Happy (belated) Birthday, Hermann Hesse!

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“The little fellow has a life in him, an unbelievable strength, a powerful will, and, for his four years of age, a truly astonishing mind. How can he express all that? It truly gnaws at my life, this internal fighting against his tyrannical temperament, his passionate turbulence … God must shape this proud spirit, then it will become something noble and magnificent – but I shudder to think what this young and passionate person might become should his upbringing be false or weak.”

That was the appraisal of Hermann Hesse at four by his mother. As good, at least in few words, as any you’re likely to get. He grew to be one of the greatest novelists of the 20th Century. Most of his novels have elements of magic realism, where the “real” world exists alongside one or more alternative or “fantasy” worlds. All fluid enough that people and/or events flowed freely between or among them. Many also had strong spiritual elements, and even musical references.

He was born in Calw/Black Forest on 2 July 1877, so this is a belated birthday shout out to him (there will be a series on him in October 2019 – the centennial of the publication of Demian).

He was the second son of Johannes Hesse and Marie Gundert, born in Calw/Black Forest. His father’s family was Baltic-German, his mother’s Swiss-Swabian. They had previously served as Protestant missionaries in India. The St. Nicholas Bridge there had been a favorite childhood haunt, and it’s perhaps fitting that the statue the community erected stands on the bridge, not on a pedestal, but standing on the ground, off to the side, as if waiting to greet passers by and wish them a good day.

In 1891, after attending the grammar school in Calw, Hermann Hesse attended the Protestant theological seminar in Kloster Maulbronn. He claimed to greatly enjoy the writing and translation classes there, yet he fled from the place and hid after just a few months. The teenaged Hesse then undertook and completed an apprenticeship as a mechanic at the Perrot Tower Clock Factory in Calw. Shortly thereafter he abandoned that vocation too, to train as a bookseller in Tübingen and Basel. Subsequently he published his first works (poems and prose). Neither was a commercial success. He “suffered a great shock” when his mother disapproved of his “Romantic Songs” on grounds that they were too secular and even “vaguely sinful.”.

In 1901, Hesse fulfilled a long-held dream and traveled to Italy for the first time . In the same year, Hesse changed jobs and began working at the Antiquarium Wattenwyl in Basel. It was an upmarket and extremely influential book shop. Hesse had more opportunities to release poems and small literary texts to journals. These publications now provided honorariums. His new bookstore agreed to publish his next work, “Posthumous Writings and Poems of Hermann Lauscher.”

Due to the good notices that Hesse received for Lauscher, the publisher Samuel Fischer became interested in Hesse’s books. With the novel “Peter Camenzind” (appearing first as a pre-publication in 1903, then as a regular printing by Fischer in 1904) came a breakthrough. It was the first novel to contain a number of themes that appeared in Hesse’s later works. Most notably the individual’s search for a unique spiritual and physical identity amidst the backdrops of nature and modern civilization, and the role of art in the forming a personal identity. The semi-autobiographical “Beneath the Wheel” followed in 1906, and from then on, Hesse could make a living as a writer.

The novels became popular throughout Germany. Sigmund Freud praised “Peter Camenzind” as one of his favorite readings.

As his status rose with his new literary fame, he married Maria Bernoulli (of the famous family of mathematicians). He settled down with her in Gaienhofen on Lake Constance, and began a family. Eventually they had three sons. A revival of Arthur Schopenhauer and his philosophical ideas had begun. Hesse also discovered theosophy, both of them renewing his interest in India. Although it would be many years before the publication of Hesse’s novel “Siddhartha” (1922), this masterpiece was to be derived from these new influences.

But dissonance increased between him and Maria, and in 1911 Hesse left for a long trip to Sri Lanka and Indonesia. He also visited Sumatra, Borneo and Burma. The physical experience depressed him, and the spiritual or religious inspiration he was looking for eluded him. However, the journey would make a strong impression on his literary work. Following his return, the family moved to Bern, but change of environment didn’t solve his marital problems, as he himself confessed in his novel “Rosshalde” (1914).

