Mind and Spirit:
Enligtenment and Tao in the Works of Hermann Hesse
When beauty is abstracted
Then ugliness has been implied;
When good is abstracted
Then evil has been implied…
The sage experiences without abstraction,
And accomplishes without action;
He accepts the ebb and flow of things,
Nurtures them, but does not own them,
And lives, but does not dwell.
-- Lao Tzu
Tao Te Ching, Chapter 2
Conflict. This is the source of literary tension, the foundation of plot and theme. Conflict surrounds us; the world is full of it, and for this reason it lies in our nature to dissect our experiences into competing aspects, into thesis and antithesis. The ancient Chinese sage Lao Tzu, father of what has come to be known as Taoism, was keenly aware of this tendency. The Taoist symbolism for it is the notion of yin (shadow) and yang (illumination), which together make up a whole, the tao. And as implied in the above passage from the Tao Te Ching, Lao Tzu believed that the path of wisdom lies in seeing beyond conflict to the larger whole – in other words, in abandoning the very tension that lies at the heart of human experience, and at the heart of literature. It is ironic, then, that one of the most profound expressions of Lao Tzu’s ideal is to be found within the corpus of Western literature itself, in the works of German author Hermann Hesse.
Like Lao Tzu, Hesse was well-attuned to the conflicts that are so ingrained in man’s perception of the world and of himself. But unlike the sage, who seemed to condemn outright the “abstraction” of the world into opposites, Hesse explored in his novels how these conflicts interact with man’s more general desire for spiritual fulfillment. Spiritually tortured throughout his life, Hesse was powerfully drawn towards Eastern philosophies and religions, including Taoism, as well as toward the ideas of Western thinkers like Carl Jung who were also influenced by Eastern ideas.
Both the notion of inner conflict and that of man struggling to come to terms with his god(s) and himself are evident throughout the broad range of Hesse’s literary output, but these Eastern influences are much more pronounced in the latter period of his career, beginning with the publication of his “breakthrough” novel Demian in 1919. Starting at this time, he began to draw Eastern motifs and philosophical ideas into his novels more frequently, and to intertwine these concepts with the themes he had been writing about previously. In particular, the Taoist ideal of finding unity beneath apparent dichotomy is almost ubiquitous in Hesse’s later works.
Many of Hesse’s later novels focus upon the conflicts between dichotomic elements within his characters’ souls, and how these dichotomies seem to prevent them from coming to terms with their spirituality. In particular, this study will discuss Demian (1919), Siddhartha (1922), Steppenwolf (1927), Narcissus and Goldmund (1930), The Journey to the East (1932), and The Glass Bead Game (1943).
In each of these novels, a protagonist seeks to find peace with God or with his elusive Self, and in searching, discovers a great conflict within himself. The exact nature of this conflict varies widely between the novels; in Demian, for example, it can be summarized simply as Good versus Evil, while in Narcissus and Goldmund it lies in the disparate influences of masculinity and femininity within each of us. Yet the common thread that binds each protagonist is a straightforward one: whatever it is, the dichotomy with which a man wrestles prevents him from reaching the spiritual peace he desires.
Ultimately, however, it is not internal conflict itself that obstructs Hesse’s protagonists’ paths to spiritual fulfillment; rather, it is their intellectual awareness of such conflict that does so. As such, these characters attain enlightenment only by transcending their intellectuality and embracing a purely spiritual approach to whatever notions of God and Self they possess. In so doing, they are able to find the underlying unity beneath the dichotomies within themselves; and in this manner, Hesse’s novels confirm the tenets of Taoist philosophy as it applies to man’s quest for spiritual fulfillment.
God, Self, and Spiritual Fulfillment
It is important to begin by considering the nature of this “fulfillment” sought by Hesse’s protagonists, so that the question of how and when his characters come to achieve it may be sensibly addressed. Just what is it that defines the sense of spiritual completeness that we refer to as “enlightenment”? Hesse characterizes this notion as an individual’s recognition of his place within a larger universal framework, as well as his own fundamental impermanence.
Perhaps the quintessential expression of Hesse’s enlightenment-concept lies in The Journey to the East, narrated by a wayward Seeker, H.H., who thinks that his mystical expedition to the East has failed. Thematically, the novel’s climax occurs when H.H. begins to return to his true spiritual path, and in finding “enlightenment” discovers that it is he — not his expedition — who has failed. In fact, the Journey to the East continues all around him, if only he is capable of seeing it. (Note the distinct allusion to Hesse’s personal spiritual experiences, as signified by the use of his own initials for the protagonist.) Thus, enlightenment is to be found in understanding that aspect of spirituality which is greater than oneself. For H.H., this aspect is the faith that binds together the members of the League of Journeyers to the East, the faith which faltered in himself.
