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 at Faust’s pathetic claim, “in a line immortalised among schoolmasters and greeted with a shudder of astonishment by the Philistine,” to possess two souls:
The breast and the body are indeed one, but the souls that dwell in it are not two, nor five, but countless in number. Man is an onion made up of a hundred integuments, a texture made up of many threads.
DUALITY can be dull enough, but think of the potentialities of plurality! Why I compared Hesse’s novels to ivory towers or palaces of philosophy is that customarily they talk a lot about man’s many souls yet they rarely or only briefly show us any one of these souls or selves in action. Thomas Mann is the greater novelist in that, though he too is ever ready for a long, abstract, and learned excursus, he surrounds his lecturing with characters who are irresistibly “flesh and blood.” Hesse, however, falls back on “the East,” “the ancient Asiatics,” the Yin and the Yang, that unholy pair of twins, or points encouragingly to “India” or “China” (an India empty of Indians, a China without Chinese), or to the Buddha, or “the return into the All.” Magister Ludi is an exhausting account of the minutiae of an aristocratic, highly spiritual secret society; the theme, much beloved of earlier German writers and categorized in the formula Bundesroman or “League Novel,” is treated also in Demian and The Journey to the East. But the odd thing about this secret society is that it doesn’t do anything. It simply is. The secret is in the secret, perhaps.
In The Novels of Herman Hesse Theodore Ziolkowski describes the book admiringly as an attempt on the grand scale “to project the ideal into reality,” but the Magister himself retires from the Order because of its aestheticism, its ignorance of the outside world. In fact we see little of any “commitment to life” within life and the outside world: this is only more highflown talk. When Magister Knecht leaves the Castalian Order, so Ziolkowski glosses, “his representative life is over. He is now free to live or to die as an individual.” In the story he dies, pretty promptly. But then, life in Hesse is mostly a shabby business; he could never have achieved anything comparable to Thomas Mann’s Mynheer Peeperkorn, ludicrous and majestic, gone to seed and full of seed, a symbol and a particular Dutch coffee-planter from Java, “Life” itself and yet “an out-and-out personality.” Mann sounds like a novelist, if discernibly a German one then the most “Dickensian” of them, where Hesse sounds like a commentator on somebody else’s novels, as when in Magister Ludi he instructs the reader that the Bead Game “represented a select, symbolical form of the quest for perfection, a sublime alchemy, a self-approach to the inherent spirit beyond all images and pluralities—and thus to God.” Ziolkowski, a devotee writing at length on the master, carries the process of abstraction and rarefaction to the point at which the reader’s (or this reader’s) mind fails to get a foothold or a nail-hold on the discourse and can only suppose that the exegete speaks with the tongue of angels perhaps, but certainly not with that fleshy muscular organ given to man.
Two at least of Hesse’s novels are exceptions or partial exceptions to what I have said or implied above. I must have given the impression that Hesse is an extreme case of Teutonic heaviness and humorlessness, and yet Steppenwolf is quite funny in some of its discursive passages and in some of its incidents. Harry Haller, a lonely, wretched intellectual, pacifist and lover of Mozart, “a most refined and educated specialist in poetry, music and philosophy,” falls in with a strange and seemingly bisexual dance-hostess called Hermine (Hermann). Hermine takes his re-education or de-education in hand, makes him buy a gramophone and some jazz records, teaches him to dance, and generally introduces him to a new world. “Marble-topped tables, jazz music, cocottes, and travelling salesmen!” She also provides him with an attractive mistress, Maria, who “taught me the charming play and delights of the senses” and brings him to view less priggishly “the world of the dance and pleasure resorts, the cinemas, bars and hotel lounges.” The account of a late flowering of sexual love is quite charming and tender, but Harry somehow knows that this new life cannot last and some new “unwinding of fate” is at hand:
It was my destiny to make another bid for the crown of life in the expiation of its endless guilt. An easy life, an easy death—these were not for me.
No such luck! In the course of the book’s lively yet enigmatically phantasmagoric denouement, Maria and Hermine disappear and Harry is left with “all the hundred thousand pieces of life’s game” in his pocket:
A glimpse of its meaning had stirred my reason and I was determined to begin the game afresh. I would sample its tortures once more and shudder again at its senselessness. I would traverse not once more, but often, the hell of my inner being.
