Hermann Hesse: I have been and still am a seeker


Hermann Hesse was a German-born Swiss poet, novelist, and painter. His best-known works include Demian, Steppenwolf, Siddhartha, and The Glass Bead Game, each of which explores an individual’s search for authenticity, self-knowledge and spirituality.

Hermann Hesse

Hermann Karl Hesse was born on July 2, 1877 in the Black Forest town of Calw, then the German Empire. His grandparents served in India at a mission under the auspices of a Protestant missionary society, the Basel Mission. Hesse’s mother, Marie Gundert, was born at such a mission in India in 1842.

Hesse’s father, Johannes Hesse, the son of a doctor, was born in 1847 in the Estonian town Paide (then Weissenstein). He belonged to the German minority in the Russian-ruled Batlic region: thus his son Hermann was at birth a dual citizen of the German and the Russian Empires. Of his five siblings, two died in infancy.


From childhood, Hesse appeared headstrong and hard for his family to handle. In a letter to her husband, Hermann’s mother Marie wrote: “The little fellow has a life in him, an unbelievable strength, a powerful will, and, for his four years of age, a truly astonishing mind. How can he express all that? It truly gnaws at my life, this internal fighting against his tyrannical temperament, his passionate turbulence… God must shape this proud spirit, then it will become something noble and magnificent – but I shudder to think what this young and passionate person might become should his upbringing be false or weak.”

Hesse showed signs of serious depression as early as his first year at school. In his juvenilia collection Gerbersau (a ficitional name for Calw), Hesse vividly describes experiences and anecdotes from his childhood and youth in Calw: the atmosphere and adventures by the river, the bridge, the chapel, the houses leaning closely together, hidden nooks and crannies, as well as the inhabitants with their admirable qualities and their oddities.

Hermann Hesse’s grandfather Hermann Gundert, a doctor of philosophy and fluent in multiple languages, encouraged the boy to read widely, giving him access to his library which was filled with the works of world literature. All this instilled a sense in Hermann Hesse that he was a citizen of the world. His family background became, he noted, “the basis of an isolation and a resistance to any sort of nationalism that so defined my life.”

Hesse shared a love of music with his mother. Both music and poetry were important in his family; his mother wrote poetry, and his father was known for his use of language in both his sermons and the writing of religious tracts. His first role model for becoming an artist was his half-brother, Theo, who rebelled against the family by entering a music conservatory in 1885. Hesse showed a precocious ability to rhyme, and by 1889–90 had decided that he wanted to be a writer.

Maulbronn Abbey

In 1881 the family moved to Basel, Switzerland, and after successful attendance at the Latin School in Göppingen, Hesse entered the Evangelical Theological Seminary of Maulbronn Abbey in 1891. Although Hesse did well during the first months, writing in a letter that he particularly enjoyed writing essays and translating classic Greek poetry into German, his time in Maulbronn was the beginning of a serious personal crisis. In March 1892, Hesse showed his rebellious character, and, in one instance, he fled from the Seminary and was found in a field a day later.

Hesse began a journey through various institutions and schools and experienced intense conflicts with his parents. In May of that year, after an attempt at suicide, he spent time at an institution in Bad Boll and was later admitted to a mental institution in Stetten im Remstal, followed by a stay in a boys’ institution in Basel, Switzerland. After attending the Gymnasium in Cannstatt, he concluded his schooling in 1893. Now he began spending time with older companions and took up drinking and smoking.

A short-lived bookshop apprenticeship was followed by a mechanic apprenticeship; the monotony of soldering and filing work made him turn himself toward more spiritual activities. In October 1895, he began wholeheartedly a new apprenticeship with a bookseller in Tübingen who had a specialized collection in theology, philology, and law. Hesse’s tasks consisted of organizing, packing, and archiving the books. After the end of each twelve-hour workday, Hesse pursued his own work, and he spent his long, idle Sundays with books rather than friends. Hesse studied theological writings and later Goethe, Lessing, Schiller, and Greek mythology. He also began reading Nietzsche, whose philosopher’s ideas of “dual… impulses of passion and order” in humankind was a heavy influence on most of Hesse’s novels.

