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Hermann Hesse and joy/suffering


Garrison Keillor’s daily Writer’s Almanac on NPR yesterday mentioned the birthday of the Nobel Prize winner Hermann Hesse.  Born in 1877 and the author of Der Steppenwolf (1927) and Siddhartha (1922), he won the prize in 1946.  Hesse’s life was characterized by a recurrence of depression, but he is also remembered for his renunciation of German citizenship (he was critical of the nationalism in full force there) in favor of a move to Switzerland.

Keillor read an excerpt from a late work that I think is interesting:

What you loved and what you strove for,
        What you dreamed and what you lived through,
        Do you know if it was joy or suffering?
        G sharp and A flat, E flat or D sharp,
        Are they distinguishable to the ear?

At least in the context of this excerpt, of course, the question is rhetorical and the answer clear:  no.

In a little essay on happiness (I’m relying on a 1997 translation available online done by Gerry Busch), Hesse explains that his sense of the word happiness is idiosyncratic, in the sense that for him it expresses “something quite specific, namely completeness itself, timeless existence, the eternal music of the world, that which others may have called the harmony of the spheres or the smile of God.”  Seen in that context, one might imagine that joy/happiness can be seen as the (opposite side of the same coin?  best of times/worst of times?) equivalent of suffering to the extent that both are strong emotions expressing reactions to one’s place in the world, and both often fleeting and layered and complex.

The equation of two ideas so often opposed in our everyday sense of things will seem deeply out of kilter to those whose self-conceptions are anchored either in a sense of profound victimage or satisfaction (although of course there are some who derive enormous satisfaction from their victimage).  But for me, and I gather this was the case for Hesse, feelings of sadness and happiness are often simultaneous, and for some time my sense has been that this reflects a kind of coming-into-maturity.  I don’t mean to say that happy or sad people are immature, but rather that as I look back on my own life experiences, the same circumstances often produced precisely opposed reactions.  The very thing that prompted feelings of happiness also generated a sense that this moment is fleeting and will soon be lost forever.  Because the universe is not organized to make me comfortable (or you either), the same moments are sometimes both pleasurable and uncomfortable, funny and annoying, loving and unsatisfying, fulfilling and anxiety producing.  I think it is a realization of this sense, often achieved only long after the fact, that makes us so often aware that what seemed like a very good situation at the time was the very thing we needed to transcend or move on from or pass beyond.   Or this might also be seen through the lens of a marriage where both partners experience the same events but one resides in a state of bliss and the other in a state of total misery:  same facts simultaneously yield happiness and suffering.

(Tangential thought experiment:  A married couple lives together for sixty years.  The husband believes the marriage to be perfect and cannot imagine life without his wife.  The wife hates the marriage, prays every day for its end but never quite summons the courage to terminate it, and comes to secretly hate her partner.  How will this situation be handled in heaven, presuming they both make it there?  Discuss).

I am very contented with my life:  happy and lucky and loved.  But I still find it difficult to answer that most everyday of questions – how are you?  My immediate thought is always:  That is a more complicated question than you realize.  But if I say this, I risk coming across as depressed or self-absorbed.  And yet saying GREAT!!! also seems wrong, or inaccurate, because my days are filled with a wide range of moments that defy easy categorization, some of which feel life suffering in the moment but are also weirdly satisfying.  And so I often shrug my shoulders and say something like, I’m doing OK, or just turn the question around.  But the moment those words – I’m doing OK – leave my lips I want to take them back, since they imply melancholy and that isn’t what I’m feeling either.  I’m happy, but I just want to nuance it.

G sharp and A flat, E flat or D sharp?
        Are they distinguishable to the ear?

Well, no.  But as they catch in the throat they often feel utterly different.

1 Comment

  1. Gerry Busch says:

    Regarding Hesse’s essay on happiness, if you would like to read my entire translation, it is still available at, although it disappeared from UCSB’s Hermann Hesse Page a long time ago.

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