Herman Hesse and his Search for Self-Knowledge

Hermann Hesse (1877-1962) [1]

On July 2, 1877, German poet, novelist, painter, and Nobel Laureate Hermann Hesse was born. He is best known for his novels ‘Steppenwolf‘, ‘Siddhartha‘, or ‘The Glass Bead Game‘, in which he explores the individual’s search for authenticity, self-knowledge and spirituality.

I’ve read the works of Hermann Hesse – as many other of my generation – when I was just 18 years of age. Interestingly, my most favorite novel of Hesse by then was his ‘Steppenwolf‘, a story about the midlife crisis of a lonely 50something. So, you might ask, what makes it so attractive for an adolescent, who has no idea about the worries of a man aged fifty? It’s simply the concept of finding out who you really are or who you want to be. In times of crisis and self doubt – and for sure this also holds for an 18 years old adolescent – Hesse might really be the right choice of literature for you. I think I will read Hesse again when I’m about to celebrate my 50th birthday. But, let’s take a closer look to Hermann Hesse…

Hermann Hesse was born in the Black Forest town of Calw in Württemberg, Germany. Both of Hesse’s parents served in India at a mission under the auspices of the Basel Mission, a Protestant Christian missionary society. His father was employed by the Calwer Verlagsverein, a publishing house managed by Hermann Hesse’s grandfather, publishing textbooks and theological books. Herman Hesse’s parents expected him to follow the family tradition in theology. Thus, he entered the Protestant seminary at Maulbronn in 1891, but he was expelled from the school. Hesse began a journey through various institutions and schools and experienced intense conflicts with his parents. After some fruitless experiences as a bookshop apprentice and a mechanic apprentice in a clock tower factory, he started to work in a distinguished antique book shop in Basel. Through family contacts, he stayed with the intellectual families of Basel, which provided him with rich stimuli for his pursuits and he further developed spiritually and artistically. At the same time, Basel offered the solitary Hesse many opportunities for withdrawal into a private life of artistic self-exploration, journeys and wanderings.

In 1899 Hesse published his first works, Romantische Lieder and Eine Stunde Hinter Mitternacht, which both failed for any business success. In 1904 came the breakthrough for Hesse with his first major novel Peter Camenzind that gained literary success throughout Germany. The book very much reflected Hesse’s disgust with the contemporary educational system. Even Sigmund Freud praised Peter Camenzind as one of his favorite readings. Now, Hesse was able to make a living as a writer. In the same year he married Maria Bernoulli, with whom he should have three children. A visit to India in 1911 interested Hesse in studies of Eastern religions and culminated in the famous novel Siddhartha published in 1922. The book tells the story of the spiritual journey of self-discovery of a man named Siddhartha during the time of the Gautama Buddha.

In 1912 Hesse and his family took a permanent residence in Switzerland. In his novel Rosshalde, published in 1914, Hesse explored the question of whether the artist should marry. During these years Hesse’s wife suffered from growing mental instability and his son was seriously ill. Unfortunately, the change of environment could not solve Hesse’s marriage problems, as he himself confessed in Roshalde. Hesse spent the years of World War I in Switzerland, attacking the prevailing moods of militarism and nationalism. In 1914, he volunteered with the Imperial army and was assigned to care for the causalities of World War I. Despite his desire to serve his country, Hesse inadvertently found himself surrounded by controversy. In his essay O Friends, Not These Tones, he argued that intellectuals should not fall victim to the extremities of nationalism. Instead everyone should embrace Europe’s common culture. The public turned against Hesse.

By 1919, Hesse’s marriage was irreconcilably damaged. The same year his successful novel Demian was published under the pseudonym Emil Sinclair, a Faustian tale of a man torn between his orderly bourgeois existence and a chaotic world of sensuality. The commercial success as a writer enabled Hesse to move to Montagnola and in 1923, he became a citizen of Switzerland. In 1927, his 10th novel, The Steppenwolf was published, combining autobiographical and psychoanalytic elements, reflecting a profound crisis in Hesse’s spiritual world and portraying the protagonist’s split between his humanity and his wolf-like aggression and homelessness. In 1931, Hesse began planning what would become his opus magnum, The Glass Bead Game published in 1943. Only three years after this work, Hermann Hesse was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. For the rest of his life, Hesse would continue to paint and write. He passed away on August 9, 1962.

At yovisto we realized that we don’t have a video lecture about Hermann Hesse in our database. Nevertheless, we have decided to include a public domain audiobox from librivox.org with one of Hermann Hesse’s most famous novels: Siddharta.

References and Further Reading

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