MNHesse's Essays on Dostoevsky of 1919

It was the year of Demian, the vague beguiling novel about coming of age as an apocalypse dawns, written as the first war found its end in collapse. Demian made Hesse famous in his homeland, just as he was about to leave. For some time he had been suspected of being an Enemy of the People, for published pieces critical of Germany's militarism and role in the war.

Yet his casual essay on The Brothers Karamazov -- copied in full below -- and another from the same weeks on Prince Mishkin, the gentle anti-hero of The Idiot, sound notes discordant with their author's persistent argument for international peace and understanding. These essays express cultural conservatism and fear, focused on Hesse's apprehension in Dostoevsky of a strange (yet Christian) and consuming Universalism, but also provoked, one imagines, by the westward march of the Russian army and the revolution that followed its dissolution.

The essays were collected in the book seen above, published in Berne in 1920. Two years later, Hesse received a note from an editor in London named T.S. Eliot, who wrote with enthusiasm. "In your book ... I detect a concern with serious problems that has not yet penetrated to England, and I should like to spread its reputation." Eliot then flew to Switzerland to meet his author, who had fled there, for the duration, the same year.

Upon return Eliot persuaded a friend to translate the Blick essays, which were published in 1923, again in Berne, in a limited edition perhaps best rendered as Glimpse into Chaos. Also upon return Eliot published "The Wasteland," in the October '22 Criterion and then for Christmas as a book, wherein he does the honor in the notes of quoting from Hesse's Brothers K essay, to illuminate the following lines:

MMMMMMMMMMWhat is that sound high in the air
MMMMMMMMMMMMMurmur of maternal lamentation
MMMMMMMMMMMMWho are those hooded hordes swarming
MMMMMMMMMMMMOver endless plains, stumbling in cracked earth
MMMMMMMMMMMMRinged by the flat horizon only
MMMMMMMMMMMMWhat is the city over the mountains
MMMMMMMMMMMMCracks and reforms and bursts in the violet air
MMMMMMMMMMMMFalling towers
MMMMMMMMMMMMJerusalem Athens Alexandria

Eliot's confusing writings about culture have been of sharper interest ever since my encounter, in the 80s, with Alastair Hamilton's The Appeal of Fascism (1971) -- a calm study of European intellectuals who quietly for the most part espoused cultural ideas that we've come to call fascistic, or perhaps proto so. Croce, Gentile, Marinetti, Malaparte. D'Annunzio and Pirandello. Spengler and Ernst Junger. Heidegger and Arnolt Bronnen. Brassillach, Maurras and Arno Breker. Cocteau and Celine. Hilaire Belloc. Henry Williamson and Roy Campbell. Yeats and Pound. Wyndham Lewis. And Eliot.

So it's interesting to now find, in 2012, that Eliot was inspired by Hesse's Eastern apprehensions -- and all the more so given Hesse's sustained struggle with the German government, which during the early 40s finally burnt his books. His credentials as a pacifistic dissident enrich and authorize, as it were, the illuminating odd essays of 1919, in which shaken by the first war he rather naturally expresses thoughts that would soon find themselves at home with what flourished as German fascism. Memory says that one can find in Mein Kampf, from just a few years later, loud echoes of Hesse's fear (but not loathing) of the Slavs.

All this as our own fascist shift continues in the New American Century unabated. The interplay of Hesse and Eliot surprised me by folding into other recent reading on the roots of fascism in German society, which a century ago constituted the leading edge of the Technological Civilization:

-- Walter Benjamin's diaries and various lit bits from the 20s and 30s.

-- William Sherman Allen's The Nazi Seizure of Power, an indispensable if ill-named prime history of the stepwise and somehow familiar rise of the Nazi party in the city of Northeim across the years of transformation, 1928-33.

-- Albert Speer's first memoir, which paints an indelible picture of the same period, during which he underwent a transformation of his own, from a frustrated and failing architect, the son of upper-class Liberal parents, to a true if opportunistic believer in Hitler's promise of National resurrection.

-- And Demian, which concludes with a brief but potent account of the first war. "The new world has begun, and the new world will be terrible for those clinging to the old."

Afterward, having assumed the civilizational leadership, we were taught as children to righteously wonder how the German people allowed the Nazis to rise. In the New American Century we are coming to know.

Theodore Ziolkowski, in his introduction to My Belief (the anthology in English of Hesse's reviews and less or non-political essays, including the Dostoevsky), offers the following account of Hesse's political life across the decades of the wars:

A word remains to be said about Hesse's activities during the 30s.

His principal essays on politics and culture appeared in the years immediately before and after [the first war]. When it became apparent to him -- much sooner ... than it did to the somewhat younger generation of committed writers of the 30s, like Brecht -- that literature can have little direct impact upon politics and society in general, Hesse turned away from those efforts and directed himself principally to the development of the individual. As he observed in the Forward to to the 1946 edition of his political essays, IF THE WAR GOES ON:

"When I call my articles 'political,' it is always in quotes, for there is nothing political about them but the atmosphere in which they came into being. In all other respects they are the opposite of political, because in each one of these essays I strive to guide the reader not into the world theater with its political problems but into his innermost being, before the judgment seat of his very personal conscience."