Hesse with his parents in 1899

By 1898, Hesse had a respectable income that enabled financial independence from his parents. During this time, he concentrated on the works of the German Romantics, including much of the work from Clemens Brentano, Joseph Freiherr von Eichendorff, Friedrich Hölderlin, and Novalis. In letters to his parents, he expressed a belief that “the morality of artists is replaced by aesthetics.”

From late 1899, Hesse worked in a distinguished antique book shop in Basel. Through family contacts, he stayed with the intellectual families of Basel. In this environment with rich stimuli for his pursuits, he further developed spiritually and artistically. The city offered the solitary Hesse many opportunities for withdrawal into a private life of artistic self-exploration, journeys and wanderings. In 1900, Hesse was exempted from compulsory military service due to an eye condition which, along with nerve disorders and persistent headaches, affected him his entire life.

In 1901, Hesse undertook to fulfil a long-held dream and travelled for the first time to Italy. In the same year, he changed jobs and began working at the antiquarium Wattenwyl in Basel. Hesse had more opportunities to release poems and small literary texts to journals. These publications now provided honorariums. His new bookstore agreed to publish his next work, Posthumous Writings and Poems of Hermann Lauscher. In 1902, his mother died after a long and painful illness. He could not bring himself to attend her funeral, afraid that it would worsen his depression.

Due to the good reviews that Hesse received for Lauscher, publisher Samuel Fischer became interested in Hesse and, with the novel Peter Camenzind published in 1904, came a breakthrough: from now on, Hesse could make a living as a writer. The novel became popular throughout Germany and Sigmund Freud praised it as one of his favourite readings.

Hesse as a Writer
Maria Bernoulli

In 1904, now of literary fame, Hesse married Maria Bernoulli (of the famous family of mathematicians), settled down in Gaienhofen near Lake Constance, and began a family, eventually having three sons: Martin, Bruno and Heiner. He wrote his second novel Beneath the Wheel, published in 1906, and following that he composed primarily short stories and poems. His story The Wolf, written in 1906–07, was “quite possibly” a foreshadowing of Steppenwolf. His next novel, Gertrude, published in 1910, revealed a production crisis. He had to struggle through writing it, and later would describe it as “a miscarriage.”

Gaienhofen was the place where Hesse’s interest in Buddhism was re-sparked. Following a letter to Kapff in 1895 entitled Nirvana, Hesse had ceased alluding to Buddhist references in his work. In 1904 however, Arthur Schopenhauer and his philosophical ideas started receiving attention again, and Hesse discovered theosophy. Schopenhauer and theosophy renewed Hesse’s interest in India. Although it was many years before the publication of Siddhartha (1922), this masterpiece was to be derived from these new influences.

During this time, there also was increased dissonance between him and Maria, and in 1911 Hesse left for a long trip to Sri Lanka and Indonesia. He also visited Sumatra, Borneo, and Burma, but “the physical experience… was to depress him.” Any spiritual or religious inspiration that he was looking for eluded him, but the journey made a strong impression on his literary work. Following Hesse’s return, the family moved to Bern in 1912, but the change of environment could not solve the marriage problems, as he himself confessed in his novel Rosshalde from 1914.

During the First World War

At the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, Hesse registered himself as a volunteer with the Imperial army, saying that he could not sit inactively by a warm fireplace while other young authors were dying on the front. He was found unfit for combat duty, but was assigned to service involving the care of prisoners of war. While most poets and authors of the war-participating countries quickly became embroiled in a tirade of mutual hate, Hesse, seemingly immune to the general war-enthusiasm of the time, wrote an essay titled O Friends, Not These Tones (O Freunde, nicht diese Töne), which was published in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung.

In this essay he appealed to his fellow intellectuals not to fall for nationalistic madness and hatred. What followed from this, Hesse later indicated, was a great turning point in his life: For the first time, he found himself in the middle of a serious political conflict, attacked by the German press, the recipient of hate mail, and distanced from old friends.

This public controversy was not yet resolved when a deeper life crisis befell Hesse with the death of his father in 1916, the serious illness of his son Martin, and his wife’s schizophrenia. He was forced to leave his military service and begin receiving psychotherapy. Thus began for Hesse a long preoccupation with psychoanalysis, through which he came to know Carl Gustav Jung personally, and was challenged to new creative heights. During a three-week period in September and October 1917, Hesse penned his novel Demian, which was published following the armistice in 1919 under the pseudonym Emil Sinclair.

