“Beneath the Wheel” assigns many of Hesse’s own experiences to Hans Giebenrath, a gifted boy who is emotionally destroyed by the pressure of studying to get into a Maulbronn-like school. He passes the examination, but only by cramming so intensively that his boyish love of life is extinguished. He is soon overcome by apathy and despair, and has to drop out; in the end he drowns in a river, possibly a suicide. The conclusion of the book channels the self-pity that Hesse remembered so well: “All nausea, shame and suffering had passed from him; the cold bluish autumn night looked down on the dark shape of his drifting body and the dark water played with his hands and hair and bloodless lips.” (The very title of the book is an indictment, and “Beneath the Wheel” belongs with other German works of the period, such as Frank Wedekind’s “Spring Awakening” and Heinrich Mann’s “The Blue Angel,” as an exposé of a soul- and libido-crushing educational system.)
Hesse avoided Hans Giebenrath’s fate, but only barely. In March, 1892, he ran away from Maulbronn and was reported missing. He returned after just a day and, as Decker writes, truancy hardly sounds like an unprecedented crime for a fourteen-year-old. But the reaction from school and family was extreme. It speaks volumes about his parents’ religious sensibility, for instance, that his mother’s response to the news of his disappearance was to hope that he was dead: “I was very relieved when I finally got the feeling . . . that he was in God’s merciful hands,” she wrote in her diary.
Unfortunately, he returned alive, a bigger headache than ever. Hesse had to leave school, and his parents, unable to cope with him, resorted to having him committed to a mental asylum. Facing the prospect of indefinite, possibly lifelong incarceration, he bombarded his parents with heartbreaking letters: “I loathe everything here from the bottom of my heart. It is like it has been designed especially to show a young man how wretched life and all its aspects are.”
After several months, Hesse was released on a trial basis, and he was able to attend a local high school. But the damage to his relationship with his parents was permanent: when his mother died, in 1902, he refused to attend the funeral. And the damage to his career seemed equally irreparable. At Maulbronn, he was on a fast track to a prestigious and secure job as a minister or a teacher. Now college was out of the question, and Hesse became an apprentice to a bookseller. To his parents—often, surely, to himself—it must have looked as if he had failed for good.
But Hesse’s genius was to embrace this failure and make it his inspiration. “In the beginning was the myth” is the first sentence of “Peter Camenzind,” the book that rescued Hesse from poverty and obscurity; and many of his books are retellings of the same myth, one that Hesse devised to interpret his own unhappy existence. Indeed, Hesse’s novels are best understood as successive versions of a spiritual autobiography—a form that, ironically, was a staple of Pietist literature. “The only way I can conceive” of writing, Hesse once said, is “as an act of confession”—a statement that could have been endorsed by his paternal grandfather, a doctor who left behind a memoir in two volumes. Indeed, in rebelling against his Pietist upbringing, Hesse ended up recapitulating its central themes: he never lost the habit of rigorous self-examination or his feelings of unworthiness and his longing for an experience of the divine.
The difference was that he could not imagine finding that experience within Pietism. “If I had grown up in a respectable religious tradition, for example as a Catholic, I would probably have stuck to the faith throughout my life,” he explained wryly. Instead, he was driven to look for spiritual wisdom in other traditions, always admiring figures who seemed to defy dogma and doctrine. Francis of Assisi was an early inspiration: Hesse wrote a short biography of the saint who preached to the animals and spoke of the sun and the moon as his brother and sister.
He soon found himself looking farther afield—especially to the East, to the religious traditions of India. This, too, was a kind of atavism—his maternal grandfather, a missionary, had spent many years in India, and his mother had partly grown up there. But, while they went to spread a Christian faith they knew was the true one, Hesse went as a seeker. In 1911, he made an impulsive journey to Ceylon and Singapore, which proved disappointing at the time—he could not get used to the climate—but laid the groundwork for his later book “Journey to the East,” which imagines a spiritual secret society that includes the great minds of Europe and Asia.
The book that connects Hesse with India for most readers, of course, is “Siddhartha.” Published in 1922, in the wake of a world war that had destroyed and discredited European civilization, “Siddhartha” takes refuge in a distant place and time—India in the age of the Buddha, in the fifth century B.C. In this short book, Hesse boils down his archetypal story to its mythic core. Once again, we meet a sensitive, gifted young man—Siddhartha, the son of a Brahman priest—who rejects his family, its religion, and its aspirations, and sets out to discover the truth for himself.
