Hermann Hesse became quite well known in Germany as early as 1904, when his short novel Peter Camenzind was published. Since 1945 his renown has spread across the world, yet in spite of his 1946 Nobel Prize his work is somehow not admitted into the canon of “great” twentieth-century German authors. Germans, at least, would be amused nowadays, or mildly astonished, if a foreigner were to mention him along with Thomas Mann, Hofmannsthal, Rilke, Kafka, or Brecht.
This is not only because readers now aged fifty or sixty and upward may not have read him since adolescence. Nor is it because the skeptical generations now between thirty and fifty have largely avoided him. Nor can it be entirely because his prose is too readable to be thought difficult enough to be important, although it is probable that younger writers today have not read him at all, let alone learned anything from him. It is partly because the canon has no place for a writer whose work, though a coherent whole, is so curiously mixed. It is sometimes cloying, sometimes profound, then quixotically unironic, then at once brisk, mysterious, and topical, and at other times, if not in his last two fictions, what Germans patronizingly call pubertär—and most of this in a prose that has a mercurial texture all its own.
The mixture does not seem to have vexed either American Hesse scholars or youth-culture fans who adopted him ten years ago. Nor has it embarrassed his Japanese readers (thirteen pages list translations in Joseph Mileck’s inclusive bibliography), or the Italians (thirty-five items in Mileck), or the Persian, Spanish, and Swedish readers. Most literary historians and critics outside Germany have taken the mixture in their stride. Ralph Freedman’s new biography shows that he does much the same, certain subdued doubts aside. It also shows, amply, how the mixture arose: out of a collision, in the tempestuous but wistful character of an exceedingly long-lived author (eighty-five when he died in 1962), between oddly blended family traits and the bloody history of this century.
Hesse was halfway through his twenty-second year when the century began. He had been by no means an ordinary child of the southwestern German Pietist missionary family from which he came—because he resisted, from early childhood on, the ruthless “breaking of self-will” that Pietist culture demanded. So he was sent away to a boarding school when he was six, and his education thereafter was confused, to say the least. He would conform for a few months, then break out, run away, or be sick and despondent. He had a terrible temper. At one stage he was parked in a school for backward children. His parents rigorous but not unkind, found him ungovernable; and yet, as a boy, Hesse seems to have found authority intolerable only so long as it frightened him into feeling guilty. Which was, inevitably, most of the time. There was no pleasure, in that world, and everything outside of work and worship was a cause for guilt.
Even much later, Freedman remarks, he was incapable of enjoying anything wholeheartedly; elsewhere, too, Freedman writes of Hesse’s “constant sense of physical and emotional deprivation.” An odd fish to be found, much later, in the midst of the 1960s Aquarian pleasure-culture of unregenerate young North Americans. But perhaps not so odd, if they found in Hesse a voice of understanding, the guru who understood what they were up against: the dog collar, the hard heart, and behind these the bayonet.
At the age of thirteen Hesse resolved to be a writer. He wrote his first two books when he was an apprentice bookseller, first in Tübingen, then in Basel. He was a priggish and stilted young man, but perhaps no more so than most of his genteel Wilhelmine contemporaries. No sooner had his first successful book, Peter Camenzind, appeared than he married a woman nine years his senior, and settled into a “wilderness” sort of life at Gaienhofen, on Lake Constance. Maria Bernoulli came from an eminent Swiss family and was a gifted pianist. She had three children by Hesse, all boys, and eventually, after long depressions, she went mad. Her episodes and remissions followed Hesse through a large part of his life. It was not until he married Ninon Ausländer, nineteen years his junior, and his third wife, in 1929, that he seems to have met his match, or at least not deceived himself by substituting an image for a person: of the robust thirty-six-year-old Maria he had written in a letter home that she was a “delightful, petite, black-haired, wild sweetheart of a girl,” and “a little girl who reaches only up to my beard and yet can kiss so powerfully that I almost suffocate.” These details are not trivial, for they illustrate Hesse’s constant inclination to edit, or reduce, the “world” of his experience to a psychically loaded image or idea, with which he could then play imaginatively. Precisely the same reduction occurred after his thoroughly discomforting trip to Indonesia and Ceylon in 1911.
