Hermann Hesse (photo: dpa)
Book Review: Gunnar Decker's Hermann Hesse biography

''The Whole East Breathes Religion''

Hermann Hesse spent his life searching for truth and inner harmony outside Germany. Yet his quests to the East ultimately led him back to the West and to the realization that the alternatives he found in the East offered no short cut to salvation. To mark the 50th anniversary of his death, Gunnar Decker presents a new biography of the successful author, one which also explains the Orientalism in his work. Andreas Pflitsch read the book

Reality, wrote Hermann Hesse in his Life Story Briefly Told, "is what one must not under any circumstances worship and revere"; it is only possible to change this "shabby, consistently disappointing and barren reality", he maintained, "by … denying it and proving in the process that we are stronger than it is." The writer's disdain for reality that shines through this quote points to a lifelong wish to escape and to his constant restless quest for harmony and a meaningful life.

In his new biography, Hermann Hesse. Der Wanderer und sein Schatten (Hermann Hesse. The Wanderer and his Shadow – Hanser, Munich, 2012), Gunnar Decker tackles his legendary, classic subject with a great deal of sympathy, yet without romanticizing him. He also views him from a critical distance, without being arrogant.

"This unmistakable figure in his straw hat," writes Decker, "is anything but the simple, easy-going, companionable fellow he may appear; no carefree vagabond wanderer he. This is a notoriously irascible loner, one who can only endure other people – including his own wives – from a respectable distance. Physical contact is as anathema to him as unannounced visitors. Inner harmony eludes him, although he constantly evokes it with Goethe.

His life is one of constant swings; phases of intense creativity alternating with periods of deep depression." Decker thus introduces us to a man torn, a wanderer who searched all his life for inner harmony but was hounded by his own shadowy demon of self-destruction.

Admired by the hippie generation

Hesse's literary reputation has also been susceptive to the vagaries and fluctuations of literary fashion. He was one of the most successful of German writers, but also one of the most neglected by the literary establishment. After receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1946, he was at first anything but successful in America, until, as his biographer tells us, he became the "unofficial chief of the anti-Vietnam-war movement". The American band that named itself after his best known novel, Steppenwolf, captured the mood of an entire generation with its song "Born to be Wild", while Timothy Leary recommended reading his works before embarking on an LSD trip.

The hippies and the generation of 1968 discovered Hesse's independent thinking and self-willed integrity, his aversion to nationalism and patriotism, and initiated a worldwide Hesse renaissance, the influence of which still characterises the author's image today. In the 1970s, Hesse was the best-selling German author in the world. Nevertheless, 50 years after his death, he remains controversial. For some, says Decker, he is a naïve nature-lover, a writer of trivial, kitsch poetry; for others, a prophet of liberty and self-fulfilment.

Strict upbringing

Cover of
According to Andreas Pflitsch, ''Siddhartha'' was Hesse's attempt to create a synthesis of Eastern and Western thought

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Hesse was born in 1877 and grew up in an uncompromisingly rigorous and strict Pietistic family where he suffered under a narrow and dogmatic regime that demanded scrupulous observance of rules and commandments. His education consisted entirely of strict discipline, drills and threats of punishment. Literature offered an escape. The young Hesse read Goethe and Heine and began to write. At 18, he planned to emigrate to Brazil, deciding to turn his back on Germany and Europe. Instead, he began an apprenticeship in a bookshop in Tübingen.

Hesse's aforementioned disdain for reality is both a reaction to the Pietistic milieu of his upbringing and an echo of the idealism inherent in that milieu. His inclination towards romance and the exotic is one side of this, his compulsive restlessness the other. He celebrated self-willed integrity, individualism and idleness, but only at rare moments did he succeed in living up to these ideals himself, in escaping the gnawing self-doubt and the compulsive restlessness that drove him ever on. In this particular romantic idler, the choleric is never far away.

A need for the exotic

Along with his escapes into the world of literature, the young Hesse soon began to widen his physical horizons too. Although the plan to emigrate to Brazil never came to anything, he did make it to Italy – Bologna, Ravenna, Padua and Venice answering his need for the exotic. The South, like the Orient at that time, seemed to offer a simple unspoiled naturalness, and much scope for the projection of idyllic alternative worlds.

Here, it seemed, one could escape from the modern world with its flustering hustle and bustle and noisy technology. "The people here," Hesse says in praise of the Italians, "have such a naive and uninhibited way of giving of themselves, while maintaining such a natural way of life and a spontaneity that makes us northerners look like marionettes by comparison."

India would later fulfil a similar role to that of Italy for him. Inspired by his grandfather Hermann Gundert's tales of India, where he had been a missionary, Hesse travelled to South-East Asia in 1911, visiting Ceylon, Sumatra and Singapore. Italy was no longer enough; the real alternative to modern Europe now lay further to the East.

Bitter disappointment

But here too, he would find disillusionment and would have "the shocking experience" of discovering "that the soulful, searching gaze of most Indian worshipers, far from being an invocation to the gods, or a plea for salvation, is simply a request for money." The search for the authentic brings only disappointment. Instead of the religions and cultures he hoped to discover, he found only folklore: "Buddhism in Ceylon," he notes, "is pretty to photograph and to write about in the feature pages of newspapers, but, beyond that, it is nothing more than one of the many poignant, distorted and grotesque forms in which suffering humanity expresses its misery and lack of spirit and strength." The real India fell short of the India of his imagination.

A Sikh standing in front of the temple in Amritsar (photo: AP)
Escape and disillusionment: having travelled to Italy as a young man to feed his hunger for the exotic, Hermann Hesse soon began searching for alternatives further afield. Yet as was the case in Italy, he eventually reached the point where the reality and spirituality he found in India was far removed from what he had imagined it to be

​​Working on Siddhartha in 1922, he is aware that "the book's Indo-Brahmanic references are mere decoration, dressing," but adds that, "dress here, is more than mere costume." Hesse uses the form of the "Indian Tale", as the book is subtitled, to explore the crisis in Europe and his own search for a meaningful life. Siddhartha is an attempt to create a synthesis of Eastern and Western thought, as the author explained in his preface to the 1955 Japanese edition: "We no longer see Eastern and Western wisdom as hostile warring powers, but as the two ends of a path along which a fulfilled life may be lived."

In the idealized spirituality of Asia, Hesse found a form of religion that was more congenial to him and thus an alternative to the religion of his parental home. "The whole East," he wrote, in best Orientalist tradition, "breathes religion in the way the West breathes reason and technology. The inner life of the Occidental appears primitive and exposed to the vagaries of chance when compared to the spirituality of the Asian, which is protected, secure and trustful."

The discoveries he makes in the East, however, are not as far removed from the native form of Christianity with which he grew up as might first appear. He merely exchanges the rules and regulations of Pietism for a poetic and mystical form of pantheism, and out of the Pietistic aversion to worldly things comes a nature-glorifying, modernism-and-technology-despising creed, which would later lead him to be discovered by the eco movement.

Ultimately, his quests to the East always led Hesse back to the West. He never managed to shake off the Protestantism of his childhood. As "a spiritual imperative, so inherently part of life," says Gunnar Decker, it remains Hesse's constant companion. In Siddhartha, Hesse "is testing the Protestant perspective by applying Eastern thought to it." Hesse recognised that the Eastern alternative offered no short cut to salvation. Anyone in Europe who reads the teachings of Buddha and converts to Buddhism on the basis of that, has, "rather than finding the Way, which Buddha may be able to show us, simply chosen an emergency exit."

Andreas Pflitsch

© Qantara.de 2012

Translated from the German by Ron Walker

Editor: Aingeal Flanagan/Qantara.de

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