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Hermann Hesse on Solitude, the Value of Hardship, the Courage to Be Yourself, and How to Find Your Destiny

“Solitude is not chosen, any more than destiny is chosen. Solitude comes to us if we have within us the magic stone that attracts destiny.”

Hermann Hesse on Solitude, the Value of Hardship, the Courage to Be Yourself, and How to Find Your Destiny

“No one can build you the bridge on which you, and only you, must cross the river of life,” the young Nietzsche wrote as he contemplated what it takes to find oneself. Somehow, this man of stark contradiction, cycling between nihilistic despondency and electric buoyancy along the rim of madness, has managed to inspire some of humanity’s most surefooted spirits — among them, the great German poet, novelist, painter, and Nobel laureate Hermann Hesse (July 2, 1877–August 9, 1962), who drew from Nietzsche’s philosophy the most humanistic ideas, then magnified them with his own transcendent humanity.

Some of Hesse’s most emboldening ideas about our human responsibility to ourselves and the world unfold in his “Letter to a Young German,” written to a dispirited youth in 1919 and later included in his 1946 anthology If the War Goes On… (public library), published the year he received the Nobel Prize — the same stirring piece that gave us Hesse on hope, the difficult art of taking responsibility, and the wisdom of the inner voice.

Hermann Hesse

Decades before E.E. Cummings asserted that “to be nobody-but-yourself — in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else — means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight,” Hesse writes:

You must unlearn the habit of being someone else or nothing at all, of imitating the voices of others and mistaking the faces of others for your own.

[…]

One thing is given to man which makes him into a god, which reminds him that he is a god: to know destiny.

[…]

When destiny comes to a man from outside, it lays him low, just as an arrow lays a deer low. When destiny comes to a man from within, from his innermost being, it makes him strong, it makes him into a god… A man who has recognized his destiny never tries to change it. The endeavor to change destiny is a childish pursuit that makes men quarrel and kill one another… All sorrow, poison, and death are alien, imposed destiny. But every true act, everything that is good and joyful and fruitful on earth, is lived destiny, destiny that has become self.

Echoing Nietzsche’s insistence that a fulfilling life requires embracing rather than running from difficulty, Hesse exhorts the young to treat their suffering with respect and curiosity, and adds:

Might your bitter pain not be the voice of destiny, might that voice not become sweet once you understand it?

[…]

Action and suffering, which together make up our lives, are a whole; they are one. A child suffers its begetting, it suffers its birth, its weaning; it suffers here and suffers there until in the end it suffers death. But all the good in a man, for which he is praised or loved, is merely good suffering, the right kind, the living kind of suffering, a suffering to the full. The ability to suffer well is more than half of life — indeed, it is all life. Birth is suffering, growth is suffering, the seed suffers the earth, the root suffers the rain, the bud suffers its flowering.

In the same way, my friends, man suffers destiny. Destiny is earth, it is rain and growth. Destiny hurts.

Long before Simone Weil contemplated how to make use of our suffering, Hesse holds up hardship as “the forge of destiny” and adds:

It is hard to learn to suffer. Women succeed more often and more nobly than men. Learn from them! Learn to listen when the voice of life speaks! Learn to look when the sun of destiny plays with your shadows! Learn to respect life! Learn to respect yourselves! From suffering springs strength…

Writing fifteen years after he made his exquisite case for breaking the trance of busyness, Hesse returns to the sandbox of selfhood — solitude:

True action, good and radiant action, my friends, does not spring from activity, from busy bustling, it does not spring from industrious hammering. It grows in the solitude of the mountains, it grows on the summits where silence and danger dwell. It grows out of the suffering which you have not yet learned to suffer.

[…]

Solitude is the path over which destiny endeavors to lead man to himself. Solitude is the path that men most fear. A path fraught with terrors, where snakes and toads lie in wait… Without solitude there is no suffering, without solitude there is no heroism. But the solitude I have in mind is not the solitude of the blithe poets or of the theater, where the fountain bubbles so sweetly at the mouth of the hermit’s cave.