The Gaienhofen years shaped Hesse as a mildly disturbed but polite author of Swabian small-town tales and of two novels about desperate but rather dreary artists. He was successful, second-rate, and trapped. The change came in the middle of the First World War. At the start, he was no more opposed to the war than Thomas Mann was. He hoped that Germany would win and save European culture (the gist of German national myth at that time). Yet his refusal to be militant soon came under attack. He dutifully reported for the draft (though living then in Switzerland) whenever his card came up, but was always sent away because his eyes were weak. He did not like it when his wartime journalistic statements, which emphasized (conventionally enough) spiritual purification through suffering, raised a vicious clamor among jingoists.
He worked long and hard hours in Bern, obtaining books and printing literary booklets that were sent to German prisoners of war in France—hoping still that “culture” might prevail against mud and carnage. A partial breakdown brought him into the charge of J.B. Lang, a Jungian psychiatrist; the two men remained close friends until Lang’s death in 1945 (his notebooks were unfortunately destroyed by his daughter). Lang was the model for Pistorius, the church organist, in Demian, the fiction written 1916-1917, which appeared pseudonymously in 1919 and launched Hesse into a trajectory that could hardly have been predicted from his previous work.
Yet Hesse does not quite belong among those writers who extracted from the war, besides horror, disgust, and irony, a distinctly altered outlook, a vocabulary purged of cant, and a new approach to poetry. Doubt toward any pretension to dignity and nobility—that is one attitude Hesse confessed he drew from the war. Also a heightening of the color, tempo, urgency of his prose could be taken for a sign that he too now believed all the idylls were over. But this is not quite the case. Hesse’s utopian fantastic impulse was not subdued but quickened, and its shattering against the historical world was recorded now with just that much more intensity. What did change Hesse, or what he came to create, was a new narrative form, in which his polymorphous interior life could be reflected. This was the fictionalized monologue, with a figured bass of images (later he called this his “private mythology”) that recur in modulations and, from book to book, explicitly or tacitly organize the events.
Hesse was one of the first European writers to be psychoanalyzed, but his analysis was never purely clinical and always broken off. He duly became, during the next twenty years, a self-analytical novelist whose fictions orchestrated psychic crises of his own, and, rather mysteriously, thousands of readers could find their own troubles reflected in those of his protagonists. Published in 1927, Steppenwolf—the biographical background is nicely investigated by Freedman—was his most mazy and spacy monologue of the 1920s. It is a book in which most of the idées reçues of cultural and psychological crisis during the 1920s are anatomized, and its structure has been explored by various critics. Yet however remarkable the book is as prose, the Steppenwolf poems that Hesse wanted to be printed in the book are one-dimensional and vapid. What, indeed, is one to make of this acrobat of self-exploration, whose oscillations between self-esteem and self-disgust, psychological daring, imaginative acumen, morbid ferocity, and intent moralizing make him resemble a hybrid of Isidore Ducasse and (say) Maria Edgeworth?
Freedman’s view of Hesse is such that he would find some of the foregoing remarks as peculiar as I find his allegation that the novels of Hesse’s great forebear, the eighteenth-century novelist Jean Paul Richter, were “often written” in Franconian dialect. Admirably, and loyally, he traces out the maze of Hesse’s movements during the 1920s and 1930s. He portrays the monstrously attractive old Casa Camuzzi in the Ticino where Hesse had an apartment from 1919 onward, until his friends Hans and Elsy Bodmer enabled him to settle in his own house in Montagnola (1931). There were readings and lecture tours, spells in spas, as Hesse’s afflictions multiplied (gout, sciatica, arthritis, toothache, eyeache, frequent influenza). As his interests radiated more and more to the Far East, especially China, his writings also proved attractive to some distinguished contemporary writers, such as Thomas Mann, who still found him controversial, even if his vocabulary was still romantically soft-edged.
