Anyone Remember Herman Hesse?
Posted: 02 July 2008 02:28 AM   [ Ignore ]
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Crossposted to The Crusty Polemicist.

During my years in high school and college.  (1969-1976) Herman Hesse was huge. Bigger than Richard Brautigan (A Confederate General from Big Sur), bigger than Robert M, Pirsig (Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance); hell, he was bigger than the Beatles. Forgotten now, sadly forgotten along with Brautigan and Pirsig. Though unfortunately not the Beatles, who I thought were utter bubblegum ear-candy right up until the very end, when their late work with Revolver and The White Album suggested some very exciting possibilities, most of which were never explored (the big exception would be the infamous song Helter Skelter,  arguably the first “punk rock” song). But I digress. Anyway, a birthday salute to forgotten Herman Hesse, the man who gave us the indelible image of his father sitting in the crutch of a tree with a rifle, trying to draw a bead so he could shoot at those terrifying and evil new products of technology called “automobiles.” Maybe Hesse’s dad wasn’t a laughable Luddite after all, maybe he was just a century ahead of his time.

From the Writer’s Almanac:

It’s the birthday of German poet and novelist Herman Hessa,  born in Black Forest of Germany (1877), the son of a Baltic-German from Estonia and a woman of Swabian and French-Swiss heritage. Both of his parents were once missionaries in India.
He went to boarding schools, where he was a precociously brilliant learner but had behavior issues. His parents wanted him to be a minister, so he went to a theological seminary when he was a teenager. But he left after nine months and later said, “From the age of 12 I wanted to be a poet, and since there was no normal or official road, I had a hard time deciding what to do after leaving school.”
He apprenticed at a mechanic’s shop and also at a bookstore. When he was 22, a small book of his poems was published. After World War I began, he moved to Switzerland; he opposed German nationalism and spoke up against the regime’s violence, and for this he received a lot of hate mail. He began to travel a lot, spending much time in India and Italy. He renounced his German citizenship and instead became a Swiss citizen.
He suffered from recurring bouts of depression and even bought a revolver and left a suicide note when he was a teenager. For several years he underwent Jungian psychoanalysis. His works often involve a protagonist’s spiritual search for enlightenment, and Hesse counts among his most characteristic works Siddhartha (1922), Der Steppenwolf (1927), and Die Morgenlandfahrt (1932) [The Journey to the East]. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, before he became Pope Benedict XVI, said that Steppenwolf is one of his favorite books because it “exposes the problem of modernity’s isolated and self-isolating man.” Hesse won the Nobel Prize in literature in 1946.
Shortly before his death, he wrote:

What you loved and what you strove for,
What you dreamed and what you lived through,
Do you know if it was joy or suffering?
G sharp and A flat, E flat or D sharp,
Are they distinguishable to the ear?

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Posted: 02 July 2008 07:13 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
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I don’t know how big Hesse was in the ‘60s and ‘70s, but he’s still required reading for myself and my peers who ask existential questions.  Pirsig, too.

I agree that the popular conscience seems to have a certain pollution.  Yes, people are better off than ever before, but it’s also engendered a kind of intellectual egalitarianism whose deluge drowns out the tough questions.

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Posted: 02 July 2008 07:41 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]
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Hypnos - 02 July 2008 07:13 AM

I don’t know how big Hesse was in the ‘60s and ‘70s, but he’s still required reading for myself and my peers who ask existential questions.  Pirsig, too.

I agree that the popular conscience seems to have a certain pollution.  Yes, people are better off than ever before, but it’s also engendered a kind of intellectual egalitarianism whose deluge drowns out the tough questions.

I’m glad to hear they’re still being read. They’re still being read by me, but then I’m a bit, well, weird, so we can’t go by what I do, can we? :-D

Your point about intellectual egalitarianism is right on the money. Reminds me of my two dogs. When we only had Junior (my Black Lab/Newfie mix, 1994-2006 RIP),  that boy
was smart, inquisitive, and he learned on a level that many five-year-old humans would do well to emulate. Well, we get a second dog, Lurlene, still with us. Nice as heck but
dumb as a stump. Well, don’t you know? Stupid is apparently contagious! I’d assumed that Junior’s superior intellect would raise Lurlene up, but the opposite happened: she
dragged Junior’s intellect down. Smart dog got dumber and dumber the more time he spent with stupid dog. A cautionary tale for intelligent humans, methinks. And yes,
I know that sounds like The Word That May Not Be Spoken(tm)—“elitism”—and indeed it is. I make no apologies for it.  Our mouth-breathing, running-on-brainstem culture
has created a toxic “environment of stupidity” that makes the emergence—let alone the flourishing—of the sort of brilliant minds that have been the crowning glory of every
culture in history quite literally impossible. And it scares me.

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Posted: 02 July 2008 04:55 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]
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As I argue elsewhere, the intellectual center of gravity may be shifting back out of the US.

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Posted: 03 July 2008 01:28 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]
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Hypnos - 02 July 2008 04:55 PM

As I argue elsewhere, the intellectual center of gravity may be shifting back out of the US.

I’m not at all sure the intellectual center of gravity was ever actually in the US. For several decades we were the center of manufacturing and technological power, sure, but even that is gone. At the moment, we’re the world center of debt to other countries, if we’re anything.  I’d be interested in your thoughts on when and in what ways the world’s intellectual center of gravity was in the US?  Seriously, could be a fascinating discussion.

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Posted: 03 July 2008 02:04 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]
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I would say that during the Cold War the US science regime was the envy of the world.  UC Berkeley had the consensus #1 physics and chemistry departments (with many luminaries on the faculties), with the Ivies and MIT and Caltech not far behind.  Gov’t labs like Lawrence Berkeley and Lawrence Livermore were #1 in the world, and so were the nominally private labs at IBM and Bell.