Hesse expresses a similar idea more poetically in Siddhartha, the story of a young Brahmin’s quest for spiritual fulfillment. When the eponymous protagonist finally achieves enlightenment, he does so by listening to “voices” from the river upon which he works as a ferryman:
He had often heard all this before, all these numerous voices in the river, but today they sounded different. He could no longer distinguish the different voices…. They all belonged to each other: the lament of those who yearn, the laughter of the wise, the cry of indignation and the groan of the dying. They were all interwoven and interlocked, entwined in a thousand ways… (and) all of them together was the world. … From that hour Siddhartha ceased to fight against his destiny. There shone in his face the serenity of knowledge, of one who is no longer confronted with conflict of desires, who has found salvation, who is in harmony with the stream of events, with the stream of life, full of sympathy and compassion, surrendering himself to the stream, belonging to the unity of all things. (Siddhartha 135-6)
The extraordinarily vivid imagery in this passage links Siddhartha’s enlightening experience upon an actual river to his acknowledgment of his place within the metaphorical “stream of life
.” In this sense, Siddhartha’s enlightenment has very much the same flavor
as H.H.’s, and indeed, as we will see later, the pattern is repeated throughout Hesse’s latter novels.
What is so remarkable about this one underlying enlightenment-notion is the wide array of characters and circumstances to which Hesse applies it. In particular, the experiences of Hesse’s protagonists attest to enlightenment as a concept divorced from any specific religious doctrine. Thus, whereas Siddhartha
is heavily influenced by ideas from Hinduism
, H.H.’s League in The Journey to the East
draws upon ideas from Islam
, Kundalini Tantra
, and Taoism; and Emil Sinclair, the narrator of Demian
, goes so far as to explore ancient pagan
mythologies in the course of his own spiritual journey. Hesse himself was raised in Europe, and reflecting this, Western Christian
ideas also feature in his novels; they are especially prominent in Narcissus and Goldmund
and The Glass Bead Game
Perhaps more surprising is the fact that some of Hesse’s protagonists cast their spiritual struggles in entirely non-religious
terms. This seems paradoxical, for is not spirituality an inherently religious phenomenon—rooted in man’s relationship with his God or gods? Hesse answers with a resounding “no
For example, Siddhartha, despite being of Hindu Brahmin origin, actually explores his spirituality through several distinct religions, implying that the fundamental essence of his spiritual quest lies more deeply ingrained than any religion at all. In fact, Siddhartha’s spirituality is centered not on any religious divinity, but upon his own conception of his Self, and the competing aspects of Atman
(sacred Self) and samsara
(profane Self) that are present in every soul. Likewise, the protagonists of Steppenwolf
and The Glass Bead Game
are similarly irreligious, despite being deeply spiritual; although they have some conception of “Immortality
,” it is distinct from divinity, and their spirituality is actually linked more closely to music than to anything else. In each of these cases, the protagonist lacks genuine “religious” faith but nonetheless pursues spiritual fulfillment zealously, and is potentially capable of achieving enlightenment as described above. All in all, this gives religion an interesting role in Hesse’s works: rather than being the heart of man’s spiritual experience and the essence of enlightenment (in the vein of the experiences of Christian prophets and martyr
s, for example), religion represents only one type of approach to true spiritual fulfillment.
The Nature of the Intellectual Approach; the Problem of Dichotomy
In addition to the distinction between religious and irreligious spirituality, there is another, more significant distinction in Hesse’s later novels regarding his characters’ paths to enlightenment. Some figures in these novels approach God (or Self, or whatever their spiritual ideal is founded upon) with complete faith; they pursue spiritual fulfillment in a genuinely spiritual manner. In the voice of the protagonist of The Glass Bead Game, Hesse describes these figures as possessing “the cheerful serenity of the gods and the stars” (GBG 291); often they serve as mentors and spiritual guides for his novels’ protagonists. In contrast, Hesse’s protagonists themselves approach their quests for enlightenment from an intellectual angle, at least until the final stages of their spiritual development. This intellectual approach to God/Self is characterized by an analytic mindset; the protagonist dissects his own actions and beliefs in an effort to understand the source of his spiritual discontent.
One characteristic example of the intellectual approach is to be found in the first part of Siddhartha, when the hero restlessly follows first the path of a Brahmin, then of a Samana, then of a Buddhist, and eventually of a base hedonist—all the while analyzing his experiences intellectually in hopes of finding the root of his spiritual crisis.
Whissen draws the distinction between “two universal myths (in Siddhartha), that of Everyman searching for enlightenment and that of the hero on the way to sainthood” (872). The first part of the novel thus corresponds to the first myth, wherein man seeks to achieve enlightenment via the path of reason; the end of the novel, when Siddhartha finds enlightenment in the voice of the river, represents the culmination of the second myth and man’s passage to the aforementioned “cheerful serenity.”
Not only do Hesse’s protagonists share an analytical approach to their spirituality, but also – with rare exception – they each apply this mindset in precisely the same way. Almost every one of Hesse’s heroes discovers a conflict or dichotomy, in the Taoist sense of an abstracted concept and its implied opposite, within himself and consequently attributes his spiritual malaise to this internal division.