Yet for all his eminence Hesse was always in trouble, almost as if he had to fabricate troubles in order to test himself against them—to justify himself. His existence was also fortunate in many ways, not one-sidedly ill-starred in the way that Kafka’s was. Hesse became a Swiss citizen in 1924, but his income depended on royalties from Germany (hence, later, his relief when the Nazis did not ban his books). He wrote narratives, but they were neither realistic nor mythocentric—the main modes of new German fiction in the 1930s. He married Ruth Wenger, with her cat, doggy, and parrot—but saw precious little of her after two months of cohabitation. He lived for a time in Zürich, grindingly sick, and then learned to dance the shimmy, drank heavily for and to the joys of carnival, and had long nocturnal talks with J.B. Lang (“sharing depressions”). Even before he was fifty he felt he was dying of old age.
Though tending to passivity, he was too contemplative to be simply sensual, and his cerebral sensualism, being rather low-powered, shocked only fools and prudes. If not a practical man, he had a sharp sense for money. If not a sensual man, his imago of the artist was otherwise: the erotocentric vital vagrant, exposed to all the joys and horrors, wasting his substance in unreflected life, then incubating experience and hatching it in an essential, abundant, ravishing image that transcends all sense and all intellect—a curiously philistine, or at best romantic notion. Although he was basically a confessional writer, his self-revelations are (to us now, it must be said) mostly moderated by a discretion which used to be the mark of civilized persons. Hesse never was the sort of untamed self-eviscerator whom Henry Miller and Timothy Leary thought they were shepherding into the scene when they praised him.
Briefly, Hesse was never truly an outsider; his work was a threshold between epochs, between cultures, between the opposed compulsions of his own psychic riches and his singular (but not powerful) intelligence. A Manichaean malgrélui, he was a “deeply civilized man” of the old school, who thus could feel, the more painfully, civilization’s discontents, but who thought of them as wrongs inflicted by fate, rather than as effects of wicked and long-standing injustice.
The rhetoric of Hesse criticism, even in its earlier stages, was strained and sometimes thunderous, because it endeavored to make a highbrow author out of an essentially upper-middlebrow one. Freedman is no exception. On the positive side, he does map all sorts of fascinating connections between Hesse’s life and work, showing what stuff the successive self-portrayals were made from. If his focus dulls, it is because he tends to rate each of Hesse’s fictions as highly as Hesse rated it himself. Since each was cathartic and left its author feeling high, dry, and relieved, until the next slide into misery, Hesse’s own ratings were not only exorbitant, they seldom lacked a note of glib self-praise. When Freedman might seem to have his doubts, he tucks them almost out of sight.
But some inconsistencies are surprising. For instance, Narcissus and Goldmund is introduced as “one of the most revealing but also one of the most beautiful novels Hesse wrote,” and then twenty-one lines later it is judged as “this sentimentally constructed medieval allegory.” If Freedman means the term “sentimentally” to have a positive sense (as retrospective reverie) he should have told us how, and, specifically, on what grounds he would presumably not agree with readers who find the text cloying—and the whole book Edelkitsch. Later, after a most positive account of the genesis of The Glass Bead Game, and of its shift from “image” to “geometry,” with “dialectical intricacies,” comes the well-nigh shattering epitome of that last novel as “an arid, intellectual work whose harmonies remained theoretical and whose characters were puppets.” Yet one could not say that Freedman harbors a love-hate relation to his subject. Far from it, his treatment is largely reverential.
Here I found another difficulty with this new “definitive biography.” Freedman explicates, with biographical details, Hesse’s personality and writings from Hesse’s own point of view but seldom if ever tries to elucidate them in a critical way. (Hence his monotonous insistence on such words as “within,” “inward,” “inner,” and “interior.”) So he declines to sharpen or deepen his view, or the portrait of his subject, by bringing to bear a different intellectual, psychological, or social perspective. This reverential method yields much information about Hesse but it strains the reader’s patience when the biographer’s values (or clichés) reiterate those of his subject, and there is no contest, no drama.
I felt this most particularly when Freedman speaks of Hesse’s “poses.” He usually says, for instance, that such-and-such a feature was “by no means only a pose,” and then he goes on to an implication of some kind, soon to repeat (as on page 214) that Hesse’s “new life was by no means only pretense.” Why doesn’t he sail in and question the entire tendency toward self-inventing stagyness that marks almost every phase of Hesse’s work, virtually every modulation of his self-image? These are crucial matters—after Sartre’s injustices to Baudelaire and the entire Existentialist controversy regarding good and bad faith. The problem here is that Hesse’s sentimentality and solipsism often tiresomely overshadow the more incandescent aspects of his personality and work, manifesting themselves in limp stereotypes, clichés, and other forms of low-energy escapism. Hesse was tormentedly aware of this and large tracts of his work display it.