IN 1961 Hesse complained that Steppenwolf had been violently misunderstood, especially by its most enthusiastic readers who identified themselves with Harry in his sufferings and failed to realize that “the story pictures a disease and crisis—but not one leading to death and destruction, on the contrary: to healing.” But it is the tale we have to trust; the sheer phantasmagoria of the ending and the obscure “healing” which it is alleged to point toward simply cannot stand up to the weight of melancholy, the realistic and documented misery, of the book’s first half.
I complained that we rarely saw any of Hesse’s “souls” or fragments of souls in action. Rare in that respect then, is Narcissus and Goldmund (1930), which Ziolkowski describes as the most popular and most imperfect of Hesse’s later novels, but which I would say is the best of all. The duality here is very plainly exemplified in Narcissus, the scholarly and austere monk, and Goldmund, the artist, adventurer, and lover. It is Narcissus, as befits “mind,” who expounds with Hesse’s customary explicitness the differences between the two of them. “The difference between mother-heritage and father-heritage, the difference between soul and mind”; “we are sun and moon, dear friend, we are sea and land”; “you sleep at your mother’s breast; I wake in the desert. Your dreams are of girls; mine of boys.” Where Narcissus looks to God the Father and teaches in the monastery school, Goldmund looks to the Earth-Mother and becomes a sculptor.
Hesse spells out the message in large lettering, reminding us for instance that pain and joy resemble each other closely (we would like to remind Hesse that sometimes they don’t, too), and that while it is good to lead a disciplined life of intellect, religion, and meditation, it is also good (for all manner of thing shall be well, though some of us may not always think so) to “suffer sun and rain, hunger and need, to play with the joys of the senses and pay for them with suffering.” Goldmund is brought back to the monastery and dies in Narcissus’s arms, and to Narcissus is given the bulk of the moralizing, the explication of the novel, and the directing of the reader’s intellectual responses. But the adventures are given to Goldmund, and it is these that count.
Ziolkowski complains that the title of the first English translation referred only to Goldmund, by implication ignoring the significance of the counterpart, Narcissus, and he quotes Hesse’s own protest against readers who made the same mistake:
The book and its world become meaningless if one splits it like that: Narcissus must be taken just as seriously as Goldmund; he is the counterpole.
We will silence our doubts as to whether, in that case, the monk is altogether happily named, but again it is the tale we must trust, not what its author says about it. I maintain that the reader to whom this Narcissus can mean as much as this Goldmund must have come to the book with an entrenched pre-disposition in favor of thin-lipped philosophizing and cloistered virtue and a gross lack of interest in the life of the world and the life of the senses. For one thing, if we agree to think of the two poles in question as “Nature” and “Spirit” (Ziolkowski’s suggestion), then where Narcissus is spirit alone, we come to feel that Goldmund is both nature and spirit. Ziolkowski contends that something has gone wrong “technically,” and this he attributes to a structural flaw in the novel arising from the fact that Hesse conceived Goldmund before he conceived Narcissus and the former thus had an unfair start in life. I would say, though, that something has gone right—despite Hesse. (We should note that in Siddhartha, 1923, the most tract-like of the novels, the eponymous hero who has been a merchant, lady’s man, epicure, gambler, and ferryman, and who distrusts doctrines and teachers, ends up holier than his friend Govinda, ascetic monk and disciple of the Buddha.) Where generally Hesse’s persons merely dent the walls of the ivory tower on the inside, here Goldmund breaks clean through them—and goes on what seems a real journey through a reasonably real medieval Germany.
GOLDMUND’S ADVENTURES are largely erotic, and in a recent piece in The New Republic Stephen Koch remarked irreverently that what the novel is really about is not Artist versus Intellectual or what have you but “wanting women.” Good for Goldmund, then, for he not only wants, he gets! His success rate is perhaps unrealistically high. “Everywhere women desired him and made him happy…Without knowing it, he was to each woman the lover she had wished for and dreamed of.” He begins to feel that
perhaps his destiny was to learn to know women and to learn love in a thousand ways, until he reached perfection, the way some musicians were able to play not only one, but three, four, or a great number of instruments…. Here he had no difficulty learning; he never forgot a thing. Here experience accumulated and classified itself.
All the same, women don’t stay with him very long, and the two he most desires elude him altogether. But what impresses is the goodness of the eroticism, its naturalness, indeed its pleasurableness. This endows Hesse’s accounts with an effect of quite startling novelty at a time when the chief attraction of most current fiction is its analysis of the repulsiveness of physical intercourse. Goldmund enjoys making love to women, women enjoy having Goldmund make love to them, and Hesse knows how much of love-making can be justly conveyed through words and how much cannot. His easy, sure touch in physical matters (even the highly spiritual Siddhartha has some wise remarks on the subject) contrasts oddly with his overheated metaphysicality, his lasciviously loose talk about destiny, the abyss, the longing for death and for the All.
