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The Age of Anxiety: Herman Hesse A Part of the German Zeitgeist
The extremely negative conditions of postWorld War I Germany – specifically, the social repercussions of the extremely high death toll of German men and the paralyzed economy – shaped the disturbed and indignant writings of Herman Hesse and the social consciousness of the German people. This social consciousness morphed into many new cultural movements, which shared many of the same feelings that Hesse expressed in his writings. Hesse’s Steppenwolf and Siddhartha were written as a clear response to WWI and its aftermath. The emerging social and cultural movements in the 1920s – the period in which Hesse wrote Steppenwolf and Siddhartha – are directly connected to the conditions in Germany during and after World War I. WWI, on many fronts, was a war of attrition, meaning it was not a war based upon the conquering of strategic points, but a war of who could bleed longer. Soldiers were seen by the generals as expendable pawns in a game of chess. In fact, the disregard for
2 human life was so great that soldiers believed that they were being “used as cannon fodder” (Schivelbusch 233). Therefore, with extremely low regard for the soldiers’ lives, commanders sent thousands ‘up and over’ to be slaughtered every day. And since no charge, no matter how massive it was, could breach the enemy’s trenches, terrible new technological weapons were created: “flamethrowers, poison gas, phosphorus bombs, tanks, planes” (Blackbourn 466). In part, due to the creation of these new weapons of mass destruction, “German casualties alone numbered 1.6 million killed and 4 million wounded” (Blackbourn 466). These atrocities were shared with the public via newspaper and accounts from returning veterans. With these detailed stories, it is not a shock that artists (i.e. Herman Hesse) had a powerful response to the Great War. Hesse’s Siddhartha may be seen as a direct response to all the violence and gore of the Great War. Hesse describes a utopian world that Germans could be living in, instead of the hellhole created by WWI. Hesse’s utopia (Siddhartha) and Germany (his home) had one main antithesis: Hesse’s focus on inner spirituality vs. German nationalism. In Siddhartha, Hesse teaches the reader that wisdom and true knowledge comes from within, not from other people. For example, after rejecting the
3 Buddha’s teaching, Siddhartha says, “I will cast down my eyes in front of no one else, no one. No other teaching will entice me” (34). Hesse, possibly personified in Siddhartha, clearly is very much his own person, and does not like to be taught or told what to do. This feeling of independence and freedom of thought is in clear contradiction with the immense amount of nationalistic and patriotic propaganda that was being pushed on the public. “Press and cinema also supported the national cause… Government, army, and opinion formers all echoed the theme of national unity” (Blackbourn 468). It was this kind of nationalistic agenda that would morph into the German war machine of WWII. Nevertheless, from WWI catastrophes, new artistic and musical movements emerged. The movements challenged old beliefs, eradicated traditions, and questioned many types of rules. Two of the most influential and prominent movements in the arts were Dada and Jazz. Dada was an artistic movement that defied all previous artistic standards and achieved international recognition. (McKay 1116). Similarly, Jazz was revolutionizing the American and European music scene by breaking musical conventions and distancing itself from past rules on how music should sound. It was a new world of art, culture, and creation.
4 Dada has been defined as an “International nihilistic movement among European artists and writers…Born of the widespread disillusionment engendered by World War I, it originated in Zürich” (Dada). This movement seemed to represent the resentment Germans felt about WWI. Feeling betrayed by their leaders and disgusted with themselves for letting the war get so out of hand, German Dadaists “[Portrayed] Germans as brutal, sadistic and depraved” (Metzler 33). It substituted its own freakish reality instead of the depressing one in Germany. Within this freakish reality, Dada poked fun at every cornerstone of society; great pieces of art were ridiculed. For example, Marcel Duchamp defaced even da Vinci’s timeless Mona Lisa when he gave her placid face a goatee. Although Hesse did not deface any great symbols of art, he did show his disapproval of German society. Hesse’s anger and angst appear most clearly in his two novels, Steppenwolf and Siddhartha. For instance, Hesse saw as completely avoidable the depression that bankrupted millions of Germans in the early 20th century. In Siddhartha, Hesse creates a world that is not ruled by a constant drive for money; people are driven by a steady search for peace. Siddhartha is never troubled by money, “I was a rich man, and am no longer one; and I do not know what I will be tomorrow…I
5 have lost it [wealth], or it [wealth] has lost me…the ephemeral changes swiftly” (83). In Siddhartha, money is seen as so unimportant that Hesse refers to it as the ephemeral – depicting it as constantly changing and trivial. Siddhartha clearly does not care if he is wealthy or poor. This statement can be seen as a testimony against the time and care so many German people give their material possessions. Hesse felt that the things you own often end up owning you. However, visual art was only one area where German culture was discombobulated; a new form of music infiltrated the musical world as well. The new age musical genre that was sweeping the continent at the time called itself jazz. “The political significance of jazz was to eradicate any hint of dignity, correct bearing, trimness, and starched collars” (Schivelbusch 268). In other words, jazz was a reaction to the rigidity of the military, conservatives, and whitecollar workers. This rigidity was viewed as part and parcel of the same strictness and narrow focus that had led Germany into WWI. Hesse referred to jazz, a radical and novel movement in Steppenwolf many times. Harry Haller speaks about jazz with ambivalence: “This kind of music… was repugnant to me, and yet ten times preferable to all the academic music of the day” (37). Haller is attracted to jazz because it is so revolutionary. In Steppenwolf, jazz is seen as part of the new