The North American Hesse “legend” (a compound of ignorance, faddishness, and commercial exploitation) did change the common perception of Hesse, but without providing a better one. With Hesse loosened from his German origins and values American fans could read (or scan) him as a spellbinding phantasmagorist, a wizard of poetic suggestion, without feeling their way into the traditions that support him. Even more vexing than this is the fact that non-German readers could not see how Hesse’s sentimental and solipsistic aspects connect the writer Hesse with all kinds of German psychosocial malaise—with morose philistine paltriness, self-pity, and self-aggrandizement. His other-worldly utopianism, whether or not accompanied by deep Indian equations between the self and the world, was eccentrically part of a broader tendency to wishful thinking that inched the German middle class via hero-worship and “inwardness” into hideous self-deception and eventually Nazism. The “floating irrationality” which American fans adored in Hesse was, as a matter of historical fact, a major impulse in German middle-class psychology: Nazism, giving the impulse authoritarian form, directed it into deadly policies.
I am not saying that Hesse was a deliberate irrationalist like D.H. Lawrence or Knut Hamsun, certain of whose aesthetic and moral notions, when taken out of context, might be thought of as fascistic. In fact, for all his quasi-mystical proclivity, Hesse never did espouse irrationalism, least of all its terrorist fringe. Quite the reverse: he thought his task in the 1930s was to wrest the utopian impulse from its manipulators, and to enshrine it in an unassailable imaginative form (The Glass Bead Game). How he did this is shown in some of Freedman’s best pages. But Hesse’s political vagueness and his haughty liberal-parochial gentility with respect to the “real world” were typical of the German middle-class mentality that was both drawn to Nazism and victimized by it, and his phantasmagorias should not be blithely viewed in isolation. Nor does his sympathetic biographer achieve the critical distance from which he could strip away for us the clichés and reveal the psychomechanics of Hesse’s Edelkitsch. As for the horror of such a writer’s political impotence, Freedman does not dramatize it by comparing Hesse’s record with that of other European writers, but here he does deserve credit. He examines with real expertise the ambiguities and timidities of Hesse’s position toward Germany in the 1930s, even after the 1938 Anschluss, and in that examination there is a rare blend of insight and charity.
One reason, I suspect, for Freedman’s failure to evaluate Hesse’s writing from any clear critical perspective is that his native German, despite long years in the US, has led him to think and write, especially in the first two-thirds of his book, in an English that is Germanicized, sometimes heavily so. He relies on lexical and phraseological stereotypes, for one thing, and this for me raises doubts about his ability to see through Hesse’s own frequent clichés and cloying expressions.
In Freedman’s use of metaphor, for example, there is a marked tendency to mix stereotypes, which may be owing to his reluctance to visualize or to take account of etymology. Thus: “crisis in the poet’s eye found its resonance in the minds and hearts of his readers” (p. 6: two stock metaphors clumsily mixed). And this: “the figurative mole…dug beneath the well-kept gardens of his life…yet, paradoxically, opened gates to freedom” (p. 132). “He had crossed the Rubicon of his life…the vault of Siddhartha had been reopened” (p. 230: not a mixing but a clumsy juxtaposition).
Questions of vocabulary arise where there are similar fumblings. Some of these occur through faulty translation. Examples: ” ‘God give’ [should be grant], wrote the dubious [should be doubtful] mother as she was preparing his blankets and sheets, ‘that Hermann will discipline himself and improve in diligence and manners’ ” (p. 40: some involuntary comedy here). “I have picked up carbon [should be pencil or charcoal] and paintbrush for the first time in forty years” (p. 187).