Photograph by Maria Popova

Learning to be nourished by solitude rather than defeated by it, Hesse argues, is a prerequisite for taking charge of our destiny:

Most men, the herd, have never tasted solitude. They leave father and mother, but only to crawl to a wife and quietly succumb to new warmth and new ties. They are never alone, they never commune with themselves. And when a solitary man crosses their path, they fear him and hate him like the plague; they fling stones at him and find no peace until they are far away from him. The air around him smells of stars, of cold stellar spaces; he lacks the soft warm fragrance of the home and hatchery.

[…]

A man must be indifferent to the possibility of falling, if he wants to taste of solitude and to face up to his own destiny. It is easier and sweeter to walk with a people, with a multitude — even through misery. It is easier and more comforting to devote oneself to the “tasks” of the day, the tasks meted out by the collectivity.

In a sentiment the poet May Sarton would echo in her stunning ode to solitude two decades later, Hesse adds:

Solitude is not chosen, any more than destiny is chosen. Solitude comes to us if we have within us the magic stone that attracts destiny.

Photograph by Maria Popova

Two millennia after Seneca admonished that “all your sorrows have been wasted on you if you have not yet learned how to be wretched,” Hesse exults:

Blessed be he who has found his solitude, not the solitude pictured in painting or poetry, but his own, unique, predestined solitude. Blessed be he who knows how to suffer! Blessed be he who bears the magic stone in his heart. To him comes destiny, from him comes authentic action.

In consonance with Seamus Heaney’s lyrical insight that “the true and durable path into and through experience involves being true… to your own solitude, true to your own secret knowledge,” Hesse addresses the young:

You were made to be yourselves. You were made to enrich the world with a sound, a tone, a shadow.

[…]

In each one of you there is a hidden being, still in the deep sleep of childhood. Bring it to life! In each one of you there is a call, a will, an impulse of nature, an impulse toward the future, the new, the higher. Let it mature, let it resound, nurture it! Your future is not this or that; it is not money or power, it is not wisdom or success at your trade — your future, your hard dangerous path is this: to mature and to find God in yourselves.

A century later, the entire piece remains a spectacular and deeply insightful read, as does the whole of Hesse’s If the War Goes On…. Complement this particular fragment with Ursula K. Le Guin on suffering and the other side of pain, Louise Bourgeois on how solitude enriches creative work and Elizabeth Bishop on why everyone should experience at least one long period of solitude in life, then revisit Hesse on the discipline of savoring life’s little joys, why books will survive all future technology, the three types of readers, and what trees teach us about belonging and life.

BP

Hermann Hesse on Hope, the Difficult Art of Taking Responsibility, and the Wisdom of the Inner Voice

“If you are now wondering where to look for consolation, where to seek a new and better God… he does not come to us from books, he lives within us… This God is in you too. He is most particularly in you, the dejected and despairing.”

Hermann Hesse on Hope, the Difficult Art of Taking Responsibility, and the Wisdom of the Inner Voice

“Character — the willingness to accept responsibility for one’s own life — is the source from which self-respect springs,” Joan Didion wrote in her timeless essay on self-respect. And yet this willingness does not come naturally to the human animal. We glance left and right, we peer above and below, placing the responsibility for our suffering everywhere but at the center of our own being. We treat the unhandsome consequences of our actions as something that happens to us, at us, by some wretched external causality. In the process, the tick of our self-righteousness grows fatter and fatter on bloodthirsty blame.

The great German poet, novelist, and painter Hermann Hesse (July 2, 1877–August 9, 1962) offered an antidote to this all too human tendency in one of his least known pieces of writing, composed as the world was coming back to consciousness after the First World War.

The war had violently ejected Hesse from the exultations of his youth. But he never lost his idealism — he became an impassioned advocate for pacifism and its wellspring in the mindfulness of individuals. Over the next three decades, through the aftermath of one devastating war and the harrowing actuality of another, Hesse composed a series of remarkable, clear-minded, largehearted essays, letters, and pamphlets condemning his compatriots for the unthinking herd mentality that had allowed Hitler’s rise to power and inviting what he saw as the only salvation for them: a new ethos of responsibility, beginning at the personal level upon which the political rests. He was especially invested in invigorating the young — the next generations who had inherited a burden not their own and upon whose shoulders the task of redemption fell with spirit-crushing weight.