This tendency is most dramatic in Harry Haller, the central figure of Steppenwolf, who identifies two conflicting natures within himself: Haller sees himself as both a social human, desperate for interpersonal connections and experiences of a noble and spiritual type, and a lone “wolf of the steppe,” wild, antisocial, and craving a life that is visceral above all else. This split personality, Haller is well aware, is mentally unhealthy, driving him to schizophrenic and suicidal tendencies that are symptomatic of deep spiritual dissatisfaction. Externalizing Haller’s intellectual analysis of his own situation, Hesse presents this analysis within the “Treatise on the Steppenwolf,” a book Haller finds and discovers to have been written about himself. It describes Haller’s internal dichotomy as a severe misconception:
The division into wolf and man, flesh and spirit, by means of which Harry tries to make his destiny more comprehensible to himself is a very great simplification. It is a forcing of the truth to suit a plausible, but erroneous, explanation of that contradiction which this man discovers in himself and which appears to himself to be the source of his by no means negligible sufferings… Harry consists of a hundred or thousand selves, not of two. His life oscillates, as everyone’s does, not merely between two poles, such as the body and the spirit, the saint and the sinner, but between thousand and thousands. (Steppenwolf 76-77)
In other words, Haller comes to the intellectual conclusion that his fundamental spiritual problem is one of over-simplification; the “Treatise” reveals to him that the man-wolf division he has always believed in is in fact a false dichotomy
. Thus, if Harry could overcome the internal conflict between his “two natures,” he learns, he might be able to find spiritual peace—enlightenment. How can we be certain that this analysis actually represents Haller’s own intellectual conclusion? The clue is to be found later within the “Treatise”:
There is no trace of such a notion (as the unity of soul) in the poems of ancient India. The heroes of the epics of India are not individuals, but whole reels of individualities in a series of incarnations. And in modern times, there are poems in which, behind the veil of a concern with individuality and character that is scarcely, indeed, in the author’s mind, the motive is to present a manifold activity of the soul…(for example,) “Faust.” (Steppenwolf 80)
This passage makes it clear that the ideas of the “Treatise” are definitely rooted in certain specific influences, namely Hindu mythology and Romantic
poetry. Indeed, these are the very subjects which the reader knows (from the Introductory section of the novel) to be intellectual interests of Haller’s. What is more, it becomes clear later in Steppenwolf that Goethe in particular represents a potent spiritual symbol for Harry; that the “Treatise” invokes Haller’s own literary idol, then, is very significant.
Taken as a whole, therefore, the “Treatise on the Steppenwolf” represents Haller’s intellectual process of attributing his lack of spiritual fulfillment to his internal man-wolf dichotomy. And virtually the same phenomenon is to be found in every one of Hesse’s latter novels, with the notable quasi
-exception of The Journey to the East
, discussed below.
Rejection of the Intellectual Approach
This observed pattern invites the obvious question of whether such dichotomy genuinely is the source of these protagonists’ lack of spiritual fulfillment, and whether their process of attaining enlightenment thus reduces to the “simple” task of overcoming the conflicts within their souls. In fact, Hesse’s protagonists are wrong on both counts: their efforts to discard the dichotomies within themselves completely fail to yield them spiritual peace, which implies that the true root of their discontent lies elsewhere. As we shall see, this failure is indicative of a more general rejection of the intellectual approach to spirituality as a whole. It is not internal conflict that leads man astray, Hesse argues, but rather his own intellectual awareness of such.
Perhaps the most revealing repudiation of intellectual spirituality to be found in Hesse’s work is the complete and utter failure of dichotomic analysis as a means of achieving enlightenment. When Hesse’s protagonists fail to attain spiritual fulfillment, it is at least partly because their effort to rid themselves of inner conflict traps them in a state of intellectual despair. For instance, Demian is largely concerned with the “false dichotomy” between the Light world of God and the Dark world of Satan; the narrator Emil Sinclair, inspired by the titular Max Demian and other figures, seeks to overcome this dichotomy (and thereby find enlightenment) through the worship of new gods, especially one he calls Abraxas. But eventually, Sinclair comes to realize that even his own mentor Pistorius is not truly enlightened, for he “dwelt too lovingly on the past; his knowledge of what had once occurred was too precise, he knew too much about Egypt, India, Mithra, Abraxas. His love was attached to images that the world had already seen, and at the same time he surely knew in his mind that those new things had to be new and different…” (83).
That is, Pistorius is too wrapped up in what he has identified as the heart of achieving enlightenment: unifying Light and Dark through Abraxas. Consequently, Pistorius is trapped in the past—in the ancient deities and myths he sees as pointing the way toward Abraxas; and Sinclair suggests that this entanglement in the quagmire of antiquity has produced in Pistorius a sense of spiritual hopelessness. Since Pistorius is clearly neither enlightened nor truly progressing toward enlightenment, we can only conclude that his original premise is false, and spiritual fulfillment does not depend on the unification of God and Satan (or more generally, on the unification of any internal dichotomy).
A similar failure occurs for Harry Haller in Steppenwolf. Critic Edwin Casebeer correctly points out that Haller inhabits two distinct worlds, passing from a world dominated by the intellectual to a “rehabilitating” world dominated by sensuality (101-102). The former is Haller’s self-constructed psychological hell, rooted in his analytic dissection of his personality into natures of “man” and “wolf” and his spiritual torment, which he attributes to this division. The latter is the jazz-world of 1920s Germany, the world of women and dancing and happiness, into which Hermine attempts to integrate Harry.
