Thursday, October 07, 2021

Magister Ludi: Hermann Hesse

Nobel Prize Archive: Hermann Hesse (1946)

The Nobel Prize in Literature 1946 was awarded to Hermann Hesse "for his inspired writings which, while growing in boldness and penetration, exemplify the classical humanitarian ideals and high qualities of style."

It's quite easy to forget that sometimes.

Hermann Hesse: The Journey to the East (1932)

Garish paperback copies of Hermann Hesse's books are the discarded backdrop to so many people's memories of their brief spell in the counterculture that the anti-myth has grown up that he was just another peddler of facile half-truths like the author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, or (for that matter) another fallen idol, Aldous Huxley.

Aldous Huxley: The Doors of Perception / Heaven and Hell (1954 / 1956)

It was mostly the shorter, easier books which got read, however: Siddhartha, The Journey to the East - seldom the longer, more ponderously Germanic ones such as Narziss and Goldmund or The Glass Bead Game.

It's important to note, though, that there was a time, not so long ago, when Hesse was ranked by many (including myself) as one of the three greatest twentieth-century novelists writing in German - along with his fellow Nobel Laureate Thomas Mann and the incomparable Franz Kafka.

Hermann Hesse: The Glass Bead Game (1943)

Did we all get it wrong? Was The Glass Bead Game never really on a level with The Trial or Buddenbrooks - let alone that more recent candidate for pole position, Robert Musil's The Man Without Qualities?

It's interesting to look back at the assessment of Hesse's work made by the Nobel Prize committee in that fateful year of 1946 to get some idea of just what they saw in him then, with the rubble of Hitler's Festung Europa lying all around them:
When at the beginning [of the First World War] he wanted to speak some words of peace and contemplation to his agitated colleagues and in his pamphlet used Beethoven’s motto, «O Freunde, nicht diese Töne» [Oh friends, not these tones], he aroused a storm of protest. He was savagely attacked by the German press and was apparently deeply shocked by this experience. He took it as evidence that the entire civilization of Europe in which he had so long believed was sick and decaying. Redemption had to come from beyond the accepted norms, perhaps from the light of the East, perhaps from the core hidden in anarchic theories of the resolution of good and evil in a higher unity. Sick and doubt-ridden, he sought a cure in the psychoanalysis of Freud, eagerly preached and practised at that time, which left lasting traces in Hesse’s increasingly bold books of this period.

Hermann Hesse [as Emil Sinclair]: Demian (1919)

Hesse had started his career with vaguely rebellious books about the constraints of conventional culture on the individual: books such as Unterm Rad (1905) [translated into English as 'The Prodigy', though the German actually means 'Under the Wheel'], which depicts the gradual breaking of the spirit of a gifted boy by schoolmasters and other enemies of originality.

Demian was a new departure for him, however - witness the fact that he published it under a pseudonym. It's the kind of book one could imagine Aleister Crowley writing if he'd had any real talent for fiction. Its sympathy with Occultism and a radical break with the 'natural order' which had left Europe burdened with more than ten million dead seem very appropriate to the year it was published, 1919.

Hermann Hesse: Steppenwolf (1927)

This personal crisis found its magnificent expression in the fantastical novel Der Steppenwolf (1927), an inspired account of the split in human nature, the tension between desire and reason in an individual who is outside the social and moral notions of everyday life. In this bizarre fable of a man without a home, hunted like a wolf, plagued by neuroses, Hesse created an incomparable and explosive book, dangerous and fateful perhaps, but at the same time liberating by its mixture of sardonic humour and poetry in the treatment of the theme ...
Certainly this account of Steppenwolf as an expression of post-war malaise makes a lot of sense. Hesse's dabbling with Freudianism and Eastern philosophies is also seen here as more of a necessary response to these paroxysms of a dying civilisation than a narrowly personal exploration of the self.

Hesse's Swedish panegyrists also make the important point that a novel such as Steppenwolf, which seemed so bizarre and trippy to readers in the 1960s, was really very much in the Middle-European Fantastic tradition:
Despite the prominence of modern problems Hesse ... preserves a continuity with the best German traditions; the writer whom this extremely suggestive story recalls most is E. T. A. Hoffmann, the master of the Elixiere des Teufels.

