Wednesday, May 18, 2011


The work of Hermann Hesse has been more influential on my fiction than I sometimes publicly admit. Literary scholars seldom recognize this connection, and I've never bothered to fully explain it, allowing them to emphasize instead the influence of my black American predecessors like Ellison (or John Gardner), as they wished to do. 
However, during my student days, whenever I became interested in a writer, I binged on his work, buying and reading everything in print with his name on it. So in my library I have everything published by and about John Gardner, the complete works of Charles Dickens (an edition from the 1920s), all the published work of Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, Jean Toomer, a full set of works by Mark Twain, and everything by D.H. Lawrence---the novels, short stories, essays, correspondence, poetry, and critical studies of those writers. Immersing myself in a single writer's entire oeuvre that way allowed me to see their performances at their best and not so best, and that's a good way for a young writer to unlock the mysteries of their techniques, style, and their individual visions. It also serves one well when called upon to write critically about their work.

So it was with Hermann Hesse when I was an undergraduate and translations of his work were very popular with young people on college campuses in the 1960s and '70s. A friend in philosophy gave me a copy of Demian, which I found to be only mildly interesting at the time. But that led me to Siddhartha, which connected perfectly with my own passion for Buddhism and eastern thought. It was a novel that haunted me because Hesse was working with one of the greatest philosophical stories ever told in human experience, in the East or the West: the life of Shakyamuni Buddha, an archetypal, spiritual adventure and quest for liberation. (Thomas Mann, Hesse's friend, also attempted an imaginative "journey to the east" in his story The Transposed Heads: A Tale of India, but I found this foray into eastern thought far less satisfactory than Hesse's work.) Siddhartha haunted me for years and years. I knew I had to respond to it from a black American perspective, and so I did in Oxherding Tale.

But Siddhartha is only one expression of Hesse's vision, albeit the most famous for American readers along with Steppenwolf; I found the others equally fascinating, and realized much of his spiritual probings (and sources) were similar to my own, in addition to his interest in exploring different literary forms like the bundesroman in The Journey to the East, and künstlerroman, the novel of an artist’s growth to maturity in Narcissus and Goldmund. (As a younger man, I read and reread the excellent critical study by Theodore Ziolkowski, The Novels of Hermann Hesse: A Study in Theme and Structure, and often refer to it today.)

For example, in Faith and the Good Thing, when the protagonist Faith Cross contrasts the "magical thinking" of her storytelling father Todd to the materialistic and deterministic visions of the other men she encounters in that novel, "magical thinking" is a direct reference to a phrase by Hesse. And "magical thinking," an alternative to the reductive scientism that so troubled phenomenologist Edmund Husserl and others in the early 20th century, lead Hesse---as it did me---to the possibilities of the tale as one of the ancestral forms of fiction that free writers and readers from the constraints of a naive naturalism (Faith, for example, is told as a black American folk tale), a form that permits greater exploration of spiritual questions. (See The Fairy Tales of Hermann Hesse, trans. by Jack Zipes, Bantam Books, 1995.)

Thus at the end of Magister Ludi (aka "The Glass Bead Game"), which locked down Hesse's Noble prize for literature, we find poems and stories supposedly written by that novel's protagonist. One final, longish story, "The Indian Life," was inspired by a Hindu legend. Since I figured Hesse did not own that legend, I wrote my own version of it in "The Gift of the Osuo."

I could go on and on with these deliberate comparisons: for example, an existentialist speech by Chaym Smith in Chapter Five of Dreamer that echoes one in Demian; or one by the character Wendy Barnes in my story "Alethia" that is indebted to Hesse. But I've always been content to let literary scholars make these discoveries on their own. And if they don't? Well, that's OK, too.

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