In exploring this progression, however, Casebeer ignores the fact that Haller never genuinely leaves behind his tortured intellectual identity, and as a result, never actually reaches enlightenment. Rather, in the novel’s climax in the Magic Theater, the Steppenwolf murders Hermine and is laughed at by his idols Goethe and Mozart, barred from Immortality despite having learned the “art of building up the soul” and overcome the man-wolf division in his nature. In other words, Harry cannot abandon his intellectual tendency toward dichotomic analysis, and because of this he cannot achieve enlightenment. Once again, the search for fulfillment via the unification of internal dichotomy proves fruitless.
It is worthwhile to note at this juncture that this recurring intellectual process of identifying internal dichotomy as the root of spiritual unhappiness is somewhat analogous to Hegel’s philosophy of history: after identifying competing aspects within his soul – an abstract “thesis” and its implied “antithesis” – Hesse’s protagonist strives for spiritual progress by seeking to move beyond the conflict towards a new spiritual “synthesis.” This Hegelian metaphor becomes significant in the context of The Glass Bead Game, wherein Hesse (in the voice of Joseph Knecht, the novel’s central figure) strongly repudiates the use of the Hegelian dialectic as a meaningful intellectual and historical model:
… A priori we have not the slightest confidence in that so-called philosophy of history of which Hegel is the most brilliant and also the most dangerous representative. In the following century it led to the most repulsive distortion of history and destruction of all feeling for truth…. Our present culture, the Order and Castalia, arose out of the ruins of that age, out of the struggle with and eventual defeat of its mentality—or insanity. (324)
Thus Hesse voices in the form of a historical-philosophical conviction the very same idea he illustrates through characters like Harry Haller and Pistorius who fail to achieve enlightenment. Specifically, Knecht argues that true cultural fulfillment (as symbolized by Castalia and the Order, the culmination of human artistic, scientific, and cultural achievement) may be attained only when society abandons the aforementioned Hegelian mindset. In exactly the same manner, the fates of Haller and Pistorius demonstrate that the application of intellectual, Hegelian analysis
to one’s own nature necessarily obstructs individual spiritual fulfillment.
But Hesse’s rejection of intellectual spirituality is by no means confined to a repudiation of the Hegelian mode. This can be seen most clearly through the lens of Hesse’s secondary tier
of characters – those who are not themselves protagonists but who are nonetheless more significant than most figures in his novels. In particular, unlike Hesse’s protagonists, these secondary characters are not caught up in their internal dichotomies, but because they are fundamentally intellectual in their approach to spirituality, they still fail to achieve enlightenment.
The epitome of such an intellectual, for example, is Narcissus
, the devout scholar in Narcissus and Goldmund
who chooses to remain in the cloister, becoming first a monk and eventually an abbot, rather than live a worldly life of sensuality like Goldmund. However, Seidlin points out that despite his intellectualism, Narcissus is keenly aware that the central dichotomy in Narcissus and Goldmund
– namely, the division between the worlds of the Mother and of the Father – is a false one: “Father and mother worlds have ceased to be irreconcilable enemies…conceived from the outset as opposite yet complementary poles between which man’s existence is suspended…. Narcissus is at the same time ‘father’ and ‘brother’ to the mother-child (Goldmund)" (Seidlin).
In fact, in the early stages of the novel, Narcissus works to actively encourage Goldmund’s development of his Mother-nature, for Narcissus understands that Goldmund embodies the essential complement to his own intellectual Father-nature. Thus, compared to many of Hesse’s intellectual protagonists, Narcissus sees the nature of his own soul relatively clearly. Nevertheless, his intellectual approach to spiritual fulfillment proves fruitless in the end; Narcissus discovers in his conversations with Goldmund at the conclusion of the novel that the artist
has found the enlightenment which has always evaded him in the course of his ascetic
life of the mind. As Casebeer puts it, “(Narcissus) begins to doubt that his mode of perception is equal to Goldmund’s, for art is more innocent and childlike, more loving of God in embrace His world rather than analyzing it, and more sacrificial of self upon the cross of human experience” (137). In Narcissus, analytic spirituality, even divorced from misguided notions of internal dichotomy, fails to yield enlightenment.
Two other secondary characters confirm the pattern suggested by Narcissus’s intellectual failure. One is Govinda
, dearest friend to the hero of Siddhartha
, who parts ways with Siddhartha and devotes his life exclusively to following the teachings of the Buddha
. Govinda shares Siddhartha’s penetrating intellectual nature, and it is this which draws him to the Buddha’s “Middle Way,” but unlike Siddhartha he is not consumed by the conflicting aspects of his Self (Atman
). When the two friends are reunited at the end of the novel – in a manner not dissimilar to the reunion of Narcissus and Goldmund – it becomes clear that Govinda has not found spiritual fulfillment to match Siddhartha’s own enlightenment. While Siddhartha ultimately abandons his analytic approach to spirituality, and is able to find fulfillment through the simple life of a ferryman, Govinda continues his intellectual struggle throughout the entire course of his life; and as he reveals to Siddhartha in the conclusion, Govinda remains spiritually unfulfilled.