E. T. A. Hoffmann: Die Elixiere des Teufels / Klein Zaches (1815)

I'll refer you to my earlier blogpost on Hoffmann to give you some idea of what they had in mind.

Hermann Hesse: Siddhartha (1922)

Hesse’s maternal grandfather was the famous Indologist Gundert. Thus even in his childhood the writer felt drawn to Indian wisdom. When as a mature man he travelled to the country of his desire he did not, indeed, solve the riddle of life; but the influence of Buddhism soon entered his thought, an influence by no means restricted to Siddhartha (1922) the beautiful story of a young Brahman’s search for the meaning of life on earth.
The fact that this novel constituted many people's introduction to the entire field of Eastern thought means that it's bound to show signs of age after more than a century. It's still a very readable book, though, and while it could be accused of superficiality, it's hard to think of any other which remains so charming and accessible while having such evident designs on the reader.

The Nobel committee, too, clearly had certain reservations about this syncretist aspect of Hesse's more philosophical writings, but they conclude by giving him the benefit of the doubt:
Hesse’s work combines so many influences from Buddha and St. Francis to Nietzsche and Dostoevsky that one might suspect that he is primarily an eclectic experimenter with different philosophies. But this opinion would be quite wrong. His sincerity and his seriousness are the foundations of his work and remain in control even in his treatment of the most extravagant subjects.

Hermann Hesse: Das Glasperlenspiel (1943)

In Hesse’s more recent work the vast novel Das Glasperlenspiel (1943) [The Glass Bead Game] occupies a special position. It is a fantasy about a mysterious intellectual order, on the same heroic and ascetic level as that of the Jesuits, based on the exercise of meditation as a kind of therapy. ... Hesse’s attitude is ambiguous. In a period of collapse it is a precious task to preserve the cultural tradition. But civilization cannot be permanently kept alive by turning it into a cult for the few. If it is possible to reduce the variety of knowledge to an abstract system of formulas, we have on the one hand proof that civilization rests on an organic system; on the other, this high knowledge cannot be considered permanent. It is as fragile and destructible as the glass pearls themselves, and the child that finds the glittering pearls in the rubble no longer knows their meaning.

Hermann Hesse: Magister Ludi (1949)

I suppose, in the end, that's what it comes down to: your opinion of the above novel - whether translated as Magister Ludi [Master of the Game] by Mervyn Savill in 1949, or as The Glass Bead Game by Richard and Clara Winson in 1969.

Does Hesse's book really pose an eternal problem: the human dichotomy between (on the one hand) the ascetic and scholarly, with its risk of dryness and pedantry, and (on the other) the instinctive and emotional, with its risk of Dionysian excess? All that can be found already in Nietzsche, who makes a brief appearance in the text as the protagonist Joseph Knecht's - Josef K., anyone? - somewhat unstable friend Fritz Tegularius.

Others of his contemporaries and near-contemporaries to be found in its pages include Thomas Mann himself (as "Thomas van der Trave", Joseph Knecht's predecessor as Magister Ludi), Swiss Historian Jakob Burckhardt (as the Benedictine monk "Father Jacobus"), and Heinrich Perrot, the owner of a machine shop where Hesse worked after dropping out of school (as the Glass Bead Game's inventor "Bastian Perrot").

Does The Glass Bead Game make the most sense, then, if one sees it as a post-war Dystopia posing as a distant Utopia? If so, the author has stated his own position far less clearly than Huxley and Orwell, his near-contemporaries, in their far darker fables Brave New World and Nineteen-Eighty-Four. But maybe that makes it even more of a book for our own time? I fear that the jury's still out on that one.

Certainly, my understanding of the novel has changed over the years. There was a time when nothing seemed more paradisal to me than Hesse's description of Castalia. Now, having done quite a bit more living in the meantime, Knecht's motivation for making a break from the formalism of the game makes much better sense to me.

It's a long novel, and a densely layered one - but then the same is true of both The Magic Mountain and The Castle. I remain to be convinced that it shouldn't be mentioned in the same breath with them. Naturally all three writers must continue to have their own distinct constituencies, mind you.

