9/6/84 Hesse story is a labour of love
|Saturday, June 9,1984
The Straits Times: Section Two Page 4
Hesse story is a labour of love
Hermann Hesse Prilgrim of Crisis
Based largely on Hesse's voluminous correspondence with his family members and friends, this account of the long and troubled life of the German Nobel-Laureate is the most comprehensive to have come our way.
lt suffers, however, from being serious- solemn almost. Making the pilgrimage through the 432-page book can be quite an uphill climb.
And the story of Hesse, who lived most intensely only in his imagination, does not make for very exciting reading.
Still, this is a sympathetic account, and for those who have been touched at one time or another in their lives by a Hesse book, this biography is an invaluable introduction to the author.
A success three times over
LONGbefore his post-humous celebrityhood, Hermann Hesse had already been proclaimed by three generations of German readersñat the beginning of the century, towards the end of the First World War, and at the end of the Second World War.
In the first wave of his success, his early books, Peter Camenzine and Beneath The Wheel, struck a chord among young readers who, like him, felt threatened by the encroaching technology and the rise of the impersonal state.
Peter Camenzind, Hesse's first successful novel, is a refuge from industrial reality. It celebrates nature and the simple life.
In Beneath The Wheel, about a sensitive sehoolboy crushed by an impersonal school, his readers heard their fears articulated.
The second wave came after the Second World War when Hesse published Demian under a pseudonym. About a boy and a young man torn between the conflicting needs for security and for carefree abandon, "this poetic work struck the nerve of the time", according to another German Nobel-Laureate Thomas Mann.
But as Mann pointed out in his preface to the book, Hesse was not a young man when he wrote it; he was already 42.
In its appeal to the young- "I only wish to live out fully what sought to break out in me. Why was that so hard?" - Hesse either had an uncanny insight into adolescent angst or, as his critics suggested, he had never grown out of his own adolescence.
Hesse reached a general audience only with his third wave of success, when his magnum opus, The Glass Bead Game, published in Switzerland in 1943, was released in Germany after the war.
Players of the Glass Bead Game live in a rarefied realm where war is unheard of, and play an intricate game grounded in musicology, philosophy and Taoism.
Hesse wrote many other books in a career that spanned more than five decades- amazing for someone who was constantly pIagued by mental breakdowns, failing eyesight and all sorts of pains- but he wrote unremittingly about only himself.
He has been put down by critics as a narcissist and a solipsist, but as one critic pointed out, it is precisely in "its intimately egocentric centre that Hesse's art bears the stamp of its age: an age of cultural decline, of spiritual and moral distress, and of extreme loneliness".
"I remain always alone and can never penetrate the great void that seperates me from other people."
Hermann Hesse was born in Calw, Swabia, at the edge of the Black Forest, to a family of Pietist Christian missionaries. His maternal grandfather worked in India as a missionary.
The boy ran away from boarding school and tried to kill himself when he was 14. It was the start of his iifelong tussle with mental breakdowns, both his own and those of the people around him.
He was a factory worker and a bookseller's apprentice before he started writing full-time at 27, after Peter Camenzind became a sucess.
He travelled a great deal within Europe, and had many artist friends. Yet his pose was always that of the lonely, suffering outsider, who "was not given to seize the cup of life and drain it".
Even as he wrote, Hesse kept asking himself if he should write. "True creativity isolates one and demands something that has to be subtracted from life," he cried in Gertrude.
Yet he was always "saving" himself for his art. He insulated himself from crises outside-the two wars, his mother's death, his first wife's mental breakdown, his second wife's pregnancies...
When the outside reality became too tedious, he would flee to sanatoriums where he would surrender all practical responsibilities to doctors and nurses.
Hesse was probably the first artist to be analysed by Carl Jung, and he just might be the archetypal "hot-tub humanist" ñhe was always running to spas for baths and other soothing therapies.
Like all his protagonists, Hesse was torn throughout his life between dual impulses - the classic "to be or not to be".
He yearned always to be free, to be a vagabond, but he built several homes and married three times, even though he knew he was not one for marriage. His Rosshaide is a haunting examination of marital responsibilities.
He needed to be accepted and to rise up in the establishment; yet he refused to abide by its rules.
Likewise, he vacillated between "self-esteem and discouragement, between idealistic contempt for the world and ordinary sensuality".
But if there was one sustained impulse throughout his life, it was towards his art. He monitored his own existence and turned everything in it into stories or poems.
His was a life of self-absorption taken to its extreme. But if he was unrelenting in his examination of self, he was also merciless.
"I do not know whether I can love at all. I can desire and seek myself in others; I can listen for an echo, demand a mirror, seek pleasure, and all that can look like love."