The second example is The Glass Bead Game
’s Fritz Tegularius
, companion to the protagonist Joseph Knecht, whom Hesse describes as:
a good, even a shining light as a Castalian to the extent that he had a many-sided mind, tirelessly active in scholarship as well as in the art of the Glass Bead Game, and enormously hard-working; but in character, in his attitude toward the hierarchy and the morality of the Order he was a very mediocre, not to say bad Castalian. The greatest of his vices was a persistent neglect of meditation, which he refused to take seriously. (GBG 248)
In fact, Tegularius’s very intellectual brilliance is what bars him from Castalian spiritual transcendence
; occupied as he is by concerns of the mind, Fritz fails to heed meditation and concerns of the spirit, and because of this he can never be truly enlightened. Thus, both Govinda and Tegularius suffer essentially the same spiritual fate as Narcissus.
This more general rejection of intellectualism is also evident in the prominence of unconsciousness
(which might be viewed as a sort of “supra-intellectuality”) as a vehicle for glimpses of enlightenment throughout Hesse’s later novels. To treat this prominence properly, it is important to acknowledge the important role of Jungian psychoanalytic theory in Hesse’s work and art.
During and immediately after World War I
, Hesse was in a profound state of depression as a result of his wife’s mental illness, his father’s death, his son’s poor physical health, and the War itself. He began psychoanalytic therapy with Dr. J. D. Lang, a disciple
of Carl Jung’s; Hesse eventually expressed many of Lang’s ideas through the character of Pistorius in Demian
, written in 1919 during the course of his therapy (Field 52-53). Beginning with Demian
, Jungian notions of unconsciousness (note the distinction with Freud
’s conception of the sub
conscious) feature heavily in Hesse’s novels.
The importance of the unconscious in the process of achieving spiritual fulfillment is another expression of Hesse’s rejection of intellectuality. Freedman points out that the “eternal self” so significant as Atman
and in the philosophy of Demian
may be interpreted as a psychological manifestation:
(F)unctioning as … a Jungian collective unconscious, this higher aspect of self acts as a daemon who guards its activities and comments upon them ironically. Hidden faculties of control, as well as possible resolutions of inner conflict between self and world, are revealed externally by teachers and guides like Demian. (Freedman 46)
While such a broad generalization of the psychology of Hesse’s characters seems extreme, Freedman correctly points out that the “higher self” which all of Hesse’s protagonists pursue in one way or another is a fundamentally unconscious phenomenon. Although some of these protagonists attempt to approach it intellectually, it is rooted more deeply in their personalities than any conscious rationality.
The direct literary result of this Jungian element of Hesse’s philosophy is that dream
s, fantasies, and hallucinations comprise some of his characters’ most revealing and enlightening experiences. For example, many of Siddhartha’s glimpses of spiritual truth come in the guise of dreams, and the same is true for Goldmund and Emil Sinclair. In The Glass Bead Game
, Hesse presents the unconscious act of meditation as essential for spiritual fulfillment. Likewise, in Steppenwolf
, Harry Haller approaches enlightenment most closely during his psychedelic
, hallucinatory episodes – his dreams of Mozart and Goethe, and his experiences at the Magic Theater (“For Madmen Only”).
Critic Henry Hatfield emphasizes Haller’s understanding of the “manifold nature of the soul” as expressing the Jungian notion of “archetype
s.” Such archetypes include the Great Mother
and other recurring themes in Hesse’s novels, and by suggesting that the personality is made up of a “a thousand souls” (corresponding to the countless archetypes identified by Jung), Hesse confirms the Jungian conception of identity as rooted in elements from the collective unconscious (Hatfield 65). Overall, the important pattern to observe is that more often than not, Hesse rejects not only intellectuality but also consciousness
itself as a path to enlightenment.
Enlightenment and the Transcendence of the Spiritual
As we have seen, Hesse’s protagonists cannot succeed in achieving spiritual fulfillment by using their minds. What, then, is the correct approach to enlightenment? In fact, Hesse characterizes this approach in a manner supremely consistent with his rejection of “analytical” spirituality. Achieving enlightenment requires that a man leave behind his identity and become a purely spiritual being, a process that demands transcendence beyond his intellect. We see this concept most clearly in several enlightened saint-figures present throughout Hesse’s novels of this period, who serve as mentors and guides for his protagonists.
The first is Pablo, a jazz musician in Steppenwolf, who has found enlightenment through psychedelic drugs, sexual promiscuity, and artistic expression through music (an early version of “sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll”). Pablo makes it clear that the reason for his supreme happiness and fulfillment lies in his rejection of an “academic” understanding of music:
‘Though I carried the complete works of Bach and Haydn in my head and could say the cleverest things about them, not a soul would be the better for it. But when I take hold of my mouth-piece and play a lively shimmy, whether the shimmy be good or bad, it will give people pleasure…. That is why one makes music.’ (Steppenwolf 186)
In other words, Pablo finds enlightenment through music, much as Harry Haller glimpses spiritual fulfillment through music himself. But the key difference between their approaches is Haller’s intellectual angle; without any such intellectual pretensions, Pablo succeeds in reaching enlightenment where the Steppenwolf fails.
