerland.  Siddharta, a novel of the Brahman son, who chooses a road to asceticism, was written during this period.  It has been one of Hesse's most widely read work.  Its English translation in the 1950s became a spiritual guide to the generation of American Beat poets.  Hesse's second marriage to Ruth Wenger (1924-27) was unhappy.  These difficult years produced Der Steppenwolf (1927).  The protagonist, Harry Haller, goes through his mid-life crisis and must chose between life of action and contemplation.  His initials perhaps are not accidentally like the author's.  "The few capacities and pursuits in which I happened to be strong had occupied all my attention, and I had painted a picture of myself as a person who was in fact nothing more tan a most refined and educated specialist in poetry, music and philosophy; and as such I had lived, leaving all the rest of me to be a chaos of potentialities, instincts and impulses which I found an encumbrance and gave the label of Steppenwolf." Haller feels that he has two beings inside him, and faces his shadow self, named Hermine.  This Doppelgänger figure introduces Harry to drinking, dancing, music, sex, and drugs.  Finally his personality is disassembled and reassembled in the 'Magic Theatre.'

"There is no reality except the one contained within us.  That is why so many people live such an unreal life.  They take the images outside them for reality and never allow the world within to assert itself."

During the Weimar Republic (1919-1933) Hesse stayed aloof from politics.  His books continued to be published in Germany during the Nazi regime, and were defended from individual attacks by an official circular in 1937.  However, in 1943 Hesse placed on the Nazi blacklist.

"The secret of Hesse's work lies in the creative power of his poetic similes, in the "magic theatre" of the panoramas of the soul that he conjures up before the eyes and ears of the world.  It lies in the identity of idea and appearances that, to be sure, his work - like any work of human hands - can do more that suggest."

(Hugo Ball in Hermann Hesse, 1947)

In 1931 Hesse married his third wife, Ninon Dolbin, and began in the same year work on his masterpiece Das Glasperlenpiel, which was published in 1943.  The setting is in the future in the imaginary province of Castilia, an intellectual, elitist community, dedicated to mathematics and music.  Knecht ('servant') is chosen by the Old Music Master as a suitable aspirant to the Order.  He goes to the city of Waldzell to study, and there he catches the attention of the Magister Ludi, Thomas von der Trave (an allusion to Hesse's rival Thomas Mann).  He is the Master of the Games, a system by which wisdom is communicated.  Knecht dedicates himself to the Game, and on the death of Thomas, he is elected Magister Ludi.  After a decade in his office Knecht tries to leave to start a life devoted to realizing human rights, but accidentally drowns in a mountain lake.  In 1942 Hesse sent the manuscript to Berlin for publication.  It was not accepted by the Nazis and the work appeared in Zurich, Switzerland.

"Despair is the result of each earnest attempt to go through life with virtue, justice and understanding and fulfil their requirements.  Children live on one side of despair, the awakened on the other side." (from The Journey to the East, 1932)

After receiving the Nobel Prize Hesse wrote no major works.  He died of cerebral haemorrhage in his sleep on August 9, 1962 at the age of eighty-five.  Hesse's other central works include In Sight of Chaos (1923), a collection of essays, and the novel Narcissus and Goldmund (1930), set in the Middle Ages and repeating the theme of two contrasting types of men.

In the 1960s and 1970s Hesse became a cult figure for young readers.  The interest declined in the 1980s.  In 1969 the Californian rock group Sparrow changed their name to Steppenwolf after Hesse's classic, and released 'Born to be Wild'.  Hesse's books have gained readers from the New Age movements and he is still one of the bestselling German-speaking writers throughout world.

Article contributed by Petri Liukkonen, website Author's Calendar.

German losses at Messines were 25,000, of which 7,500 were taken prisoner.  British casualties were 17,000 killed or wounded.

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Prose & Poetry