Hermann Hesse (July 2, 1877 – August 9, 1962) was a German poet, novelist, and painter. In 1946, he received the Nobel Prize in Literature. His best-known works include Steppenwolf, Siddhartha, and The Glass Bead Game (also known as Magister Ludi), each of which explores an individual's search for authenticity, self-knowledge and spirituality.
Problems arise when Siddhartha is taken out of its European, and more specifically German Protestant Christian, context, and used to present Indian Buddhist thought, because many of the fundamental perspectives of the Buddhist tradition are obscured, if not turned completely upside-down. Once the Siddhartha-model is fixed in the minds of intellectually curious and enthusiastic students, reading and understanding primary Buddhist texts or more authentic interpretations and commentaries become more difficult, as contradictory models are described in these texts. Studying patterns of thinking and perceptions of a culture different from one’s own should feel at the very least unfamiliar, if not unsettling, but Hesse’s presentation of Indian ways of thinking flows easily into our own cultural frameworks—influenced, as American intellectual thinking is, by European literary and philosophical ideas.
It is not always easy to understand how Buddhism arose out of Hinduism, particularly because the textual basis is more obscure. One modern text, Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha, can work admirably to bridge this gap. Profoundly popular in the sixties as a portrait of another world that somehow seemed more real and pure, the book now is often considered passé. I have found that for my high school students of comparative religion, the truths, the searching, the wisdom so inherent in the themes and concerns of the novel are still relevant and persuasive.
Hesse suffered a series of life crises caused by World War I, the death of his father, the difficult sickness of his son, and his wife's schizophrenia. In 1922, Hesse's novel Siddhartha appeared, which showed the love for Indian culture and Buddhist philosophy.
[Das Glasperlenspiel] is a fantasy about a mysterious intellectual order, on the same heroic and ascetic level as that of the Jesuits, based on the exercise of meditation as a kind of therapy. The novel has an imperious structure in which the concept of the game and its role in civilization has surprising parallels with the ingenious study Homo ludens by the Dutch scholar Huizinga. Hesse's attitude is ambiguous. In a period of collapse it is a precious task to preserve the cultural tradition. But civilization cannot be permanently kept alive by turning it into a cult for the few.
The youthful rebellion against the inherited piety that nonetheless always remained in the depth of his being, was repeated in a painful inner crisis, when in 1914 as a mature man and an acknowledged master of regional literature he went new ways which were far removed from his previous idyllic paths.
He began a journey through various institutions and schools, and experienced intense conflicts with his parents. In May, after an attempt at suicide, he spent time at a series of institutions. He finally concluded his schooling in 1893 and after a series of jobs and apprenticeships, began writing poetry and philosophy in 1895. Hesse was a loner and, after the end of a twelve hour workday, pursued his writing and spent his idle Sundays with books rather than friends.
Hesse lived in Tübingen, Basle and Italy until his first novel "Peter Camenzind" was finally and succesfully published. After that he was a free-lance writer. Together with his first wife Mia Bernouilli (1869 - 1963), a professional photographer, he moved to Gaienhofen on Lake Constance (1904). His three sons were born there (Bruno in 1905, Heiner in 1909 and Martin in 1911).
The terms "Calw" and "hometown" are without a doubt synonymous, when used in relation with Hermann Hesse and his work. Calw, the town where he was born, was home for him and remained so throughout his life. And for Hesse, as for so many other intellectuals in this ravaged century, the concept of "home" was contradictory: Hesse was well aware of the two different aspects of the term "home", which, after being misused during the era of Wilhelminian Germany and particularly during the time of national socialism, was tainted with the disastrous propaganda of blood and soil and seemed to be heading backwards.
Hermann Hesse's family was not originally from Württemberg, they were "newcomers". Hermann Hesse's father, a German-Baltic missionary, came to Calw to work in the famous Calw publishing house of Dr. Hermann Gundert.
Hesse was attacked and slandered by Germany`s national socialists but his prevailing trend comes to light in the typoscript of 1933: " It is better to be killed by the fascists than to be a fascist; it is better to be killed by the communists than to be a communist". Especially his "Criticism of Literature", published in Sweden, shows his position: he did not differenciate between the refugees and those who stayed behind nor between Jews and Christians.