Casa Camuzzi Montagnola

By the time Hesse returned to civilian life in 1919, his marriage had shattered. His wife had a severe episode of psychosis, but, even after her recovery, Hesse saw no possible future with her. Their home in Bern was divided, their children were accommodated in pensions and with relatives, and Hesse resettled alone in Ticino, finally moving to the town Montagnola where he rented four small rooms in a castle-like building, the Casa Camuzzi.

Here, he explored his writing projects further; he began to paint, an activity reflected in his next major story Klingsor’s Last Summer, published in 1920. This new beginning in different surroundings brought him happiness, and Hesse later called his first year in Ticino “the fullest, most prolific, most industrious and most passionate time of my life.”

Ruth Wenger

In 1922, Hesse’s novella Siddhartha appeared, which showed the love for Indian culture and Buddhist philosophy that had already developed earlier in his life. In 1923, Hesse received Swiss citizenship and a year later married the singer Ruth Wenger, daughter of the Swiss writer Lisa Wenger; their marriage never attained any stability, however. After a short trip to Germany with Wenger, Hesse stopped seeing her almost completely. He returned to Basel and rented a separate apartment in Gerbergasse*), adding to his isolation. The resulting feeling of isolation and inability to make lasting contact with the outside world led to increasing despair and thoughts of suicide. He proceeded on writing the Steppenwolf by drawing on his own spiritual crisis; he completed the novel in Zurich and it was published in Germany in 1927.

In the preface to the novel’s 1960 edition, Hesse wrote that Steppenwolf was “more often and more violently misunderstood” than any of his other books. Hesse felt that his readers focused only on the suffering and despair that are depicted in Harry Haller’s life, thereby missing the possibility of transcendence and healing.

Ninon Dolbin

Shortly after his new success, he turned away from the solitude of Steppenwolf and married art historian Ninon Dolbin. This change to companionship was reflected in the novel Narcissus and Goldmund, published in 1930. In 1931, Hesse left the Casa Camuzzi and moved with Ninon to a large house near Montagnola, which was built according to his wishes.

Hesse began planning what would become his last major work, The Glass Bead Game (aka Magister Ludi). In 1932, as a preliminary study, he released the novella Journey to the East.

Hesse observed the rise to power of Nazism in Germany with concern. In 1933, Bertolt Brecht and Thomas Mann made their travels into exile, each aided by Hesse. In this way, Hesse attempted to work against Hitler’s suppression of art and literature that protested Nazi ideology. Hesse’s third wife was Jewish, and he had publicly expressed his opposition to anti-semitism long before then. Hesse was criticized for not condemning the Nazi party, but his failure to criticize or support any political idea stemmed from his “politics of detachment… at no time did he openly condemn (the Nazis), although his detestation of their politics is beyond question.” From the end of the 1930s, German journals stopped publishing Hesse’s work, and the Nazis eventually banned it.

Hermann and Ninon Hesse

The Glass Bead Game was Hesse’s last novel, printed in Switzerland in 1943. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature for the body of his work in 1946. During the last twenty years of his life, Hesse wrote many short stories (chiefly recollections of his childhood) and poems (frequently with nature as their theme). Hesse also wrote ironic essays about his alienation from writing such as the mock autobiographies: Life Story Briefly Told and Aus den Briefwechseln eines Dichters) and spent much time pursuing his interest in watercolours. Hesse also occupied himself with the steady stream of letters he received as a result of the Nobel Prize and as a new generation of German readers explored his work. He died on 9 August 1962, aged 85, and was buried in the cemetery at San Abbondio in Montagnola. His wife Ninon died in 1966 and was buried next to him.

You should let yourself be carried away, like the clouds in the sky.
You shouldn’t resist. God exists in your destiny just as much
as he does in these mountains and in that lake.
It is very difficult to understand this,
because man is moving further and further away from Nature,
and also from himself.

Hermann Hesse, as cited in Miguel Serrano, C.G. Jung and Hermann Hesse: A Record of Two Friendships

*) Notably, the house in Gerbergasse in Basel accommodated the Zorba the Buddha Disco during the 1980s.

Credit source: Wikipedia and various online sites

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