Hermann Hesse

These pieces were eventually collected in 1946 — the year Hesse received the Nobel Prize — and later published as If the War Goes On… (public library). Among them is the stirring “Letter to a Young German,” written to a dispirited youth in 1919 — a decade before the publication of Rilke’s almost spiritual classic Letters to a Young Poet, and brimming with kindred consolation for the transcendent traumas of living. This was a momentous year for Hesse. Having recently lost his marriage to the fallout of his wife’s acute mental illness, he had just left Berlin to settle alone in a small farmhouse in Switzerland. WWI had just ended, having begun as “the war to end all wars,” instead netting millions of deaths and laying the gruesome groundwork for future genocides. That year, Hesse signed Romain Rolland’s Declaration of the Independence of the Mind — the extraordinary manifesto for critical thinking and pacifism, co-signed by such luminaries as Albert Einstein, Bertrand Russell, Rabindranath Tagore, Jane Addams, and Upton Sinclair.

Hesse addresses his despairing young correspondent while himself perched on this precipice between optimism and despair. Three years before Bertrand Russell made his timeless case for what he termed “the will to doubt,” Hesse writes:

You write me that you are in despair and do not know what to believe, what to hope. You do not know whether or not there is a God. You do not know whether or not life has any meaning, whether or not love of country has a meaning, whether, in the wretched condition of the world, it is better to strive for spiritual goods or merely to fill your belly.

I believe your state of mind and soul to be the right one. Not to know whether there is a God, not to know whether there is good and evil, is far better than to know for sure.

More than half a century before Jacob Bronowski admonished against the dark side of certainty, Hesse offers a sobering antidote to the destructive self-righteousness our certitudes delude us into:

Five years ago, if you remember, I should say you were pretty well convinced there was a God, and above all you had no doubt as to what was good and what was evil. Naturally you did what you thought was good and marched off to war. For five years now, the best years of your youth, you have kept on doing “good”: you have fired a gun, gone over the top, lounged about in barracks and mud holes, buried comrades or bandaged their wounds. And little by little you began to doubt the good, to suspect that the good and glorious occupation you were engaged in was fundamentally evil, or at the very least stupid and absurd.

And so it was. Evidently the good you were so sure of at the time was not the right good, the good that is indestructible and timeless; and evidently the God you knew in those days was not the right God… Hundreds of thousands of bloody battle sacrifices were offered up to him, and in his honor hundreds of thousands of bellies were slit open, hundreds of thousands of lungs torn to pieces; he was more bloodthirsty and brutal than any idol…

Illustration by Olivier Tallec from Waterloo and Trafalgar

With an eye to the tragic human tendency toward perpetrating wrong under the trance of self-righteousness — a tendency as devastating in the personal realm as it is in the political — he holds up a discomfiting mirror to the self-righteous:

Has anyone stopped to consider, and to wonder at the fact, that in those four years of war our theologians buried their own religion, their own Christianity? Committed to the service of love, they preached hatred; committed to the service of mankind, they mistook for mankind the authorities who paid them.

Decades before James Baldwin observed that “it has always been much easier (because it has always seemed much safer) to give a name to the evil without than to locate the terror within” and a century before Anne Lamott admonished against how self-righteousness syphons self-respect, Hesse contemplates “the disastrous art of putting the blame on others when we are in trouble” and exhorts for personal responsibility over self-righteous blamefulness:

We are all of us equally guilty and innocent of the fact that our faith was so weak and our officially patented God so ruthless, that we were so incapable of distinguishing war and peace, good and evil. You and I, the Kaiser and the priest, all played a part; we have no call to accuse one another.

