Hermann Hesse - Wandering
In his early forties, German author Hermann Hesse wrote,
I have had to bear a very heavy burden in my personal life in recent years. Now I am about to go to Ticino once again, to live for a while as a hermit in nature and in my world.
A year later, Wandering was published. As a story it is without form, comprised of chapters that often, but not always, alternate with poems, and there are reproductions of watercolours painted by Hesse. The plot, beyond that of a man wandering, does not exist, and it is very fair to say that much of the wandering is done within his soul, and less throughout the hills and farmsteads of rural southern Switzerland.
Hesse was much troubled by the intersection between the desires of the artistic soul, and the material necessities of food, shelter, bills, and so on. This reconciliation, always tenuous collapsed during the years leading up to the publication of this book, which saw Hesse increasingly turn his eye away from the cacophony of civilisation and city living. In the opening sentences to Wandering, Hesse writes that, “[t]he wandering man becomes a primitive man in so many ways.”
And a few pages later, goes on to write that,
I wanted to be an artist and a man of fantasy, but I also wanted to be a good man, a man at home. It all went on for a long time, till I knew that a man cannot be both and have both, that I am a nomad and not a farmer, a man who searches and not a man who keeps.
The life of the hermit seems to agree with Hesse, for his writing soon becomes happier, more attuned to the rhythm and flow of the places he visits. He writes at length on trees, and rain, and various other aspects of nature. The poems and watercolours, which are often laid out attractively side by side, provide a neat encapsulation of the text from the previous chapter, or indicate the theme of the next.
The world has become lovelier. I am alone, and I don't suffer from my loneliness. I don't want life to be anything other than what it is. I am ready to let myself be baked in the sun till I am done. I am eager to ripen. I am ready to die, ready to be born again.
Hesse recognises that this solitary life is not for everyone, but for himself, it is something quite revelatory. Curiously – or perhaps not, considering the thematic depth of Hesse's other works – God is not invoked, though rebirth, salvation, and the possibility of redemption are strong throughout the text. Hesse's serenity comes instead from the ocean of story within oneself, allowing him, while wandering, to place himself joyfully within the possibility of any man, any situation:
How wonderful it would be for a man like me to make his home here, to be a priest! Especially a man like me! Wouldn't I be just the right kind – walking back and forth in a fine black habit, caring tenderly, even spiritually and symbolically, for the pear trellises in the garden, soothing the dying in the villages, reading old books in Latin, giving gentle orders to the cook, and on Sundays strolling across the flagstones to the church, with a good sermon in my head?
But later, he realises that, in truth, the life of a priest would ill-suit him as much as that of a businessman, or a carpenter, or a politician, or anyone at all. He recognises that the hermit's wanderings is an erotic endeavour, one made possible only by those possessing an exceptional capacity for love. But this love, which should ordinarily be directed toward a woman, instead bursts out of the hermit in every direction, casting its rays upon animals, children, farm houses, the sun, stars, the feel of the earth under one's feet – in short, everything. One cannot wander if one is incapable of loving everything that one comes across.
There is, however, a downside to such a life. The tone of Hesse's brief novella, initially so joyous because he has found a true path in life, soon becomes darker. There are things that must be given up, truly and completely, to properly achieve the hermit's life. At first, this seemed palatable, but there are always, always repercussions.
There is no escape. You can't be a vagabond and an artist and still be a solid citizen, a wholesome, upstanding man. You want to get drunk, so you have to accept the hangover. You say yes to the sunlight and your pure fantasies, so you have to say yes to the filth and the nausea. Everything is within you, gold and mud, happiness and pain, the laughter of childhood and the apprehension of death. Say yes to everything, shirk nothing, don't try to lie to yourself.
Let it storm!
Hesse comes to the conclusion that the life of the wanderer requires as much responsibility as that of the home-bound man, it is just that the direction of the responsibility is different. The city dweller is responsibility to a vast myriad of others, from their wives and their children, to their boss, the people on their street, the baker, the banker, and so on. These little slices of responsibility add up to a burden which many shoulder, but nobody loves. But the wanderer, on the other hand, has only one responsibility – and that is to himself. But the sole burden is larger, on an order of magnitude, than that of the house-bound man. One much either choose to stay at home and live the expected life, and suffer from a thousand calls vying for your attention, or you must contend only with yourself, but the responsibility here is immense. The wanderer without introspection is merely a bum; the hermit unwilling to deeply explore his soul and the caverns and mountains contained within, is nothing more than an outcast.
The poems and paintings in Wandering compliment the text nicely, and their effect on the whole is that of a tranquil soul stirred briefly by a gentle breeze. It is easy to believe that the composition of a novel like this would assist in the stilling of a turbulent heart; it is certain that the reading of it achieves such a goal. Wandering is a novel for those of us who become melancholy at the influx of technology, connections, communication and 'things' within our lives, and it is for those of us who, when spying a hill in the distance, wish to walk away from whatever it is we are doing to see what is on the other side and then maybe, if we are courageous, keep on walking.
(Original Title: Wanderung: Aufzeichnungen)
Other works by Hermann Hesse under review:
"for his inspired writings which, while growing in boldness and penetration, exemplify the classical humanitarian ideals and high qualities of style" - Nobel Citation in Literature 1946