Memoirs -- fact and fiction, photography, San Miguel de Allende, Writings

What Hermann Hesse taught me

Street scene in San Miguel de Allende. The guitarist paused on his way to work to pick up a snack from the street merchant, who clearly has her hands full. This has nothing to do with my story, except that both occurred on the magical streets of San Miguel in the same week.

To the man whom I almost knocked over rounding the corner of Nemesio Diez and De Los Suspiros, thank you for reviving my interest in a novel that I put down many decades ago but never forgot its influence.

Early Tuesday evening, Moppit and I were walking on Nemesio Diez, past the public parking lot at the corner, heading for home at a brisk pace. Brisk for an old man and a dog with very short legs.

As we reached the corner of Suspiros, a man walking at about the same pace nearly collided with us. Or we nearly collided with him.

At any rate, there was no collision.

Both of us pulled up abruptly. If we had been cars, there would have been a tremendous screech of tires and everyone within hearing range would be bracing for the sickening impact of metal and glass.

Like I said, though, there was no collision.

From our respective sides of the wall corner, he and I both smiled and gestured for the other person to move through the corner first.

“After you.”

“No, please, after you.”

Yeah, just like that. Almost a Roadrunner cartoon.

So I crossed our paths first. Then turned for one final courtesy nod and friendly smile. I dropped the idea of smiling when I remembered I was wearing my KN95 mask.

“Narcissus and Goldmund.”

“What?” I asked, a bit startled.

“Turning the corner and not knowing what you’ll see on the other side,” he said, “Like in Hermann Hesse’s ‘Narcissus and Goldmund.’ ”

I let out an odd exclamation of recognition that must have sounded like I was faking it. But I really knew what he was talking about. Well, not specifically. But I knew the book. I knew quite a few Hesse books, back in those tortuous and glorious adolescent years in the ‘60s and ‘70s.

Like a lot of lost souls barely out of their teens, I was grasping for anything, anyone who could help me make sense of this world I seemed to have inherited, a world not of my design, not in my control. 

I dropped out of a Catholic seminary after two years. I dropped out of a Catholic University after one year. I’d left my family not so much estranged as surplus, the second-oldest of seven brothers and a sister. If personal identity had been overwhelmed in a sprawling household, it was completely untraceable on the streets of Washington DC.

Somebody suggested reading Hesse. And in lieu of having a living, breathing, wisdom-spouting mentor in my life, I pounced on the suggestion. The first one I picked up, “Beneath the Wheel,” was totally relatable. Up to a point. And depressing. And terrifying. Like Hans Giebenrath, I was sent home from the seminary after grades and conduct took a serious slide. We both went home to communities in which we felt like strangers in a strange land and struggled to fit in.

I eventually did, to a certain extent. Hans did not end so well.

Next was “Demian” in which another lost soul, Emil Sinclair, searches for meaning and purpose. Emil navigates youth’s mysteries by latching on to various mentors – school friend Max Demian of the title; a church rector, Pistorious, who points Emil to his inner spirituality; and Max’s mother Frau Eva who strikes the balance between earthiness and spirituality which Emil seeks.

I loved it that the kid never quit looking for something that would make sense of his existence. Emil is not the sort that would settle for a job in insurance sales, a golf club membership, and a Lexus and call it a day. 

I almost just wrote “And finally …” but I need to slip Hesse’s “Siddhartha” in there too. Yet another journey of self-discovery. Siddhartha is a fictional contemporary of the Buddha who leaves home, gives up all possessions, lives the life of an ascetic in the quest of pure enlightenment. Then he meets a beautiful woman who tells him he must become rich if he wants to get any further with her. So he becomes rich. Wins the babe. Lives the luxe life. And eventually abandons it all to renew his pursuit of enlightenment. If any book spoke to my generation in those days, it was this one. 

Funny story. During my failed year of college, I hastily wrote a term paper on “Siddhartha” in which I mistook the book for biography and conflated Buddha and Siddhartha as one entity. As I recall, the teacher pointed out that I got everything absolutely wrong, but that I wrote very well. Make of that what you will. Ok, and not so funny.

And finally … “Narcissus and Goldmund” in which another Hesse character abandons life in a monastery to seek the meaning of his personal existence. Narcissus is a teacher at the school, only a few years older than Goldmund and his spiritual mentor. 

I never had a mentor or spiritual guide as Goldmund did but, like Goldmund, it was the discovery of the other sex that helped make me aware that I did not have a calling to service in the church, especially the vow of celibacy. Goldmund lost his calling to an exotic gypsy woman in the forest. My lost calling was more of a gradual and unexotic misplacement over a couple of years.

Goldmund pursued the life of an artist, as a sculptor. I pursued the life of a writer, for newspapers. So, we had that going for us. If I recall, Goldmund eventually grasps the duality of the human being – order and chaos, purity and libido, restraint and hedonism, control and abandonment, spiritual and material, other and self. 

In other words, we are big messed-up balls of conflicting passions. So, pick your lane.

I do not recall where my sidewalk companion’s reference to ”turning the corner” comes in, but I intend to find out. I’m rereading “Narcissus and Goldmund” right now. 

Like Hesse’s characters, the quest for meaning has always been a driving force in me. Maybe not always driving like a big meaty muscle car on the highway of life. But I have never stopped asking “Why?” and “Why me?” and “Where’s it all headed?” and “What does it all add up to?” and  “Why can’t I get any clear answers out of all this?”

Well, as a wise man said, “If you are certain that you have attained enlightenment, you are not enlightened.”

It is the never-ending quest.


8 thoughts on “What Hermann Hesse taught me

    • Hi Tina, thank you. I remember struggling with “The Glass Bead Game” as though perhaps I just wasn’t intellectually ready to tackle its themes. I would love to hear your thoughts on the book. At what point in your life did you pick it up and what is it about the story that makes it your favorite?
      Today I went back to read up on “The Glass Bead Game” and refresh my memory. I recall the three short stories at the end of the novel but could not fathom their point to the rest of the book. Now it occurs to me that Hesse may have originally conceived of a time-spanning reincarnation novel along the lines of David Mitchell’s “Cloud Atlas.” OK, so now I must go back and reread it!


  1. So wonderful Mr Hawkins. This stimulated so many memories of my struggling and happy adolescence (late 1960s).
    As I age has come an unexpected comfort in the belief that there is no “meaning”, I’m just an amazing collection of quarks, and bosons, and other particles. Possibly my current understanding will change but for now I’m at peace.
    Thank you so much for this,

    Liked by 1 person

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