©HHP 2/23/98 GG
 "My father's shadow as a pursuer":
Hermann Hesse and his father
Michael Limberg

Condensed English version of the lecture held at the 9th International Hesse Colloquium, May 1997
Courtesy of Hajo Smit © 1998, Breda, Netherlands




The message of his fathers's death on March 8 1916 caught Hesse by surprise. In spite of the difficult situation (he lived in Switzerland, his relatives in Germany) he immediately took the train to Germany. And after coming home to Switzerland, Hesse experienced a nervous breakdown that urged him to seek psychoanalytical treatment. 

Being unable to indulge in a normal revitalization of ambiguous feelings like "hatred, rage and incapacity", Hesse showed their contradiction. In his writings of 1916, we read about the cruel feeling of loss, never to feel his father's blessing hand on his head anymore; he compares the face of the deceased to that of a saint. Hesse regrets with feelings of guilt not having taken contact with his father Johannes. "Only I understood him, as I am like he was, alone and not understood by anyone."3 

This idealized image of his father (Cremerius speaks of a hagiography)4 was only radically corrected by the fundamental experience of psychoanalysis. 

But in his 1918 letter to his friend Ludwig Finckh, Hesse does not write about his father, but about "the fatherly"5, i.e. subordinating authority, personalized by parents, pastors and ultimately by the state. 

Also, in his unpublished drama "Heimkehr" ("Homeward Journey") about the soldier Paul coming back from Russia, we find the same theme. Paul recognizes that he must free himself from his father in order to get a new, sensible relationship towards him. We do not see if Paul manages to do this: the work remains unfinished. 

In Hesse's correspondence with his father, discussions of Hesse's way of life did not occur and when writing to his father, there was a tender atmosphere of avoiding conflict.7 The same atmosphere as in "Heimkehr" we find in "Kinderseele" ("A Child's Soul") that tells about a 12-year old boy who steals figs from his father's study. (Hesse's mother Maria documented the same event in Hermann Hesse's own life in her diary, November 11, 1889.8) The boy suffers from feelings of gloom and despair, of insignificance and incapacity in a useless, distasteful life; but first of all of fear: fear of punishment, of the own conscience, of developments in his personality, which he feels to be wrong and criminal. 

 This affirms Freud's theory that fear cannot be minimized for the super-ego by giving up urges. Fears will continue to exist, but in different, inexplicable manifestations: Hesse mentions a feeling of tightness coming all all over his body. A child who did not do any harm and consequently does not feel any guilt, projects these feelings to the world around him: he sees a daemon going through the house and hiding behind every wall: "a spirit, a father and judge." And about his father's study: "Here lived power and spirit, here were court and temple, and the realm of the father." 

The father's dominating position in the family also increased the value of his forgiveness. Once punished and forgiven, the boy can make a new and firm start in his struggle against sin. 

Also at this day of figs-theft, Hermann wanted to see his father for consolation, renewed protection. But his father is not there and Hesse feels like an intruder. He remembers earlier times like this, when he searched his father's study and took small things away - and feels guilty. "I couldn't do any other way but follow this cruel force that urged me to do something evil." And exactly this, doing evil, turns his feeling of guilt into the tangible reason for fear. He rather endures punishment than bear his paralyzing fear. And steals the figs. 

When a child robs his parents, it is not the stolen object that matters, but the person the object belongs to. The oral satisfaction of the figs reminds of the fatherly care and prefigures Hesse's future consumption of wine and tobacco. 

After eating the figs and putting some into his pockets he escapes. Obsessed by disillusonment and disgust, he hides the figs and goes to the dining room. Sitting between his family, which seems to be in perfect harmony, he feels like a rejected criminal and a traitor to the holy prayer which father Hesse speaks after dinner. After dinner the boy indulges in phantasies where he seeks revenge on his father and the world. "I ran in sweat and was pursued by guilt and the monstrous shadow of my father." 

The image of the pursuing shadow evidently refers to C.G. Jung's analytical psychology, in which the 'dark side' in man is "that innate inclination which we reject and deny, as it opposes to our conscious principles."9 Father Hesse encounters now in his son the same qualities of character which he repressed in his own life. Thus he rejects those qualities in his son: upbringing changes into pursuit. C.G. Jung considers this alerting to one's shadow as a necessary step in life.10 

In order to understand (and not to accuse) father Hesse, it is useful to discuss Johannes Hesse's biography. 

Johannes Hesse was born in 1847 in Weissenstein, Estonia, which was at that time part of Russia. Johannes' mother was a quiet, fearful woman suffering from depressions and severe headaches. His father, Carl Hermann Hesse, was a physician in the German community. He was a Pietist (a very strict kind of Protestant) who rather taught Bible circles than worked as a physician. Thus he said to his very ill daughter: "Yes, my child, I could pray to God for you to make you better again, but He told me that He wants to take you, so be obedient and go."11 Also to his dying second wife Line he said: "Go, you will find joy with Jesus."12 (Carl Hermann Hesse maried three times.)  

Johannes Hesse was 4 years old when his mother died and 7 at the death of his first stepmother. When his father married for the third time, Johann was not yet 9 years old. Thus it can be easily understood that Johannes Hesse suffered from fears and melancholy, that he was stubborn and irritable. When he was 11, his father could not tolerate him anymore and Johannes was sent to live with a family in Riga. From there, he saw his relatives only on holidays and felt lonely and cast out. The same happened to his future wife Marie, who lived in another family between her 4th and 12th year of age. For both of them, this must have been a traumatic experience. That they later sent their hardly 7-year-old son to a boarding house can only be understood from the assumption, that they had thoroughly repressed their own childhood. 