6 movements – striking down academic institutions. Haller goes on to say, “Its raw and savage gaiety reached an underworld of instinct and breathed a simple honest sensuality” (37). Haller (Hesse) seems to gravitate towards this kind of music because it represents a world that is in opposition to Germany’s deceitful government and the inhumane coldness of war. Even after the horrors of war had ended, harsh economic realities provided a new stimulus for the emergence of new artistic movements and the shifting of German culture. After losing WWI, Germany suffered greatly at the hands of the Allies. Not only were the German troops decimated, their treasury and general economy floundered. The Germans in 1921 were faced with the staggering reparations debt of approximately thirtythree billion dollars (Viault 437). This effectively crippled the German economy. To make matters worse, in 1912, the Weimar Republic began printing an immense amount of marks to support a local strike against the occupying French troops. The printing of all this money resulted in a hyperinflation – the worst the world has ever seen. “By August 1923…payments were being made by the wagon load, and money became effectively worthless” (Fulbrook 166). The inflation grew so bad that by November of 1923 the “German mark stood a 4.2 trillion to the dollar” (Viault
7 438). And as with all inflations, all savings and investments became effectively worthless. “The general outcome was a widespread total loss of confidence in the republic, fear & panic, and a wave of strikes and riots.” (Fulbrook 166). This loss of faith in society and as a working system resounded in a fundamental shift in consciousness, which shaped Herman Hesse’s works particularly. From this terrible poverty and economic uncertainty came a feeling of hopelessness, a loss of faith, and an anxiety about the future. Frustrated with the status quo and the crushing conditions that oppressed the German populace, people were looking for new answers to their questions. In a desperate need for order and stability, the German public looked to new movements that arose in the arts, philosophy and religion, such as: the emergence of expressionism, existentialism, and the Christian Revival. A reason for the sudden loss of confidence in man and society may be seen in the emergence of psychoanalytical beliefs about the nature of man. Before WWI, the majority of psychologists believed that human behavior was “rational and logical… [controlled always] by the conscious mind” (McKay 1111). People thought that everyone’s actions and thoughts were the result conscious thinking. However, Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, believed that
8 the unconscious, irrational, primitive mind was powerful, and at times could overwhelm the ego – the rational, conscious part of the human mind (McKay 1111). This philosophy exacerbated the already low morale, fear, and confusion produced by WWI. People seemed to interpret Freud’s theories as proof that man was naturally cruel, bloodthirsty, and incoherent. Belief in Freudian psychology seemed to answer the pressing question of how people committed such terrible atrocities in WWI. This new way of looking at people, as primitive and selfish beings, portrayed itself in Hesse’s works, particularly Steppenwolf. Harry Haller “had two natures, a human and a wolfish one” (41). Hesse plunged deep down into Haller’s mind, revealing Haller’s id and ego as wolf and man. Haller and the wolf are caught in an eternal struggle, very much how the id and the ego wrestle over control of the mind. A result of the fear and anxiety unleashed by Freudian discoveries and WWI, expressionism emerged as a new genre of art in the early 20th century. “After the experience of the First World War, when irrationality and violence seemed to pervade the human experience, expressionism…flourished” (McKay 1116). What really sets expressionism apart from other forms of visual art, especially impressionism, is that expressionists articulate their feelings and
9 thoughts very powerfully through their art. Being deeply interested in the intangible and personal world, “[Expressionists] wanted to portray unseen, inner worlds of emotion and imagination…They wanted to express a complicated psychological view of reality as well as an overwhelming emotional intensity” (McKay 1115). The scientific breakthroughs of the late 19th and early 20th centuries – specifically, Darwin’s Origin of Species and Einstein’s theory of relativity – combined with the atrocities of WWI and the extreme poverty of the German people to produce this ‘emotional intensity’. As expressionists used their paintings to look within and communicate angst, so Hesse used his novels to delve within himself and convey his conception of man. One of Hesse’s famous quotes shares the guarded optimism that expressionist painters felt; he said: "I have always believed, and I still believe, that whatever good or bad fortune may come our way we can always give it meaning and transform it into something of value" (Brainy Quote). This optimism presented itself in Hesse’s ability to use his depressing surroundings into a basis for most of his writing, just as impressionists turned their surroundings into a basis for their paintings. The fear of the future and the unknown was represented in not only the arts, but in new ways of thinking.
