. hermann hesse .

"Few people perceive their destiny. Few people live their lives. Learn to live your lives! Learn to perceive your destiny. You must learn to be yourselves...." - Hesse

It was hot. It was July. It was 1877. The Bauern, the farmers, walked off to their parlors for a midday siesta. The children were in the Kueche, for Mittaggessen, lunch. Some played in the gardens afterwards, but the dank air pressed upon everything. Calw, a tiny German town that lay on the edge of the Black Forest, was hushed. Even the crickets among the wheat and barley grasses were asleep. The only hum was the endless trickle of the Nagold River and the water-wheels creaking for the cobblestone textile mills that lay in shade along the river's edge.

A fountain stood, unshaded, in the center of Calw's Marktplatz. Across from that, the building that housed the Calwer publishing company, indistinguishable from every other building in its stucco and dark timber faces and its roof shingled with red clay.

A piece of the heavens that wasn't glued on too tightly, a patchwork, a star, slowly detached itself from the rest and fell to the earth. As it neared the atmosphere, the star formed the shape of a human baby. This is how all fairies are made. But the child missed its destination - the Black Forest.

Johannes Hesse was working downstairs in the Calwer publishing house, taking orders for a new religious pamphlet, when he heard his wife Maria scream from upstairs. He rushed up the dark and narrow wooden stairway, and found her by the cinders of the fireplace, her sleeves rolled up, arms and hands blackened with soot, a black smear on her forehead, holding a tiny baby boy. "God's gift" was all she could say, kissing the child on his cheek and belly, a tear streaming down her face.

Hermann , as they called the new child, picked up everything quickly. "He seems to have a gift for everything; he observes the moon and the clouds, improvises on the harmonium, makes quite amazing pencil and pen drawings, sings very ably when he as a mind to, and he is never at a loss for rhymes." , wrote his father to a family friend.

Hermann sat listless in school. He understood everything the teacher was saying , but it bored him. He preferred to look outside, at the fir trees swaying in the wind. He was a few years ahead of his classmates, reading everything in his grandparents’ library, and listening in on the religious and literary meetings his grandparents and parents attended.

Often, after Mittaggessen, when Herman was supposed to be talking a nap in his bedroom, he'd sneak downstairs and play in the garden in front. Or he'd sit in his grandfather's study and carefully touch the many-armed wooden and stone statues his grandparents had brought home from their missionary work in India and China.

Outside he played amongst the coblestones in the alleyways. There he would toss coins, or watch a beetle's trek from one sprig of grasses to another. Afterschool, he loved to play along the hills and the woods in the Black Forest. He walked through everything, taking his mind off his duties, letting his eyes get rest from his endless studies.


His parents sent him off to school. Herman had passed all the exams, and he was to become a minister. He spent his time at Maulbronn Seminary in Basle, among the dark, hushed, holy walls, the high vaulted archways and ceilings, where his time was more regimented than a young soldier's.

Hermann was like a spring day, a sing-song, pleasant, like a blue sky snowy with falling blossoms. Until a fire arose in his bellows, a storm clouded over his eyes. Too strong for him to control it sometimes, he had to unleash everything. Suddenly school became a prison around him. The walls closed in on him. The open sky was his only escape but no one wanted him out there. He had to be enclosed and do what he was told, but every spark in his body unleashed a torrent against these expectations, and then he would run away.


At the seminary one night, the moon was just a sliver over the hills. Hermann snuck out of the doors, closing them quietly. The moonlight hardly illuminated the dark sphere of the seminary, the high archways and vaults, as it did on full moon nights. He could hardly contain his fury, his need to scream. Hermann snuck quietly away and walked into the moors, the drifts and the brambles. The open air was his home: the open air, his survival. Though he shivered, Hermann breathed easier in the damp, electrified grasses, under the night of shrill stars.

Hermann knew he couldn't go into the ministry. He had no hope for preaching God. He said, "From my thirteenth year on, it was clear to me that I wanted to be either a poet or nothing at all. To this realization...was gradually added a further, painful insight. One could become a teacher, minister, doctor, mechanic, merchant, post-office employee or a musician, painter, architect; there was a path to every profession in the world, there were prerequisites, a school, a course of instruction for the beginner. Only for the poet there was nothing of the sort! It was....an honor to be a poet; that is,...a successful and famous....poet. But to become a poet was impossible, and to want to become one was ridiculous and shameful, as I very soon found out. I had quickly learned what there was to be learned from the situation: a poet was simply something you were allowed to be but not to become."

Hermann kept running away: from seminary, from school, from apprenticeship to a clockgear maker, and apprenticeship to a bookseller. Everywhere a shadow followed him. When he turned his head there was nothing there. But the shadow followed him everywhere, followed him home.

Finally he settled into bookselling at an antique bookseller in the university town of Tuebigin, not far from Calw. He did his apprenticeship during the day, and when he got off work, spent his time alone, reading Goethe and Novalis, writing poems and stories. Until he moved to Basle, Hermann spent his days as a monk, an aesthete.

After Peter Camenzid was published and Hesse was finally successful and could afford his own home, he married a woman named Mia and lived in Gaienhofen, overlooking the edge of the Untersee. His house was so remote he had to reach the nearest supply store via canoe. There he had a study where he cloistered himself. He preferred to work outside in the garden he cultivated so conscientiously, staying in tune with nature's rhythms. Towards evening, a bottle of wine on the table, Hermann lounged outside on the patio, the sun going down, his notebook resting on his lap, watching the clouds roll along over the lake. There he wrote poems and stories, essays and book reviews.

But the contentment did not last--nor could it. Hesse took several trips to India and China. His marriage made him feel exhausted. "It was beautiful and instructive but ultimately it would be a form of slavery" he said. When World War I erupted and Hesse was chastised by the public for being a dissenter, his marriage simultaneously disintegrated. Mia entered a mental hospital, and his children were taken in by relatives and friends.

He traveled in many ways, then, both physically and mentally. He underwent psychoanalysis by a Jungian therapist, and frequented the Bads. He said, "I have always been and still am a seeker, but I no longer do my seeking among the stars or in books. I am beginning to hear the lessons which whisper in my blood. Mine is not a pleasant story. It does not possess the gentle harmony of invented tales; like the lives of all men who have given up trying to deceive themselves, it is a mixture of nonsense and chaos, madness and dreams." "All seem to respond to a common law, to appear to know very well what they are supposed to be doing. I alone appear not to know....My lot is to follow my inner voice even when I fail to recognize its meaning and its goal, and even when it leads me ever farther away from the paths of joy into the dark and partially known."

Because he was always searching for his secret past, because he was always looking for "home", his contemporaries couldn't understand him. He said, "whenever I undertake something very necessary, auspicious and beautiful, people become cross. They would like one to stay as one is; they don't want one's face to change. But my face will not conform! It insists on changing often; that’s a necessity."


Hesse is Chiron. He is a child of the heavens and of the earth. He is a guide, a lamplight, to our own hearts. He leads us across the Abyss, and safely back again.


. home . close window .