Hesse's way

Bernhard Zeller wrote his biography of Hermann Hesse before Hesse became an icon of Sixties' counter culture when, had he lived, Hesse's mailbag would be swollen even further. By the end of his life, Hesse's principal preoccupation, served diligently, was responding to his correspondents, many of them young, that had sprung up in the post Second World War era.

Many of the letters, Zeller, tells us were confessional and saw Hesse as a sage, able to find a 'word by which they might live' (to quote the oft used expression of the earliest disciples of the first Christian elders of the desert, a tradition which Hesse knew and wrote about). Though Hesse was skeptical of his own sage status, recognising that he bore as many questions as he did answers, he nevertheless offered his readers encouragement and hope, always individually tailored, always trying to treat each as the unique person he believed them to be. Their right to follow their own path was a right both Hesse had sought for himself and sought to defend and extend in his work. But equally like the Chinese sages he most deeply admired, advice could be terse and pointed to those who sought not to take up their own struggles but projected their predicament onto others or sought excuses for their own moral laxity. It struck me, however, reading of this correspondence that here was a man who walked his own talk, that was a living embodiment of his own convictions, crafted after a long life, complexly lived.

I was struck again, in his adolescence, how sudden his fall into turmoil had been at the seminary at Maulbronn. One moment he appears settling and happy, the next he is seeking to run away and it is years, schools and apprenticeships later, until he finds a real rhythm and a way of navigating his sensitivities, and their accompanying fears. It as if a disturbing force fell upon him from above (or welled up from below) suddenly accomplishing a phase shift in life (and accompanying struggle). It is a salutary reminder of the suddenness of change and a claim on our sympathy that lives do encounter such dramatic changes and we may not be able to offer them any short term, satisfactory explanation. We can only go with them in compassion, often bewildered, as Hesse's parents clearly were.

Meanwhile, the book beautifully reminds you of the body of work that emerged betwixt adolescent struggle and elderly sageness: not only the novels but essays, travel pieces and poems (and I, for one, am sorry that not more of the latter have been translated as there were six hundred in all). However, it is undoubtedly the novels that continue to stand the test of critical time.

The last I re-read was the greatest, 'The Glass Bead Game', and Zeller captures its import wonderfully well in only a few short pages. Here in his imagined realm of Castalia was not a future, utopian place within history, but a concrete embodiment of ever present values of order, harmony, contemplation. Where the invitation, here and now, is to find your own uniquely personal way of bringing them to bear, first into one's own life and then to transmit to others. Those values need embodiment because they can only be shown rather than said or perhaps a better analogy is sung or played. For Hesse, music was the supreme art because it can only live when being embodied. It exists only in a fusion of time, here and now, and eternity and it is better heard than discussed. It is, as always, a difficult message, because it requires a discipline to achieve the art. A complex struggle to find a necessary simplicity.

For Hesse, it was one that was never complete but he was on the way and could point others onto their way too.


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