10 In the 1920s, existentialism was a new philosophy that captivated many Germans. Existentialism was a philosophy that dealt with man’s confusion of existence and actions. It stressed the importance of choice as the only true way to define one’s life (Existentialism).Coming out of WWI (with its tremendous death toll) and being raised in a world of poverty and angst, a percentage of the populace of Germany found their refuge in existentialism. McKay states that, “Existential thinkers were loosely united in a courageous search for moral values in a world of terror and uncertainty. Theirs were true voices of the age of anxiety” (1108). Hesse, while not formally identified as an existentialist thinker, still shared common thoughts with existentialists; specifically, he too believed in a ‘search for moral values.’ In Siddhartha, the protagonist went on a journey to find nirvana, which could be seen as having peace with one’s self. Although Hesse does not specifically mention morals, he does suggest the idea that one’s true sense of right and wrong is found outside of the traditional social structures. Hesse’s world, along with his fellow artists and thinkers, was one of a rebirth from the ashes to create a new system. Another way to deal with the angst and uncertainty uprooted by scientific discoveries, the incredible poverty, and the death toll of WWI was seen in a
11 Christian revival. Many people felt that “The loss of faith in human reason and in continual progress” (McKay 1109) were also key factors in resurgence of the Catholic Church. The Catholic Church was the epitome of certain and set knowledge in which so many of the German populace found refuge. One of the most influential Christians was Karl Barth. He believed that “Human beings…are imperfect, sinful creatures whose reason and will are hopelessly flawed” (McKay 1109). However, God and his teachings (Catholicism) “Provided the hope, humanity, honesty, and piety for which he hungered” (McKay 1109). It represents the forgotten faith in humans and it put their assurances into God’s hands once again. “Religion…was one meaningful answer to terror and anxiety” (McKay 1110). Christianity offered people a way to lead their lives; in the end, they wanted to reach heaven. Hesse thought that one should not focus on reaching heaven, but finding peace with one’s self. Siddhartha found the path to nirvana when he said, “I will learn from me, from myself, I will be my own pupil: I will get to know myself, the secret that is Siddhartha” (36). Hesse believed that all the answers to happiness and comfort are found inside one’s self. All one has to do to reach true peace is to look within one’s self.
12 Both Herman Hesse and his German contemporaries are two parts to the same puzzle, meaning that, Hesse and his fellow Germans responded similarly to the massive loss of life in WWI and the incredible depression that swept Germany in the early 20th century. The German populace reacted with many new artistic, cultural, and religious movements that all placed value on what WWI and the economy had destroyed. Similarly, Herman Hesse reacted by writing Siddhartha and Steppenwolf. Together, Hesse and German populace expressed their dismay at society and worked jointly to create the cultured Germany of today.
13 Works Cited
Blackbourn, David. The Long Nineteenth Century. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998. "Dada." The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition. Columbia University Press., 2003. Answers.com 28 Mar. 2007. http://www.answers.com/topic/dadaism "Existentialism." Encyclopedia of American History. Answers Corporation, 2006. Answers.com 30 Apr. 2007. http://www.answers.com/topic/existentialism Fulbrook, Mary. A Concise History of GERMANY. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990. Hesse, Herman. Herman Hesse Quotes. BrainyMedia.com, 2007. April 12, 2007. http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/authors/h/hermann_hesse.html Hesse, Herman. Siddhartha. New York: Penguin Books, 1999. Hesse, Herman. Steppenwolf. New York: Picador, 1963. McKay, John P. A History of World Societies. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1992 Metzler, Sally. Cultural and Artistic Upheavals in Modern Europe 1848 to 1945. Jacksonville, Florida: Cummer Studies, 1996. Schivelbusch, Wolfgang. The Culture of Defeat. New York City: Metropolitan Books, 2001. "Sigmund Freud." The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition. Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004. Answers.com 12 Apr. 2007. http://www.answers.com/topic/sigmundfreud
14 Viault, Birdsall. Modern European History. New York City: McGrawHill, Inc, 1990
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