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A LIFETIME OF QUEST
Hermann Hesse's life was a succession of crises-like Harry Haller's life in Steppenwolf-and self-searching quests like both Haller's and Siddhartha's. He was born on July 2, 1877, in the little town of Calw in southwestern Germany, bordering on Switzerland. He was the second of his parents' six children. His father had served as a missionary in India and his mother had been born there. Her father had also been a missionary as well as a celebrated scholar of Indian lore and languages.
From an early age, young Hermann haunted his grandfather's library of Asian literature. His parents' house was a stopping place for missionaries and scholars returning from the East, and it was filled with Indian literature and art. Contrasting with this exposure to exotic religions was his parents' form of Christianity. As members of the Pietist sect of the Lutheran Church, they believed in a literal interpretation of the Bible. They disapproved of dancing, theater, sports, and public performances.
Hermann began composing poetry at the age of five and decided to become a writer at thirteen. At fourteen his parents enrolled him in a theological seminary, expecting him to follow family tradition and become a minister. In rebellion against the rigid school atmosphere, he ran away. His parents then entered him in a conventional school, but he was soon expelled. He was apprenticed to booksellers, worked in a clock factory, and for a time helped in his father's religious publishing company. From the age of twenty-one he worked in bookshops in the German university town of Tubingen and then in Basel, Switzerland.
Throughout these stormy years, Hesse pursued his self-education in German literature and wrote poetry and autobiographical fiction. In 1904 his first novel, Peter Camenzind, was published. It is the story of a young man who breaks away from his middle-class background to live close to nature. When this book met with success, he quit his job to write full-time.
That same year he married and went to live at Gaienhofen, on the German shore of Lake Constance (Bodensee). Two more novels followed (Beneath the Wheel, 1906, and Gertrud, 1910), as well as articles and reviews in German cultural journals, one of which he cofounded. A spiritual pilgrimage he took to India in 1911 proved disappointing-the ancient Eastern land he sought was already too Westernized-although the experience later bore fruit in Siddhartha.
The outbreak of World War I in 1914 found Hesse living in Bern, Switzerland, the country which from then on was to be his permanent home. While working on behalf of German prisoners of war, he wrote articles condemning the war and the nationalism that had led to it, becoming the target of hundreds of hate letters from Germany.
The novel Rosshalde in 1914, the story of an artist struggling in an unhappy marriage, reflected trouble in Hesse's own marriage. In 1916 his father died, his youngest son became seriously ill with meningitis, and his wife was committed to a mental hospital. Shaken by these blows, Hesse came close to a breakdown. He had long been interested in the work of Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, and of Freud's Swiss disciple, Carl Gustav Jung (1875-1961). Feeling his mental health threatened, he entered a sanitarium and underwent psychoanalysis.
The first product of this experience, the novel Demian: the Story of a Youth, appeared in 1919 under a pen name. It enjoyed great success and won a prize for first novels, which Hesse returned, revealing his identity. Years of productivity followed, despite periods of severe depression in the 1920s (which nevertheless yielded the novels Siddhartha and Steppenwolf).
Steppenwolf has been called a psychoanalytic novel, and some biographers describe it as a fictionalized version of Hesse's own psychoanalysis. Hesse had been interested in the system originated by Freud of bringing into the conscious mind those experiences, real and imagined, that are buried in the unconscious. The theory is that these memories have been suppressed because they are too painful to be faced, but if they are brought to light and examined they can cease to be emotionally harmful.
Freud's Swiss disciple Jung formulated his own theoretical structure of the mind, or psyche. To Freud's two psychological levels, the conscious and the unconscious, Jung added a third: the collective unconscious, a repository of the myths and symbols drawn from the shared experiences of the human race. One of Jung's archetypes, as he called these mythical images, is the Wise Old Man, who may be identified in Siddhartha as the old ferryman Vasudeva.
Hesse held that psychoanalysis merely confirmed what, as an artist, he already knew about the unconscious. Supporting him in this view was Freud's interpretation of the artist's role, which is to descend into the unconscious and bring back its truths in the bearable form of art. Scholars have identified many Jungian ideas in Steppenwolf, but Hesse felt that by the time he came to write the novel he was free of psychoanalytic guidance and could function independently as an artist.
On its appearance in 1927, Hesse's fellow author Thomas Mann wrote him that Steppenwolf was an experimental novel in a class with James Joyce's Ulysses and Andre Gide's The Counterfeiters, two highly innovative works that had been published earlier in the same decade. The experimental aspect of Steppenwolf has been described by some readers as its structure, which gives three different versions of the novel's hero by three imaginary authors. Others have found the novel experimental in its blend of outer and inner reality, dramatic interior monologues (passages in which the hero is thinking aloud for the reader), and a hallucinatory journey into the unconscious which to some readers is a drug-induced "trip." Siddhartha, by contrast, is a relatively straightforward narrative told in the form of a legend, and it has been called Hesse's most perfect novel.
Another distinction between the two novels is that while Siddhartha ends with its hero having attained his goal, Steppenwolf ends inconclusively: Harry Haller acknowledges that he must try again, and as often as necessary, to explore his inner self. This ending may be partly due to the fact that Hesse had been blocked for eighteen months in carrying the Siddhartha story to its victorious conclusion. Five years later, in Steppenwolf, he did not try to resolve his story but took his hero only as far as he himself had gone in learning to live with himself. He called Steppenwolf his catharsis, a Greek word meaning an esthetic experience that cleanses and purges the emotions, or, in psychoanalysis, a release of emotions that alleviates symptoms. The novel did this for its hero as well as for its author.