Hesse: from counterculture to computer games

Hermann Hesse at his writing desk in Montagnola akg, Martin Hesse

The German-born author Hermann Hesse, who spent much of his life in Switzerland, has had an enduring effect on the English-speaking world, particularly the United States. His work is still being translated and read, and even inspires online gaming.

This content was published on August 9, 2012 - 11:00
Terence MacNamee, swissinfo.ch

Before the days of the counterculture in the 1960s, Hesse was largely unknown in the US. Then English translations of his works such as Steppenwolf, Siddhartha and Demian appeared in paperback and caused a stir among hippies, rock musicians and other drop-outs from mainstream culture.

They identified with his stories of spiritual seeking and seekers and he incorporated elements in his novels that appealed to them, like drug-taking and Eastern mysticism. Psychedelic guru Timothy Leary hailed Hesse as “the poet of the interior journey”. Steppenwolf was used as the name of a rock group, best known for “Born to be Wild”, which appeared on the soundtrack of counterculture classic Easy Rider.

Hesse himself was no drug-crazed dropout. In his day the counterculture meant things like vegetarianism and nudism. But he certainly was interested in all things Asian, especially Asian spirituality.

Personal growth was also a major theme of his which appealed to the Sixties counterculture, especially as it became more individualistic and the dreams of social revolution faded. Hesse himself had at one point undergone Jungian psychoanalysis.

After the cult

Is Hesse still causing a stir among American youth? Re-translations of works such as Siddhartha continue to appear, but Mark Harman, a professor of German literature at Elizabethtown College, Pennsylvania, says “by and large” young people aren’t reading Hesse.

“Certainly not in the numbers they did in the Sixties, Seventies and maybe a bit into the Eighties,” he told swissinfo.ch.

“However, since Hesse has such a brilliant grasp of the psychology of adolescent turmoil and renders it so well, there will presumably always be young people who gravitate towards his writing. This is true of the US, and I suspect elsewhere too.”

Is he still a reference for what is left of the counterculture? “My suspicion is that this happens on an individual rather than mass basis as took place in the Sixties with the US Hesse cult.”

Hesse-bashing

Harman pointed out that Hesse, who did not live to see this US development, would have found it “quite disconcerting”.

“After all, if his work could be reduced to one theme, it would be, as he once put it, ‘a defence (and at times a cry for help) of the personality, of the individual’. There was always something quite paradoxical about such a body of work being made the basis of a cult.”

Due to the anniversary, Hesse has been receiving a lot of attention in the press as well as literary journals recently. Not all of it has been favourable. In fact, some retrospective judgements have been harsh.

“German literary critics love to pontificate,” Harman said. “They have been bashing Hesse for decades. Many declared his work useless and irrelevant just before the explosion of interest in him in the US,” he said.

“Hesse has long been more admired outside Germany than within it, especially by the critics,” noted Harman, who pointed out nonetheless that “he has a good following in Germany, too, as indicated by the books by and about Hesse flowing from the presses: two biographies published this anniversary year, a book about Hesse and the women in his life and so on.”

One of the new biographies is by Gunnar Decker. In a recent interview with Deutsche Welle radio, Decker not only pointed to the Hesse cult in the US but claimed that “today, Hesse provides an important encouragement for many people in Arab countries” and “interest in Hesse has been continually growing in Asia”.

The Bamboo Garden

Meanwhile, there has been another more recent growth area in the US focused on The Glass Bead Game, Hesse’s last novel. This unusual book has a lasting appeal for those interested in the esoteric, because it is about a monastic-type elite order led by wisdom figures called “masters”. The characteristic activity of the order is playing a mysterious intellectual game.

Most of Hesse’s old preoccupations are there, about Asia, spirituality and so on, but the hero of the novel, Master of the Game, Joseph Knecht, lives around the year 2400. Yet the book is not science fiction, because there seems to be no new technology of any kind – nothing like computers.

This has not prevented some American readers from re-imagining the Glass Bead Game as a computer game. Hesse does not tell the reader how the game is played – he probably had not worked it out in any great detail – but there are tantalising glimpses throughout the novel.

Enough to make people want to produce what are now termed “playable variants”: games on the internet that everyone can play, or games that consist of links between Web pages.  

“In the late 1990s, there was a thriving Glass Bead Game scene in the Seattle area,” recalled enthusiast Ron Hale-Evans on the website he devotes to playable variants of Hesse’s game.

“The local Glass Bead Game workshop was called the Bamboo Garden after the ‘bamboo grove’, the hermitage where Joseph Knecht studied the I Ching. Each member of the Bamboo Garden had an idiosyncratic version/vision of the game.”

Many of these playable variants are to be found on the internet and new ones are still appearing. Meanwhile, the BBC broadcast a new radio drama version of the Glass Bead Game in 2010.  

Hesse’s fascination for English-speaking readers clearly continues. “Readers will ultimately decide what of Hesse survives and what not,” concluded Harman.

Hermann Hesse (1877-1962)

The German author spent most of his life in Switzerland. Part of his education was in Basel and he lived in various parts of the country, finally settling in Montagnola, canton Ticino, though he paid frequent visits to neighbouring Graubünden, particularly Sils in the Engadine.

While an exile from his native Germany, he continued to write for the German public, even during the Nazi period. Though he lived in Italian-speaking Switzerland, he continued to write in his native German.

He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1946. He died on August 9, 1962. His books have been translated into English and other languages, and in many countries he is the best-selling European author of all time.  

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The Glass Bead Game

The Glass Bead Game is Hesse’s last novel. It was begun in 1931 and published in Switzerland in 1943, after being rejected for publication in Germany.

It plays out in “Castalia”, an Alpine landscape very reminiscent of Graubünden and Ticino, where he lived, but it is set in the future.

The world has turned away from the madness of wars and the learned have formed themselves into a monastic order. They devote themselves ascetically to learned pursuits, but especially to an intellectual game they have invented known as the Glass Bead Game. This mysterious cosmic game – which is never fully described – mixes references to the arts, music, science, philosophy and religion, and can be composed and played alone or in larger groups like a church liturgy.

The hero of the novel, Joseph Knecht, becomes Magister Ludi or Master of the Game. But eventually he grows weary of monastic isolation, quits the Castalian order and leaves to visit a friend in a city that appears to be Bern. He goes to his friend’s summer cottage at a lake in the Alps (possibly Sils Lake in the Engadine), where he drowns while trying to swim in the cold water.

The novel went through several versions in the 1930s, including a more satiric one in which Knecht falls foul of a power-mad German dictator and just gets to play a last Game before he is killed. The final version of the novel, with its future-world setting, is much more serene.

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