Freedman’s own phrasing tends to be clumsy: “Maria’s musical passion allowed her to enjoy these friends a good part of the time, although they retained (with the obvious exception of Ilona) a distinctly masculine coloration” (p. 136: why not “although most of them were men”? Or has Freedman forgotten he wrote “friends” and not “friendships”?). I detect a heavy German accent in phrases like “friend Finckh” (p. 92) and “gardener Hesse” (p. 159). The Germanic flavoring, as well as the fumbling, are to some extent inseparable from his cast of thought.
A loving biographer, Freedman seems ill-equipped to deal with a writer who was, even more than most writers of his time and now, a monomaniac. Out of his monomania Hesse constructed an individualism which has been highly attractive to several generations of younger people. Yet between the monomania and the individualism there is a dark connection. The benign side of this link is formulated quite nicely by Freedman on his next-to-last page: “Throughout the many decades of his life, Hesse had lived as a self-conscious artist who viewed his function as that of a painter not of mores but of the inward features of man whose glory and suffering were beyond time…. The uncertainty with which Hesse has been charged was, in fact, a sign of his humanity, of his need for and his success in reflecting the inner visions of those around him.”
What strikes me, while reading Freedman before he reaches this (rather owlish) formulation, is precisely Hesse’s inability to feel empathy, his devilish opacity, which he projects into the minds of all his protagonists, and his compulsion to deflect everything onto his own ego, using others almost like a vampire, without any particular interest in “the inner visions of those around him.” These traits are present in all his fictions from Peter Camenzind to Journey to the East, fictions oppressed, as their protagonists are, by a twofold failure. The protagonist cannot achieve, let alone sustain, communion with the subjective experience of other persons, and, if he can at length be animated and “saved” by the healing flow and touch of images that seem to govern the depths of his own self, he does so in isolation or by casting all externals, persons included, to the margins of experience. The exhausted protagonist in a world impenetrably dense has to edit that world drastically, in order to make the slightest sense out of it, even in order to achieve belief in his own identity.
Likewise Hesse in his life vampirically edited his world, in order, so it would seem, to inflate his ego even if he could not animate his self, except in moments of grace—hermetic moments, perhaps those when he actually was engaged in writing. Freedman himself remarks (p. 226) on Hesse’s “usual habit of exploiting publicly a carefully edited picture of himself as the artist defined by his private agonies.” The supposed “Zen” Hesse of the American legend, the magic hallucinator, has to be seen as isolated, threatened, self-protecting, and self-exploiting. Freedman provides all sorts of details on these limitations, but wisely refrains from forcing them into a scheme. Yet one could figure out how such a scheme might work, if one were to hazard, admittedly via various short-cuts, a more one-sided formulation—“points,” as Freedman would say, “without counterpoint.”
One could select some details and call them typical. Hesse in 1909 went to a health spa, aged thirty-two, and left his wife Maria, their child, and the new baby in the care of a maid. He was undergoing a crisis, mental and physical, but also, as Freedman writes, he himself needed to be “a subject of compassion. In this way, Hesse realized a deeply felt need to take himself out of the everyday into a rarified life where the ailing person is cared for and made the center of attention” (p. 141). And from this time onward, Hesse was to be found ailing in a spa, once or twice every year. In the autumn of 1909, Hesse went to visit the aged author Wilhelm Raabe, and in mid-November wrote to him, after an appendicitis operation, that he awoke at noon on the second day after surgery to hear the bells of Frankfurt ringing in unison for him. Actually they were ringing for Schiller’s Memorial Day, but I can detect no humor in Hesse’s remark.
During the next few years, with Hesse frequently absent from Gaienhofen, Maria sank into the depression which eventually took her into an asylum. When under attack for his (ambivalent) feelings about World War I, Hesse defended himself by self-justifications cushioned by lofty appeals to a spirit of international brotherhood. (After World War II, many of his letters and essays—supplanting now all imaginative work—were again self-justifying attempts to explain his reluctance to condemn Nazism outright.)
