Pure signal.

Hermann Hesse: Life and Art by Joseph Mileck

Jospeh Mileck is a fine biographer, but he has no sensitivity whatsoever to poetry. His scholarship is excellent — cataloging variants of manuscripts, listing biographical details, collating primary documents — and he provides a fantastic list of sources and notes for the deeply curious to pursue on their own terms. The biography is worth reading for all of these things — but it would have been much better had he not tried to interpret Hesse’s writing. He would be a good interpreter for Eliot or Pound, who consciously use symbols almost as words — to indicate specific thoughts — but Hesse is someone who writes primarily from feelings and Mileck seems unable to resist the temptation to turn symbolic relationships into allegorical ones. His abuse of Hesse’s written works is tolerable until he get’s to Damian, which he mauls and makes ugly. I have read the book perhaps 100 times, and to claim, for instance, that  Damian is nothing more than a pure allegorical substitution for the Socratic Damian is pure heavy handed abuse. Damian is powerful because it is a fable, certainly, but like a fable (and in a manner which Hesse gives us the key to in his description of the art of sculpture in Narcissus and Goldmund) it draws it’s life from ambiguous characters who are first of all — characters. In this Mileck reminds me of 19th century mythologists who protest that the actions in fairy tales are unlikely, or impossible. As if that was saying anything new or significant.

Where he fails with Damien, he triumphs in his explication of Klein und Wagner which is passionate, immediate and brilliant. His closeness to the facts of Hesse’s biography unlock a tale which is very close to psychological realism — and this raises an interesting question: Does spiritualization obfuscate understanding? Because Hesse is asking the same question that Milek is asking (Who is Hesse?) and while Damien is one very beautiful and coherent answer to that question, it is a fable. As a fable does it obscure precious detail which might in fact contain the answer to the question Hesse is asking? I want to be delicate with this question — because it contains an indictment of art and poetry the consequences of which I am not sure I am comfortable with. Which doesn’t prevent the question from being there.

Where Milick’s diligence truly pays off is is explication of Steppenwolf. He fails miserably with Siddhartha, which he seems to hold himself above and experience as a treatise on religious or philosophical ideas and (as with Damien) completely misses the significance of the work, but then turns around and skillfully exposes all of the magicians tricks in creating Harry Hallar — right down to the factual existence of the mirrored ball of the costume ball at the climax, and the identity of Hermine (Julia Laubi-Honegger). He also makes a significant point about drug use, which seems to be suggested in Stepenwolf — that hallucinogenic drugs were around at the time, but that Hesse describes hallucinogenic experiences far earlier than this — in short that drugs were available, but that he wouldn’t have needed them.

The inability of Milick to follow Hesse into his magic theater when he goes (the world inhabited by Damien and Siddhartha) illustrates an interesting fact about Hesse — that he is writing about his experiences — he is not a philosopher discussing ideas — he is living his subject matter. His world weariness is not an intellectual affect, it is felt, as is his passion. This is what gives Hesse his depth — one cannot just think one’s way to the bottom of his works — he is calling us on a journey. The journey can be thought about for sure, and this may even deepen it, but ultimately it is an experiential journey, and it must be experienced as an experiment, as a risk. If you do not posses courage, then Hesse will have very little to offer you.

Mikick’s complete otherness to Hesse is shown in a single sentence: “He realizes that the woman whom he has imagined to be his kindred soul and more is nothing other than a common harlot.” — it is impossible to imagine Hesse making this statement or judgment. Milick belongs almost completely to the bourgeois world rejected by every one of Hesse’s characters. It is astonishing that this sentence would have survived the editing process, it is so utterly tone deaf to everything in Hesse’s work. It is almost simpering — pathetic.

When we get to the Glass Bead Game I think the basic flaw in Milick’s approach becomes clear — he sees Hesse on his return leg of the hero’s journey and mistakenly thinks that the point was that the journey was never worth taking. There is a reason that the Glass Bead Game is the central symbol of the book — but Milick wants to see in it only a sterile diversion. Like many English majors I have known look at math — some kind of formal virtuosity which can only attract deviant obsession — but Hesse clearly sees more in the game — just as he clearly (as Milick correctly and clearly shows) also experiences an ethical awakening and a recognition of the importance of life as life. While Milick does get so much of Hesse so right — he does not understand the real significance of Hesse’s inward world. He does not understand the personal and completely asocial component of enlightenment — he only sees the part that points back to the world, and that is because he himself has never left the world — he stands at the edge of the town and looks into the forest in disapproval of irresponsibility and selfishness and sex and visions. He is the good citizen who as Hesse warns us, in his heart hates the vagabond.

Where I am critical of Mileck’s poetical understanding of Hesse let there be no doubt that the biography itself, where it does not try to interpret Hesse’s work, is extraordinary. Mileck is a careful scholar who collates, fact checks and draws connections and confirms them. But if your soul has been touched by Hesse — trust that and not Mileck’s observations as to questions of meaning.


November 18, 2008 - Posted by | Uncategorized

1 Comment »

  1. I just read the biography and I find your points very interesting. Although I felt that Mileck’s interpretations were sometimes too neat and systematic, and that the way they were presented lacked poetry, I’m not sure its fair to say that he doesn’t have any sensitivity to poetry. I don’t think anyone such as Mr. Mileck who has shown such interest in and dedication to Hesse’s work can be impervious to the poetry in Hesse’s works. I would rather think that he chose to write a treatise that emphasizes the consistency and clear purposiveness of Hesse’s major writings, albeit at the expense of the beauty of the detail. On the other hand, I think you have a point that his systematic presentation seems to work better for some of the works than others. I personally agree with Mileck that Steppenwolf and the Glass Bead Game were his greatest works, but I can see that if one has been inspired by Demian or Siddhartha that Mileck’s interpretation will leave one cold. One notion I was puzzled by in your comment is the notion that ‘Hesse is not a philosopher discussing ideas’. I certainly agree (as Mr. Mileck so clearly explained) that Hesse was passionate about and lived through much of the identity struggles he wrote about; but one of the attractions to Hesse’s writing is the profound engagement with religion and philosophy one finds in it — in a personal, not an academic sense in the manner of Nietzsche (Tegularius). In any event, I appreciate your points. Although Mr. Mileck has given me a greater understanding of Hesse’s work than I had before, I too was struck by the almost stridently linear (my way of saying non-poetic) tone. I could not have written a tome called Hermann Hesse Life and Art without presenting numerous quotations from the works themselves. The author’s sense of purpose is made clear, but his voice does not shine through.

    Comment by Buddenbrook2010 | April 14, 2010 | Reply

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