A Writer in Search of Identity and Purpose: Hermann Hesse

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The writings of Hermann Hesse stand as convincing proof that an author can never escape himself and create pure fiction, without autobiographical elements. Often referred to as the author of crisis, Hesse adressed many great questions that haunted him during his long life. Therefore, his works are often just a result of a creative interpretation of real events in his life, most of them having a spiritual quest as a focus. 

Hesse was a prolific writer who left behind twelve great novels, as well as a solid number of short stories, essays, and poems. In the year following the end of the Second World War, he won the Nobel Prize, for his inspired writings which, while growing in boldness and penetration, exemplify classical humanitarian ideals and high qualities of style. Most of his works are avaliable online, thanks to the open source projects. Our recommendations include the following three: Demian (read for free online: http://www.msjkeeler.com/uploads/1/4/0/6/1406968/demian.pdf), Siddharta (read for free online: http://philosophy.lander.edu/oriental/siddhartha.pdf) and Steppenwolf (read for free online: http://www.kkoworld.com/kitablar/Herman_Hesse_Yalquzaq_eng.pdf).

The first novel we have mentioned, Demian, was written during World War I and was highly influenced by it. The first sentence reveals the main theme of the book, which is the problematic of identity, notions of good and evil, the challenges of making right choices, and the perplexity of relationships with others:

I wanted only to try to live in accord with the promptings which came from my true self. Why was that so very difficult?

The whole novel was written in a retrospective mode: an old man named Emil Sinclair remembers his past and tries to reconcile with himself. The book offers us many questions to think about, but the main one is this: how do we evolve, and what makes us mature, intellectually and emotionally? That explains why the title of the novel is Demian, which was the name of a good friend who influenced Sinclair’s growth in a profound way.

By his own confession, Hesse was influenced by great Western philosophers such as Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Plato, and Spinoza. For Demian, understanding Nietzsche’s concepts of good and evil is crucial. In layman’s terms, Nietzsche thinks that it does not really matter whether or not one’s actions are good or evil, this traditional categorization is simply out of date. A person will act in a certain way, guided only by his or her will for power: judgments about the moral side of these actions is completely irrelevant. To be above others is a completely natural desire of all, but not all of us are capable of reaching that goal. Some are leaders and rulers, some are followers and underlings. It is worth mentioning that Hesse experienced difficult psychological states during his whole life, including a disturbance that escalated to a suicide attempt when he was just 15 years old, an episode that will help us get a fuller understanding of his writings. His medical records reveal that he was struggling with melancholy, which is quite often the case with extremely sensitive and intelligent people. Mental sensitivity was something that Hesse struggled with for years. As a true humanist, he had a hard time witnessing war fevers and political decisions that were simply terrifying. After the end of the First World War and his father’s death in 1916, Hesse turned to psychotherapy. His doctor’s name was Josef Bernhard Lang, and sessions with him had a huge impact on Hesse’s well-being, and also on his writing. In Demian, Dr. Lang was turned into a character – an organist named Pistorious – which was sort of an homage to Lang and to the idea of exploring one’s identity through deep conversations and mentor relationships.

Besides the Western philosophers, Hesse also explored Indian and Chinese philosophy – all of which found their place in his novels. Hesse made several trips to Asia and the Middle East. He thought there was much to learn beyond European thought and its concepts of religion, so he wanted to explore outside of it.  By travelling, he confirmed his doubts and as a creative result of these journeys – the novel Siddharta was written and later published, in 1922.

This book deals with topics of alienation and stepping off the the world stage in order to find purpose within. Influenced by Buddhism, Hesse offers us exactly this religious perspective. Siddharta is the name of the main character in the book, a member of the highest Hindu caste (son of a Brahmin), that lives in the ancient India. Like in Demian, there is a friendship relationship in the focus, Siddharta and his friend Govinda. The main theme here is a spiritual quest, that is – the search for enlightment. Siddharta feels a thirst for knowledge and truth, and he knows he won’t reach them by staying home with his father. Practicing religion has become unsatisfactory. The novel shares a great story about what religions truly are, and whether or not the frames which they impose on us – are really supposed to stay there. Hesse himself thought that there is this one indestructible religion, a faith that is unifying and does not distinguish different confessions, but rises above them. It is important to have faith, but also to find your own truths. Similar to this, Siddharta in the novel says:

That is why I am going on my way—not to seek another doctrine, for I know there is none, but to leave all doctrines and all teachers and to reach my goal alone—or die.

The novel Steppenwolf also offers us a story of searching for one’s identity, but in a more concrete way. It is not what readers would expect after the highly spiritual novels that preceded it. During his lifetime, Hesse discussed how he did not believe it was possible to be a politician and a humanist all at once, since these two categories were mutually exclusive. However, this does not mean Hesse was apolitical, on the contrary.  His works witness a strong Pacifist inclination, while simultaneously advocating peace and justice. In that sense, Steppenwollf is a story about a man who is torn between his need for isolation and his animal nature, and his reluctance to be part of a society where the bourgeoisie is enjoying itself while others suffer, in the new climate of the pre-war years in the late 1930s. His name is Harry Haller and he calls himself the wolf of the Steppes, feeling he is half-wolf and half-man. This novel is somewhat different from the others previously mentioned, since it has surreal elements, especially as the story develops and more details of Haller’s psyche get revealed. Once again, this story shows us how complex one’s mind is and how we can insensibly change by interacting with people and experiencing new things, just as Harry did in the Magic Theater, socializing with Hermina, Maria, Pablo, and Mozart. The influence of Schopenhauer is visible here, especially having in mind his thoughts about each individual’s character. According to Schopenhauer, one’s character is one’s destiny, people can never escape themselves. Hesse leaves this open to interpretation: is Harry a steppenwolf, or is there more to him? When he thought he could change, was he wrong? Or maybe he did change and then came back to his true identity? In the novel, there is a disturbing dialogue which Henry has with himself, which reminds us of the symptoms of bipolar disorder:

Again I looked into the mirror. I had been mad. I must have been mad. There was no wolf in the mirror, lolling his tongue in his maw. It was I, Harry. . . . My face was gray, forsaken of all fancies, wearied by all vice, horribly pale. Still it was a human being, someone one could speak to.

“Harry,” I said, “what are you doing there?”

“Nothing,” said he in the mirror, “I am only waiting. I am waiting for death.”

“Where is death then?”

“Coming,” said the other.

These three novels are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Hesse’s oeuvre, but they are a great starting point for you, if you haven’t read anything from this great author before. It has been exactly 70 years since Hesse was recognized with the prestigious award of a Nobel Prize, so what better way to widen your reading experience and honor him and his work than by grabbing some of his novels?    

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