The inward gaze-between deep insights and profound solipsism.

Detail from Sunset (Zarathustra), 1917 by Christian Rohlfs. Landesmuseum Oldenburg, Germany. Photo by AKG

In Hermann Hesse’s novels, as in his life, self-discovery walked a tightrope between deep insights and profound solipsism.

In 1963, Timothy Leary, the high priest of LSD, anointed a German author, Hermann Hesse, the ‘poet of the interior journey’. Hesse had died a year earlier, at the age of 85. But the novels he left behind, Leary declared in The Psychedelic Review, were a ‘priceless manual’ for navigating the acid trip.

Literature is full of weird afterlives. Franz Kafka died in 1924 believing that his manuscripts would be burnt. Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick (1851) was originally a flop. But the 1960s embrace of Hesse ranks with the weirdest of them all. He never visited the United States. He didn’t speak Englisch. His only drug was red wine. But by 1968, as Der Spiegel observed, the hippies had pulled this fading writer ‘out of the doldrums’. Hesse went on to become the bestselling German author of the 20th century, and sits below only the Brothers Grimm and Karl Marx as the most translated German writer of recent decades.

Hesse’s work was attuned to a youth culture animated by an amorphous desire for a breakthrough in consciousness precisely because such a desire gripped him throughout his entire life. Many of us are familiar with this desire; it animates almost every young person, in one way or another. But managing it wisely can be a challenge, and Hesse, in his life and work, constitutes a study in the double-edged sword of dwelling on one’s inner worlds.

Hermann Karl Hesse was born in 1877 in Calw, a pretty town on the edge of Germany’s Black Forest. His family were devout Pietists, devoted to the study of the Bible and the Christian life. His father published books with titles such as The Heathens and Us.

Hesse had a grim adolescence. His mother deemed his early poems ‘poison’ because, she felt, they displayed an interest in the sinful world of man, rather than God. His teachers, judging him to be ‘full of febrile thoughts and excessive emotions’, were severe. He kept running away from school and began threatening to find a revolver and shoot himself. At 14, he was committed to an asylum. A loathing of institutions, as well as a profound emotional turbulence, would stay with Hesse throughout his life.

And so long as you haven’t experienced
This: to die and so to grow,
You are only a troubled guest
On the dark earth.

So wrote Johann Wolfgang von Goethe – Germany’s William Shakespeare, and Hesse’s first literary idol. As a young author, Hesse was drawn to Goethe’s focus on the interior life and Romanticism’s focus on ‘the secret wellsprings of the soul’. He was also ‘enthralled by Nietzsche’ and his concept of the Übermensch – the being who could embrace the death of God and thrive in pure self-directedness. Foreshadowing the hippies, Hesse wondered if spiritual renewal might emerge out of the ancient mists of the East. He pored over the Buddha’s dissections of human consciousness, and the gnomic wisdom of Lao Tzu. By 1900, at the age of 23, Hesse had firmly arrived at what he regarded as the path to psychic flourishing: ‘greater profundity through internalisation’.

Life’s problems aren’t there to be cleanly solved, Jung had explained

In 1916 – after avoiding the First World War’s trenches thanks to his poor eyesight – Hesse met Josef Bernhard Lang, a psychoanalyst and devotee of Carl Jung. Lang was something of an oddball, with his own significant psychological issues and a penchant for astrology and the occult. But the two men became friends; over the following decades, they wrote countless letters to one another. Through Lang, Hesse took to Jung’s theories immediately. He liked Jung’s focus on a web of inner symbols forged in childhood, and his notion of a submerged realm of the personality called ‘the shadow’. Shortly after discovering Jung, in a letter, Hesse reiterated his outlook on life: ‘my sole interest is in the internal’.

Hesse’s influences shared a belief in the power of individual subjectivity. This gave Hesse a singular, unwavering focus that remained unchanged over decades of novels: the self. More accurately, Hermann Hesse’s self. The author liked to refer to his novels as ‘soul biographies’. Writing, he declared, was ‘a long, varied, and tortuous route, whose aim is to express the personality of the artist’s Self’, until that Self is ‘ultimately unwrapped and laid bare, ransacked and all spent’.