Along the way, he experiences the extremes of deprivation, as an ascetic, wandering monk, and of satiety, as the wealthy lover of the beautiful courtesan Kamala. But he remains unhappy in every condition, until he finds that the only true wisdom is nonattachment, a resigned acceptance of everything that happens. Life cannot be fixed in place; it flows, like the river where Siddhartha receives his revelation:
And when Siddhartha listened attentively to this river, to this thousand-voiced song, when he listened neither for the sorrow nor for the laughter, when he did not attach his soul to any one voice and enter into it with his ego but rather heard all of them, heard the whole, the oneness—then the great song of the thousand voices consisted only of a single word: Om, perfection.
“Siddhartha” appears to be a kind of wisdom writing—a teaching. Yet the central message of the book is the impossibility of learning anything that matters from a guru or teacher. Siddhartha’s revelation sounds very Buddhist, and Hesse borrowed the character’s name from Siddhartha Gautama, the founder of Buddhism. But, in the book’s most important scene, Siddhartha actually encounters the Buddha—and spurns him. While his more timid and conventional friend, Govinda, becomes a Buddhist monk, Siddhartha knows that any kind of religion—even a true and admirable one—is an obstacle to enlightenment. “No one will ever attain redemption through doctrine!” he exclaims. After all, the Buddha didn’t become the Buddha by following the Buddha; he forged his own unique path. Hesse’s moral is similar to that of a famous Zen koan: “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.”
Hesse’s emphasis on self-reliance, with its echoes of Emerson—another writer fascinated by Eastern religions—helped to make him a trusted guide for a generation of readers whose faith in institutions was destroyed by the First World War. Indeed, Hesse’s reputation as a sage rests mainly on the books he wrote after the war—starting with “Demian,” in 1919, and continuing through “Siddhartha” and “Steppenwolf,” in the nineteen-twenties.
Although Hesse was a German subject, he was a resident of Switzerland—he lived there on and off during his early life, and permanently starting in 1912—and he viewed the war fever that infected Germany from an ironic distance. (He nonetheless volunteered for the German Army, but was rejected because of his weak vision, the result of a childhood fireworks accident.) Early in the war, Hesse published an essay in which, while he still expressed hope for a German victory, he insisted on the need to preserve humane values and communication between nations. “This disastrous world war should serve to drum into us more insistently than ever the realization that love is better than hate,” he wrote. Even so mild an avowal earned Hesse the permanent hostility of many Germans. For the rest of his life, he would be attacked by incensed nationalists, both in the press and in regular deliveries of hate mail.
By the same token, in the nineteen-thirties Hesse’s hostility to Hitler was automatic. Nazism, with its blood sacrifice of the individual to the state and the race, represented the opposite of everything he believed in. In March, 1933, seven weeks after Hitler took power, Hesse wrote to a correspondent in Germany, “It is the duty of spiritual types to stand alongside the spirit and not to sing along when the people start belting out the patriotic songs their leaders have ordered them to sing.” Still, while he hosted and helped many émigré writers—including Thomas Mann, a good friend—Hesse never threw himself into anti-Nazi politics. Decker points out that, in the nineteen-thirties, he made a quiet statement of resistance by reviewing and publicizing the work of banned Jewish authors, including Kafka. But, tellingly, his own books were not banned by the Nazis until 1943.
It was Thomas Mann who, at the end of the First World War, published a book called “Reflections of a Nonpolitical Man”; but the title would have applied much better to Hesse, for whom being nonpolitical was a first principle. After all, if the world and the self are illusions, it is delusive to believe that they can be redeemed. To those who wanted him to take a more public stand against Hitler, Hesse replied that anti-fascism was as much a betrayal of the self as fascism: “What’s it got to do with me?” he asked. “I can’t change a thing. What I can do, though, is offer a little succor to those who, like me, strive in everything that they think and do to undermine the whole filthy business of striving after power and political supremacy.”
This attitude to politics and history is characteristic of what Hegel called “the beautiful soul”—one who remains unstained by the world because he declines to engage with it. The phrase was invented by Goethe, who used it in his “Confessions of a Beautiful Soul,” a fictional memoir in which a Pietist noblewoman describes her spiritual life. Hesse, by analogy, might be called an ugly soul, one who is so occupied with his own spiritual distempers that the outside world barely makes an impression.
This is also a key to Hesse’s appeal to young readers, who seldom see beyond the limits of the self. But the complete integrity of Hesse’s self-absorption is what guarantees the permanence of his work. As long as people struggle with the need to be themselves, and the difficulty of doing so, he will be a living presence—which is even better, perhaps, than being a great writer. ♦