Academic journal article Utopian Studies

The Radical Appeal of Hermann Hesse's Alternative Community

Academic journal article Utopian Studies

The Radical Appeal of Hermann Hesse's Alternative Community

Article excerpt

I am at odds with the political thinkers of all trends, and I shall always, incorrigibly, recognise in man, in the individual man and his soul, the existence of realms to which political impulses and forms do not extend. (ITWGO, 11)(1)

DETACHMENT, AUTONOMY, and the quest for spiritual self-fulfilment are the key themes in the novels of Hermann Hesse (1877-1962), and they do not obviously lend themselves to a political reading. However, in his final two novels, The Journey to the East, published in 1932, and The Glass Bead Game, published in 1943, he creates alternative enlightened communities and grapples with the question of how they might relate to the world at large. As Martin Buber remarked, `the spirit is in the last analysis a collective one' (Buber, 30-31), an interpretation which Hesse accepted without demur (Glatzer & Mendes-Flohr, 611). The novels retain his well established philosophical rejection of the spiritual vacuity of modern life, but overcome the individualistic disengagement implicit in his earlier work. In this paper I outline Hesse's principal social philosophical precepts and then concentrate on the utopian elements of his work on alternative community in his final two novels, particularly The Glass Bead Game, set in the monasticlike society of Castalia in the twenty-third century.

I shall argue that although he deliberately creates a flawed utopia, he retains a utopian striving for the creation of a society embodying ideals of intellectual, aesthetic and spiritual refinement, while rejecting the idea that it can be prescribed in any particular form. Hesse presents an open dialectic which recoils from identifying the necessary structures of an ideal ethical community but emphasises the need to continue the struggle for the transformation of values. His ideas on alternative community have a strong affinity with the ethos of much of the new social movement activity which developed at the time when his work achieved cult status, and I develop this point in the final section.

Hesse's Philosophy

In many respects Hesse appears to be a romantic writer pining for a lost age of purity and excellence. This is expressed in his celebration of natural beauty and rural tranquillity, his attachment to eighteenth century literature and music, and his hostility to technological `progress'. It is no surprise that in the futuristic society described in The Glass Bead Game there appears to have been no significant technological advance from our period, with only the occasional mention of a car or train (Fickert, 219). But Hesse was also a nonconformist rebel concerned for the fate of those who did not comply with the prescribed values of the society they inhabited. He bemoaned the pressures generated by life in modern capitalist society and the instrumental and often callous behaviour which threatened to engulf the world. In response he espoused the pursuit of self-understanding through grasping the spiritual insights offered to us in tragedy and the illusory nature of prestige and wealth. Occasionally he expressed sympathy with the ideal of socialism and even admired Marx, considering his critique of capitalism `essentially incontrovertible' (MB, 367; Sorell, 61).

Hesse was an explicitly holistic and dialectical writer who repeatedly in his novels depicts the struggle for self-awareness in the lives of his characters. Through them he reaffirms the values of love, beauty, and integrity in the face of a world increasingly dominated by acquisitive and competitive norms. As a dialectician he conceived of self-discovery as 'wholeness' arrived at through a process of necessary struggle, identifying the positive in the negative and constantly questioning conventional notions of progress and achievement (Ziolkowski, 1). As we shall see, the dialectical approach is central to The Glass Bead Game, in which the influence of the philosophy of Hegel is suggested. In his earlier works the emphasis on paradox owed much to the Indian and Chinese philosophies which had influenced him from an early age and receives its clearest expression in Siddhartha, in which the eponymous hero experiences the extremes of poverty and wealth, power and dependence, self-discipline and gratuitousness, before finally achieving peace. …

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