Hermann Hesse's Legacy, 50 Years Later
Enlarge image Cover of Der Spiegel from August 6, 2012. (© Der Spiegel) The cover of the Aug. 6, 2012 issue of Spiegel magazine features an illustration of Hermann Hesse, winner of the 1946 Nobel Prize in literature, glaring almost menacingly at the reader and giving the middle finger. “Der Störenfried” (“the troublemaker”) is written in bold letters, under which appear the labels “Sinnsucher, Dichter, Anarchist”—“seeker of meaning, poet, and anarchist.”
Spiegel covers are well-known for being provocative, but does this one go too far? Does it make sense to depict the peace-loving author, painter, and nature-lover who wrote about the search for self-discovery and deeper meaning, in such an aggressive pose? The editors clearly hope this challenging image will spark a debate about the role of the famous German-Swiss author, one of the best-selling German writers ever, 50 years after his death on August 9, 1962.
The title of the article, “Ich mach mein Ding,” “I just do my thing,” probably points more accurately at the true nature of the man. Born in 1877 in Calw, halfway between Stuttgart and Baden-Baden, Hesse lived through the great upheavals of the early twentieth century. Rather than going with the mass of society that clamored for war in the summer of 1914, Hesse published an essay, “O Freunde, nicht diese Töne” (“Oh friends, not these tones”), which appealed to brotherly love and Europe’s common heritage as reasons for not going to war. For this he was vociferously and publicly lambasted. This personal crisis partly explains why Hesse shied away from the public eye later in life.
Enlarge image Hermann Hesse (left) clinks glasses on July 2, 1947, in the garden of the castle Bremgarten with his son Martin (second from left ), Max Wassmer (third from left), the arts patron of Berne and Mr. Leuthold (right) on the occasion of his 70th birthday. Hesse had just been awarded the honorary doctor of the university of Berne and the honorary membership of the body of students of the city of Berne in a festive ceremony. (© picture alliance/KEYSTONE) According to the autobiographical sketch on the Nobel Prize website, his wish to be a poet had developed at the age of 12. Although he was a good learner at boarding schools in Württemberg, Hesse “was not a very manageable boy,” as he described himself. “It was only with difficulty that I fitted into the framework of a pietist education that aimed at subduing and breaking the individual personality.” Indeed, at the age of 15, Hesse fled his monastery school and was sent by his parents to a private clinic, where he attempted to take his life. Thereafter came a four-month consignment to a mental institution. The diagnosis: “melancholy.”
With no clear career path for a would-be writer, Hesse became an apprentice mechanic and worked in antique and book stores in Tübingen and Basel. His mother being partially of French Swiss descent, Hesse had lived in Basel as a young child, from 1880-86. After his first literary success, the novel Peter Camenzind, published in 1904, Hesse moved to the country, to Gaienhofen on Lake Constance, on the border with Switzerland. “At that time a rural life, far from the cities and civilization, was my aim.”
Enlarge image Hermann Hesse in front of his residence in Montagnola, undated picture. (© picture alliance / KEYSTONE) He was to live there until 1912; thereafter Hesse lived in Switzerland, in Basel, Bern, Zurich, and Montagnola, a small village in the Italian-speaking canton of Ticino. In 1911, however, at the age of 34, Hesse embarked on a trip to India, where his parents had worked as missionaries. Though the ship actually sailed to Indonesia, the “India” journey would influence the young man’s thinking. His impressions from the trip, along with his studies of Buddhism and eastern philosophy, found their way into more than one of Hesse’s novels.
In 1923, he resigned his German and acquired Swiss citizenship. In picturesque Montagnola, overlooking Lake Lugano, where he lived for half his life, from 1919 to 1962, Hesse produced his most enduring works: Siddhartha, Der Steppenwolf, and Das Glasperlenspiel (The Glass Bead Game).
All of these novels deal with themes involving the individual search for self-knowledge, spirituality, and the inward turn. Though his novels proved popular during his lifetime, it was only after his death that his popularity skyrocketed, making him one of the most widely-read German authors of the twentieth century. One hundred fifty million copies of his books, published in 60 languages, are thought to be in circulation around the world. Significantly, only a sixth of these are in German. Hesse’s popularity thus far surpassed the cultural sphere of his origin.
But why? An engaging style and compelling narratives can only explain this in part. A fuller explanation of his significance in literary history—and history more broadly—must consider Hesse as emblematic of certain values that resonated—in particular in the late 1960s, in Germany and in America.
Enlarge image German rock star Udo Lindenberg, an acknowledged fan of Hesse, performs as part of the yearlong Hermann Hesse Festival in Calw on July 7, 2012. (© picture alliance / dpa) The surge in Hesse’s popularity coincided with the so-called “68er” generation in Germany, the Woodstock and Vietnam-protest era in America, when rebellions against the established, conformist society became mainstream. Hesse’s writings were rediscovered at the time, the themes coinciding with the ideals of the hippie and counterculture movements. Rebellion against conformity, listening to the self rather than authority—these ideas, also found in the works of Henry David Thoreau, who also drew inspiration from Eastern philosophy, defined Hesse’s appeal. The band Steppenwolf, best-known for “Born to be Wild” and “Magic Carpet Ride,” named itself after Hesse’s novel of the same name. Like with Thoreau in America, Hesse became required reading at schools across Germany. Today, a large number of schools are named after him.
With so many people encountering him at a young age, it’s no surprise interest in Hesse is not fading fifty years after his death. They are encountering him not only though his books, but through music. 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 something like “the art of having one’s own will; a vigorous, determined inner voice.”
For Lindenberg, as for millions of other fans around the world, this devotion to “Eigensinn” is the source of fascination with, and inspiration from, Herman Hesse.