[…]

It is childish and stupid to ask whether this one or that one is guilty. I propose that for one short hour we ask ourselves instead: “What about myself? What has been my share of the guilt? When have I been too loudmouthed, too arrogant, too credulous, too boastful? What is there in me that may have helped… all the illusions that have so suddenly collapsed?”

Echoing Emerson’s foundational ideas about nonconformity and self-reliance“Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string,” the Sage of Concord, whom Hesse read and greatly admired, had written in the previous century — Hesse offers his young correspondent the only real and reliable source of comfort:

If you are now wondering where to look for consolation, where to seek a new and better God, a new and better faith, you will surely realize, in your present loneliness and despair, that this time you must not look to external, official sources, to Bibles, pulpits, or thrones, for enlightenment. Nor to me. You can find it only in yourself. And there it is, there dwells the God who is higher and more selfless… The sages of all time have proclaimed him, but he does not come to us from books, he lives within us, and all our knowledge of him is worthless unless he opens our inner eye. This God is in you too. He is most particularly in you, the dejected and despairing… Search where you may, no prophet or teacher can relieve you of the need to look within… Don’t confine yourself… to any other prophet or guide. Our mission is not to instruct you, to make things easier for you, to show you the way. Our mission is solely to remind you that there is a God and only one God; he dwells in your hearts, and it is there that you must seek him out and speak with him.

To hear and heed that inner voice — the sound-minded, pure-hearted critical thinking unmuffled by the shriek of self-righteousness, unlulled by herd mentality, unsullied by external manipulation or internal self-delusion — is perhaps the most consistent challenge we face throughout our lives, playing out in myriad forms across every realm of existence.

Complement with E.B. White’s lovely letter to a man who had lost faith in humanity and Seamus Heaney’s splendid advice to the young, then revisit Hesse on why we read and always will, the three types of readers, savoring the little joys of life, and what trees teach us about belonging and life.

BP

Hermann Hesse on Little Joys, Breaking the Trance of Busyness, and the Most Important Habit for Living with Presence

“The high value put upon every minute of time, the idea of hurry-hurry as the most important objective of living, is unquestionably the most dangerous enemy of joy.”

Hermann Hesse on Little Joys, Breaking the Trance of Busyness, and the Most Important Habit for Living with Presence

“Of all ridiculous things the most ridiculous seems to me, to be busy — to be a man who is brisk about his food and his work,” Kierkegaard admonished in 1843 as he contemplated our greatest source of unhappiness. It’s a sobering sentiment against the backdrop of modern life, where the cult of busyness and productivity plays out as the chief drama of our existence — a drama we persistently lament as singular to our time. We reflexively blame on the Internet our corrosive compulsion for doing at the cost of being, forgetting that every technology is a symptom and not, or at least not at first, a cause of our desires and pathologies. Our intentions are the basic infrastructure of our lives, out of which all of our inventions and actions arise. Any real relief from our self-inflicted maladies, therefore, must come not from combatting the symptoms but from inquiring into and rewiring the causes that have tilted the human spirit toward those pathologies — causes as evident to Kierkegaard long ago as to any contemporary person who crumbles into bed at night having completed the day’s lengthy to-do list yet feeling like a thoroughly incomplete human being.

How to heal that aching spirit is what Hermann Hesse (July 2, 1877–August 9, 1962) addresses in a spectacular 1905 essay titled “On Little Joys,” found in My Belief: Essays on Life and Art (public library) — the out-of-print treasure that gave us the beloved writer and Nobel laureate on the three types of readers and why the book will never lose its magic.

More than a century before our present whirlpool of streaming urgencies, Hesse writes:

Great masses of people these days live out their lives in a dull and loveless stupor. Sensitive persons find our inartistic manner of existence oppressive and painful, and they withdraw from sight… I believe what we lack is joy. The ardor that a heightened awareness imparts to life, the conception of life as a happy thing, as a festival… But the high value put upon every minute of time, the idea of hurry-hurry as the most important objective of living, is unquestionably the most dangerous enemy of joy.

