Hermann Hesse – Consciousness for Today and Tomorrow

In the canton of Ticino in the south of Switzerland the small village of Montagnola overlooks Lake Lugano. Hermann Hesse lived here for 43 years. His pure vision continues to refine the inner mind of seekers everywhere.

I attended The Institute for European Affairs in Lugano in 1968/69. After the deaths of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy the world was in turmoil. The Democratic Convention in Chicago destroyed whatever remained of the American myth after the nightly saga of Vietnam played itself out on Walter Cronkite and Huntley/Brinkley. Simon & Garfunkel sang of the evening news.

Here I began my study of the classic works;  Steppenwolf, Siddhartha and Magister Ludi-The Glass Bead Game.

A small mountain road winds past the home where Hesse penned the works that changed our world. The road leads to a typical European walled cemetery where Hesse is buried. The gravestones are ornate, gaudy even, except one. Down the steps, in the corner, quietly a modest slab of granite speaks volumes:                                                                           Hermann Hesse                                                                                                                          2 July 1877                                                                                                                               9 August 1962

Hesse wrote novels, essays, poetry and a great many letters. He is the only author that ever inspired me to learn a foreign language to read the works in the original. I didn’t go that far, though, so I’m sure what I’ve read in English doesn’t do justice to a man who is the fullest expression of the artist as author. Oh. he painted also, the rest of us have our work cut out to even reach for his pencil case.

But reach we must, for that is why he wrote, so we may learn to seek our own space in a world where government and bureaucrats seek to define us in ways that allow them control.

“Hesse speaks to us nakedly, without artifice, from his  profound fatherly heart, without any need to exaggerate  his realization or play down or excuse his own faults and shadow. That is why we came to trust him, knowing that he has no need to convince us of his own uniqueness or to seduce us to marvel at his achievement. Such wry and radical humility is rare in the Western tradition and comes, I believe, from Hesse’s deep immersion in Eastern, especially Chinese, thought, with which his reclusive temperament had the greatest affinity.” Andrew Harvey says in his foreword to HERMANN HESSE – The Seasons of the Soul, a wonderful collection of poems previously unavailable in English with commentary by Ludwig Max Fischer. No Hesse collection is complete without this treat.

My curious introduction to Hesse’s world came at a rock ‘n roll concert in Miami. The Byrds where the main attraction but the opening act blew them off the stage. A Canadian band no one had heard of and hadn’t even released their first song. Steppenwolf, curious name, powerful, mysterious – unforgettable. Several months later I was in Lugano and learned a lot more about the Magic Theatre.

                                                                                  Eternity is a mere moment, just long enough for a joke.          Steppenwolf

It’s not necessary to read Steppenwolf to fully realize Hesse’s vision but the scope would be curtailed. Jazz, drugs, dancing in the frenzy to throw off the shackles of a confining class driven world. Sounds like the sixties.

In 1974 Fred Haines created a cinematic rendition with Max von Sydow, Dominique Sanda and Pierre Clementi that is priceless.

“Pablo did not appear to think much, this charming caballero. His business was with the saxophone in the jazz-band and to this calling he appeared to devote himself with love and passion.” Pierre Clementi delivers a stunning performance. Unforgettable.

“Hermine told me a remarkable thing. She told me that Pablo, after a conversation about me, had said that she must treat me very nicely, for I was so very unhappy. And when she asked what had brought him to that conclusion, he said: ‘Poor, poor fellow. Look at his eyes. Doesn’t know how to laugh.’ “




not for everybody

“In your case, for example, the spiritual side is very highly developed, and so you are very backward in all the little arts of living. Harry, the thinker is a hundred years old, but Harry, the dancer, is scarcely half a day old. It’s he we want to bring on, and all his little brothers who are just as little and stupid and stunted as he is.”