Hesse’s abiding core theme means that his novels have a repetitive pattern. All of them feature a male protagonist whose overflowing self is at odds with the dull, workaday expectations of mainstream society. All have encounters with one or more wise sages. They become isolated and are impelled to embark on journeys of self-discovery – journeys that require them to confront the conflicts embedded deep in their psyches. The forces fighting these conflicts always have the thick air of Jungian archetypes. In Steppenwolf (1927), one of Hesse’s most-read novels, the protagonist’s inner life ‘oscillates, as everyone’s does, not merely between two poles, such as the body and the spirit, the saint and the sinner, but between thousands’.

In 1921, Hesse underwent two spells of therapy with Jung himself. In his diary, he recorded some advice that the renowned analyst gave him. Life’s problems aren’t there to be cleanly solved, Jung had explained; each of them is ‘a pair of opposites, that between them produce a tension that is called life’. This tempting, elusive bit of wisdom is what all of Hesse’s protagonists discover, and then attempt to integrate. By dwelling on the totality of their inner worlds intensely enough and for long enough, they move toward the promised land of what is called ‘self-realisation’ in Hesse’s earlier novel Demian (1919). They can finally see themselves – all of themselves. As a result, they understand how to live.

Even if you’ve never read a word of his novels, the appeal of Hesse to 1960s readers should be obvious. He loathed teachers and the rat race, he liked nudism and trees. But it’s more than that: to Hesse, as the scholar Ingo Cornils writes, ‘the individual self’ was ‘the repository of the divine and the only institution we are accountable to’. Hesse’s novels hold out the very 1960s promise that, by shunning social injunctions and dedicating ourselves to vivid inner explorations, we can break through to a psychic rebirth. The plots of his novels often climax with the protagonist experiencing a searing and hallucinogenic metamorphosis – much like the one that Leary wanted to extend to all Americans, via the acid tab.

Demian tells the story of a young man, Emil Sinclair, who drops out of mainstream society. Inspired by the enigmatic musings of the sagelike Max Demian, he attempts to throw off bourgeois values and uncover a path to self-realisation. His search takes him through various forms of psychological mysticism. A recent Penguin edition of Demian features a foreword by the actor James Franco, who recalls dropping out of university aged 19 to pursue his dream of acting. Amid doubts, Demian assured Franco that he had taken ‘another step away from a conformist life’ and towards ‘a life that resonated with my ideals’.

Over the decades, Demian has had a similar animating effect on countless other readers. Sinclair is inspired by Demian to reject ‘the herd instinct’ and be ‘utterly faithful to the active seed of nature within him’. Keeping this faith requires that Sinclair reject all that has come before, and pull a dazzling, Nietzschean new thing out of the fire. Every great artistic mind is touched by this urge. It is easy to see why many heroes of the counterculture (including the guitarist Carlos Santana) read Demian as a manifesto.

In Siddhartha (1922) – one of the most popular novels ever written about Buddhism – the eponymous protagonist seeks an enlightened way of life. Wandering through ancient India, he experiments with both spartan asceticism and luxurious hedonism. Eventually, he finds spiritual wisdom by contemplating the flow of a great river. Siddhartha is gentler than Demian, but it carries the same spirit. Pursuing enlightenment, Siddhartha cannot even submit to the teachings of the Buddha himself. ‘Wisdom,’ he says, ‘is not communicable’; it is only discoverable. ‘A true seeker,’ he declares, ‘could not accept any teachings.’ Siddhartha’s restless seeking ends when the flow of the river reveals to him that – behind the veil of Maya, behind the illusory nature of all dualities – there exists a ‘unity of all things’.