Johannes Hesse suffered from the early loss of his mother and the overwhelming example of his father so severely, that he did not develop an inner hold, he had a fear of the world and its seductions. At the age of 16, he went to university to study theology, but he could not stand the liberties of student life and looked for a community "in which my individuality would vanish, as it had grown too strong."14 Thus he chose to be a priest, " a servant of almighty God", and he started a lifelong struggle against himself. As his younger cousin Monika Hunnius writes, he was very strict in his religious life and expected the same strictness from the people around him, he looked a bit fanatic. He would not read something else than writings of the Pietist mission." Although he appreciated beauty, he struggled against it, because he felt the longing for beauty as injustice."15 His daughter Adele called him tolerant as a theologist, but strict in ethical matters- and that did not make the raising of his children easier.16 

As Alice Miller states in her book "Am Anfang war Erziehung" ("In the beginning there was Education"), most parents have repressed the injustice that was done to them in their own childhood. The endured sufferings reappear in disguise and find a valve in the punishments they do to their own children. People who learned to accept their own pychic death in their childhood18 (like Hermann Hesse's own parents) are confronted with events which give them doubts. Didn't they suffer the same experiences? Was that all in vain? This is what they cannot accept and what urges them to punish their children the more severely. As Hermann Hesse understood at an early stage, his parents were partially dead, or paralyzed. They could not accept their own shadow. Hugo Ball20 and Cremerius21 state that Hesse's mother was inaccessible for any emotional impulse. The same is true for Hesse's father. Hesse wrote: "'Father' is a strange word. It seems I cannot understand it. It should characterize a man one can love and wholeheartedly loves. I would like to have such a person."22 This is what Johannes Hesse could not do: in vital situations he utters pious sayings like: "You should just want to be a diligent, reliable and obedient pupil" (- not exactly what a puber in crisis looks for) or takes refuge in his migraine.23 

Hesse's childhood and youth was a constant alternation of adaptation to parental laws and revolt against them, as well as a constant fight for recognition and love. Hesse wrote in a poem, that he would have loved his mother's appreciation for his poetry, but she only liked religious poetry and had forgotten about the fondness for Schiller's poetry in her young days. (Friedrich von Schiller is, beside Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Germany's most famous 19th century author) And when Johannes' father died in November 1898, 19-year-old Hermann writes to his father: "I don't know how to say that I am with you spiritually, how much I would like to be of any help to you."27 

When psychoanalysis forced Hermann Hesse to deal with his father, he found that he was a victim of heredity28 - a consolation, as if it was all not his own fault, but also a disagreeable situation, as these genetically determined qualities could not be changed. 29 

But it is not only heredity that counts. It's also, and more likely, the consequences of the restrictive upbringing, which repressed natural urges, that made him feel like an outcast, "like being in a circle drawn around me."30 

For a child, it is impossible to ignore his parents' opinions about him. This can be positive, like the spoilt young Goethe who got used to reach any success he wanted from early childhood31, and negative, like Hermann Hesse, whose life was ruined to loneliness and lack of self-confidence. 32 

Of course, sexuality was not a topic at the Hesse family. Hermann Hesse complains of a cowardly attitude which left the young people alone with their natural urges. In "Peter Camenzind", Peter (Hermann Hesse's alter ego) has a distrust against women33 and even in 1918 Hermann Hesse doubted if he had ever felt real love.34 

This all is the consequence of a child's disturbed feeling of love, and this stays with him when he gets older. The 1996 published "Traumtagebuch" (the "Dream Diary" he wrote for his psychoanalist) shows in his dreams his fears and inferiority complexes; he dreams of dilemmas in which he experiences anguish of having to do his final school examinations again, and fears to fail. 

Hermann Hesse was bashful of people that he considered to be adapted and healthy, he was afraid to attract attention and make a fool of himself. C.G. Jung's outspoken personality therefore both attracted and frightened him.35 

In the analysis, he had to face the fact that he had built up a wrong image of himself: "A beautiful and harmonious, but essentially insincere world."36 He felt estranged to himself and had "to run into the walls that separated me from myself," as he already had understood when he was 15 years old.37 

In 1924, Hermann Hesse wrote about the 18th century German poet Friedrich Hölderlin, but in fact about himself: "Any part of our urges that is not fully sublimated, is repressed and brings us great suffering." This can be psychosomatic: sleeplesness, depressions, head- and backache. To the pious Johannes Hesse, this was a proof to be a Chosen One, as the Just have to suffer severely.39,40 He could have said (with Sartre): "I suffer, so I exist." But Hermann Hesse found his way out in art and writing, later also in painting. His brother Hans was less fortunate: he was also pursued by his father's shadow and committed suicide when he was 53. 

I would like to end this lecture with a letter of Hermann Hesse from 1954.  

"In my opinion, far more human beings of my generation have been ruined by too much restriction of their natural urges, more than than by the contrary. Therefore, I defended in some of my books these repressed feelings. (...) Our aim is (...) not to develop into purely cerebral human beings at the expense of our feelings. It is also not to have a wild life of lust. Between these two demands of nature and spirit we must seek our way: but not a rigid middle course, but everyone his own, elastic one that allows him to be alternately free and bound, like breathing in and out."41 


Copyright © Hajo Smit, 1998


Published on February 23, 1998 by Gunther Gottschalk for
The Hermann Hesse Page