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How Hermann Hesse became a hero of the Sixties counterculture

“Before your LSD session, read Siddartha and Steppenwolf," advised Timothy Leary.

Writing to the woman who would become his third wife, Hermann Hesse complained: “Life for me now holds almost no pleasures any more, in fact I am living in Hell.” The event that had reduced Hesse to this state of near-despair was that his wife-to-be Ninon Dolbin had moved some of his books without his permission. For him this was an intolerable disruption of the orderly existence he believed essential to a writer who had detached himself from the world. His independence required that he hold all of humankind, and even his closest companion, at a rigorously policed distance. Accordingly, although the two of them lived under the same roof, he communicated with Ninon mainly in writing. As his latest biographer, Gunnar Decker, relates:

Their day-to-day communication with one another was conducted by “house letters”, like in a Trappist monastery, where one has to stay silent most of the time and jot down essential communications to one’s fellow monks on pieces of paper. This was the way Hesse managed to tolerate the presence of another person in his vicinity; he had to be sure he wouldn’t suddenly be spoken to.

“How was it,” Decker asks, “that Hesse believed himself to be ‘living in Hell’…when he had a female friend who loved him more unreservedly than any before her, and who placed herself entirely at the service of his needs?” As he comments: “His note sounds positively hysterical.”

It is a reasonable judgement. Decker is a scrupulous biographer with an unrivalled knowledge of his subject, and this is undoubtedly the definitive account of Hesse’s life and work. It is less clear what Decker finds of intrinsic interest or value in his subject. The most striking fact about Hesse is how he was embraced by the counterculture in the early Sixties – a development that secured him a posthumous reputation as an exponent of the hippie “drop out” philosophy and made him the most widely translated 20th-century German author.

In 1923, Hesse settled in Switzerland, where he had been living for the past ten years and remained until his death in 1962. There he adopted a stance of detachment from political struggles, which he presented as an example for Europe’s beleaguered intelligentsia. But what was the positive content of his vision, if any? Did it serve any impulse higher than an anxious need for peace and quiet? These are questions Decker does not answer.

Hesse’s sheltered lifestyle could hardly serve as an inspiration for the European intellectuals to whom he directed his writings in the interwar years. Dropping out of society is impractical when society is in chaos, and barely imaginable in a totalitarian regime such as Soviet Russia or Nazi Germany. The studied impartiality Hesse adopted towards the mass movements of his time was impossible in countries where they had taken control. In reality, his pose of independence was more a psychological stratagem than a principled stance.

A lifelong narcissist, Hesse pursued relief from his own worries more than anything else. Even his secluded life in Switzerland, where his home was fronted by a sign saying “No Visitors”, did not give him the distance from the world he craved. Money was always a problem. He fumed against currency fluctuations and German income tax, which he claimed left his earnings from his writings worth less than the postage stamp on the envelope in which he sent his work to his publisher. When he won the Goethe Prize from the City of Frankfurt in 1946, he complained that “the sum of money attached to this prize… couldn’t even buy a loaf of bread and a glass of wine”. His bitterest resentment of the world, however, was evoked when it honoured him. In the same year that he was awarded the Nobel Prize he took refuge in a sanatorium, declaring that humanity had decided to “stone him to death” with messages of congratulation.

Hesse’s determination to distance himself from the world can be partly explained by his family background. He was born in 1877 in the Black Forest town of Calw into a Pietist family. A dissident current within Lutheranism, Pietists believed a righteous life must be lived independently of the world, including the established churches. A similar impulse of withdrawal shaped Hesse’s life and work. Suffering repeated episodes of acute depression, recurrently suicidal, scornful of world opinion and at the same time intensely protective of his reputation, Hesse struggled to renew a Pietistic life of the spirit at a time when the faith that had sustained his family was no longer viable. Diagnosed in his early years as being mentally ill, he entered a psychiatric institution for a time and struggled throughout his life to achieve some kind of inner equilibrium.

Hesse’s grandfather Hermann Gundert (1814-1893) had been a Protestant missionary in India, where he also became an accomplished linguist in Dravidian languages. With a sceptical, questing attitude to the faith he was promoting and a scholarly passion for foreign cultures, Gundert became a role model for his grandson. In his 1923 autobiographical essay “The Childhood of the Magician”, Hesse wrote:

This man, my mother’s father, was hidden in a forest of mysteries, just as his face was hidden in the white forest of his beard; from his eyes there flowed sorrow for the world and blithe wisdom, depending on the circumstances, and likewise lonely wisdom and divine roguishness; people from many lands knew him, visited him and revered him.

The difference between Gundert and Hesse is in the ruling ideas of their times. Whereas his grandfather retained a theistic trust in a divine power, Hesse belonged to a generation whose faith in any such power had been shattered by the catastrophe of the First World War. Any transcendent God was dead, and if a saving spirit existed it could only be found within human beings themselves. But for Hesse and much of his generation this was not the rational, world-improving spirit of secular humanism. The spirit that animated human beings was non-rational, at times dark and destructive, and yet possessed of salvific power. Hesse’s spirituality was that of the German Romantics, and like them he often sank into grandiloquent vacuity when he tried to express it.

With this background, it is not surprising that Hesse would be drawn to the esoteric psychology of CG Jung. He was introduced to Jung’s ideas in 1918, when after a period of nervous exhaustion he was referred to JB Lang, a psychiatrist familiar with Jung’s work. Hesse sought guidance from Jung directly in February 1921. In many ways, Jungian psychology was made for Hesse. Composed from ideas derived from the fringes of Western thought such as gnosticism and occultism, it offered a cure for the soul without the intellectual difficulties or inconvenient disciplines of a traditional faith.