Siddhartha has sent who knows how many backpackers to India. I have a sharp memory of reading the novel’s final chapters while sunset waned over a beach in Kerala. The mosquitoes were eating me alive but I needed to know how Siddhartha had done it. (I liked the idea that the hedonism could be enlightening, and was less keen on the asceticism thing.) Barely out of my teens, mine was the same urge as the counterculture’s: to uncover some transcendent and technicolour truth that everyone else was too lifeless to care about, and have it set my soul ablaze.

Down in the weird waters of consciousness, it is only ourselves who can go wading through our selves

Hesse is not a great stylist. His prose is plain. His novels are ponderous, thinly plotted, often didactic, occasionally corny, and entirely without humour. But none of this really matters, because what has drawn decades of readers to Hesse is not his writing, but his advocacy of the self-realisation project. The idea that Hesse’s books are a manual for inner discovery has long been their core appeal – an appeal that means his novels persist as half literature, and half self-help. Yes, you will still find Hesse on the shelves of many a refined bookstore, a row or two below his hero, Goethe. But you will also find him mixed in with Paulo Coelho and Kahlil Gibran in those small and incense-dim bookshops where you headbutt a dreamcatcher while trying to find some cash in your pocket.

In their best moments, Hesse’s novels contain glimpses of real wisdom. For example: he perceived, accurately, that most of us stumble from adolescence into adulthood in possession of selves that are half-formed, unexamined and buffeted by the winds of the world. Though nowadays Jungian analysis carries a pungent whiff of pseudoscience, the inner chambers of the self remain a place where the searchlight of science begins to dim and flicker. Down in the weird waters of consciousness, it is only ourselves who can go wading through our selves. Hesse communicated clearly the value of sharpening our powers of self-perception. And his unwavering commitment to the individual mind, all forms of collectivism be damned, inoculated him against both the ‘phony-patriotic psychosis’ of the First World War, and ‘that stupid ass Hitler’.

Perhaps, above all, Hesse’s preoccupation with the shadow remains valuable. In Steppenwolf, the protagonist Harry Haller is drawn to the comforts of a bourgeois existence. But he also loathes ‘this carefully preserved optimism of the middle classes, this fat and prosperous brood of mediocrity’. Alienated from society and suicidally dejected, Haller begins to accept those parts of himself that, previously, he couldn’t bring himself to examine. His bitterness starts to fade. This journey mirrors that of all Hesse protagonists. Whenever they manage a psychic breakthrough, it results from confronting, unflinchingly, their shadow – those corners of their being that are dark, shameful and cruel.

Much modern self-improvement comes down to various forms of pampering, but Hesse’s novels remind us that the real work involves squaring up to the bits of ourselves that we want to ignore. ‘When we hate someone we are hating something that is within ourselves, in his image,’ reads a line in Demian. Every Hesse protagonist learns the truth that knowing thyself can sting.

And yet, the legacy of Hesse’s unwavering self-regard reveals the very thing that his characters dedicate their lives to demolishing: a duality. There exists a long and circular debate over whether a person’s ideas can be divorced from how they lived. For most non-academic readers, they can’t, or at least not fully. It matters that Jean-Jacques Rousseau tried to teach readers about compassion, having abandoned his five children to an orphanage. It matters that George Orwell wrote about the dangers of totalitarianism, and then went to Spain to fight fascism with his own two hands. And in the case of an author who dedicated his career to penning a string of ‘soul biographies’, it seems reasonable to ask: did those thousands of hours of intense self-scrutiny yield some sort of significant change in that author’s real life?

Unfortunately, what Hesse’s biographer Gunnar Decker described as the author’s ‘boundless egotism’ never waned. A large proportion of Hesse’s letters are occupied by entitled ruminations and a pervasive short-temperedness. According to Decker in Hesse: The Wanderer and His Shadow (2018), Hesse was often ‘unable to stand anyone being near him’. Any time a practical thing was required of him, it registered with Hesse as an imposition from a mediocre world that was forever trying to thwart the pressing task of his self-realisation. Hesse headed off for a weeks-long ‘rest cure’ every year, regardless of whether the people in his life could have used his help. He railed against material trappings, but constantly tapped up his Swiss patrons to help pay the bills.

