This Day In Writing History
On July 2nd, 1877, the legendary novelist, poet, and painter Hermann Hesse was born in Calw, Germany. His parents, Johannes and Marie Hesse, were Lutheran missionaries, and as a boy, Hermann got into intense conflicts with them. In 1891, after doing well in Latin school, Hesse was enrolled in the Maulbronn Evangelical Theological Seminary. The following year, at the age of 15, he rebelled and ran away from the seminary. He was found a day later, hiding in a field.
Two months after Hesse was found, he attempted suicide. He began a journey through various mental institutions and schools, and completed his schooling in 1893. From there, Hesse began an apprenticeship at a bookshop, but only lasted three days. He tried his hand as an apprentice at a clock tower factory, but after a year, he could no longer stand the monotony of the job. So, in October of 1895, Hesse decided to make a fresh start and become an apprentice bookseller again. He would use the experience as fodder for his second novel, Beneath The Wheel (1906).
Hermann Hesse apprenticed at the Heckenhauer Bookshop in Tubingen. The bookshop specialized in books on theology, philology, and law. Hesse's job was to organize the books, archive them and pack them for sale. After work, Hesse preferred to spend his time with books instead of people, studying Greek mythology and the works of Goethe, Lessing, and Schiller. From there, he took an interest in the German Romantics. German Romanticism was a movement that tried to create a new synthesis of art, philosophy, and science.
In the summer of 1899, Hesse published his first book, a poetry collection called Romantic Songs. It was followed shortly by a prose collection, One Hour After Midnight. Neither book was commercially successful. By this time, Hesse had established himself as a respected antiquarian bookseller. He moved to Basel and landed a job working for a famous antique bookshop. Though he lived with the town's intellectual families, Hesse's new job and home offered the solitary writer the opportunities for private artistic self-exploration. He soon established himself as a published writer, his poetry and prose frequently appearing in literary magazines.
In 1904, following the publication of his first novel, Peter Camenzind, Hesse was soon able to quit his job and make a living as a writer. The poetic novel was a precursor of Hesse's future writings. Peter Camenzind is a young poet with a desire to experience the world. In addition to a physical journey through the landscapes of Germany, Italy, France, and Switzerland, Peter also experiences an intellectual and spiritual journey throughout the course of the novel, enhancing his ability to love life and see the beauty in all things.
Hesse soon married, and his wife Maria Bernoulli bore him three sons. In 1906, his second novel, Beneath The Wheel was published, followed by Gertrude in 1910. Hesse later disowned Gertrude, calling it "a miscarriage." He had struggled to write the book amid a personal crisis - his wife began exhibiting symptoms of mental illness, and it took a toll on their marriage. Hesse began delving into Buddhism, which would be the subject of one of his greatest novels. In 1911, he went alone on a trip to Indonesia and Sri Lanka. When he came back, he moved his family to Bern, but the change did little to help his marriage.
When World War 1 broke out in 1914, Hesse told friends that he couldn't sit idly by while young writers were dying on the front. So, he enlisted in the Imperial Army, but was declared unfit for combat duty because of an eye condition. He was assigned to care for prisoners of war. Hesse found himself becoming bitterly opposed to Germany's war, and in November of 1914, he published an essay, O Friends, Not These Tones, where he appealed to his country's intellectuals to not allow patriotism to cloud their minds and make them support the war. Hesse was vilified by the German press, bombarded with hate mail, and saw old friends turn their backs on him.
Personal crisis reared its head again in 1916. First, Hesse's father died, then his son Martin fell ill, and his wife's schizophrenia got worse. Hesse was forced to leave the military and receive psychotherapy. This began his fascination with psychoanalysis, and he would soon become friends with the famous Swiss psychiatrist, Carl Jung. Hesse's creativity rose to new heights, and during a three-week period between September and October 1917, he wrote his next novel, Demian, which was published in 1919 under the pseudonym Emil Sinclair - who was the main character and narrator of the novel.