By 1912, the author had already abandoned Kaiser Wilhelm II’s militant Germany. While most poets and authors of the belligerent countries quickly became embroiled in tirades of mutual xenophobia, bigotry and hatred, Hesse, seemingly immune to the general war-mania of the time, wrote an essay titled “O Friends, Not These Tones” (O Freunde, nicht diese Töne). It was published in Neue Zürcher Zeitung. In this essay he appealed to his fellow intellectuals not to fall for nationalistic madness and hatred. Calling for subdued voices and recognition of Europe’s common heritage, he wrote: “That love is greater than hate, understanding greater than ire, peace nobler than war, this exactly is what this unholy World War should burn into our memories, more so than ever felt before.”

What followed from this essay, Hesse later indicated, was a great turning point in his life.

For the first time, he found himself controversial. He was attacked in the German press, the recipient of hate mail, and distanced from old friends. He did receive continued support from his friend Theodor Heuss, and the French writer Romain Rolland, who visited Hesse in August 1915. But in 1917, Hesse wrote to Rolland, “The attempt…to apply love to matters political has failed.” Ten years later, Hesse would (rather bitterly) lampoon the incident in his novel “Steppenwolf.”

During the First World War, he founded the “Kriegsgefangenfürsorge-Zentrale” (prisoner of war welfare centre) in Berne. He became a point of contact for countless emigrants between 1933 and 1945.

During a three-week period in September and October of 1917, Hesse penned his novel “Demian,” with its themes of Jungian analysis, of spirituality, and of the transition from the search for a mentor to the search for a guru-like entity.

It was published in 1919, following the armistice, under the pseudonym Emil Sinclair (the name of the protagonist).

By then, his marriage had shattered.

Maria, already schizophrenic, had a severe episode of psychosis, and even after her recovery, Hesse saw no possible future with her. Their home in Bern was divided, their sons were accommodated in pensions and by relatives. He resettled alone in the middle of April in Ticino. On 11 May, he moved to the town Montagnola and rented four small rooms in a castle-like building, the Casa Camuzzi. This new beginning in different surroundings brought him happiness. Hesse later called his first year in Ticino the fullest, most prolific, most industrious and most passionate time of my life. “Siddhartha,” which showcased his love of Indian culture and Buddhist philosophy, appeared in 1922. In 1924, Hesse married the singer Ruth Wenger. This marriage, too, was never stable.

His next major works were “Kurgast” (1925) and “The Nuremberg Trip” (1927). Both of them were autobiographical narratives with ironic undertones that foreshadowed what is arguably his most famous work. “Steppenwolf,” with its many dreamscapes and alternative realities, culminating in The Magic Theatre, was published in 1927 on his 50th birthday.

The novel was a success and, shortly after its release, he turned away from the solitude of Steppenwolf and married the art historian Ninon Dolbin, née Ausländer.

The change in – and to – companionship was reflected in the novel “Narcissus and Goldmund.”

Hesse left Casa Camuzzi and moved with Ninon to a large house (Casa Hesse) near Montagnola, built according to his wishes. He began planning what would become his last major work, “The Glass Bead Game,” a culmination of his themes of alternative realities (magic realism), particularly as a path to spirituality, the search for a spiritual master, the simultaneous acceptance of opposing philosophies, and the use of music as part of the search for spirituality. In 1932, as a preliminary study, he released the novella “Journey to the East.” “The Glass Bead Game” was printed in 1943 in Switzerland. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1946.

Since 2008, the foundation of German rock star Udo Lindenberg has organized the Hermann Hesse Festival, celebrating “die Kunst des Eigensinns.” While “Eigensinn” is a difficult-to-translate concept, the festival title means basically something like “the art of having one’s own will, a vigorous, determined inner voice.”

Certainly the idea of not succumbing to authority, especially to the material and the mundane, goes a long way toward understanding Hesse’s legacy, but there is much more.

As reflected in “Demian, and in his subsequent works, he believed that “for different people, there are different ways to God,” but he had a very fixed view on how these ways should be approached:

“You should let yourself be carried away, like the clouds in the sky. You shouldn’t resist. God exists in your destiny just as much as he does in these mountains and in that lake. It is very difficult to understand this, because [humankind] is moving further and further away from Nature, and also from [itself].”

So happy belated birthday, Hermann Hesse – fly free. May you stay rebellious, stay spiritual, stay in love with music, stay connected.and – above all – stay magical.