On January 22, 1961, I had lunch with Hermann Hesse at his house in Montagnola, in the Italian section of Switzerland. Snowflakes were fluttering by the window, but in the distance, the sky was bright and clear. As I turned away from the view, I caught the clear blue eyes of Hesse sitting at the far end of the table.
'What luck,' I said, 'to find myself lunching with you today.'
'Nothing ever happens by chance,' he answered. 'Here, only the right guests meet. This is the Hermetic Circle....'
I first discovered the works of Hermann Hesse in about 1945. At that time, he was almost unknown in Chile, appreciated only in the coteries and discussed almost furtively. Indeed, before 1946, Hesse had hardly any reputation at all outside of Germany. In that year, however, he was given the Nobel Prize for literature, and subsequently his works have been translated into many languages. Even so, his books are received enthusiastically in only a few countries. The Anglo-Saxon world, for example, considers him to be heavy and dull, and for this reason, his complete works have never been published in English. Once when I was in London, I had to look for days to find some of his best-known works in order to give them to a friend of mine who was literate but who had never heard of Hesse. In the Spanish-speaking world, the situation is quite different, however, and Hesse has been so widely and repeatedly read that the young people of Spain and South America virtually consider him as a prophet.
Once, a Mexican painter gave me a color slide of a painting of his depicting the Magister Musicae and Josef Knecht in Hesse's Magister Ludi. The old teacher is shown at the piano, and young Knecht accompanies him on the violin in the first sonata they played together. The Mexican had been so excited by the book that he had not only made the painting, but had sent it to Hesse as a gift.
This enthusiasm of the Mexican painter is quite easy for me to understand. Even today, I would go halfway round the world to find a book if I thought it essential to my needs, and I have a feeling of absolute veneration for those few authors who have given me something special. For this reason, I can never understand the tepid youth of today who wait for books to be given to them and who neither search nor admire. I would go without eating in order to get a book, and I have never liked borrowing books, because I have always wanted them to be absolutely mine so that I could live with them for hours on end.
As with men, it has always seemed to me that books have their own peculiar destinies. They go towards the people who are waiting for them and reach them at the right moment. They are made of living material and continue to cast light through the darkness long after the death of their authors.
The first of Hesse's books which I read was Demian. It made an extraordinary impression on me and gave me a strength which I had never found before. The edition I read was a Spanish translation, and it probably contained many errors; nevertheless the magic and the energy remained. While still young, and living in the Pension Verenahof in Baden, Hesse had concentrated such force into it that it was still alive and vital many years later.
The hero Demian was destined to influence many lives, and undoubtedly hundreds have tried to emulate his strength and serenity. After reading it, I myself used to wander through the streets of my city feeling myself a new man, the bearer of a message and a sign. Thus Hesse has always been more than a literary man or a poet, not only for me but for whole generations of men. His magical books delve into regions that are usually reserved for religion, and these are the ones that are important for me - Demian, The Journey to the East, the fantastic Autobiography, Siddhartha, Magister Ludi, Steppenwolf and Death and the Lover.
Demian is not actually a physical being, since he is never separated from Sinclair, the character who narrates the book. In fact, Demian is Sinclair himself, his deepest self, a kind of archetypal hero who exists in the depths of all of us. In a word, Demian is the essential Self which remains unchanging and untouched, and through him the book attempts to give instruction concerning the magical essence of existence. Demian provides the young boy Sinclair with a redeeming awareness of the millennial being which exists within him so that he can overcome chaos and danger, especially during the years of adolescence. In our own lives, many of us have encountered people like Demian, those young men who are sure of themselves and who consequently earn our respect and admiration. But in fact Demian resides within all of us. At the end of the book, Demian approaches Sinclair, who is lying on a bed at a field hospital, and as he kisses him, he says, 'Listen, little one, if you ever need me again, do not expect me to come back so openly on a horse or in a train. Look for me within yourself.' Hesse wrote this at a time of great personal anguish, when he was about to abandon his country because of the war that had enveloped all of Europe. He had been forced to find Demian within himself.
This message is not literally specified within the book; rather it is hinted at magically. Moreover, this symbolic truth can only be understood intuitively, but when it appears, it enlightens the whole being, and that is why many years ago I was able to walk through the streets of my city, feeling that something new had come into my life.
Although life is an affair of light and shadows, we never accept it as such. We are always reaching towards the light and the high peaks. From childhood, through early religious and academic training, we are given values which correspond only to an ideal world. The shadowy side of real life is ignored, and Western Christianity provides us with nothing which can be used to interpret it. Thus the young men of the West are unable to deal with the mixture of light and shadow of which life really consists; they have no way of linking the facts of existence to their preconceived notions of absolutes. The links connecting life with universal symbols are therefore broken, and disintegration sets in.
