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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.

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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 the 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

The Magic of the Book: Hermann Hesse on Why We Read and Always Will

“If anyone wants to try to enclose in a small space, in a single house or a single room, the history of the human spirit and to make it his own, he can only do this in the form of a collection of books.”

The Magic of the Book: Hermann Hesse on Why We Read and Always Will

I recently decided to teach myself to write with my left hand. This unorthodox pastime was sparked in part by rereading the vintage treasure Essays for the Left Hand by the pioneering Harvard psychologist Jerome Bruner, one of the loveliest and most underappreciated books written in the twentieth century. Since it was National Poetry Month, every day for the month of April I wrote out a poem a day with my left hand.

Beyond the tangible satisfaction of mastery painstakingly acquired, the endeavor had one unexpected and rather magical effect — it opened some strange and wonderful conduit through space and time, connecting me to the version of myself who was first learning to read and write as a child in Bulgaria. Generally lacking early childhood memories, I was suddenly electrified by a vividness of being, a vibrantly alive memory of the child’s pride and joy felt in those formative feats of the written word, of wresting boundless universes of meaning from pages filled with lines of squiggly characters.

Somehow, as we grow up and learn to read, the thrill of mastery hardens into habit and we let the magical slip into the mundane. We come to take this wondrous ability for granted.

No one has restored the transcendence of the written word more beautifully than Nobel-winning German-born Swiss writer and painter Hermann Hesse (July 2, 1877–August 9, 1962) in a sublime 1930 essay titled “The Magic of the Book,” found in his posthumously published treasure trove My Belief: Essays on Life and Art (public library).

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Hesse writes:

Among the many worlds that man did not receive as a gift from nature but created out of his own mind, the world of books is the greatest… Without the word, without the writing of books, there is no history, there is no concept of humanity. And if anyone wants to try to enclose in a small space, in a single house or a single room, the history of the human spirit and to make it his own, he can only do this in the form of a collection of books.

The question of what books do and what they are for is, of course, and abiding one. For Kafka, books were “the axe for the frozen sea within us”; for Carl Sagan, “proof that humans are capable of working magic”; for James Baldwin, a way to change our destiny; for Neil Gaiman, the vehicle for the deepest human truths; for Polish Nobel laureate Wisława Szymborska, our ultimate frontier of freedom. Falling closest to Galileo, who saw reading as a way of having superhuman powers, Hesse considers the historical role of the written word:

With all peoples the word and writing are holy and magical; naming and writing were originally magical operations, magical conquests of nature through the spirit, and everywhere the gift of writing was thought to be of divine origin. With most peoples, writing and reading were secret and holy arts reserved for the priesthood alone.

[…]

Today all this is apparently completely changed. Today, so it seems, the world of writing and of the intellect is open to everyone… Today, so it seems, being able to read and write is little more than being able to breathe… Writing and the book have apparently been divested of every special dignity, every enchantment, every magic… From a liberal, democratic point of view, this is progress and is accepted as a matter of course; from other points of view, however, it is a devaluation and vulgarization of the spirit.

Hermann Hesse’s typewriter (Photograph by Patti Smith from M Train)

And yet Hesse offers an optimistic counterpoint to the techno-dystopian narratives that have continued to spell out the death of the book in the almost-century since his essay. Writing just a few years after Virginia Woolf’s spirited admonition against the evils of cinema, Hesse argues that new media forms — radio and film then, the internet now — pose no threat to the book, for the book is singular in its spiritual value to human life:

We need not fear a future elimination of the book. On the contrary, the more that certain needs for entertainment and education are satisfied through other inventions, the more the book will win back in dignity and authority. For even the most childish intoxication with progress will soon be forced to recognize that writing and books have a function that is eternal. It will become evident that formulation in words and the handing on of these formulations through writing are not only important aids but actually the only means by which humanity can have a history and a continuing consciousness of itself.

In a remarkably prescient passage, he adds:

We have not quite reached the point where younger rivals like radio, film, and so forth have taken everything away from the printed book, but only that part of its function which is dispensable.