Hesse’s treatment of the people who cared about him was consistently callous. A few weeks after the birth of his third son, he was on a passenger liner bound for the Orient, off to pursue self-realisation while his stressed, depressed wife took care of the newborn. Hesse was so perpetually irritated by his third wife that they communicated via ‘house-letters’ so that the silence of the author’s study was never disturbed. Hesse’s constant gaslighting, angry outbursts and moody silences helped tip her toward suicidal depression. In the mid-1940s, Hesse bombarded his publisher, Peter Suhrkamp, with complaints about delays. Suhrkamp had a decent excuse for the delays: following 10 months in concentration camps, he was suffering from repeated paralysis of both his legs and from recurrent bouts of pneumonia. But speaking of the artistic doubts that had been plaguing him in his rural corner of war-less Switzerland, Hesse told Suhrkamp that ‘you can have no idea of the hell that I have been living in’.

Hesse’s growth was a sort of mirror. It never cared to engage the wider world

I know it can register as a bit unseemly, this picking over a man’s private conduct, long after he has died. This isn’t meant as some cheap call-out. Hesse is hardly the first artist to be guilty of narcissism or immaturity. He is certainly not the first man to mistreat the women in his life. And he likely possessed what we would today classify as some form of bipolar disorder.

But the record of Hesse’s conduct in the world begs the question: what was it all for? Generations of readers have been fired up by his conviction that we need to examine our inner selves, and evolve, and transform. However, Hesse seems to have remained remarkably unchanged throughout his entire adult life. A self-obsessed curmudgeon in 1900; a self-obsessed curmudgeon in 1960. A person can be however he wants, but this is an author who had essentially one theme: personal growth.

For Hesse, this growth doesn’t appear to have conferred on him any responsibilities to the wider world. Indeed, though his individualism shielded his mind from the pull of Nazi groupthink, it also didn’t inspire him to any acts of resistance. Through the years of butchering, Hesse cultivated a ‘politics of detachment’. He made some careful gestures, such as reviewing Jewish authors. But his actions were timid enough that his novels evaded the Reich censors until 1943. Fellow German authors condemned Hesse for refusing to openly criticise the Nazis, and for seeing out the war in the ‘aristocratic seclusion’ of rural Switzerland. Georg Bernhard, editor of a leading Nazi opposition newspaper in France, called Hesse a ‘fig-leaf for the Third Reich’.

Would I have been braver? I’d like to think so, though I can’t know for sure. The point is that all of Hesse’s growth was a sort of mirror. It never cared to engage the wider world. Above all, Hesse just wanted to be left alone. In 1943, he was working on The Glass Bead Game, a serene, utopian sci-fi novel that venerates the art of devoted self-development. That year, with Europe a fiery slaughterhouse, he told his son that the novel-in-progress offered him ‘a totally pristine world which I could inhabit, completely free of all immediate concerns’.

‘Only one kōan matters,’ wrote Ikkyū, a 15th-century Zen poet: ‘You.’ Hesse would have agreed, and his life and work offer us a study of devoted self-regard.

To a degree, Ikkyū is right. If you remain too much of a mystery to yourself, you will rebound and ricochet through life with no sense of how the thing you call you is producing your life. Hesse was a passionate advocate of brutal self-examination, and for that his work remains valuable.

We would all do well to coax out our shadow, to try to spark whatever inner alchemy we’re capable of. The hippies believed that there was something in them, glittering, waiting to be unleashed. They found a kindred spirit in Hesse. Hesse grabbed me too, when I was 19 and late to the hippie party – when I thought that the right combination of guitar solos, magic mushrooms and earnest journalling would any moment coalesce into the big abracadabra, and there would be no more secrets, no more ticking clocks.