A second example of a saint-figure is Vasudeva
, the old ferryman in Siddhartha who helps the hero reach enlightenment. Like Pablo, Vasudeva is actively non-intellectual; and yet, uneducated, not particularly intelligent, and lacking broad experience in life, Vasudeva is nevertheless extremely wise
. Hesse’s most revealing description of the ferryman is that “Vasudeva’s smile was radiant; it hovered brightly in all the wrinkles of his old face, as the Om hovered over all the voices of the river” (Siddhartha 136). Because the same smile appears on Siddhartha’s face when he becomes enlightened, the smiles themselves must represent their enlightened state.
Finally, a third saint-figure is the Magister Musicae
, Joseph Knecht’s mentor in The Glass Bead Game
. Unlike Pablo and Vasudeva, the Music Master is neither foolish nor uneducated; as a high-ranking member of the Castalian elite, he possesses a certain inherent intellectuality. But in contrast to the former two examples, in the Magister Musicae Hesse reveals a sainted figure’s progression to enlightenment. As he grows old, the Magister Musicae retires from his post on the Board of Educators, leaving behind
his intellectual nature. After this, he gradually begins to lose touch with the world, in a process reminiscent of the onset of a benign form of Alzheimer’s
, retreating into a world of pure spirit and music. When the process is complete, Knecht describes his mentor as possessing an ethereal
aura of inner peace and joy:
To achieve this cheerful serenity is to me, and to many others, the finest and highest of goals. You will also find it among some of the patriarchs in the directorate of the Order. Such cheerfulness is neither frivolity nor complacency; it is supreme insight and love, affirmation of all reality, alertness on the brink of all depths and abysses; it is a virtue of saints and of knights; it is indestructible and only increases with age and nearness to death. It is the secret of beauty and the real substance of all art. (GBG 291)
There are other examples of enlightened guides and saints throughout this period of Hesse’s work, but these three are perhaps most illustrative of the general principle. The common source of their enlightenment is abandonment of the intellect, and the common expression of their spiritual fulfillment is a “cheerful serenity” – what Hesse describes most vividly in Steppenwolf
as the “Laughter of the Immortals.”
This characterizes the enlightenment of the sainted figures who make up part of the supporting cast of Hesse’s novels, and the path to spiritual fulfillment taken by Hesse’s protagonists is similar. Like their mentors, these protagonists must transcend their intellectuality and embrace their purely spiritual nature in order to achieve spiritual peace. In the process, they come to accept their place in the grand scheme
of existence, and thereby achieve enlightenment. What makes these protagonists more interesting than their teachers and guides is the fact that for them, transcendence from intellectuality is a trial and a tribulation; once this has been completed, reaching enlightenment becomes a matter of simply accepting who they are.
Within this framework, the protagonists experience a relatively wide variety of experiences. For example, for Goldmund, protagonist of Narcissus and Goldmund
, abandoning intellectuality is “the easy part;” with the aid of Narcissus, he rediscovers his Mother-nature early in life and departs from the cloister
to pursue life as an artist and a lover. Finding artistic, spiritual, and romantic fulfillment proves more difficult, however. Goldmund’s spiritual ideal stems directly from his childhood experience of being abandoned by his mother, only to rediscover her presence in his unconscious, with the aid of Narcissus.
This psychologically formative experience leads him to establish for himself a spiritual and artistic ideal that unifies and encompasses both his own mother and the more general notion of the Great Mother goddess (which is, incidentally, a Jungian archetype
). But it is only after a life’s worth of wandering, sculpting, and courting women that Goldmund is able to accept his spiritual nature: this requires that he acknowledge that the ideal Mother he seeks is actually beyond his ability to express through his art. This process is a painful one, requiring that he come to terms with how he has approached life, juggling his desires for sensual pleasure and for artistic fulfillment:
It was shameless how life made fun of one; it was a joke, a cause for weeping! Either one lived and let one’s senses play, drank full at the primitive mother’s breast—which brought bliss but was no protection against death; then one lived like a mushroom n the forest, colorful today and rotten tomorrow. Or else one put up a defense, imprisoned oneself for work and tried to build a monument to the fleeting passage of life—then one renounced life, was nothing but a tool; one enlisted in the service of that which endured, but one dried up in the process and lost one’s freedom, scope, lust for life. (NG 246)
Eventually, Goldmund realizes that his life – and indeed, any life – is more than just striking a balance
between these two instincts: Life requires only that one live. Having accepted this, and thereby assured of his small place within the eternal flow of love and art, Goldmund truly achieves enlightenment only upon his deathbed
. Thus, while the overall process is a difficult one, Goldmund’s path to enlightenment illustrates Hesse’s underlying precept: spiritual fulfillment is attainable, once one has abandoned one’s intellectual nature.