But wanting and getting girls is not the whole of Goldmund’s adventures. He kills twice, under provocation. And to rectify the balance further Hesse follows Love with Sickness (the scenes of the Black Death are stark enough but not manipulated morbidly) and then with the persecution of the Jews in the wake of the plague. In this book too he makes excessively free with such large, question-begging concepts as “the demands of fate,” but despite the author’s assiduous and finally tedious interventions, the balance of the novel’s sympathy tips in favor of nature, art, action, and the flesh, as against spirit, religion, contemplation, and asceticism. The novel does have a tapestried air about it, a faint but distinct smell of fake-medieval allegorizing, yet there is still more of the feel of life in it, of experience not solely cerebral than in any other work of Hesse’s.
Of the other books recently published in translation there is less to be said. Demian (1919) is insufficiently cryptic for its own good. Hesse jeopardizes the novel by abandoning his usual evasiveness and tactlessly tying his vague prophecies to a particular occurrence, the First World War. Thus we hear of a “great chain of events” commencing with the war, about “a new world” which is beginning to emerge and “something akin to a new humanity” which is taking shape “deep down, underneath”—as it were, something like Wilfred Owen’s “Strange Meeting” without the poem’s conditional tense and its elegiac tone and tenor. The novel’s schoolboy pranks, quasi-mystical visions, and admixture of sexual stirrings account for its appeal to adolescents of all ages.
HALFWAY through The Journey to the East (1932) the narrator, H. H. (Harry Haller, Hermann Hesse), cries out, “But how can it be told, this tale of a unique journey, of a unique communion of minds, of such a wonderfully exalted and spiritual life?” Toward the end, at a judicial assembly of the League, its Speaker announces that the League is ready to pass judgment on the narrator,
who has now realized how strange and blasphemous was his intention to write the story of a journey to which he was not equal and an account of a League in whose existence he no longer believed and to which he had become unfaithful.
The catch is that the League can only be spoken of in public by those who have left it, and those who have left it cannot remember what the League was all about! Therefore, as Ziolkowski puts it, all the narrator can do now “is to narrate his own attempt to narrate the journey to the East: the act of narration has become the subject of the story.” Ending as it does with what is blatantly a symbol, but a symbol amenable to any number of interpretations, the book can be said to be open-ended. In that sense it can also be said to be open-beginninged and open-middled as well. It seems to me an amusing piece of higher chicanery (indeed it seems to me rather like a parodic send-up of Magister Ludi in particular and of armchair “journeys” in general), but Hesse apparently took it very seriously, and there have been and no doubt are and will be plenty of readers ready and eager to supply their own beginning, middle, and end, and in effect to write Hesse’s book for him.
Beneath the Wheel (1906), Hesse’s second novel, is more honest and more sad, the story of a gifted boy of humble birth who is sent from his village to a theological academy, sinks to the bottom of the class, breaks down, goes home, and dies. Ziolkowski claims that, just as the school is the same as the one in Narcissus and Goldmund, so is the duality of the later novel anticipated here in the school friendship between Hans Giebenrath and Hermann Heilner (another H.H., though here a rather fleeting Hitchcockian presence), between the grind and the poet, the quiet worried scholarship-boy who is destroyed and the “checkered and striking personality” who runs away and lives to fight another day. Unalerted to this parallel, we should read Beneath the Wheel as simply a straight-forward warning, touching and telling, against the evils of subjecting a boy to the academic grindstone at a time when he should be giving himself up to the beneficent sway of nature. The slight smell of metaphysical Lederhosen which pervades Hesse’s work is rather less metaphysical than usual here and more physical. And none the worse for that—but why must Hans die? Surely not that Hermann may live?
It is not so much that Hesse dramatizes or even popularizes ideas as that he takes the stiffening out of them, sandpapers the sharper edges away, and hands them over to his readers to play with as they will. A highly cultivated person, he is the ideal second-order writer for the sort of serious-minded reader desirous to believe that he is grappling successfully with intellectual and artistic profundities of the first order. Best among his books, I would say, are Steppenwolf for queer fun and mystification and some shrewd comments on the bourgeoisie, and Narcissus and Goldmund for a fairminded (if not consciously intended) assessment of some of those polar opposites so interesting to us all (for who wants to feel himself underprivileged in the matter of souls?) and so obsessively fascinating to the romantic German mind.