But ultimately, Hesse’s life and work are also a warning. They demonstrate how ruminating on the possibility of self-actualisation can become a mental quicksand. It is dangerous to cease calibrating yourself to the effect that you’re having on the world beyond your skull. It’s all too easy to confuse the rumination with the growth itself. Many hippies, even with enormous hearts in more or less the right places, made – make – a version of this mistake. At some point, the self-development has to be a means, not an end.

His novels sag with the clammy feeling of a man trading the hell of other people for the melodrama of his own mind

Psychologised narcissism is still narcissism. Spiritual narcissism is still narcissism. We see this with Hesse, who in both his life and his fiction is captivated by his own feelings. This, I think, is why he persists today as one of those authors whose biggest fans are almost exclusively young. In his ‘soul biographies’, Hesse never seems to escape that impression, so redolent of adolescence, that one’s own feelings are powerfully unique in both form and scale. Unrelentingly beatific about one’s capacity for compassion; unrelentingly despondent at one’s capacity for despair. In 1955, Hesse expressed annoyance ‘at schoolboys reading and enthusing over Steppenwolf; after all, the fact is that I wrote this book shortly before my 50th birthday.’ But like all his novels, the emotional tenor of Steppenwolf is more befitting a schoolboy than a middle-aged man. The sense that one is amorphously rejected by the world; that one’s own perception of things is sharper than everyone else’s but oh-so-lonely – this is the self-absorbed mood of youthful angst. There is something beautiful and right about this phase of being; but it does possess a special sort of solipsism that mature people eventually learn to ration. All of Hesse’s protagonists are, in their creator’s image, spectacularly self-absorbed. The years during which I most enjoyed Hesse were the years during which I was at my most spectacularly self-absorbed.

Mark Harman, a translator of Hesse’s letters, told me that ‘although Hesse rebelled against his Pietist parents, he retained some of their core values.’ Above all, Hesse never got out from under the Pietist axiom that things of the here-and-now – as opposed to things of a transcendent, coming place – are fallen, rotten from the get-go. This is the main way in which the hippies – who had zero hangups about the pleasures of the senses – misread Hesse. In Hesse’s approach to writing and to life, he recapitulated that old religious idea: that the mental is nobler than the material. Describing his discovery of writing in childhood, Hesse recalled a joy at how it let him feel ‘detached from the world, and untouched’. To him, writing was a cocoon of the blessedly immaterial. The subterranean caves of the self were somewhere he could clamber through and shelter from the daylight up above. Whenever Hesse did engage with the upper realm, it was always at a distance. He spent his later years in his quiet cottage writing 150 pages of letters to strangers every single day – while a sign hung on his front gate saying: ‘No Visitors, please.’

Ultimately, Hesse’s search for wisdom forces us to confront a crucial question: do you prefer your soul, or the world? ‘Let us turn our gaze inward,’ says a character in The Glass Bead Game, ‘then we will have discovered the universe incarnate.’ Hesse’s novels sag with a heavy hermeticism, the clammy feeling of a man trading the hell of other people for the melodrama of his own mind. Perhaps, like Hesse, you believe that self-knowledge is most valuable when it works in secret, wearing the silken sheen of pure thought. Give me my silence, my cave, my texts. But against this there is the opposite view: life is lived in concert with other souls, or else it is a desolation. You get better at loving, or else you are losing.

Novels such as Demian, Siddhartha, Steppenwolf and The Glass Bead Game contain real insights. The world’s wise have all, like Hesse, attempted to take a sharp shovel to the cracked earth of their character. But taken as a whole, Hesse’s work and life demonstrate that self-examination is a tightrope. We can take Hesse’s writings, and see what can be seen, down at those depths of self-exploration. Perhaps we can gather some directions, for our own searches. But if the messy, fleshy world of other souls matters to you, then pluck the pearls and surface once again. In this life, the inward gaze will take you only halfway.

By M M Owen / is a British nonfiction author and chief technical writer at Studio Mistfit. He obtained his PhD at the University of British Columbia.

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