After his father’s death in 1916, Hesse felt, as he wrote in a later essay: “They have never understood him. Nobody. Not even all his friends. Only I understand him fully, for I am just like him, alone and understood by no one.” During the exhilaratingly productive months following spring 1919, Hesse had numerous “friendships” which “counterpoint” the life of the solitary Hesse in the Ticino (his wife was now mad, his sons living somewhere else). Yet it is questionable how far Hesse’s supposed genius for friendship went toward real communion (as it probably did in his affection for Hugo Ball and Emmy Hennings). The quality of his friendships is a sensitive question indeed, and Freedman hardly examines it. One might suspect that Hesse used friends as screens upon which to project himself, experimentally, in his various “poses,” just as he “used women” (here I quote an unblushing Freedman), without really knowing them. “Reality,” he wrote in 1925, “is an accident, a bit of life’s debris.”
The equation between self and world which ends Siddhartha might just be a lyrically glorified, sublimely transposed (or displaced) version of such hubristic monomania as this. In 1925 Hesse writes to Emmy Hennings: “I remain always alone and can never penetrate the great void that separates me from other people.” By that time he was living apart from his second wife, the “singing student” Ruth Wenger, with whom he lived for two months after marriage in 1924. That marriage seems to have been not only absurd but also a sign of extremely poor human judgment on Hesse’s part (just three years after the difficult completion of Siddhartha, that book of “wisdom”). He needed Ruth to look after him when he was ailing, perhaps. When her own illness was diagnosed as TB, he wrote to his sister Adis: “It is really funny that Ruth’s passivity toward me at the very moment I was about to go on strike against it takes on the form of this illness, so that now she has been relieved at least of any responsibility for caring for me a little.” Freedman comments, two pages on (p. 265): “He had, he wrote Emmy, suffered less from Ruth’s illness, Mia’s madness, and his concern for the children than he had from his eyeaches”—because the eyeaches impeded his writing.
The double vision of self as miserable sufferer and humorous onlooker in A Guest at the Spa certainly provided a greater elasticity, more abundant space for considering the relations between world and self, body and spirit. But for Hesse all experience remains marooned among the caprices of the desperate (split, “verzweifelt“) ego that supplants the world of others. Hence, in the Magic Theater of Steppenwolf, Haller’s vision of life as illusory play; and hence, too, the altogether implausible other characters in that book, Hermine, Maria, and Pablo, who are mere husks, puppets, without a scrap of fictional substance, let alone “truth to life.” Hence, moreover, the song and dance in Freedman’s book about how ” ‘reality’ and its horrors can be overcome [my italics] by reflecting the self in the ‘immortal’ or ‘eternal’ self of the artistic consciousness” (Freedman, p. 273). Not reality is overcome, but one creative person’s despair about it. As that person discovers his “inner space” of images and rhythms, reality is piped away, to become a figment, first believed to be a luminous projection of the “immortal self,” then soon absorbed vampirically by the irreducible, desolate, vain ego, and then dismissed with loathing.
The scandal here is that the pretenses of the ego, always clamoring for psychic food, induce a “poetic reality” which is not substantial but a substitute, an escape, down an endless corridor of mirrors, thus no real escape, but the paralysis of self-entrapment. Hesse noted these escapist features, not in Steppenwolf, but in his next fiction, Narcissus and Goldmund: “In reading Goldmund the German reader can smoke his pipe and think of the Middle Ages and find life so beautiful and sentimental, and need not think of himself and his [own] life, and his business transactions, his wars, his culture, and other such things” (letter of November 1930). In passing let me say that Kafka, whom Freedman summons at this stage as a witness in Hesse’s favor, imagined through his own sufferings a diametrically opposite version of the negativity of the ego (as evil). If Hesse was influenced by Kafka, he took him along, in Journey to the East, in a direction that would not have suited Kafka at all.