In the Orient, and especially in India, the situation is very different. There, an ancient civilization based on Nature accepts a cosmos of multifaceted gods; and thus the Easterner can realize the simultaneous existence of light and shadow and of good and evil. Absolutes do not exist, and if God is thus disarmed, so is the devil. But the price of such an understanding is a direct tribute to Nature itself. Consequently, the Hindu finds himself less individualized than the Westerner; he is little more than a part of nature, one element in the collective soul.
The question which the Western Christian now has to face is whether, without losing his individuality, he can accept the coexistence of light and shadow and of God and the devil. To do so, he will have to discover the God who was Christian before the personalized Christ and who can continue in a viable form after him. Such a deity would be the Christ of Atlantis, who once existed publicly, and who still continues to exist - even though submerged under the deep waters of our present civilization. Such a god would also be Abraxas, who is God and the devil at the same time.
The first time I heard of Abraxas by name was in Demian, but I had really known about him from my childhood days. I had sensed his existence in the heart of the Cordillera of the Andes and in the unfathomable depths of the Pacific Ocean which beats against our coasts. This ignis fatuus, the flames of heaven and hell which exist in him, flickered even in the foam of these waves.
Abraxas is a Gnostic god who existed long before Christ. He may be equated, too, with the Christ of Atlantis, and is known by other names by the Aborigines of the Americas, amongst them the Indians who inhabited my country. Hermann Hesse speaks of him in this way:
Contemplate the fire, contemplate the clouds, and when omens appear and voices begin to sound in your soul, abandon yourself to them without wondering beforehand whether it seems convenient or good to do so. If you hesitate, you will spoil your own being, you will become little more than the bourgeois fašade which encloses you, and you will become a fossil. Our god is named Abraxas, and he is both god and the devil at the same time. You will find in him both the world of light and of shadows. Abraxas is not opposed to any of your thoughts nor to any of your dreams, but he will abandon you if you become normal and unapproachable. He will abandon you and look for another vessel in which to cook his thoughts.
The modern Christian and the Western world as a whole have now reached a point of crisis, and the choices open seem less than attractive. We neither want one of those apocalyptic catastrophes which have so disfigured our past history, nor do we want the dehumanizing path of the Orient, which would result in an irremediable lowering of our standards. Perhaps, then, the only possibility that remains is Abraxas; that is to say, a projection of our souls both outwards and inwards, both to the light and to the deep shadows of our biographical roots, in hopes of finding in the combination of the two the pure archetype. This pure archetype would be the authentic image of the god which is within ourselves and which has been sunk for so long, like Atlantis, under the waters of our consciousness. Thus Abraxas would also come to mean Total Man.
For those familiar with Hesse's works, the names of Narcissus, Goldmund and Siddhartha are well-known. They are also figures who have much in common, since Hesse's books contain a leitmotif which is always the same. Thus, as Sinclair and Demian are the same person, so Narcissus and Goldmund represent two essential tendencies in man - contemplation and action. Similarly, Siddhartha and Govinda represent the opposed characteristics of devotion and rebellion. These are qualities contained in all of us individually; we love ourselves but we are also charitable towards others; we are torn between introspection and extroversion. Magister Ludi contains the themes of love, pity and understanding, and develops them into the fugues and arabesques which are so dear to the musical soul of the Germans. The concepts with which Hesse deals are influenced by Hinduism, Chinese Taoism, Zen Buddhism, and even mathematics, but they are worked together into a form as pure as a Bach fugue or a painting by Leonardo.
When I first met Hermann Hesse, I found him more like Narcissus than Goldmund. He had ceased wandering and was living a life of introspection in his isolated retreat at Montagnola. Nevertheless, both Narcissus and Goldmund continued to exist within him together until the end of his life. For myself, at that time I was more like Goldmund than Narcissus, although I, too, was torn between those two ways of being. And like Siddhartha, I was to meet this wise being many times, visiting him in various guises. For that first interview, I was carrying an alpine knapsack and had a book under my arm. I was young, and it was the first time that I had ever left my own country.
When I first arrived in Switzerland, in June of 1951, I found that very few people knew where Hesse was staying, and it was only in Berne, after many inquiries, that I discovered his general whereabouts. I took the train to Lugano, where I made further inquiries, and was told that Hesse was living in Castagnola. I took a bus there only to find that Hesse's home was really in Montagnola. Another bus took me to that mountain village with its view of the snow-covered Alps and Lake Lugano. The bus climbed up through the narrow streets until at last it reached its destination. A young woman got off the bus with me, and I asked her if she knew where Hesse lived. She told me that she was his hausekeeper and asked me to follow her.
