Hermann Hesse and The Art of Living
July 21, 2010

In Steppenwolf, Hermann Hesse suggests that the bourgeoisie are trapped in a life of precarious moderation. He thinks they’ve lost the art of living because they try to live too well, they are too comfortable. Their static lives don’t allow for extremes or flights of fancy, don’t invite danger or sorrow.

While the term ‘bourgeoisie’ might be outdated, Hesse’s notion of modern, middle class life is not. In The Glass Bead Game, Hesse returns to the theme about living life intensely. He pits the Ivory Tower against the heaving masses to highlight the benefits of living close to the bone an breaking the shackles of  civilisation. Protagonist Knecht is torn between the calm, orderly sophistication of elite, utopian Castalia and the crude, raw and unpredictable outside world. While Knecht is very comfortable in his privileged Castalian life he constantly yearns for the insecurity and discomfort of the real world. Why does Knecht and why do we find ourselves looking for an escape from a good and comfortable life? Why do we feel the need to shake things up?

Hesse suggests that the further we remove ourselves from nature and natural fears, exhilaration and danger, the further we move away from a life worth living.

Fear loomed over the life of man. It could not be overcome. But it could be pacified, outwitted, masked, bought within bounds, placed within the orderly framework of life as a whole. Fear was the permanent pressure upon the lives of these people, and without this pressure their life would have lacked stress, of course, but also lacked intensity.’

Most of us do however, have sneaky, unconscious ways of inviting stress into our lives, from the simplicity of daily, emotional and familial dramas to the more extreme habits of bungee jumping or cliff diving. We’ve got roller coasters, scary movies, explorers, adventurers, rock climbers, smokers, sky divers and drug users. Perhaps the self destructive and thrill-seeking tendencies are a subconscious attempt to replace our loss of fear; fear of nature and fear of each other.

We have a much greater understanding of life and our environment today. We have highly developed laws and systems that protect the weak and punish the bad. The chaos has been reigned in, and for most of us, the animal within has been tamed. Not to suggest we abandon the defining achievements of our civilisation, after all it was our fears and pain that led us to these very achievements, but perhaps we could learn to embrace our more extreme tendencies and emotions. Perhaps we could learn to withstand and appreciate pain and uncertainty along with pleasure and comfort. Maybe we shouldn’t strive to be content and comfortable all the time. Maybe we shouldn’t be so afraid to get a little rain on your face. After all it’s the bumps in the road that remind us we are alive.

It would be wrong to ask you why
Because I know what goes inside
Is only half of what comes out
Isn’t that what it’s about ?
To remind us we’re alive
To remind us we’re not blind
In that big, black hole

Faith No More, Digging the Grave