[…]

What the crowd does not yet suspect and will perhaps not discover for a long time has already begun to be decided among creators themselves: the fundamental distinction between the media through which an artistic goal is attempted. When this divorce is final, to be sure, there will still be sloppy novels and trashy films, whose creators are unstable talents, freebooters in areas in which they lack competence. But to the clarification of concepts and the relief of literature and her present rivals this separation will contribute much. Then the cinema will be no more able to damage literature than, for example, photography has hurt painting.

What lends the book this unshakable stability, Hesse argues, is precisely its magical character — a character immutable and irreplaceable however much our media might change. He writes:

The laws of the spirit change just as little as those of nature and it is equally impossible to “discard” them. Priesthoods and astrologers’ guilds can be dissolved or deprived of their privileges. Discoveries or poetic inventions that formerly were secret possessions of the few can be made accessible to the many, who can even be forced to learn about these treasures. But all this goes on at the most superficial level and in reality nothing in the world of the spirit has changed since Luther translated the Bible and Gutenberg invented the printing press. The whole magic is still there, and the spirit is still the secret of a small hierarchically organized band of privileged persons, only now the band has become anonymous.

Illustration from Mr. Tweed's Good Deeds by Jim Stoten
Illustration from Mr. Tweed’s Good Deeds by Jim Stoten

In a tremendously poignant sentiment that illustrates today’s culture-making, culture-breaking difference between artists and writers, on the one hand, and “content-creators” on the other — that is, presaging our vacant contentification of cultural material — Hesse adds:

Leadership has slipped out from the hands of priests and scholars to some place where it can no longer be called to account and made responsible, where, however, it can no longer legitimatize itself or appeal to any authority. For that stratum of writers and intellectuals which seems from time to time to lead because it shapes public opinion or at least supplies the slogans of the day — that stratum is not identical with the creative stratum.

That creative stratum, he argues, consists of timeless works that continue to enchant the public imagination decades or centuries or millennia after their creation, be they the ancient Eastern philosophies newly embraced by the West or the works of Nietzsche, “unanimously rejected by his people, after fulfilling his mission for a few dozen minds, became several decades too late a favorite author whose books could not be printed fast enough.” Hesse uses the word “poet” in that largest James Baldwian sense and in the very act of reaching us from beyond the finitude of his own lifetime, he stands as a testament to his own point:

We can observe every day how completely marvelous and like fairy tales are the histories of books, how at one moment they have the greatest enchantment and then again the gift of becoming invisible. Poets live and die, known by few or none, and we see their work after their death, often decades after their death, suddenly rise resplendent from the grave as though time did not exist.

And what they give us upon rising is precisely that magic of the book, so perennial and inextinguishable, yet so easily forgotten and taken for granted:

If today the ability to read is everyone’s portion, still only a few notice what a powerful talisman has thus been put into their hands. The child proud of his youthful knowledge of the alphabet first achieves for himself the reading of a verse or a saying, then the reading of a first little story, a fairy tale, and while those who have not been called seem to apply their reading ability to news reports or to the business sections of their newspapers, there are a few who remain constantly bewitched by the strange miracle of letters and words (which once, to be sure, were an enchantment and magic formula to everyone). From these few come the readers. They discover as children the few poems and stories … and instead of turning their backs on these things after acquiring the ability to read they press forward into the realm of books and discover step by step how vast, how various and blessed this world is! At first they took this world for a little child’s pretty garden with a tulip bed and a little fish pond; now the garden becomes a park, it becomes a landscape, a section of the earth, the world, it becomes Paradise and the Ivory Coast, it entices with constantly new enchantments, blooms in ever-new colors. And what yesterday appeared to be a garden or a park or a jungle, today or tomorrow is recognized as a temple, a temple with a thousand halls and courtyards in which the spirit of all nations and times is present, constantly waiting for reawakening, ever ready to recognize the many-voiced multiplicity of its phenomena as a unity. And for every true reader this endless world of books looks different, everyone seeks and recognizes himself in it… A thousand ways lead through the jungle to a thousand goals, and no goal is the final one; with each step new expanses open.

