The Novels of Hermann Hesse
Narcissus and Goldmund
The Journey to the East
Beneath the Wheel
“Zwei Seelen wohnen ach! in meiner Brust.” And very convenient it is for the writer; for one soul can bleed on the sleeve while the other gets up to other things in other places. It is not that the breast needs to be a specially large one to entertain two souls, but rather that those among whom the two-souled move may have to be remarkably broadminded and long-suffering. Perhaps prepared to suffer long and very painfully indeed. I will not dwell on the lowest and most horrifying depths to which double-souledness can sink—Hans Magnus Enzensberger’s exemplum of the concentration-camp commandant who plays Schubert sonatas when off-duty will suffice—for Herman Hesse was obviously a good man, a good-hearted man, who recognized the onset of Germany’s Faustianity at a very early date and removed himself to single-souled Switzerland.
Hesse too loved music, but like Thomas Mann he had his misgivings about the German love of it. In The Magic Mountain (1924), Settembrini—that liberal humanist fuddy-duddy, if you like, but what would you like better?—considers music “politically suspect,” and in Doctor Faustus (1947) the Devil points out that he ought to know something about music.
Christian in reverse, as it were: introduced and developed by Christianity indeed, but then rejected and banned as the Devil’s Kingdom…a highly theological business, music—the way sin is, the way I am…. For there is true passion only in the ambiguous and ironic. The highest passion concerns the absolutely questionable.
Similarly in Hesse’s Steppenwolf (1927) the ambiguous hero laments the hegemony which music exerts over the German spirit:
We intellectuals, instead of fighting this tendency like men and rendering obedience to the spirit, the Logos, the Word, and gaining a hearing for it, are all dreaming of a speech without words that utters the inexpressible and gives form to the formless.
And so, he continues in one of those interesting discursive passages scattered through Hesse’s work, the German spirit has intoxicated itself with beautiful sounds and
none of us intellectuals is at home in reality. We are strange to it and hostile. That is why the part played by intellect even in our own German reality, in our history and politics and public opinion, has been so lamentable a one.
A far cry from good clean English music, food of love, soother of savage breasts, softener of rocks, bender of knotted oaks, and server of other social functions! But let us have done with the commandant and Schubert, and also with Enzensberger’s equally double-souled SS-officer who carries Hölderlin (though a word-user and not a dreamer of music) in his knapsack. Hesse’s novels, and especially his largest and least readable, Magister Ludi (“The Glass Bead Game,” 1943), are much nearer to the ivory tower than to the concentration camp, albeit an ivory tower which bustles with enigmatic activity. The “Treatise on the Steppenwolf” pokes fun…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.