August 9, 2017

We miss you, Herman Hesse


Portrait of a twenty-eight-year-old Hesse by Ernst Würtenberger.

If you’re wondering why you woke up this morning in a state of existential perplexity, it’s probably because today’s the fifty-fifth anniversary of the death of German writer and painter Herman Hesse, nicknamed “Herm the Worm” for his slender frame and tendency to root through the topsoils of earthly reality. (Well, everything but that last part.)

Hesse’s best-known books include DemianSiddharthaSteppenwolfNarcissus and Goldmund, and The Glass Bead Game. Over his long and productive life, he earned a reputation for work that explored the possibilities of psychic revelation and enlightenment, and expressed the longing for intellectually ordered existence felt by many in the throes of twentieth-century chaos.

In the English-speaking world, he has often been associated with the maverick publisher Peter Owen, who introduced his books, in translation, to a reading public not initially enthused about them. In later years, as the counterculture of the sixties found lots of groovy vision-quest stuff to dig on in his work, his reputation grew, with experimental theaters and rock bands naming themselves in homage to him. Santana’s second (and, don’t @ me, best) album, Abraxas, is named for a line from Demian: “We stood before it and began to freeze inside from the exertion. We questioned the painting, berated it, made love to it, prayed to it: We called it mother, called it whore and slut, called it our beloved, called it Abraxas….”

He received  many awards, including both the Goethe Prize and the Nobel Prize in 1946 and the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade in 1955. On presenting the Nobel to him (in absentia, as Hesse was ill and missed the ceremony), Anders Österling of the Swedish Academy declared the prize meant “more than the confirmation of his fame. It honours a poetic achievement which presents throughout the image of a good man in his struggle, following his calling with rare faithfulness, who in a tragic epoch succeeded in bearing the arms of true humanism.”

In a statement to the Nobel banquet, Hesse wrote:

…I feel akin to you and to the idea that inspired the Nobel Foundation, the idea that the mind is international and supra-national, that it ought to serve not war and annihilation, but peace and reconciliation.

My ideal, however, is not the blurring of national characteristics, such as would lead to an intellectually uniform humanity. On the contrary, may diversity in all shapes and colours live long on this dear earth of ours. What a wonderful thing is the existence of many races, many peoples, many languages, and many varieties of attitude and outlook! If I feel hatred and irreconcilable enmity toward wars, conquests, and annexations, I do so for many reasons, but also because so many organically grown, highly individual, and richly differentiated achievements of human civilization have fallen victim to these dark powers. I hate the grands simplificateurs, and I love the sense of quality, of inimitable craftsmanship and uniqueness.

In a memoir published 1966 (and translated by Frank MacShane), a few years after Hesse’s death, Chilean diplomat and noted whack-job Miguel Serrano remembered an evening they’d once spent together:

We drank a glass of wine, and then Hesse led me into the dining-room to show me an oil painting of his native city, Calw. The painting showed a bridge arched across a river, and I imagined that it was there, while looking down on the waters below that Hesse first thought of Goldmund and Siddhartha, and considered the meaning of that river which, like the Ganges, swept everything before it to the sea.

Hesse then showed me a stone bust in another part of the room. It was a statue of his own head, carved by a friend of his who was a sculptress. He rested his hand on it, and I asked him:

‘Is it important to know whether there is something beyond life?’

‘No, it is not important… The act of dying is like falling into Jung’s Collective Unconscious, and from there you return to form, to pure form….’

For a few moments Hesse remained silent, gently caressing the stone head.

We hope you’re enjoying the pure form, Magister Ludi, where a mere nothing suffices — and the lightning strikes.