Walking library, London, 1930s (VSW Soibelman Syndicate News Agency Archive)
Walking library, London, 1930s (VSW Soibelman Syndicate News Agency Archive)

Half a century before Bob Dylan asserted that “the world don’t need any more songs [because] there’s enough songs for people to listen to, if they want to listen to songs,” Hesse makes the same point — a point with which, as any regular reader would know, I very much agree — about books:

Every true reader could, even if not one new book were published, spend decades and centuries studying on, fighting on, continuing to rejoice in the treasure of those already at hand.

What lends reading its ultimate magic, Hesse asserts, is that this vast body of the written word is at once immensely varied and reducible to the simplest, most universal human truths:

The great and mysterious thing about this reading experience is this: the more discriminatingly, the more sensitively, and the more associatively we learn to read, the more clearly we see every thought and every poem in its uniqueness, its individuality, in its precise limitations and see that all beauty, all charm depend on this individuality and uniqueness — at the same time we come to realize ever more clearly how all these hundred thousand voices of nations strive toward the same goals, call upon the same gods by different names, dream the same wishes, suffer the same sorrows. Out of the thousandfold fabric of countless languages and books of several thousand years, in ecstatic instants there stares at the reader a marvelously noble and transcendent chimera: the countenance of humanity, charmed into unity from a thousand contradictory features.

My Belief remains a boundless treasure of Hesse’s genius, aglow with his luminous wisdom on everything from art to happiness to old age to the legacies of creative titans like Goethe, Dostoyevsky, Walt Whitman, Hans Christian Andersen, D.H. Lawrence, and Carl Jung. Complement it with Hesse’s beautiful correspondence with Thomas Mann, E.B. White on the future of reading, and Neil Gaiman on why we read and tell stories.

BP

Thomas Mann’s Moving Tribute for His Dear Friend Hermann Hesse’s Sixtieth Birthday

“I… love the man, his serenely contemplative, kindly-mischievous air, the fine, deep glance of his poor weak eyes, which with their blueness light up the gaunt, sharply cut face…”

Nothing sustains creative culture more sturdily than the invisible scaffolding of kinship between artists supporting each other through the merciless cycles of criticism, acclaim, and indifference. Among the most heartening such dyads are Hermann Hesse (July 2, 1877–August 9, 1962) and Thomas Mann (June 6, 1875–August 12, 1955), who provided each other with a steady supply of support and encouragement over a lifetime of beautiful letters. But nowhere is their bond more touching than in the tribute Mann penned for his friend’s sixtieth birthday, published in the morning edition of Neue Zürcher Zeitung on July 2, 1937, and later included in the out-of-print gem The Hesse/Mann Letters: The Correspondence of Hermann Hesse and Thomas Mann 1910–1955 (public library).

Mann writes:

Today, July 2, is Hermann Hesse’s sixtieth birthday. A great, beautiful, memorable day! It is being fervently celebrated in thousands of hearts in all countries where German is spoken… It is by permitting themselves such feelings, by defiantly taking the liberty of loving, that people are saving their souls in Germany today.

By joyfully celebrating this day we too shall be saving our souls.

After a few laudatory remarks about Hesse’s patriotism, Mann extols his friend’s literary sensibility:

His work raises the familiar to a new, spiritual level, which may be termed revolutionary, not in a direct political or social, but in a psychological, poetic sense; it is truly and authentically open and sensitive to the future.