It was dusk by the time we reached the entrance to the garden. Over the gate there was a sign which read in German: 'Bitte keine Besucher' - No Visitors Permitted. I passed through the gate after the girl and walked along a path bordered by tall trees. At the front door, there was yet another inscription in German which I later learned was a translation from old Chinese:
When a man has reached old age
And has fulfilled his mission,
He has a right to confront
The idea of death in peace.
He has no need of other men;
He knows them and knows enough about them.
What he needs is peace.
It isn't good to visit this man or to talk to him,
To make him suffer banalities.
One must give a wide berth
To the door of his house,
As if no one lived there.
At the time, it was too dark to read this inscription and so, when the girl opened the door and asked me to enter, I did so. She offered me a chair beside a small table in the dark passageway and asked me for my visiting card. I didn't have one, so I gave her my book, Neither by Sea nor Land. I had brought it specially for Hesse and had inscribed it for him in Spanish.
The girl went off down the passageway, and as I waited in that cloistered atmosphere, I had the feeling that I was enveloped in an aura of sandalwood. Then a side door opened, and a slim figure dressed in white came out into the shadows. It was Hesse. I stood up, but I was unable to see him clearly until after we had left the passageway and entered a room with large windows. His eyes were very bright, and although his face was thin, he smiled openly. Dressed all in white, he looked like an ascetic or a penitent. I then realized that he was the source of the sandalwood perfume.
'I am sorry, but you have arrived at an awkward moment,' he said. 'We were supposed to have gone on vacation yesterday, but my wife was stung by a bee, and we have had to postpone our trip. Everything is topsy-turvy here, but let's go into my study.'
We crossed through the living-room, which had bookshelves reaching to the ceiling and entered another smaller room. In the center was a desk, and here, too, the walls were lined with bookshelves and paintings. Hesse sat down with his back to the window, and I could see the sun setting over the mountains and lake in the distance. The desk had been cleared of papers, and I sat down next to it facing him. Hesse continued to smile, but did not say a word. He seemed to be waiting for an atmosphere of peace to take possession of the room.
I felt the importance of the moment, and now, as I recount it, I realize that those were intense years in my life and that my whole being was then capable of trembling at a meeting; it was a time, indeed, when meetings still existed. There I was before the object of my veneration. I had crossed the seas to meet him, and the welcome that he gave me was in complete accord with the feelings with which I had begun my pilgrimage. It seemed to me that Hermann Hesse had no particular age. At that time, he had just turned seventy-three; but his smile was the smile of a young man, and his body seemed so spiritually disciplined that it was like a blade of fine steel sheathed in white linen.
'I have come a long way,' I began, 'but of course you are very well known in my country....'
'It is strange that my books are read so much in the Spanish speaking countries,' he answered. 'I often receive letters from Latin America. I wish you would tell me what you think of the new translations, especially the one of Magister Ludi.'
I told him what I thought and said that the translation of Death and the Lover preserved both the spirit and the sense of the original. We then began to speak of more general matters.
'Narcissus and Goldmund represent two contrary tendencies of the soul.' he said. 'These are contemplation and action. One day, however, they must begin to fuse....'
'I know what you mean,' I broke in, 'because I, too, live within that tension and am caught between the two extremes. I dream of the peace of contemplation, but the necessity of living always pushes me into action....'
'You should let yourself be carried away, like the clouds in the sky. You shouldn't resist. God exists in your destiny just as much as he does in these mountains and in that lake. It is very difficult to understand this, because man is moving further and further away from Nature, and also from himself....'
'Do you think the wisdom of Asia can be helpful?' I asked.
'I have been more inspired by the wisdom of China than by the Upanishads or the Vedanta,' he answered. 'The I Ching can transform a life....'
Outside the late afternoon sky began to pale, and a tenuous blue light tinted the windows and played over Hesse's slight form.
'Tell me,' I asked, 'have you been able to find peace here in the mountains?'
Hesse remained silent for a time, although his soft smile never disappeared. We seemed to hear the gentle murmur of the afternoon light and the silence of things until at length he spoke:
'When you are close to Nature you can listen to the voice of God.'
We remained seated there until at length I realized that it was time to leave. Hesse gave me a small watercolor which he had painted himself, and he wrote on the back, 'Ricordo di Montagnola.' He loved painting and was a good watercolorist. He accompanied me to the door and shook my hand like an old friend saying, 'If you come back another time, you may no longer find me here.'
That was how my first interview went. Those who are still young enough to ask questions like those I asked Hesse that afternoon, or like those that Siddhartha asked the Buddha, will understand my impression.
On my return through the narrow streets of Montagnola I could not find a bus, but a young man took me to Lugano on his motorcycle. That same night I found myself in Florence, that city so imbued with Renaissance magic. But those were the postwar years, and impoverished Italy was still seeking refuge in the dollar and in the alcohol of the occupation troops.