Decades before the German philosopher Josef Pieper made his prescient case for liberating leisure and human dignity from the clutch of workaholism, Hesse laments how modern life’s “aggressive haste” — and what a perfect phrase that is — has “done away with what meager leisure we had.” He writes:

Our ways of enjoying ourselves are hardly less irritating and nerve-racking than the pressure of our work. “As much as possible, as fast as possible” is the motto. And so there is more and more entertainment and less and less joy… This morbid pursuit of enjoyment [is] spurred on by constant dissatisfaction and yet perpetually satiated.

Noting that he doesn’t have a silver bullet for the problem, Hesse offers:

I would simply like to reclaim an old and, alas, quite unfashionable private formula: Moderate enjoyment is double enjoyment. And: Do not overlook the little joys!

A century before psychoanalyst Adam Phillips made his compelling case for the art of missing out and the paradoxical value of our unlived lives, Hesse considers what moderation looks like in the face of seemingly unlimited possibilities for what to do with one’s time, and although the options available have changed in the hundred-some years since, the principle still holds with a firm grip:

In certain circles [moderation] requires courage to miss a première. In wider circles it takes courage not to have read a new publication several weeks after its appearance. In the widest circles of all, one is an object of ridicule if one has not read the daily paper. But I know people who feel no regret at exercising this courage.

Let not the man* who subscribes to a weekly theater series feel that he is losing something if he makes use of it only every other week. I guarantee: he will gain.

Let anyone who is accustomed to looking at a great many pictures in an exhibition try just once, if he is still capable of it, spending an hour or more in front of a single masterpiece and content himself with that for the day. He will be the gainer by it.

Let the omnivorous reader try the same sort of thing. Sometimes he will be annoyed at not being able to join in conversation about some publication; occasionally he will cause smiles. But soon he will know better and do the smiling himself. And let any man who cannot bring himself to use any other kind of restraint try to make a habit of going to bed at ten o’clock at least once a week. He will be amazed at how richly this small sacrifice of time and pleasure will be rewarded.

Learning this difference between binging on stimulation and savoring enjoyment in small doses, Hesse argues, is what sets part those who live with a sense of fulfillment from those who romp through life perpetually dissatisfied. He writes:

The ability to cherish the “little joy” is intimately connected with the habit of moderation. For this ability, originally natural to every man, presupposes certain things which in modern daily life have largely become obscured or lost, mainly a measure of cheerfulness, of love, and of poesy. These little joys … are so inconspicuous and scattered so liberally throughout our daily lives that the dull minds of countless workers hardly notice them. They are not outstanding, they are not advertised, they cost no money!

Illustration by Maurice Sendak from Open House for Butterflies by Ruth Krauss

He points to the most readily available, most habitually overlooked of those joys — our everyday contact with nature. A century before throngs of screen zombies began swarming the sidewalks of modern cities, Hesse writes:

Our eyes, above all those misused, overstrained eyes of modern man, can be, if only we are willing, an inexhaustible source of pleasure. When I walk to work in the morning I see many workers who have just crawled sleepily out of bed, hurrying in both directions, shivering along the streets. Most of them walk fast and keep their eyes on the pavement, or at most on the clothes and faces of the passers-by. Heads up, dear friends!

Hesse offers his prescription for breaking this trance of busyness and inattention:

Just try it once — a tree, or at least a considerable section of sky, is to be seen anywhere. It does not even have to be blue sky; in some way or another the light of the sun always makes itself felt. Accustom yourself every morning to look for a moment at the sky and suddenly you will be aware of the air around you, the scent of morning freshness that is bestowed on you between sleep and labor. You will find every day that the gable of every house has its own particular look, its own special lighting. Pay it some heed if you will have for the rest of the day a remnant of satisfaction and a touch of coexistence with nature. Gradually and without effort the eye trains itself to transmit many small delights, to contemplate nature and the city streets, to appreciate the inexhaustible fun of daily life. From there on to the fully trained artistic eye is the smaller half of the journey; the principal thing is the beginning, the opening of the eyes.