Just as The Glass Bead Game—“ ‘an island of humanity and love’ in the midst of the killing and satanism” (Freedman quoting Hesse)—was appearing in Switzerland during World War II, after Suhrkamp had had to reject it in Berlin, Hesse wrote regarding the August 1943 air raids on Hamburg: “In Hamburg I, too, lost a thing or two. It was a city from which I received most of my letters for years. In the past not a week went by without a letter from Hamburg.” How casual! It is not cynical. But had this man no imagination of what those fire-storms had done to people? Not a word does he utter that might allow one to find in the aging, weary, arthritic Hesse genius of the kind that Alexander Dovzhenko, himself tormented by Stalinists, said was needed, at the time of the Nuremberg trials:
New German geniuses are needed—not just one, but many—to shine a pure light on mankind, to bring about a creative joy that would be able to fill the abysses of evil that the German people have created by giving birth to Hitler. Does the German nation have the strength for such a venture? I kneel. I kiss the ground where our soldiers passed in battle as they fought and died by the millions to save that goddamn old whore Europe. [The Poet as Filmmaker, MIT Press, 1973, pp. 140-141]
Of course, The Glass Bead Game might be said to shine with that pure light. Of course, too, Hesse for years on end wrote letters to all kinds of people, dispensing much-needed counsel (in a way reminiscent of Polonius). Certainly the sketch of Hesse as monomaniac, combating evils of self-estrangement but shrinking from social evils, is too selective to be anything but provocative. Yet, as a hypothesis it suggests how “individualism,” as a vague posture, can become a mere charade of opaque egotism, self-serving vanity, parochial ignorance of what other human beings are like, and certain other paralytic disorders of imagination. It also suggests how such individualism can put freedom of expression itself at stake.
For, if “subjective feelings”—a writer’s facts, as Orwell pointed out—are consistently taken as the supreme test of truth-to-life, then the genius of subjective feeling may have a high old time while the Karamazov conceit takes over—anything goes, not now because God is dead, but because the world is my toy and language my playpen (or pigpen).
In consequence, both world and language are subjugated to the ideologists, to the political, commercial, and television manipulators, who neutralize all “islands of humanity and love,” just as in the first place those islands were created by literary minds who cannot see what’s in front of their noses. The hypothesis also offers a warning. If the ingenuity, energy, and revolt which inspired significant art earlier in this century peter out in forms of opaque egotism (here I see Hesse as a transitional figure), the danger arises that blatant ego-drives alone might be mistaken, as they often are now, for “creative” activity, whereas in fact they are accidental to the poetic imagination. Those drives are not a feature of the real artist. They are a contamination from the automatic philistine world, from which the syntax of creative process radically deviates.
Whatever reservations one may have about Hesse, a question remains: Do the recent books about him annex his work now to the academy? Does Freedman’s biography transform the wished-for Hesse into a tame professor’s poet? Tacitly Freedman’s biography shows how misshapen the American legend has been, or still is; explicitly it adds to serious study of Hesse but is unlikely to change its general complexion. For me there is a chirping, still to be identified, that comes from among these documentary tombs, just as there is a durable but abstruse Hesse to be disengaged from the defenses he built into his writings and around them. All the seraphic talk of his being a pilgrim, wayfarer, a magician, a sage, and so forth tends to reflect only the sedentary and cerebral habits of readers who fancy Hesse so.
Yet he certainly was what Germans call a “seeker.” In his thirties he used to advertise himself as a “quiet” or “secret” lyricist. If only his poems were not so insipid, this might offer a clue to his abstruse side whence that chirping comes. His naïveté is perhaps what deserves to be noticed now, and understood. It is a trait that the intellectualizing excesses of much professorial Hesse criticism have until now obscured, more than other traits. Freedman, symptomatically, does not mention Hesse’s affection for his contemporary, the great naïf Swiss writer Robert Walser, whose fame was zero compared to Hesse’s. To Walser, very late in life, Hesse sent a conspicuously unpatronizing postcard to say he had been reading him again. Walser received it in the lunatic asylum at Herisau, where he had been living for many years. The simplicity of that postcard might have warmed his heart.
There was, in and under everything, something wild about Hesse, something of the ungovernable child of Pietist missionaries. He kept it alive, sometimes in grotesque forms, sometimes in luminous ones. And there was in him, too, something of his Swabian intellectual ancestors, whom he came upon quite late in life: great God-hounded deviants, dreamers, and delinquents, from Albertus Magnus to Hölderlin and Mörike, each peculiarly rapt in his vision of the One in the Many, the Many in the One, and some of them coming apart in pursuit of that vision. What is it, after all, that Hesse’s protagonists seek, if not naïveté reborn as illumination through grace? And something more: not the subjugation of reason to any system, but a just peace between the naïf and intellectual claims of consciousness. Just you listen, he says, listen actively, there it is, “the wooden horse is neighing in the wind.”
March 8, 1979