A conventional approach to Hesse (bypassing the autobiographical youth stories Demian, Beneath the Wheel etc) would be Siddartha. Hesse’s ties to India predate his birth. Both his parents lived in India, indeed his mother was born there to missionary parents. On both his paternal and maternal side his family were Protestant Pietists who according to an early Hesse biographer Hugo Ball, “rediscovered the mystically steeped Luther who had been almost forgotten in the midst of religous strife and princely Enlightenment.”

Hesse’s life and writing were a delicate balance of comfort and shadow. “He was suspended, it seemed, between one kind of home-a place of contentment, acceptances and warmth-and another kind split by worry and fear that often rejected him in his need – a recurring image is that of being alone in the dark, wanting to return to the circle of light where his family seemed to live.” (Hermann Hesse, Pilgrim of Crisis – Ralph Freedman). Indeed, that suspension between comfort and emptiness  that epitomizes man’s earthly existence is what makes Hesse the endless well of comfort for which we can turn to for succor.

No single individual has opened more doors into the vault of Earthly Enlightenment than Hermann Hesse. His treasury is laid bare in The Glass Bead Game, published in 1943, which is most responsible for the Nobel Prize in Literature he was awarded in 1946. Theodore Ziolkowski’s introduction to the 1969 edition (revised in 1989) of The Glass Bead Game is worth reading in its own write.

“Hesse suggests that revolt need not be irrational and violent, that indeed it is more effective when it is rational and ironic . . . we look ahead to the Castalia of the future, where the problems of our age are displayed in a realistic abstraction that permits us to consider them rationally and dispassionately. Castalia has more than a little in common with the intellectual and cultural institutions of the sixties as well as the eighties to the extent that they have become autonomous empires cut off from the social needs of mankind and cultivating their own Glass Bead Game in splendid isolation . . . The longer we consider Hesse’s novel, the more clearly we realize that it is not a telescope focused on an imaginary future, but a mirror reflecting with disturbing sharpness a paradigm of present reality.”

“Great men are to youth like the raisins in the cake of world history.”   The Glass Bead Game

“Knecht had been nurturing an idea for a Glass Bead Game which he now decided to use as his first ceremonial Game as Magister. The pretty idea was to base the structure and dimension of the Game on the ancient Confucian ritual pattern for the building of a Chinese house: orientation by the points of the compass, the gates, the spirit wall, the relationships and functions of buildings and courtyards, their  co-ordination with the constellations, the calender and family life, and the symbolism and the stylistic patterns of the garden. Long ago, in studying the I Ching, he had thought the mythic order and significance of these rules made an unusually appealing and charming symbol of the cosmos and man’s place in the universe.”   The Glass Bead Game

In 1972 Conrad Rooks released a cinematic version of Siddhartha along with Ingmar Bergmann’s cinematographer Sven Nykvist. Filmed on location the result is as much a work of poetry, art as beauty, thought as style and action as nature as the original written work.

During his stay in India Rooks met an authentic holy man, Swami Satchidananda. Confident that the West was in need of the Swami’s message he purchased a round the world air fare with the proviso that New York City not be included in the itinerary. (So much for his confidence in the Swami’s ability to avoid the temptations of the West). In Paris Peter Max met Satchidananda and promptly invited him to stay in New York at his apartment unbeknownst to his wife. So in the summer of 1969 Max’s wife responded to a knock on her door one evening to find the fully bearded charismatic (one time electrical engineer Swami) looking for Peter and lodging. I heard this story from her at a Satchidananda retreat several years later. The rest is history, several months later Satchidananda delivered the opening invocation at the Woodstock Festival. And so I  received my introduction to yoga through Hesse, via Rooks and Satchidananda.

Which brings us back to the cemetery where we began in 1968, I wrote the following ode to Hesse at his grave side.

He walked on the ground

Like a doe to the fawn

and I always envied him

for the peace he’d found.

And, when he died

I closed his eyes and walked like a doe to the fawn.

(Ode & old men with umbrella fotos copyright 1968 Lawrence Birney)


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