In a sentiment which Annie Dillard would come to echo many decades later in her beautiful meditation on reclaiming our capacity for joy and wonder, Hesse adds:

A stretch of sky, a garden wall overhung by green branches, a strong horse, a handsome dog, a group of children, a beautiful face — why should we be willing to be robbed of all this? Whoever has acquired the knack can in the space of a block see precious things without losing a minute’s time… All things have their vivid aspects, even the uninteresting or ugly; one must only want to see.

And with seeing come cheerfulness and love and poesy. The man who for the first time picks a small flower so that he can have it near him while he works has taken a step toward joy in life.

Illustration by Sydney Smith from Sidewalk Flowers by JonArno Lawson, a wordless ode to living with presence

Noting that these small joys take the form of different things for each of us, Hesse adds:

[There are] many other small joys, perhaps the especially delightful one of smelling a flower or a piece of fruit, of listening to one’s own or others’ voices, of hearkening to the prattle of children. And a tune being hummed or whistled in the distance, and a thousand other tiny things from which one can weave a bright necklace of little pleasures for one’s life.

He ends with an offering of counsel as valid and vitalizing today as it was a century ago, perhaps even more:

My advice to the person suffering from lack of time and from apathy is this: Seek out each day as many as possible of the small joys, and thriftily save up the larger, more demanding pleasures for holidays and appropriate hours. It is the small joys first of all that are granted us for recreation, for daily relief and disburdenment, not the great ones.

Complement this particular portion of Hesse’s wholly transcendent My Belief with philosopher Alan Watts on how to live with presence, cognitive scientist Alexandra Horowitz on the art of looking with attentive awareness, and this lovely wordless picture-book about living attentively.

BP

Hermann Hesse on the Three Types of Readers and the Most Transcendent Form of Reading

“At the hour when our imagination and our ability to associate are at their height, we really no longer read what is printed on the paper but swim in a stream of impulses and inspirations that reach us from what we are reading.”

Hermann Hesse on the Three Types of Readers and the Most Transcendent Form of Reading

Categories are how we navigate the world, for better or for worse — this impulse toward organization helps us (to borrow Umberto Eco’s wonderful phrase) make infinity comprehensible, but its perilous flipside is the seedbed of stereotypes.

Hermann Hesse (July 2, 1877–August 9, 1962) placed this paradoxical nature of categories at the heart of his taxonomy of the three types of readers — a sort of fluid hierarchy of reading modes, which he outlined in an altogether magnificent 1920 essay titled “On Reading Books.” It was later included in My Belief: Essays on Life and Art (public library) — the terrific Hesse anthology that gave us the beloved writer and Nobel laureate on why the book will never lose its magic.

hesse_books

From ancient mythology to modern psychology, Hesse notes, the human experience is strewn with such taxonomies of character. He writes:

We have an inborn tendency to establish types in our minds and to divide mankind according to them. [But] however advantageous and revealing such categories may be, no matter whether they spring from purely personal experience or from attempting a scientific establishment of types, at times it is a good and fruitful exercise to take a cross section of experience in another way and discover that each person bears traces of every type within himself and that diverse characters and temperaments can be found as alternating characteristics within a single individual.

There are, Hesse argues, such distinct temperaments when it comes to our personality as readers:

Since you may take a completely different attitude toward anything in the world, so you may toward the book.

Half a century before E.B. White proclaimed that children are “the most attentive, curious, eager, observant, sensitive, quick, and generally congenial readers on earth,” Hesse offers a hierarchical taxonomy predicated on the same sentiment. He outlines three key types, which can similarly coexist within a single reader over the course of a lifetime, beginning with the naïve reader — the reader who experiences a book merely as content, be it intellectual or aesthetic:

Everyone reads naïvely at times. This reader consumes a book as one consumes food, he eats and drinks to satiety, he is simply a taker, be he a boy with a book about Indians, a servant girl with a novel about countesses, or a student with Schopenhauer. This kind of reader is not related to a book as one person is to another but rather as a horse to his manager or perhaps as a horse to his driver: the book leads, the reader follows. The substance is taken objectively, accepted as reality. But the substance is only one consideration! There are also highly educated, very refined readers, especially of belles letters, who belong entirely to the class of the naïve… What the material, setting, and action are to simple souls, the art, language education, and intellectuality of the writer are to these cultivated readers.

