The Works of Herman Hesse

Over the last few weeks I’ve been getting acquainted with some of Hermann Hesse’s work. My son, who is a philosopher, recommended Siddhartha so I started there. From that, I dived into The Glass Bead Game (aka Magister Ludi) and, finally, Narziss and Goldmund.

Hesse was very popular among students in the 1960s and 1970s, probably because of the sensitivity and beauty of his description of Eastern mysticism. But the great theme running through all his work is the difficulty of balancing the life of the intellect with the necessity of experiencing life in all its sensual richness. It was a dichotomy described by Nietzsche as the Appolonian vs the Dyonisian impulse, and in Hesse’s work it gains added depth from his period of analysis under Jung. Hesse identifies the Apollonian with masculinity, and the Dyonisian with the Eternal Mother (or, if you prefer, the primal Eve-figure).

Narziss and Goldmund is the story of an unlikely friendship between two men who represent the opposite ends of this spectrum. They meet in a medieval monestary, but Narziss, the ultra-aescetic, recognises that Goldmund will never succeed in the cloister. Goldmund has been damaged by his father’s rejection of his promiscuous and sensual mother, and his father has offered him up to the monastic life as a reasponse to this painful relationship. But Goldmund predictably flees the monastery as a young man and embarks on a life of adventure, wandering, numerous affairs and generally draining the cup of life to its dregs. In this way, he gathers the raw material to feed his artistic gift as a wood-carver, but struggles to maintain the necessary focus and self-discipline to succeed.

Eventually the two friends’ paths cross again, Goldmund returns to the monastery but never entirely comes to terms with his settled existence there, even though he is forced to accept that he’s getting too old for the wandering life he has been leading. It is a very beautiful meditation on life and art, and the necessity of both passionate sensuality and orderly self-discipline in the creative life. It is also an exceptionally beautiful portrait of a friendship between two very different people, who both love and learn a great deal from one another.

By contrast, The Glass Bead Game is set several hundred years in the future, in a Utopian society called Castilia, where an intellectual elite is supported by the rest of the community to live a life entirely devoted to the academic analysis of culture, particularly Baroque music and mathematics.  The ultimate expression of the society’s values is the immensely complex Glass Bead Game, which explores the relationships between various cultural endeavours across human history.

We follow the career of Joseph Knecht, who eventually becomes the Master of the Glass Bead Game, the pinnacle of success in Castilian society. But beneath his idyllic existence, Knecht becomes increasingly critical of the very values he represents. Can it ever be morally right for an elite to withdraw entirely from the hurly-burly of society and devote itselft entirely to intellectual enquiry? What happens when decadence creeps in, when traditions become dry, formulaic and devoid of life, or when war threatens so luxurious a social system?

The Glass Bead Game is many things – Utopian fantasy, a novel of ideas, and a sly deconstruction of the bildungsroman. Those familiar with Doctor Who would recognise  Castilia as another Gallifrey, and its elite inhabitants as Time Lords, devoted to a disinterested contempation of suffering from afar. (There’s even a scene where Knecht, resigning his position, hands over his keys and ceremonial sash…the impulse to add “of Rassilon” is, for me at least, well-nigh irresistible).

The Glass Bead Game was written in Switzerland, where Hesse lived in exile for many years. It took him 12 years and was eventually published in the early 1940s. It is possible to spot echoes of Nazism rumbling threateningly around the edges of the Castilian Utopia, and the contrast between National Socialism and the more aristocratic Weimer Republic crops up in the story of one of Knecht’s associates in the “outside world.”  It seemed to me that both The Glass Bead Game and Narziss and Goldman expressed something of the exile’s dilemma – is it more morally right to stand aloof from political turmoil as an observer and commentator on it, or to plunge right in?

These questions are perenially relevant and Hesse explores them with sensitivity and humanity, ultimately concluding that there are no easy answers, but that balance between opposites is the best solution – itself a very Eastern concept. The yin of involvement must be balanced by the yang of contemplation. Hesse’s works are full of various kinds of holy men, but he acknowledges that the life of complete asceticism is not for everyone. Wise and humane, reading his work has brought me a little closer to the German school and given me a lot to think about.

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