In contrast to Goldmund’s experience, others of Hesse’s protagonists live their entire lives struggling to break free of their intellects. In The Glass Bead Game
, Joseph Knecht remains enveloped in the Castalian world of intellectuality until the very end of the novel. While entangled therein, he seeks to achieve enlightenment through the Glass Bead Game
itself, which he sees as unifying the rational (scholarly) and supra-rational (meditative) aspects of Castalian life. But in fact, he attains genuine enlightenment only after he is able, inspired by his friends Father Jacobus and Plinio Designori, to break free from Castalian intellectualism altogether and return to “the world.” Having overcome the false dichotomy of scholarship versus meditation, Knecht is able to achieve enlightenment forthwith when he takes the drastic and unprecedented step of abandoning his post as Master of the Glass Bead Game. In particular, Joseph has no trouble coming to terms with his place in the eternal “stream of events” because he has always been aware (since his boyhood) of the
meaningful and meaningless cycle of master and pupil, this courtship of wisdom by youth, of youth by wisdom, this endless oscillating game which was the symbol of Castalia. In fact it was the game of life in general, divided into old and young, day and night, yang and yin, and pouring on without end. (GBG 200-1)
That is, Knecht possesses an intuitive understanding of how yin and yang combine to make up tao
, of how life is a “game” comprised of an infinite flow of which he is only a small part. Because of this, once he has freed himself from the constraints of his mind, his enlightenment follows immediately.
Likewise, as previously discussed, Siddhartha strives his whole life to abandon his analytic, intellectual nature and his tendency to cast his spiritual struggles in terms of the conflict between Atman
within his Self. When, with the help of Vasudeva, he finally does so, he finally shares in the ferryman’s enlightenment.
Finally, the very same concept is at work in Sinclair’s enlightenment in Demian
. Sinclair cannot find true spiritual fulfillment until he breaks free from the misguided ideas of Pistorius and stops concerning himself with the analytic division of the world into Light and Dark
, and with the unification offered by Abraxas. Having accepted this fact, Sinclair achieves enlightenment in one blazing flash of understanding:
And at that point the realization suddenly burned me like a searing flame: For each person there was an “office,” but for nobody was there one that he was permitted to choose for himself, to define, and to fill according to his own wishes. It was wrong to desire new gods, it was totally wrong to try and give the world anything! There was no duty for enlightened people, none, none, except for this: to seek themselves, to become certain of themselves, to grope forward along their own path, wherever it might lead. (Demian 83)
Thus, in every case, Hesse’s protagonists achieve spiritual fulfillment via what is essentially the same process, although its precise nature varies slightly with the hero’s personality. An initial period of analytical spirituality (which sometimes lasts for an extremely long time!) eventually gives way to transcendence beyond intellectuality. This accomplished, achieving enlightenment is simply a matter of recognizing one’s place within the larger framework of existence – of coming to terms with one’s spiritual identity
The Journey "Exception"
At some point, an analysis of Hesse’s latter novels must address The Journey to the East, perhaps the author’s most unusual piece of writing in literary conception, structure, and philosophical content. Journey seems to contradict many of the patterns found in Hesse’s novels during this period, as they are discussed above. After all, the protagonist H.H. is not an “intellectual” in the normal sense of the word, nor does he identify any specific dichotomy within his own soul. What is more, although he is eventually readmitted into the League of Journeyers to the East, the process hardly seems like enlightenment per se. However, upon closer consideration, despite its unique structure, Journey follows much the same pattern as the other novels of this study.
H.H. is not an intellectual; rather he is a romantic, but he nevertheless seeks to apply an intellectual process in his quest for spiritual fulfillment – rediscovery of the League. Specifically, by attempting to write an analytic history of the failure of his own Journey to the East (which he confuses with the failure of the entire League), H.H. makes an inherently intellectual effort to comprehend the inherently spiritual phenomenon of the League. Confirming the pattern of Hesse’s other late novels, this attempt proves futile, as H.H. himself is well-aware:
Our Journey to the East and our League, the basis of our community, has been the most important thing, indeed the only important thing in my life …. And now that I want to hold fast to and describe this most important thing, or at least something of it, everything is only a mass of separate fragmentary pictures which has been reflected in something, and this something is myself, and this self, this mirror, whenever I have gazed into it, has proved to be nothing but the uppermost surface of a glass plane. (JE 48)
The metaphor of the glass plane implies that there are hidden depths to the Journey to the East which are inaccessible to the cursory examination of an outsider, such as H.H. has become. When eventually Leo, the President
of the League, allows H.H. to rejoin, it is only after the narrator has accepted the futility of his intellectual attempt at penetrating the organization. If we interpret H.H.’s readmission into the League as his first step towards enlightenment, as seems reasonable, then Journey to the East
conforms to the philosophical schema
established in Hesse’s other novels and discussed above.
But what of dichotomy? In Demian
, Sinclair struggles with worlds of Light and Darkness; in Steppenwolf
, Haller wrestles with Man and Wolf; Siddhartha breaks his soul down into Atman
; Knecht seeks unification of scholarship and meditation; and Narcissus and Goldmund
is largely concerned with humanity’s apparently-conflicting masculine and feminine natures. In every case, a (false) dichotomy is absolutely essential to the plot, as a barrier to the protagonist’s enlightenment; and Journey
seems to lack
such an expression of yin versus yang.
However, in fact there is a dichotomy present in The Journey to the East
, but it is not a false one: the novel concerns the dichotomy between faith
, so essential to the human experience. When H.H. fails in his Journey, it is because he succumbs to despair; when he is permitted to reenter the League, it is because he rediscovers faith. This dichotomy is not in and of itself a barrier to H.H.’s enlightenment, for he seems scarcely aware of it. But more generally, despair is a barrier, and faith the key, to every one of Hesse’s protagonists’ paths to spiritual fulfillment. Thus Journey is unique, for it expresses a central spiritual notion that underlies the experiences described in each of Hesse’s novels, and in this sense The Journey to the East
is the most meaningful one of them all.
