“I don’t share a single one of the ideals of our age”
Hermann Hesse (1877-1962) was a novelist and essayist who once described himself as “an utterly unpolitical man” impelled to speak out about what he saw around him only by his strong “moral instinct”. (1)
An ardent anti-militarist and anti-nationalist, his disgust with the chauvinistic fervour of the First World War led to him fleeing his home country of Germany and settling in Italian-speaking Switzerland.
This principled stance developed into a general moral distaste for the Western industrial capitalist civilisation which allowed, and indeed encouraged, abominations such as wars.
He made the connection explicit when he declared the wretched state of the world was down to “two mental disorders: the megalomania of technology and the megalomania of nationalism”, adding that resistance to these two phenomena was today “the most important test and justification of the human spirit”. (2)
Hesse was a man who found himself completely at odds with “a world deluded by money, time and figures”, (3) a civilization of “analytical methods, of technology as an end in itself, of logical explanations, of the shallow rationalistic world view, associated with such names as Darwin, Marx and Haeckel”. (4)
He wrote to one reader: “I don’t believe in our politics, our way of thinking, believing, amusing ourselves; I don’t share a single one of the ideals of our age”. (5)
His work is infused with a sense of deep alienation from contemporary society and of yearning for another existence.
The central character writes in Steppenwolf: “I was not a modern man, nor an old-fashioned one either. I had escaped time altogether, and went my way, with death at my elbow and death as my resolve”. (6)
And his fictional female alter ego Hermine declares in the same novel: “Whoever wants to live and enjoy his life today must not be like you and me. Whoever wants music instead of noise, joy instead of pleasure, soul instead of gold, creative work instead of business, passion instead of foolery, finds no home in this trivial world of ours”. (7)
It is this dimension to his work, also notably expressed in other works such as Demian, Siddharta, and The Glass Bead Game, which makes Hesse so important.
He was influenced in this by Hinduism, Chinese Taoism and Zen Buddhism as well as by European folk stories, the German Romantic tradition, medieval culture and, particularly in The Glass Bead Game, by mathematics.
The spirituality encouraged by Hesse is not of the dogmatic, religious kind, gained by following rituals or procedures laid down by others, but the kind which springs from within each individual. It is our inner quest to reach beyond the shallow banality of everyday life and find a higher reality glimpsed in our dreams and visions.
He writes in Demian: “There was only one true vocation for everybody – to find the way to himself. He might end as poet, lunatic, prophet or criminal – that was not his affair; ultimately it was of no account.
“His affair was to discover his own destiny, not something of his own choosing, and live it out wholly and resolutely within himself. Anything else was merely a half life, an attempt at evasion, an escape into the ideals of the masses, complacency and fear of his inner soul”. (8)
And yet this individually-sourced spirituality cannot be termed “individualist” because the inward-facing quest for self-knowledge leads us to the awareness that our ultimate source and belonging can only be found beyond individuality.
For Hesse, “the desperate clinging to the self and the desperate clinging to life are the surest way to eternal death, while the power to die, to strip one’s self naked, and the eternal surrender of the self bring immortality with them”. (9)
First of all, we could surrender our egotism by accepting that we were merely temporary facets of nature, shaped and informed in all we were and we did by wider organic patterns and forces. After all, “mountain and stream, tree and leaf, root and blossom, every form in nature is echoed in us”. (10)
And then, beyond that, we and nature were part of the great all-embracing whole we called the universe, which was infused throughout with the “self-will” that Hesse regarded as a crucial element of life.
“Everything on earth, every single thing, has its will. Every stone, every blade of grass, every flower, every shrub, every animal grows, lives, moves and feels in accordance with its ‘self-will’, and that is why the world is good, rich and beautiful.” (11)
In the face of war and other barbarity, Hesse was often dismayed by humankind’s inability to come anywhere near to fulfilling its potential.
He wrote, for instance, in the essay ‘Thou Shalt Not Kill’: “If we see our provisional goal in the fulfilment of the spiritual imperatives put forth by the spiritual leaders of mankind from Zoroaster and Lao-tzu down, we are compelled to say that present-day mankind is still far closer to the gorilla than to man. We are not yet human, we are on the way to humanity”. (12)
Yet he was confident that the alchemy of this individual self-knowing and self-will could bring about a general renewal of humanity out of the chaos and collapse of modern military-industrial civilization.
“A giant bird was struggling out of the egg: the egg was the world and the world must first be rent asunder”. (13)
1. Hermann Hesse, ‘Foreword’, If The War Goes On… Reflections on War and Politics, trans. Ralph Manheim (London: Pan Books, 1978), p. 11.
2. Hesse, ‘Words of Moralizing Thanks’, If the War Goes On, p. 145.
3. Hermann Hesse, The Journey to the East, trans. by Hilda Rosner (London: Panther, 1979), p. 41.
4. Hermann Hesse: ‘Edmund’, Stories of Five Decades, trans. Ralph Manheim (London: Triad/Granada, 1982), p. 314.
5. ‘Introduction’, Hermann Hesse, Pictor’s Metamorphoses and Other Fantasies, trans. Rika Lesser (London: Jonathan Cape, 1982), p. vii.
6. Hermann Hesse, Steppenwolf, trans. David Horrocks (London: Penguin, 2011), p. 187.
7.Hesse, Steppenwolf, p. 177.
8. Hermann Hesse, Demian, trans. W.J. Strachan (St Alban’s: Granada, 1978), p. 120.
9. Hesse, Steppenwolf, p. 76.
10. Hesse, Demian, p. 99.
11. Hesse, ‘Self-will’, If The War Goes On, p. 72.
12. Hesse, ‘Thou Shalt Not Kill’, If The War Goes On, p. 105.
13. Hesse, Demian, p. 153.