Art/Culture  •  B-day Presents for Past Artists

B-day Presents for Past Artists: Hermann Hesse

To celebrate Hermann Hesse’s 140th birthday this week, 2mag looks back at the Nobel laureate’s search for spiritual meaning and decides the best gift for him is... a Fitbit!

July 04, 2017
Humans and sufferings, the two seem inseparable. Or at least that was what Nobel laureate Hermann Hesse was thinking when he wrote Siddhartha. Much as the subject of this Western introduction to the life and teachings of the Buddha preached, Hesse too believed that human beings are subjected to the constant torment of sufferings, sickness, pain, and death in an endless cycle of existence. This week, celebrating Hesse’s 140th birthday, 2mag meditates on Hesse’s life journey to the ultimate emotional peace by looking at his struggles, crises, and writings.

Although coming from a pious family of missionaries, Hesse was a headstrong and ‘problematic’ child. As a youth, Hesse was often in conflict with his parents and teachers, ran away from school, attempted suicide, was sent to a mental institution, and then struggled with depression throughout his life. All of these struggles—and a quest for answers—are undoubtedly reflected in his works; from Crisis to Demian, his writings are preoccupied with questions of religion, faith, and spirituality through self-examination and a constant search for one’s true identity.

In 1911, seeking to regain his spirituality and enthralled by wanderlust, Hesse boarded the SS Prinz Eitel Friedrich and travelled to Asia, visiting India, Indonesia, Singapore, Sumatra, Borneo, and Burma. Perhaps a consequence of romanticizing the faraway pilgrimage, his three-month voyage ended in fatigue and disappointment. He later admitted that he experienced no sense of liberation and his idealized image of ‘Asian roots’ was shattered by the realities of colonialism, climate, and the social conditions in the countries he visited. His love of Eastern philosophy, however, did not disappear. In fact, Hesse’s literary works became distinguished pieces of poetical medley, fusing Buddhist philosophy, Taoism, and Christianity on the basis of a universal mysticism.

Perhaps it is necessary for great writers to embrace their sufferings, but for the author of Steppenwolf the endless waves of torment were almost unbearable. In one year, Hesse experienced the death of his father, the illness of his youngest son, the schizophrenia of his wife, and a decline in his own parlous health. As a consequence, Hesse underwent sessions of psychoanalysis that marked a turning point of his life, the treatments and interpretations through self-analysis not only helping him overcome these crises but also playing major roles in his writings, most naturally in his celebrated depiction of Siddhartha Gautama’s quest for ultimate peace.

Hesse’s treatments of psychoanalysis “helped to shape me, to peel off my layers of skin, break the egg-shells, and as I emerged from each stage I raised my head a little higher with a greater feeling of freedom”, wrote Hesse in Demian. Perhaps, after all the sufferings, crises, struggles, and a lifelong search for the authenticity that had contributed to his life journey, Hesse, like Gautama, was ultimately and successfully able to find that emotional peace he had been looking for—in his case through psychoanalysis. As he explained in Siddhartha,

“And all the voices, all the goals, all the yearnings, all the sorrows, all the pleasures, all the good and evil, all of them together was the world. All of them together was the stream of events, the music of life.”