[…]

This kind of reader assumes in an uncomplicated way that a book is there simply and solely to be read faithfully and attentively and to be judged according to its content or its form. Just as a loaf of bread is there to be eaten and a bed to be slept in.

He then turns to the second type of reader, which one might call (though Hesse does not provide a concrete term) the imaginative investigator — a reader endowed with childlike wonderment, who sees past the superficialities of content to plumb the depths of the writer’s creative impulse:

If one follows one’s nature and not one’s education one becomes a child again and begins to play with things; the bread becomes a mountain to bore tunnels into, and the bed a cave, a garden, a snow field. Something of this child-likeness, this genius for play, is exhibited by the second type of reader. This reader treasures neither the substance nor the form of a book as its single most important value. He knows, in the way children know, that every object can have ten or a hundred meanings for the mind. He can, for example, watch a poet or philosopher struggling to persuade himself and this reader of his interpretation and evaluation of things, and he can smile because he sees in the apparent choice and freedom of the poet simply compulsion and passivity. This reader is already so far advanced that he knows what professors of literature and literary critics are mostly completely ignorant of: the there is no such thing as a free choice of material or form.

[…]

From this point of view the so-called aesthetic values almost disappear, and it can be precisely the writer’s mishaps and uncertainties that furnish much the greatest charm and value. For this reader follows the poet not the way a horse obeys his driver but the way a hunter follows his prey, and a glimpse suddenly gained into what lies beyond the apparent freedom of the poet, into the poet’s compulsion and passivity, can enchant him more than all the elegance of good technique and cultivated style.

Art by Maurice Sendak for The Big Green Book by Robert Graves

Next comes the final type of reader, who is really a non-reader but rather a dreamer and interpreter:

The third and last type of reader … is apparently the exact reverse of what is generally called a “good” reader. He is so completely an individual, so very much himself, that he confronts his reading matter with complete freedom. He wishes neither to educate nor to entertain himself, he uses a book exactly like any other object in the world, for him it is simply a point of departure and a stimulus. Essentially it makes no difference to him what he reads. He does not need a philosopher in order to learn from him, to adopt his teaching, or to attack or criticize him. He does not read a poet to accept his interpretation of the world; he interprets it for himself. He is, if you like, completely a child. He plays with everything — and from one point of view there is nothing more fruitful and rewarding than to play with everything. If this reader finds a beautiful sentence in a book, a truth, a word of wisdom, he begins by experimentally turning it upside down.

In a sentiment which Nobel-winning physicist Frank Wilczek would come to echo nearly a century later in his assertion that “you can recognize a deep truth by the feature that its opposite is also a deep truth,” Hesse adds:

[This reader] has known for a long time that for each truth the opposite also is true. He has known for a long time that every intellectual point of view is a pole to which an equally valid antipole exists. He is a child insofar as he puts a high value on associative thinking, but he knows the other sort as well.

But what grants this reader her or his superiority over the other types is, above all, a trained capacity for associative thinking that turns the reading material into a springboard for indiscriminate curiosity from which to leap far beyond the particular substance of the particular book. (A quarter century later, the inventor Vannevar Bush would describe the same psychological orientation in his prescient vision for the type of person who would triumph in the Information Age — the person who can “find delight in the task of establishing useful trails through the enormous mass of the common record.”) Hesse writes:

This reader is able, or rather each one of us is able, at the hour in which he is at this stage, to read whatever he likes, a novel or grammar, a railroad timetable, a galley proof from the printer. At the hour when our imagination and our ability to associate are at their height, we really no longer read what is printed on the paper but swim in a stream of impulses and inspirations that reach us from what we are reading. They may come out of the text, they may simply emerge from the type face. An advertisement in a newspaper can become a revelation; the most exhilarating, the most affirmative thoughts can spring from a completely irrelevant word if one turns it about, playing with its letters as with a jigsaw puzzle. In this stage one can read the story of Little Read Riding Hood as a cosmogony or philosophy, or as a flowery erotic poem. Or one can read the label “Colorado maduro” on a box of cigars, play with the words, letters, and sounds, and thereby take a tour through the hundred kingdoms of knowledge, memory, and thought.

