IN HIS SHORT STORY "Inside and Outside" (1920), about a little idol that ruptures a friendship, Hermann Hesse revealed his life's philosophy: "Our mind is capable of passing beyond the dividing line we have drawn for it. Beyond the pairs of opposites of which the world consists, other, new insights begin." Hesse, who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1946 and whose stature as a 20th-century German writer equals his friend and rival Thomas Mann's, examined the dual tendencies of human nature: to suffer and affirm life, to juxtapose idealism and reality, to be drawn to both good and evil. Though he initially wrote within the 19th-century German Romantic tradition, two world wars imbued him with a deep sense of modernity's isolation and surrender of the individual spirit.
Hesse's works, which meld Western and Eastern philosophy with existential, spiritual, and mystical themes, embodied the search for self-realization and spiritual fulfillment. How can a person escape the bonds of society--and his or her own dual nature--to live a fulfilling life? Is there a balance between a life of spiritual contemplation and one of physical action? He portrayed this split between the spiritual and the physical in Demian (1919), Siddhartha (1922), and the surreal Steppenwolf (1927). In all his works, Hesse urged his characters--and his readers--to search deep within their souls to rise above the physical world.
HESSE WAS BORN IN 1877 in the Black Forest region of Germany. His father, a Russian citizen, and his mother, born in India to the Pietist (Protestant) missionary and Indologist Hermann Gundert, both served as missionaries in India. Although they had hoped their son would follow in their footsteps, at age 13 Hesse, familiar with his grandfather's large library, declared he wanted to become "a poet and nothing else at all." He rejected his inherited evangelicalism when he entered the Protestant seminary at Maulbronn in 1891 and ran away soon after. Hesse later criticized the severe educational system in Beneath the Wheel (1906). As a youth, he experienced the soul-searching yearnings and anxieties portrayed in his novels. Though he strived for harmonious relationships, he struggled to follow his inner voice--one that didn't always conform to his family's and society's expectations. After a stint in secular schools, Hesse worked as a bookshop clerk, apprentice clockmaker, mechanic, and book dealer. At age 21, he published his first book, Romantic Songs. The publication of the Peter Camenzind in 1904, a novel rooted in the German Romantic tradition, allowed him to write full time, become financially independent, and marry his first wife, Maria Bernoulli, with whom he had three children.
In 1911 Hesse visited India, which inspired his studies of Hindu and ancient Chinese religions and eventually resulted in Siddhartha. In 1912, Hesse and his family moved to Switzerland, where his antiwar activism earned him a traitorous reputation. His wife's mental illness, his father's death, and the chaos of the First World War soon contributed to a nervous breakdown. After undergoing psychoanalysis by Dr. Joseph B. Lang, a student and associate of Carl Jung, Hesse studied Jung's analytical psychology. He subsequently applied many of Jung's theories about the duality between reason and creativity in his mature work.
In 1919 Hesse left his family and moved to Montagnola, in southern Switzerland, where he embraced a quieter life; he became a Swiss citizen in 1923. His breakthrough novel, the autobiographical Demian, which appeared under the pen name of Emil Sinclair, reflected his emotional crisis. Siddhartha earned him new audiences. But personal crisis returned. Hesse divorced Maria and in 1924, he married singer Ruth Wenger. The years between the Word Wars produced Steppenwolf, about the isolation produced by modernity and, on a personal level, about the problems Hesse experienced relating to others.
In 1931, after publishing Narcissus and Goldmund (1930), Hesse married a Jewish woman, Ninon Auslander. Though he had initially found wide support in Nazi Germany, he was blacklisted in 1943 when, in a reprint of the novel, he insisted on retaining the parts dealing with anti-Semitism. His masterpiece, The Glass Bead Game, was published in Zurich. Hesse received the Nobel Prize for literature in 1946; he wrote no major novels after that but published poems and reviews in Swiss newspapers. He died in 1962, at age 85, in Montagnola.
The Cult Figure
HESSE FOUND VALUE in different Western philosophers, from Plato to Spinoza, Schopenhauer, and Nietzsche. He claimed, however, that none of these philosophers influenced him as much as Indian...