The Unity Beneath Dichotomy
Viewed as a whole, the general message we must take from Hesse’s later fiction is that despair, not dichotomy, obstructs enlightenment. This despair is fundamentally associated with man’s intellectual nature and tendency to dissect his soul into competing, dichotomic elements—what the Tao Te Ching calls the tendency toward “abstraction.” From the fact that, except possibly for Harry Haller in Steppenwolf, all of Hesse’s protagonists ultimately do attain spiritual fulfillment, we can conclude that the dichotomies they identify within themselves are false. And indeed, in each novel, the enlightened perspective is one that acknowledges an essential unity beneath the dichotomy in question. Thus, if he were truly enlightened, the Steppenwolf would recognize – as Pablo, Hermine, Mozart, and Goethe do – that although a man may consist of two or a thousand souls, he is still but one man.
Similarly, in his enlightenment, Siddhartha comes to understand that Self and self, Atman and samsara, together make up a life; and Goldmund understands that his Father-nature’s inclination towards artistic fulfillment and his Mother-nature’s inclination towards sexual fulfillment are merely two sides of the same coin: his Goldmund-nature’s desire for a fulfilled life. Emil Sinclair and Joseph Knecht draw analogous conclusions in Demian and The Glass Bead Game respectively.
But perhaps most intriguing is the unity H.H. discovers beneath the true faith-despair dichotomy that has proven so significant for his own life. While he himself embodies the aspect of despair, the aspect of faith is most vividly expressed through the person of Leo, the wise and unassuming President of the League. At the close of the novel, H.H. is greatly surprised to discover two fused statuettes of Leo and himself stored within the League’s secret files, and to observe a mysterious process occurring:
Inside the figures I saw something moving, slowly, extremely slowly, in the same way that a snake moves which has fallen asleep. Something was taken place there, something like a very slow, smooth but continuous flowing or melting; indeed something melted or poured across from my image to that of Leo’s. I perceived that my image was in the process of adding to and flowing into Leo’s, nourishing and strengthening it. It seemed that, in all time, all the substance from one image would flow into the other and only one would remain: Leo. He must grow, I must disappear. (JE 117)
The conjoined figurines suggest that H.H. and Leo are aspects of the same being (whom we can only conclude is Hermann Hesse
, the author, himself). What is more, the “flow” H.H. sees implies that having set himself back upon the path to enlightenment, H.H. – the despairing aspect of this double-being – must necessarily yield to the faith-aspect Leo. Generalizing these principles, Hesse seems to suggest that faith and despair are fundamental elements of any personality, the former spiritual in nature and the latter intellectual. The process of achieving enlightenment therefore consists of allowing one’s despair to melt away in favor of one’s faith.
All in all, the central message of Hesse’s latter novels is virtually identical to one of the essential tenets of Taoism, as put forth by Lao Tzu in the Tao Te Ching. In the context of Hesse’s life and influences, this is unsurprising. Throughout his early adulthood, he was fascinated by the philosophy and religion of the East, which is apparent in almost every one of his novels. This would have naturally predisposed him to Taoist ideas, reinforced by the influence of Jungian psychoanalytic theory, which one critic has observed to be closely linked to Taoist philosophy (Coward 477). But perhaps the most powerful draw of Taoist ideology is its condemnation of all religious dogma and doctrine; for one such as Hesse, with such a profoundly personal spirituality, this would undoubtedly suggest that Lao Tzu’s approach to spiritual fulfillment was a sound one.
The sage described enlightenment thus: “Using the light, being dark, / Being the world, / You perfect harmony / And return to the Way” (Tao Te Ching §28). This expresses Hesse’s conception of enlightenment equally well. “Using the light, being the dark,” suggests the unification of yin and yang that is to be found in abandoning one’s intellectual tendency towards the abstraction of opposites, and thereby leaving behind one’s despair. Similarly, “Being the world” evokes Hesse’s ideal of accepting one’s place within the grand framework of existence. Thus, both Hesse and Lao Tzu suggest that transcending intellectuality and embracing pure spirituality is the only correct path to genuine enlightenment.
Was Hesse simply recycling the philosophical ideas of a 2,500-year-old Chinese sage? Even if he was, he expresses them with remarkable power and emotion, and crafts them into literary works of extraordinary truth and beauty. But in fact, we can see that Hesse must have had a deep spiritual connection to the notions presented in his novels, for so many of his protagonists represent Hesse himself: Harry Haller, H.H., Joseph Knecht, and Emil Sinclair are all profoundly autobiographical in nature. From this one can only conclude that Hesse knew well the spiritual turmoil of yin and yang and the never-ending quest for spiritual fulfillment. Through the vehicle of his literature, Hesse was able to channel the internal conflicts that wracked his soul into philosophically fascinating and emotionally gripping tales, and thereby bring his readers incrementally closer to the same enlightenment he sought.
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