Art by Maurice Sendak for The Big Green Book by Robert Graves

Hesse addresses the potential protestation that using a book as the trigger for a Rube Goldberg machine of interpretive associations is not “reading” at all — for is it really reading to devour “a page of Goethe unconcerned about Goethe’s intentions and meanings”? The objector, he imagines, would accuse this reading mode of being “the lowest, most childish and barbaric” of all. The objection, he concedes, is a valid one. And yet it contains within its validity the very point — each mode of reading is necessary for a full life, but it is insufficient in and of itself. “It must be emphasized that no one of us need belong permanently to any one of these types,” he cautions. In a passage that calls to mind Umberto Eco’s notion of the antilibrary, Hesse writes:

The reader at the their stage is no longer a reader. The person who remained there permanently would soon not read at all, for the design in a rug or the arrangement of the stones in a wall would be of exactly as great a value to him as the most beautiful page full of the best-arranged letters. The one book for him would be a page with the letters of the alphabet.

So be it: the reader at the last stage is really no longer a reader at all, he doesn’t give a hoot about Goethe, he doesn’t read Shakespeare. The reader in the last stage simply doesn’t read any more. Why books? Has he not the entire world within himself?

Half a century before Agnes Martin’s memorable observation that “we all have the same inner life [but] the artist has to recognize what it is,” Hesse adds:

Whoever remained permanently at this stage would not read any more, but no one does remain permanently at this stage. But whoever is not acquainted with this stage is a poor, an immature reader. He does not know that all the poetry and all the philosophy in the world lie within him too, that he greatest poet drew from no other source than the one each of us has within his own being. For just once in your life remain for an hour, a day at the third stage, the stage of not-reading-any-more. You will thereafter (it’s so easy to slip back) be that much better a reader, that much better a listener and interpreter of everything written. Stand just once at the stage where the stone by the road means as much to you as Goethe and Tolstoy, you will thereafter gain from Goethe, Tolstoy, and all poets infinitely more value, more sap and honey, more affirmation of life and of yourself than ever before. For the works of Goethe are not Goethe and the volumes of Dostoevsky are not Dostoevsky, they are only an attempt, a dubious and never successful attempt, to conjure up the many-voiced multitudinous world of which he was the central point.

Hesse likens this type of reading to a dream, or perhaps to what Stephen King has termed “creative sleep.” Dreaming transmogrifies the raw material of reality, gathered in our waking life, into fanciful creations of the consciousness set free from the constraints of reality. Similarly, this type of reading uses the actual text on the page as raw material for the imaginative meanderings of the mind. Hesse writes:

A dream is the opening through which you see into the content of your soul, and this content is the world, no more and no less than the world, the whole world from your birth up to today, from Homer to Heinrich Mann, from Japan to Gibraltar, from Sirius to the Earth, from Red Riding Hood to Bergson. — And to the extent that your attempt to write down your dream is related to the world that embraces that dream, so the work of an author is related to what he tired to say.

[…]

Without having recognized this, be it only a single time, in all its infinite fullness and inexhaustible significance, you stand handicapped before every poet and thinker, you take for the whole what is a small part, you believe in interpretations that barely touch the surface.

[…]

The third stage at which you are most yourself will put an end to your reading, will dissolve poetry, will dissolve art, will dissolve world history. And yet unless you intuitively know this stage, you will never read any book, any science or art except as a schoolboy reads his grammar.

Hesse’s My Belief, it bears repeating, is a transcendent read in its entirety. Complement this particular fragment with Virginia Woolf on how to read a book, Patti Smith on the two types of masterpieces, C.S. Lewis on why we read, and a very old Robert Graves’s subversive celebration of how books transform us, illustrated by a very young Maurice Sendak.

BP

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