Noting that Hesse’s beloved tenth novel, Steppenwolf, is on par with James Joyce’s Ulysses “in experimental daring,” he adds what might be mistaken for a backhanded compliment by the less sensitive reader but is, at bottom, the kind of praise that can only be given by someone who knows an artist’s complex inner world intimately, cherishes that complexity, and holds the whole of the artist with immense love:

I feel very deeply that for all its sometimes cranky individualism, for all its grumpy-humorous or mystical-nostalgic rejection of the world and the times, this lifework … must be counted among the highest and purest spiritual endeavors of our epoch. Consequently it is an honor as well as a pleasure to offer the author of this work my hearty congratulations and the expression of my esteem on this festive occasion. I long ago chose him as the member of my literary generation closest and dearest to me and I have followed his growth with a sympathy that drew nourishment as much from the differences as from the similarities between us…

I also love the man, his serenely contemplative, kindly-mischievous air, the fine, deep glance of his poor weak eyes, which with their blueness light up the gaunt, sharply cut face of an old Swabian peasant.

[…]

And so, once again: Thanks and best wishes. Hesse’s humor, the exuberance of language shown in the visible fragments of his late work, and the manifest pleasure he takes in his craft offer us, I believe, every assurance that hand in hand with the heightened spirituality of his advanced years he has preserved the formative powers needed for the realization of so daring a dream-project as The Glass Bead Game. We wish him success and fulfillment… We also hope that his fame may spread ever more widely and deeply, and bring him the honor which has long been his due, but which at the present time would take on special meaning, in addition of course to providing a most delightful bit of news: the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Nine years later, Hesse was indeed awarded the Nobel Prize — in no small part thanks to Mann’s repeated exhortations.

The two friends’ moving correspondence can be found in The Hesse/Mann Letters. Complement it with Mann on time and the soul of existence, then revisit other heartening dyads of support from the annals of creative culture: James Joyce and Ibsen, Maurice Sendak and Ursula Nordstrom, Denise Levertov and Robert Duncan, and Mark Twain and Helen Keller.

BP

The Virtuous Cycle of Gratitude and Mutual Appreciation: The Letters of Hermann Hesse and Thomas Mann

“The beautiful exists only in such traces of dream-daring, which a work of art brings with it from its spiritual home.”

In a culture that makes it easier to be a critic than a celebrator, where it takes growing commitment to do the opposite, how heartening to be reminded of the ennobling gift of gratitude, of the elevating capacity of being one another’s champion — reminders like Charles Bukowski’s letter of gratitude to his greatest champion or Emerson’s epistolary encouragement to young Walt Whitman or Leonard Bernstein’s note of appreciation to his mentor or Isaac Asimov’s fan mail to young Carl Sagan or Charles Dickens’s flattering letter to George Eliot.

That’s precisely what two of the twentieth century’s greatest authors, Nobel laureates Hermann Hesse and Thomas Mann, did for each other over the course of five decades — even though they came from opposite corners of Germany and went on to lead starkly different lives, Hesse an exponent of the quiet contemplation and Mann a public intellectual with a vibrant social life. But they also had a great deal in common — both had rebelled against their bourgeois background by dropping out of school and taking working-class jobs — Hesse at a second-hand bookstore and Mann as an insurance agent — before becoming prominent writers; both had mothers who brought into their otherwise ordinary German childhoods an exotic perspective — Mann’s was born in Brazil and Hesse’s in India.

But what brought them together, above all, were their convictions. Bound by a shared commitment to humanism and an unflinching belief in the integrity of the individual, they stood by one another’s work, both privately and publicly, through war and exile, through harsh criticism, even through their own philosophical disagreements. The record of this virtuous cycle of mutual support is preserved in the wonderful out-of-print 1975 volume The Hesse/Mann Letters: The Correspondence of Hermann Hesse and Thomas Mann 1910–1955 (public library).

Thomas Mann and Hermann Hesse in Chantarella, Switzerland

In January of 1928, a year before he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, Mann writes after receiving a limited-edition collection of forty-five of Hesse’s poems:

Dear Herr Hesse,

Thank you — I take it as an honor — for sending me these poems, whose atmosphere will not appeal to everyone. You were right in supposing that they would meet with my inward understanding.