Hermann Hesse: Poems, trans. James Wright (1970)

If Hesse’s reputation as a prose writer varies, there has never been any doubt about his stature as a poet. Since the death of Rilke and George he has been the foremost German poet of our time. He combines exquisite purity of style with moving emotional warmth, and his musical form is unsurpassed in our time. He continues the tradition of Goethe, Eichendorf, and Mörike and renews its poetic magic by a colour peculiar to himself ...

Richard Strauss (1864-1949)

I suppose that it comes as news to most of us that Hesse was ever thought of as "the foremost German poet of our time" - a fitting successor to Stefan George and Rainer Maria Rilke! But then, the first appearance of Paul Celan's "Todesfuge" [Death Fugue] was still two years off in 1946 ...

Luckily, Richard Strauss's breathtaking Four Last Songs (1950) gives us some idea of the inspiration he found in Hesse's poetry.
Strauss had come across the poem "Im Abendrot" by Joseph von Eichendorff, which he felt had a special meaning for him. He set its text to music in May 1948. Strauss had also recently been given a copy of the complete poems of Hermann Hesse and was strongly inspired by them. He set three of them – "Frühling", "September", and "Beim Schlafengehen" – for soprano and orchestra, and contemplated setting two more, "Nacht" and "Höhe des Sommers", in the same manner ... The overall title Four Last Songs was provided by Strauss's friend Ernst Roth, the chief editor of Boosey & Hawkes, when he published all four songs as a single unit in 1950, and in the order that most performances now follow: "Frühling", "September", "Beim Schlafengehen", "Im Abendrot".

Richard Strauss: Vier letze Lieder (1950)

If you've never listened to it, you really should. Here's a link to Jessye Norman's epic performance of the entire work on YouTube.

Steppenwolf (c.1967-72)

So, on the one hand we have Steppenwolf the rock band, most famous for their 1968 anthem "Born to be Wild," one of two songs (the other was "The Pusher") featured on the soundtrack of the classic counterculture movie Easy Rider (1969).

On the other hand, we have the stirring strains of "2001: A Space Odyssey" Strauss's settings of some of Hermann Hesse's gentler lyrics.

I think I'll have to leave the implications of comics maestro Jack Kirby's choice of the name "Steppenwolf" for one of the principal villains on his dark planet of Apokolips - seen most recently in the DC movie Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016) - to a more informed commentator, however ...

Is any real reconciliation possible between these two approaches to the legacy of Hermann Hesse? Does he have a lasting legacy, in fact? I think so, yes. He may never approach the heights of respectability implied by that Nobel Prize eulogy again, but that's probably a good thing. If he stood for anything, he stood for rebellion against constituted authority, and the consequent need for a personal quest for new ethical standards to live by.

Some of the directions he himself went in may seem a little dated now, but the astonishing thing is how many of them don't. His rebellious alternatives have become, for many, now - in the age of climate change and the catastrophic failure of so many of our comfortable certitudes - the accepted middle of the road.

Keystone-France / Gamma-Rapho / Getty: Hermann Hesse (2018)

    Hermann Karl Hesse (1877-1962)


  1. Peter Camenzind. ['Peter Camenzind', 1904]. Trans. W. J. Strachan. 1961. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1974.
  2. The Prodigy. ['Unterm Rad', 1905]. Trans. W. J. Strachan. 1961. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1973.
  3. Gertrude. ['Gertrud'. 1910]. Trans. Hilda Rosner. 1969. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1972.
  4. Rosshalde. ['Roßhalde', 1914]. Trans. Ralph Manheim. 1970. London: Picador, 1973.
  5. Knulp: Three Tales from the Life of Knulp. ['Knulp', 1915]. Trans. Ralph Manheim. 1971. London: Picador, 1974.
  6. [as Emil Sinclair] Demian. ['Demian', 1919]. Trans. W. J. Strachan. 1960. Frogmore, St Albans: Panther Books, 1975.
  7. Klingsor’s Last Summer. ['Klingsors letzter Sommer', 1920]. Trans. Richard & Clara Winston. 1970. London: Picador, 1973.
  8. Siddhartha. ['Siddhartha', 1922]. Trans. Hilda Rosner. 1954. London: Picador, 1976.
  9. Der Steppenwolf: Erzählung. 1927. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Taschenbuch Verlag, 1974.
    • Steppenwolf. ['Der Steppenwolf', 1927. Trans. Basil Creighton. 1929. Rev. Walter Sorell. 1963. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1975.
  10. Narziss and Goldmund. ['Narziß und Goldmund', 1930. Trans. Geoffrey Dunlop. 1959. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1973.
  11. The Journey to the East. ['Die Morgenlandfahrt', 1932. Trans. Hilda Rosner. 1956. Introduction by Timothy Leary. 1966. Frogmore, St Albans: Panther Books, 1973.
  12. The Glass Bead Game (Magister Ludi). ['Das Glasperlenspiel (Magister Ludi)', 1943. Trans. Richard & Clara Winston. 1969. London: Jonathan Cape, 1971.
    • The Glass Bead Game (Magister Ludi). ['Das Glasperlenspiel (Magister Ludi)', 1943. Trans. Richard & Clara Winston. 1960. Penguin Modern Classics. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1976.

