Wednesday, July 02, 2014

Man and Art

Hermann Hesse

Today is the birthday of Herman Hesse who was born on this day in 1877 in the German Black Forest town of Calw. Beyond the evidence found in his novels, Hesse’s correspondence and biographical details reflect a chronic disquietude, punctuated by more acute troubles — for example, a suicide attempt while still a teenager.  As relief from writing and society, he took up painting; the following notes comment on two of his novels from the twenties when he was still developing his world view of man and art.

My two favorite of Hesse's novels remain Steppenwolf and Demian.  In some respects they are related, for example by the influence of Nietzsche and Jung.  It was in Demian that a "comparatively mild-mannered traditionalist at odds with the world became a thoroughly Nietzschean individualist, iconoclast, and moralist. . . This Nietzschean sentiment found its immediate expression in Demian: a novelesque depiction of Hesse's own emancipation from traditional belief and thought, and of the crystallization of his own ethos.  In his Sinclair, Hesse himself emerged the man of tomorrow. " (Mileck, Herman Hesse, p 92-3)  In his novel that followed, Steppenwolf, the story of Harry Haller is that of a man and art, and is told in the transcendent manner of symbol and concept.  What follows are some notes that I wrote about Steppenwolf four years ago.

What does it mean to be Human?
notes on Der Steppenwolf

Our task as human beings is this:
Within our own unique personal lives
To move one step further along the path
From animal to human being.
- Hermann Hesse, in “Thou Shalt Not Kill”

A work like Steppenwolf is iconic in its artistic significance. Being so makes it more difficult to discuss the book as I would other "good" reads. A novel of ideas, one that challenges my own conception of the world, it raises more questions than it answers. It draws upon the ideas of other thinkers, notable Goethe and Nietzsche and Jung, and presents those ideas in new ways - challenging even those with which the author may agree. This is what Hermann Hesse set out to do in writing Der Steppenwolf in 1927.

The novel presents a complex narrative that combines three different styles within its structure; a straightforward preface introducing the protagonist, Harry Haller, a "Treatise on the Steppenwolf" in the form of a pamphlet that Harry accepts and interprets as a study of his own life, and Harry's own narrative which moves into a dream sequence when Harry enters the "Magic Theater". We meet characters, both women and men, at least one of whom may be Harry's alter ego or "anima" in Jungian terms. We see a man who would separate himself from the Nietzschean herd and values individuality. Most of all we encounter a man facing not the "two souls" that dwell within his breast, as Goethe described Faust, but one who faces innumerable souls in a personality that seems to be breaking up into different persons. Through it all Harry looks up to artistic "Immortals" as representative of an ideal in the form of idealized visions of Goethe and Mozart. Especially Mozart who plays a critical role in Harry's dreams.

What can I take away from this work? As I said it raises questions and the thoughts and process of reviewing the way I approach the world is one thing that this novel provides. With all great - read transcendent - works of art I continue to find new layers of meaning as I read and reread their pages. One fundamental question, and I think this is central to all of Hesse's writings, is what does it mean to be human? The philosophers from Plato and Aristotle have tried to define this, but Hesse's Steppenwolf continues to present the question and explore original ways to find the answer.

Hermann Hesse: Life and Art by Joseph Mileck.  U of California Press, 1980 (1978).
Steppenwolf by Hermann Hesse. Henry Holt & Company, New York. 1990 (1927).

1 comment:

Brian Joseph said...

I love Herman Hesse and I love the novel Steppenwolf.

If this makes any sense, I may esteem him more then he deserves. When someone asks me who my favorite author is I am tempted to say Hesse, though in theory, he is no where near the greatest author who ever lived. He works just connects with me in a special way.

The way that Hesse handles the idea of the "Immortals" here was sublime. I found it so impressive how such a complex philosophical argument is presented in a way that is so aesthetically pleasing.