In the same letter, Mann pays a beautiful compliment to Hesse’s novel Steppenwolf, which had debuted a few months earlier and which was the first major work that put him on a track to his own Nobel Prize two decades later, in no small part thanks to Mann’s repeated and generous nominations:

I am getting more and more cranky and difficult in matters of reading; most of what I see leaves me cold. Steppenwolf has shown me once again, for the first time in ages, what reading can be.

The admiration was mutual. In a letter from March of 1932, Hesse writes to Mann after reading his lecture-turned-essay on Goethe and Tolstoy:

Once again I have admired … the courage and vigor with which, contrary to all German custom, you are at pains not to attenuate, simplify and whitewash, but precisely to stress and deepen the tragic problems.

[…]

In short, I wish to thank you for the great pleasure your book has given me.

At the end of 1933, after Mann writes to Hesse about another one of his poems, “so full of wisdom and kindness,” Hesse responds with equal generosity of spirit in commending Mann on the first novel of his Joseph and His Brothers tetralogy:

I should like at least to thank you for the great pleasure your book gave me… As a contrast to prevailing conceptions of history and historiography, I loved every bit of the faintly melancholy irony with which in the last analysis you view the whole problem of history and narration, though you never for a moment flag in your endeavor to do what you have recognized to be fundamentally impossible, that is, to write history. To me, who differ from you in many respects and have been molded by different origins, just this is profoundly congenial, for I well know that it is to attempt the impossible, while knowing it to be impossible, to take the tragic actively upon oneself. Besides, this quiet book comes as a god-send in times so cluttered with stupid current events!

Mann’s novel was met with harsh criticism, which rendered Hesse’s encouraging letter particularly vitalizing for the author — in a letter sent a few days later, Mann speaks to the power of kindness amid criticism, which all who have endured such public attacks appreciate deeply when present and long for painfully when absent:

[You] can imagine the insolence and stupidity with which the reviewers, almost without exception, have reacted to the book. It is both pitiful and shocking to observe such — by now unconscious — intellectual submissiveness and emasculation in men one has known. The kindness and acuteness with which you have responded … has moved me deeply, and I thank you from the bottom of my heart for your comforting lines…

In the same letter, Mann adds a sentiment as true of the art of appreciation as of art itself:

When you come right down to it, the beautiful exists only in such traces of dream-daring, which a work of art brings with it from its spiritual home.

In May of 1934, Mann returns the gesture after reading Hesse’s novella “The Rainmaker,” which Hesse would later incorporate in his last novel, The Glass Bead Game, published in 1943 after a decade of rejections due to Hesse’s anti-Nazi convictions:

What a beautiful piece of workmanship your novella is — there is no longer anything like it in Germany. And how humanely it deals with the primitive era, without groveling to it, as it has become so inanely fashionable to do. The “much larger whole” of which this is a part will be magnificent work! — I take my leave with hearty congratulations!

In August of the same year, after Hesse sends Mann a small selection of his poetry as a gift, Mann — who by that point had grown gravely dejected and disheartened by the Nazi’s rise to power — responds with exuberant appreciation:

What a treasure trove of melodies! What pure art! A true comfort to the languishing soul. These words have a general validity, but I also mean them personally, not easy by way of an excuse for this niggardly expression of gratitude. I am in the midst of a grave crisis, both in my life and in my work. I am so plagued by the happenings in Germany, they are such a torment to my moral and critical conscience, that I seem to be unable to carry on with my current literary work.

And yet carry on he does, encouraged by Hesse. Several months later, Mann sends to his friend and champion the ultimate note of appreciation-for-appreciation, speaking to this enormously vitalizing virtuous cycle of mutual respect and admiration that is available to all who choose to welcome and celebrate one another’s kinship of spirit:

My emotion and joy were great and proved to me once again how profoundly receptive I am to kindness and understanding. How could I help taking pride in the good opinion of a man whose art and thinking I approve with all my heart?

Although The Hesse/Mann Letters is long out of print, used copies are still available and are very much worth the hunt — to witness two great minds and expansive spirits come together around art, literature, politics, and philosophy is nothing short of a gift.

BP

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