It was during these years .. that he wrote his most significant autobiographical pieces, most notably "A Guest at the Spa" and "Journey to Nuremberg." And such general analyses of culture as the essays on Dostoevsky gradually give way to themore individual concerns of "A Bit of Theology."

Disenchanted very early with the political developments in Weimar Germany, Hesse became a Swiss citizen in 1923. As a result, when the Nazis came to power in 1933, his position was quite different from that of most German writers. First of all, since he was already living abroad, he was not forced to emigrate.

Second, since his experiences during World War I had destroyed his faith in petitions and political pronouncements, he felt a deep skepticism regarding hte value of public comment on developments in Germany, noting that excessive and ill-considered attacks could even be harmful to opponents of the regime who were unable to escape. At the same time, Hesse unostentatiously devoted a considerable part of his income to helping victims of Nazi repression flee Germany and gain a foothold in emigration. His "Notes from a Diary" (1933) give an indication of his reasons for refusing to join in the general public condemnation of the Nazis.

Unlike most of the emigres, Hesse was tolerated by the cultural watchdogs of National Socialism until about 1938, and his works were not officially proscribed until 1943 [when they were burnt]. This meant that he was one of the few non-party members permitted to publish in German journals.

From 1933 to 1936 he reviewed extensively for the leading literary journal, Neue Rundschau, and took it upon himself to introduce to the German public many writers, principally foreign, whose works were not available in Germany ... (eg Faulkner).

In this same spirit of cultural mediation, he reviewed German books for Bonniers Litterara Magasin, 1935-36, where he sorted out current publications for hte Swedish audience, rejecting the official products of Nazi propaganda and singling out for praise such writers as Kakfa, Musil and Broch, whose reputations were virtually lost in the general anti-german hysteria that was growing in Europe.

Although a few contemporaries like Thomas Mann were able to appreciate Hesse's often valiant efforts during these years, he was generally assailed from both Right and Left. For his reviews in Sweden he was viciously attacked as a Bolshevik and an enemy of the people by Nazi spokesmen, and this led to the condemnation of his works in Germany. At the same time, many emigres, so embittered by their fate that they were unable to make rational distinctions, slandered Hesse as a tool of National Socialism.

As a result of this abuse, and soon reduced to a limited audience that rarely extended beyond Switzerland, Hesse in effect gave up the activities of editing, reviewing and essay writing that had occupied him for so many years. it was only after the war and the award of the Nobel Prize (1946) that he again addressed himself from time to time to a more general public.

But in these late essays ... we find few concessions to worldly concerns. ... These quiet contemplations often begin as an idyll of childhood or as a reverie in the garden. But they invariably lead to such compelling issues as the quest for personal identity, moral responsibility and the search for unity in a world that has become fragmented. ... Here we no longer find the sometimes self-indulgent pathos of the youthful rebel against conventional values, but the smiling irony that enchanted Mann and Andre Gide.

These late reflections do not represent the flagging of Hesse's sense of commitment or the capitulation of a former rebel to the powers of the world, but rather what might be called the classicism of revolt. Here he speaks with the serenity of Joseph Knect, who in one of the last essays relates stories of the Zen masters to his disciple Carlo Ferromonte. It is characteristic of the classical objectivity of his old age that Hesse, in the interests of detachment, translated these highly personal thoughts into the fiction of an epistle between figures [already known to the public] from his last novel, The Glass Bead Game.

Ziolkowski, in the same introduction to My Belief, also reports that Hesse wrote the Dostoevsky essays of 1919 "only a short time" after finishing Demian.

It's a short novel, occupied mostly with the childhood and adolescence of Emil Sinclair, who despite a crushing village-boy's naivete spies in his older friend Demian something of Nietzsche's New Man. Ten pages from book's end, the two meet again after long separation, and Demian tells of a series of dreams, which he deems foreboding, yet speaks of with something of the wonder and zeal of fascism's purest prophets, the Futurists:

"We both know that the world is quite rotten, but that wouldn't be any reason to predict its imminent collapse or something of the kind. But for several years I've had dreams from which I conclude, or which make me feel, that the collapse of an old world is indeed imminent. At first these were weak and remote intimations but they have grown increasingly stronger and more distinct.

"I know nothing except that something is going to happen on a vast scale, something dreadful in which I myself will be involved. ... The world wants to renew itself. There's a smell of death in the air. Nothing can be born without first dying. But it is far more terrible than I had thought."

Months of separation again roll by. Then one day Demian clatters back into town on a horse, commissioned as a lieutenant in the German army.

"Have you heard about it?"

I had heard nothing.

Demian squeezed my arm and turned his face to me, with a strangely somber yet sympathetic look in his eyes. "Yes, it's starting. You've heard about the difficulties with Russia."

"What? Is it war?"

He spoke very softly, although no one was anywhere near us.

"It hasn't been declared yet. But there will be war. You can take my word for that. I didn't want to worry you but I have seen omens on three different occasions since that time. So it won't be the end of the world, no earthquake, no revolution. But war. You'll see what a sensation that will be! People will love it. Even now they can hardly wait for the killing to begin -- their lives are that dull!

"But you will see, Sinclair, that this is only the beginning. Perhaps it will be a very big war, a war on a gigantic scale. But that, too, will only be the beginning. The new world has begun and the new world will be terrible for those clinging to the old. What will you do?"

The End