The US gov’t welcomed skilled immigrants with open arms to maintain this talent pool.  Optimism in American science, technological ingenuity and manufacturing skill was the order of the day.

These were evidenced by the Nobel Prize-winning research and technological breakthroughs (e.g., semiconductors) that originated in the US.

I am not as familiar with the humanities side of things.  But during the ‘60s my impression is that the US was the “most happening” place to be.

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Posted: 03 July 2008 05:55 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]
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Hypnos - 03 July 2008 02:04 AM

I am not as familiar with the humanities side of things.  But during the ‘60s my impression is that the US was the “most happening” place to be.

Humanities are my area. I’d say 1950s rather than 1960s (the intellectual/artistic pendulum was rapidly shifting back to Europe by the 60’s), but your
general point is interesting. Isn’t it a fascinating thing that American intellect only rises to the occasion when there’s a war to be won? And even then,
we’re talking “intellect” in the very narrow, constricted sense of “scientific know-how.” Modern American industry didn’t really take off until WWII gave
it the impetus, and the entire post-war period (aptly called “The Cold War”) was nothing but one endless era of being on “a war footing.” America does
great things in the applied sciences—and even physics becomes an applied science when the end product of the research is The Bomb - when it’s at
war. Heck, even the internet was created as a military solution (as a way or maintaining communication after a nuclear strike). What we have never
really done well—and most particularly are not doing well now—is humanities-based thinking and world-shaking art (broadly defined). America has never
generated and interesting or original intellectual ideas.  And that, at the end of the day, is what distinguishes a great civilization from a civilization composed
of gifted mechanics and tinkerers.

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Posted: 03 July 2008 06:11 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 7 ]
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America has never generated and interesting or original intellectual ideas.

Perhaps you mean novel philosophical frameworks?  I would say the US take on liberty in the 18th century was fairly original.  Then the pragmatists and transcendalists were interesting; maybe the Beat thinkers, abstract expressionists and jazz/rock musical movements.  Most recently, the US is a hotbed of research in neuroscience and evolutionary psychology.

However, it does seem to pale compared to the achievements of the Greeks, Indians, Chinese and Enlightenment Europeans.  OTOH, we’ve only been at it 250 years ...

I agree with you in the sense that the American zeitgeist has always been about contemplation being a means to a material end, rather than vice-versa.

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Posted: 03 July 2008 07:12 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 8 ]
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I have to shamelly admit that I am quite ignorant about humanities. I’ve red Demian in high school, but I must admit I didn’t enjoy it. Maybe I should give it a second chance, I was too inmature in my teens to enjoy it.

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Posted: 03 July 2008 07:41 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 9 ]
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Barto - 03 July 2008 07:12 AM

I have to shamelly admit that I am quite ignorant about humanities. I’ve red Demian in high school, but I must admit I didn’t enjoy it. Maybe I should give it a second chance, I was too inmature in my teens to enjoy it.

Don’t bother.  It still sucks. wink

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Posted: 03 July 2008 07:51 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 10 ]
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Hypnos - 03 July 2008 06:11 AM

I agree with you in the sense that the American zeitgeist has always been about contemplation being a means to a material end, rather than vice-versa.

Funny anecdote I heard somewhere. Some French engineers are trying out some new technology they’ve come up with. After it works flawlessly, one of
the researchers sniffs and says: “Well yes, it works in practice. But the important thing is, does it work in theory?”  I don’t know if this is a true story or not,
but you kinda want it to be true, you know what I mean?  grin It encapsulates the difference in intellectual focus between the Europeans and the Americans. Europeans
want things to make sense, hold together, be philosophically consistent and properly grounded in some logical theory. Americans just want to slap something
together that works. Another important difference is the American tendency to “run with it.” The French got there first with airplanes, moving pictures, photography,
and automobiles. But the French innovators never “ran with it”, they solved what was for them an intriguing intellectual problem, and then moved on to solving some
other intriguing intellectual problem. I’d argue that this is why America was the manufacturing and supply-line powerhouse of the 20th century: not because of any
new innovation, but because of an unmatched ability to take innovations and go make something big and profitable out of it.

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Posted: 03 July 2008 08:07 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 11 ]
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steveg144 - 03 July 2008 07:41 AM

Don’t bother.  It still sucks. wink

Maybe grin. I remember the second time I red the Quijote I found it is a great book, while the first time, also in high school, it made me suffer a lot. Anyway, the most common path is the opposite: books and authors I used to love now seems worthless to me. I must admit that I have a kind of impairement about literature, nowdays I only enjoy reading and reading Borges again (if Borges used to write tales in less than fifteen pages, noone needs to write longer stories grin ) and finding a new edition from a Lem’s book.

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Posted: 03 July 2008 09:04 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 12 ]
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I don’t think technological innovation should be shortchanged.  Lasers, nuclear energy, semiconductors and World Wide Web came out of physics, for example—and only because the theory made sense.  Understanding of polymers by chemists yielded new and task-specific plastics.

This is why the American anti-science/anti-intellectual mentality concerns me.  The subsidy to the nerds was to win the Cold War, but it was also a great source of prosperity that people seem to forget.  If you are too results-oriented, you might miss the shady path to some place great.

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Posted: 09 July 2008 11:35 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 13 ]
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I read these three:

Siddhartha
Steppenwolf
Narcissus and Goldmund

As I recall I liked all of them but I’m not sure I read them for school.  Maybe Steppenwolf was required in high school.  I seem to have the least memory of what that was about.

psik

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