World, Life

PROFILE - Hermann Hesse: Life full of agony, fame, honors

Monday marks 59th anniversary of death of acclaimed German-Swiss author, poet, winner of 1946 Nobel Prize for Literature

Dilan Pamuk and Merve Berker   | 09.08.2021
PROFILE - Hermann Hesse: Life full of agony, fame, honors

ANKARA

Monday marked the 59th anniversary of the death of Hermann Karl Hesse, a German-Swiss poet, and novelist whose stories particularly appealed to young people and often reflected his turbulent life.

Hesse was born on July 2, 1877, in the town of Calw on the edge of Germany’s the Black Forest. His mother, Marie Gundert, was the daughter of a Swabian and French-Swiss missionary and spent several years carrying out missionary work during her youth in India. His father, Johannes Hesse, a Baltic German from Estonia, was the son of a doctor who did the same kind of work in India.

Hermann Gundert, Hesse’s grandfather and namesake, encouraged him to indulge in reading widely and made his library containing works of philosophy and literature in various languages available to his grandson, so sparking in him the passion for writing that would shine in the years to come. Hesse then resolved to become a writer when he was only 12.

Life full of crises

Having grown up in a religious household, Hesse attended the Evangelical Theological Seminary of Maulbronn Abbey in 1891.

A headstrong boy in his childhood, he said later in his autobiography: “I was not a very manageable boy, and it was only with difficulty that I fitted into the framework of a pietist education that aimed at subduing and breaking the individual personality.”

Overcome at the time with apathy and despair, he attempted suicide at the age of 15.

Diagnosed with being possessed by "evil and devilry" by Christoph Blumhardt, a theologian, and friend of the family, Hesse was committed to a mental asylum by his parents for four months.

At the age of 18, Hesse started working in a bookshop in the city of Tubingen, where he had the chance to study theological works as well as the works of other writers, including the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, whose writings later had an immense impact on his thoughts and material.

Small volumes of his publications that remained unnoticed followed until he gained fame with his first novel, Peter Camenzind, in 1904.

With the quick success the novel brought him, Hesse settled in Switzerland with his first wife Maria Bernoulli, the mother of his three sons, a talented pianist, and the first-ever freelance photographer to have worked in Switzerland.

After Hesse’s settlement in the country, World War I broke out, and year by year, he felt taken “more and more into conflict with German nationalism.” Not surprisingly, this conflict led to the destruction or disappearance of some of his works during the years of war.

“In Germany, I have been acknowledged again since the fall of Hitler, but my works, partly suppressed by the Nazis and partly destroyed by the war, have not yet been republished there,” he said.

The years of the war coincided with a serious disease contracted by his youngest son Bruno, the death of his father in 1916, a marital crisis, and the mental illness of his wife, plunging the already famous writer-poet into a deep depression.

Hesse completed 72 sessions at a private mental clinic with Dr. Josef Bernhard Lang, a student of Carl Jung, the founder of analytical psychology.

Hesse later married Ruth Wenger, a 20-year-old singer and the daughter of writer Lisa Wenger. Their marriage lasted only three years due to problems triggered by their frequent lack of time spent together along with Wenger’s ongoing studies in Zurich.

In 1931, he married Ninon Auslander, who read and admired his book Peter Camenzind as a child, prompting a steady stream of correspondence. Auslander was a doctor, an art historian, also educated in archaeology and philosophy. Hesse felt a constant need to have her around him, and he lived with her until his death.

Literary career

The main theme of Hesse’s works primarily dealt with an individual’s efforts to break free from the existing codes to discover their own identity and the bid to come to grips with that identity once discovered.

The Western philosophers Plato, Baruch Spinoza, Arthur Schopenhauer, and Friedrich Nietzsche, and historian Jacob Burckhardt were among the writers Hesse was influenced by the most.

“But they did not influence me as much as Indian and, later, Chinese philosophy,” he said.

Another significant influence on his writings -- especially his poetry -- came from music, and he described his relationship with music as “intimate and fruitful, claiming that music can be traced in most of his writings.

His first collection of poetry titled Romantic Songs and that of prose titled One Hour After Midnight were published in 1896 and 1897, respectively, which became a failure in terms of not only sales but also his family relations, as Hesse's mother disapproved of his works for being secular and "vaguely sinful."

Hesse then released “other small publications that remained equally unnoticed,” in his own words.

Peter Camenzind, his first novel, gained acclamation across Germany and made its way to the favorite readings of scholars, including Sigmund Freud.

Another work by him, Demian (1919), marked a period in his life of turbulence and new beginnings. An attempt at analyzing and interpreting his inner world, Demian echoes his therapeutic conversations with Dr. Lang as well.

Receiving appreciation with Nobel Prize

In 1946, Hesse was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature a year after the end of World War II at the age of 69.

Having experienced various breakdowns, he preferred to avoid the attention of the award ceremony.

He had his two-page statement read out during the ceremony in Stockholm, Sweden, justifying his absence with the delicate state of his health as well as the destruction of his life's work in Germany in the years since 1933.

“I survived the years of the Hitler regime and the Second World War through the eleven years of work that I spent on the Glasperlenspiel (The Glass Bead Game, 1943), a novel in two volumes,” he noted.

After he completed the novel, he failed to engage in large projects due to an eye condition and the “increasing sicknesses of old age.”

During his lifetime, he received other notable prizes, including the Bauernfeld Prize (1906), Adolf Mejstrik Prize from the German Schiller Foundation (1928), Gottfried-Keller Prize (1936), Goethe Prize (1946), an honorary doctorate from the University of Bern (1947), Wilhelm Raabe Literature Prize (1950), Pour le Merite Award (1954), and Peace Prize of the German Book Trade (1955).

Hesse passed away on Aug. 9, 1962, in Montagnola, a Swiss village in the canton of Ticino in Collina d'Oro municipality near the border with Italy. His grave is located in the San Abbondio Cemetery in Montagnola.

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