When he returned to civilian life, Hesse found that his marriage was over. His wife suffered a severe psychotic episode, and though she recovered, he saw no future with her. They divorced, and Hesse moved to a small farm in Ticino, Switzerland, where he lived alone. From there, he moved to Montagnola, where he rented four small rooms in a castle-like building called Casa Camuzzi. At the Casa, Hesse painted and wrote, and the result was his great novel, Siddhartha, published in 1922.
Siddhartha is a novel based on the true story of a young Indian boy - a prince called Siddhartha - who renounces his title and wealth, and goes on a spiritual journey where he achieves enlightenment and becomes the Buddha. Siddhartha was adapted as a feature film in 1972, directed by Conrad Rooks and starring Shashi Kapoor as Siddhartha. It was photographed by the legendary cinematographer Sven Nykvist.
In 1923, Hermann Hesse became a Swiss citizen. He married Swiss singer Ruth Wenger, but the marriage was never stable. Hesse continued to write. In 1927, he published another classic novel, Steppenwolf. The novel is a manuscript written by its main character, a writer named Harry Haller. Haller is a sad and withdrawn man - emotionally, spiritually, and physically ill, who aimlessly wanders about the city where he lives. One day, he receives a pamphlet whose text addresses him by name and provides an uncannily accurate description of him as a "wolf of the steppes," embroiled in a struggle between his spiritual and animalistic natures.
Harry was given the pamphlet by a person advertising something called The Magic Theatre. Harry meets an old friend who invites him to his home. Disgusted by his friend's nationalism, Harry resumes his wandering to avoid going home and killing himself. He stops to rest at a dance hall, where he meets a young woman named Hermine who acts as his spirit guide, mocking his self-pity, then teaching him how to live. She later introduces him to Pablo, a mysterious saxophonist who leads him to the Magic Theatre - a metaphoric extension of Harry's psyche, where he can live out his fantasies and explore all the possibilities of life.
Although a dazzling and brilliant novel, Steppenwolf was harshly criticized after it was published. Patriots and political activists railed against the anti-nationalist themes, while others condemned it as too pessimistic or decried the book as immoral due to its open depictions of sex and drug use, as Harry learns that casual sex and drug use should be accepted as legitimate components of a full and happy life. In this regard, and because of the psychedelic nature of the narrative, Steppenwolf became a classic of the 1960s American counterculture and its "free love" philosophy and drug use. That wasn't really the author's intention, which is why Hermann Hesse has said that Steppenwolf was his most misunderstood novel.
Steppenwolf was adapted as a feature film in 1974. It was written and directed by Fred Haines and starred Max Von Sydow as Harry Haller.
In the 1930s, when Hitler rose to power in Germany, Hesse aided exiled writers Bertolt Brecht and Thomas Mann and protested Nazi ideology. Hesse had been widely published in German literary magazines and newspapers, and he used that notoriety to speak out publicly in support of Jewish artists and others persecuted by Hitler. The Nazi regime banned all of Hesse's works, including his last and greatest novel, The Glass Bead Game, which was published in 1943.
The Glass Bead Game, originally published in two volumes, is a futuristic, Zen-like tale set in the 23rd century. Castalia is a remote European province designed to allow the intellectual elite to grow and flourish. Josef Knecht, (the name means servant in German) a young boy raised in Castalia, becomes consumed with mastering the Glass Bead Game - a game that requires a synthesis of both the aesthetic and scientific arts (such as music, mathematics, logic, and philosophy) in order to master it. As he grows into adulthood, Josef's quest to master the Glass Bead Game leads him to achieve enlightenment and become a Magister Ludi - Master of the Game.
That's actually an incredibly simplified description of Hesse's incredibly complex masterwork. The Glass Bead Game is a beautiful and a profound meditation on the human condition, a masterpiece of philosophic meta-fiction. It won Hesse the Nobel Prize for Literature.
Hermann Hesse died in 1962 at the age of 85.
Quote Of The Day
“Without words, without writing, and without books there would be no history, there could be no concept of humanity.” - Hermann Hesse
Today's video is a short animated film featuring a reading from Herman Hesse's classic novel, Steppenwolf. Enjoy!