Hermann Hesse (1877 – 1962)

Hermann Hesse
(1877 – 1962)

Hermann Hesse (1877-1962) was born into a family of Pietist missionaries and religious publishers in the Black Forest town of Calw, in the German state of Wüttenberg. Johannes Hesse, his father, was born a Russian citizen in Weissenstein, Estonia. Hesse’s mother, Marie Gundert, was born in Talatscheri, India, as the daughter of the Pietist missionary and Indologist, Hermann Gundert. 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.

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). In the story, based on the early life of Gautama Buddha, a Brahman son rebels against his father’s teaching and traditions. Eventually he finds the ultimate enlightenment. 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 canceled 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 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 a number of American Beat poets. Hesse’s short marriage to Ruth Wenger, the daughter of the Swiss writer Lisa Wenger, was unhappy. He had met her in 1919 and wrote in 1922 the fairy tale PIKTOR’S VERWANDLUNGEN for Ruth. In the story a spirit, Piktor, becomes an old tree and finds his youth again from the love of a young girl. Hesse divorced from Maria Bernoulli, and married in 1924 Ruth Wenger, but the marriage ended after a few months. These 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’ – For Madmen Only.

During the Weimar Republic (1919-1933) Hesse stayed aloof from politics. BETRACHTUNGEN (1928) and KRIEG UND FRIEDEN (1946) were collections of essays, which reflected his individualism and opposition to mass movements of the day. NARZISS UND GOLDMUND (1930, Narcissus and Goldmund) was a pseudomedieval tale about an abbot and his worldly pupil, both in search of the Great Mother.

In 1931 Hesse married Ninon Dolbin (1895-1966). Ninon was Jewish. She had sent Hesse a letter in 1909 when she was 14, and the correspondence had continued. In 1926 they met accientally. At that time Ninon was separated – she had married the painter B.F. Doldin and planned a career as an art historian. Hesse moved with her to Casa Bodmer, and his restless life became more calm. Hesse’s books continued to be published in Germany during the Nazi regime, and were defended in a secret circular in 1937 by Joseph Goebbels. When he wrote for the Frankfurter Zeitung Jewish refugees in France accused him of supporting the Nazis, whom Hesse did not openly oppose. However, he helped political refugees and when Narcissus and Goldmund was reprinted in 1941, he refused to leave out parts which dealt with pogroms and anti-Semitism. In 1943 he was placed on the Nazi blacklist.

In 1931 Hesse began to work on his masterpiece DAS GLASPERLENSPIEL, 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 Zürich, Switzerland.

After receiving the Nobel Prize Hesse published no major works. Between the years 1945 and 1962 he wrote some 50 poems and about 32 reviews mostly for Swiss newspapers. Hesse died of cerebral hemorrhage 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.

  • Without You by Hermann Hesse

My Pillow gazes upon me at night
Empty as a gravestone;
I never thought it would be so bitter
To be alone,
Not to lie down asleep in your hair.I lie alone in a silent house,
The hanging lamp darkened,
And gently stretch out my hands
To gather in yours,
And softly press my warm mouth
Toward you, and kiss myself, exhausted and weak-
Then suddenly I’m awake
And all around me the cold night grows still.
The star in the window shines clearly-
Where is your blond hair,
Where your sweet mouth?

Now I drink pain in every delight
And poison in every wine;
I never knew it would be so bitter
To be alone,
Alone, without you.

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