  13. Novellas and Short Stories:

  14. Eine Stunde hinter Mitternacht (1899)
  15. Freunde (1908)
  16. In the Old Sun (1914)
  17. Schön ist die Jugend (1916)
  18. Strange News from Another Star and Other Stories. ['Märchen', 1919. Trans. Denver Lindley. 1972. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1976.
  19. Klein und Wagner (1919)
  20. Stories of Five Decades. Ed. Theodore Ziolkowski. Trans. Ralph Manheim & Denver Lindley. 1954 & 72. St Albans, Herts: Triad Panther, 1976.
  21. Pictor’s Metamorphoses and Other Fantasies. Ed. Theodore Ziolkowski. Trans. Rita Lesser. 1982. Triad Panther. London: Granada, 1984.
  22. The Fairy Tales of Hermann Hesse. Trans. Jack Zipes. Woodcut Illustrations by David Frampton. A Bantam Book. New York: Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, Inc., 1995.

  23. Non-Fiction:

  24. Besuch aus Indien (1913)
  25. Blick ins Chaos (1920)
  26. Wandering: Notes and Sketches. 1920. Trans. James Wright. 1972. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1973.
  27. If the War Goes On … Reflections on War and Politics. 1946. Trans. Ralph Manheim. 1971. London: Picador, 1974.
  28. Reflections. Ed. Volker Michels. 1971. Trans. Ralph Manheim. 1974. Frogmore, St Albans: Triad Panther, 1979.
  29. Autobiographical Writings. Ed. Theodore Ziolkowski. Trans. Denver Lindley. 1971-72. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1973.
  30. My Belief: Essays on Life and Art. 1973. Ed. Theodore Ziolkowski. Trans. Denver Lindley & Ralph Manheim. 1974. Frogmore, St Albans: Triad Panther, 1978.

  31. Poetry:

  32. Hermann Lauscher [poetry and prose] (1900)
  33. Poems: 1899-1921. 1953. Trans. James Wright. 1970. Cape Poetry Paperbacks. London: Jonathan Cape, 1978.
  34. Crisis: Pages from a Diary (1975)
  35. Hours in the Garden and Other Poems. Trans. Rika Lesser. 1979. Cape Poetry Paperbacks. London: Jonathan Cape, 1980.

  36. Letters:

  37. Carlsson, Anni & Volker Michels, ed. The Hesse-Mann Letters: The Correspondence of Hermann Hesse and Thomas Mann, 1910-1955. 1968. Trans. Ralph Manheim. Foreword by Theodore Ziolkowski. 1975. London: Peter Owen, 1976.

  38. Secondary:

  39. Freeman, Ralph. Hermann Hesse: Pilgrim of Crisis. A Biography. 1978. An Abacus Book. London: Sphere Books, 1981.
  40. Michels, Volker, ed. Hermann Hesse: A Pictorial Biography. 1973. Trans. Theodore & Yetta Ziolkowski and Denver Lindley. 1975. Frogmore, St Albans: Triad Panther, 1979.

Jack Zipes, trans: The Fairy Tales of Hermann Hesse (1995)

... not “Working from Home,” but “At home, during a crisis, trying to work” ...

- Tere McGonagle-Daly
Deputy Vice-Chancellor Students and Global Engagement
Chair of Massey University's Crisis Management Team (CMT)

No comments: