Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Anyone Remember Herman Hesse?

During my years in high school and college. (1969-1976) Herman Hesse was huge. Bigger than Richard Brautigan (A Confederate General from Big Sur), bigger than Robert M, Pirsig (Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance); hell, he was bigger than the Beatles. Forgotten now, sadly forgotten along with Brautigan and Pirsig. Though unfortunately not the Beatles, who I thought were utter bubblegum ear-candy right up until the very end, when their late work with Revolver and The White Album suggested some very exciting possibilities, most of which were never explored (the big exception would be the infamous song Helter Skelter, arguably the first “punk rock” song). But I digress. Anyway, a birthday salute to forgotten Herman Hesse, the man who gave us the indelible image of his father sitting in the crutch of a tree with a rifle, trying to draw a bead so he could shoot at those terrifying and evil new products of technology called “automobiles.” Maybe Hesse’s dad wasn’t a laughable Luddite after all, maybe he was just a century ahead of his time.

From the Writer’s Almanac:

It's the birthday of German poet and novelist Herman Hessa, born in Black Forest of Germany (1877), the son of a Baltic-German from Estonia and a woman of Swabian and French-Swiss heritage. Both of his parents were once missionaries in India.

He went to boarding schools, where he was a precociously brilliant learner but had behavior issues. His parents wanted him to be a minister, so he went to a theological seminary when he was a teenager. But he left after nine months and later said, "From the age of 12 I wanted to be a poet, and since there was no normal or official road, I had a hard time deciding what to do after leaving school."

He apprenticed at a mechanic's shop and also at a bookstore. When he was 22, a small book of his poems was published. After World War I began, he moved to Switzerland; he opposed German nationalism and spoke up against the regime's violence, and for this he received a lot of hate mail. He began to travel a lot, spending much time in India and Italy. He renounced his German citizenship and instead became a Swiss citizen.

He suffered from recurring bouts of depression and even bought a revolver and left a suicide note when he was a teenager. For several years he underwent Jungian psychoanalysis. His works often involve a protagonist's spiritual search for enlightenment, and Hesse counts among his most characteristic works Siddhartha (1922), Der Steppenwolf (1927), and Die Morgenlandfahrt (1932) [The Journey to the East]. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, before he became Pope Benedict XVI, said that Steppenwolf is one of his favorite books because it "exposes the problem of modernity's isolated and self-isolating man." Hesse won the Nobel Prize in literature in 1946.

Shortly before his death, he wrote:

What you loved and what you strove for,
What you dreamed and what you lived through,
Do you know if it was joy or suffering?
G sharp and A flat, E flat or D sharp,
Are they distinguishable to the ear?

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