 It was the wily Jung, more than anyone else, who originated the 20th-century transformation in which religion was replaced by therapeutic technique. With his elaborate apparatus of archetypal images, alchemical texts and numinous dreams, Jung reframed the search for salvation as a process of individuation. The aim of human life was to synthesise the conflicting sides of the personality into an integral whole. All human beings possessed a shadow-self, at odds with the personality known to themselves and others. The mission of psychotherapy was to bring this shadow into the light of conscious awareness, and thereby make peace among the warring forces in the soul. With traditional faiths in retreat, the task fell to a new religion grounded in the power of the unconscious mind.

Jung’s attempt to find a remedy for the ills of the modern soul led him in some unsavoury directions. His relations with Nazism were ambiguous. In 1936, after the Berlin Psychoanalytic Institute had been taken over by the Nazis to be governed by a cousin of Hermann Göring, Jung delivered a lecture there in which he declared that “the Aryan unconscious has a higher potential than the Jewish”. Such statements may well have reflected opportunistic collaboration on his part. By 1943, when the Nazis were clearly losing the war, Jung – like Hesse, safely ensconced in Switzerland – was working with American intelligence, providing psychological interpretations of Hitler’s behaviour to the Office of Strategic Services. He was tacking with the wind. Yet there can be no doubt that Jung saw in Hitler a leader who had mobilised the collective unconscious of the German masses. (In a curious echo, Steve Bannon has been reported as claiming that Jung’s autobiography, Memories, Dreams, Reflections, is “one of Donald Trump’s favourite books”. According to Bannon, it was Jung’s theory of archetypes that led Trump to coin the expression “Crooked Hillary”.)

Refusing to commit himself to any of the mass movements of his day, Hesse avoided collaborating with Nazism in the way Jung had done. But as late as 1932, Hesse was able to write in a letter to an old friend: “The world moves forward, not backward, and someday Germany too must join the onward march of progress. And maybe the path to that lies through that stupid ass Hitler!” For all his warnings regarding the collapse of Western civilisation – in which he often resembled Oswald Spengler, author of The Decline of the West (1918) – Hesse failed either to anticipate or fully comprehend the extremity of the barbarism into which Europe descended with Hitler.

Hesse always thought of himself as a European writer. Yet one reason he was so much read in the Sixties counterculture was that he seemed open to insights from non-Western traditions. His novels Siddhartha (1922) and Journey to the East (1932) appeared to show an interest in the mystical practices of Buddhism and Hinduism. It is questionable, though, how much he gleaned from these traditions. Like his grandfather, he travelled widely in the Far East, setting off in 1911 to visit Penang, Borneo, Sumatra, Burma and Sri Lanka. But the spur for these travels was not an impulse to spiritual inquiry. As Decker puts it, Hesse’s travels were “an escape from the confines of domestic life”.

Hesse’s third son, Martin, was born in April 1911, when his relations with his first wife, Maria Bernoulli, were becoming difficult. Less than eight weeks later he boarded a passenger liner for Asia. Yet he seemed no happier away from home, and throughout his peregrinations complained about bad hotels and worse food, beggars, street traders and the weather. Having reached Ceylon and climbed the island’s highest peak, he took a Chinese steamship to Singapore where he boarded another vessel that took him back to Europe, returning home “none the richer for his experience, only poorer through having been disillusioned once more. A profound sense of emptiness set in”.

If Hesse returned from the East to another bout of depression, one reason was that the goal of the religions he had been half-heartedly exploring was the opposite of what he was looking for. Hesse wanted self-realisation, whereas Eastern ­mysticism aimed at the dissolution of the self. As Decker notes, Hesse’s Siddhartha had more of Nietzsche in him than of Buddha. For Hesse’s protagonist, as for Hesse himself, “It was not a question of renouncing the Self but of finding it. This was a very Western line of thought.”

The book of Hesse’s that had the greatest resonance in the Sixties was Steppenwolf (1927), after which a succession of rock bands and theatrical companies were named. The story of a middle-aged man who felt alienated as much from himself as from society, the novel attracted the counterculture partly because its hallucinatory style seemed to resemble experiences induced by mind-expanding drugs. The former Harvard psychologist and LSD evangelist Timothy Leary canonised Hesse as a “master-guide” to psychedelia, and advised his disciples: “Before your LSD session, read Siddhartha and Steppenwolf.” Yet apart from a lifelong addiction to wine and tobacco, Hesse had no interest in drugs. More to the point, he feared and resisted with all his powers the loss of self that Leary sought and found in the psychedelic experience.

Written over a period of more than ten years, Hesse’s last full-length novel, The Glass Bead Game (1943), encapsulates the essential emptiness of his vision. Set in a remote future in a fictional part of Europe, the story tells the life of a member of a powerful spiritual order who rises to the top to become Magister Ludi – the supreme master of an esoteric game in which all the branches of human knowledge were deployed. Neither the rules nor the goal of the game are ever specified, and when the Magister renounces his position towards the end of the book his reasons for doing so are not given. Was he disillusioned, or simply asserting himself against a discipline of which he had grown tired? The reader cannot tell. Hesse’s Magister Ludi remains a strangely insubstantial figure – not unlike Hesse himself. Apart from his overweening egotism, there is very little that is distinctive in this prophet of individuality. Though he made much of Jung’s theory of the divided self, Hesse was himself a man without a shadow. 

John Gray’s most recent book is “Seven Types of Atheism” (Allen Lane)

Hesse: The Wanderer and His Shadow
Gunnar Decker, translated by Peter Lewis
Harvard University Press, 800pp, £30

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer. His latest book is The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Enquiry into Human Freedom.

This article appears in the 05 December 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas special