Through the eyes of the writer

Hermann Hesse (1877-1962) felt he wanted to live the life of a hermit. It was 1919 and the desecrating practices of the First World War at last had come to an end. So had, rather tragically, his first marriage. He decided to move from Bern to Montagnola in Ticino, just south of Lugano, where you are still in Switzerland but where the language and culture are decidedly Italian. From what we know it is not at all clear what Hesse meant when he said he wanted to be a hermit here.

No doubt he wanted to be close to nature and regain contact with the mystery of nature’s timeless powers. He could not stop talking about it. His ideal was to be surrounded by the natural greatness of majestic old trees and by the indisputable beauty of mossy rocks. Here he could escape forever from social conventions and obligations, leaving the aggressive world far behind him. Montagnola, with its forest-covered slopes overlooking Lake Lugano, in many ways could fulfil his rustic needs.

However, the luxurious city of Lugano was within walking distance (certainly for a fit outdoor man like Hesse). Besides, he had his lodgings in the Casa Camuzzi, a rather spectacular baroque palace, the most impressive building in Montagnola. He stayed here until 1931. Even if we take into consideration that the region was less populated then, it is an exaggeration to present the village of Montagnola or its surroundings as a hermit’s refuge. Unless we are prepared to see things through the eyes of Hesse himself.

To begin with he was a mystic. His interest in Buddhism (inspired by Schopenhauer) had intensified during a long journey to Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Burma in 1911. His intellectual friendship with Carl Jung further stimulated his penchant in this direction. Mystic contemplation, absorbed by nature, became his way of seeing the material world in the light of eternity. He did not need a real wilderness to experience the timeless idea of wilderness and its liberating and purifying effects. He could have his lodgings in a luxurious little palace and at the same time stay for days on end in a nearby forest, sleeping there under the bare sky of night, only covered with some branches or a simple blanket.

His mental need to be one with nature is also expressed in his lifelong admiration for St Francis of Assisi. In 1904 he had published a monography on him, and it seems that he died with a poem of St Francis in his hands. Therefore to live in Montagnola ‘like a hermit’ also meant to him: to follow the Franciscan ideal of a most harmonious relation to the world of animals and plants.

Shortly before moving to Montagnola Hesse had gone through the personal drama of leaving his wife Maria Bernoulli, who was suffering from schizophrenia. He took the rather drastic step of also leaving his children behind. Living like a hermit therefore may also refer to this choice to go on alone; to leave home and hearth to concentrate on a higher cause. It was his deep conviction that the world’s history and personal life both moved in cycles; after an old cycle had been completed a radical break to start a new cycle was asked for. This belief in 1914 had made him think for some time that the Great War was the long awaited signal that the old and decadently tired world was finally collapsing, to make way for a new beginning. One should not resist such a rebirth but rather assist the old world in finding its end. Leaving behind his family in Bern and coming to Montagnola was a similar rift. A hazardous jump from the well-known but restrictive world of home to the strange and challenging world ‘out there’. It made him feel as guilty as hermits doing penance often do. He immediately began to write a novella, Klein und Wagner, in which the bank employee Klein finds himself in an express train heading south, fleeing from the devilish impulse to kill his wife and children, an idea that keeps haunting him. His real crime is that he stole money from his bank to finance his escape. Klein is a criminal fugitive as well as an emerging artist undertaking a journey into a new dionysian life. He decides to use the name Wagner as an alias, and thus turns into a dual personality.

In the Museo Hermann Hesse in Montagnola several material relics of this most spiritual writer can be seen. His typewriter, part of his book collection, letters, a white jacket (including the original stains), as well as the characteristic straw hats he liked to wear. Apart from all this the museum’s collection makes it abundantly clear that Hesse liked to paint outdoors. His aquarelles connected his worlds: Licht und Farbe schwingt von Welt zu Welt.

However, roaming this small museum didn’t give me the sought after sensation of coming real close to Hesse. That is, not until I stood before a showcase that contained two of his glasses, both round, one with black rims, the other gold-coloured. It occurred to me that, in a way, they could represent Hesse’s view of the two worlds, old and new. One pair to look at the old world – not cleared away by the Great War, as Hesse later must have realised – and one pair to see sharply into the hoped for alternative world, the golden one.


Even more interesting was a modest glasses case I spotted. It had a small sticker on it that Hesse himself must have put there, obviously to remind himself of something he could not afford to forget. On this sticker he had written: die gute Zwischenbrille, ‘the intermediate glasses, just right’. I was more than prepared to believe this proved that Hesse, in the end, was not interested in dualistic views as such; he wished to connect his two worlds of old and new, of the moral and the immoral, of West and East, of the material and the spiritual. Isn’t that what ‘in between glasses’ are for? And then I knew: there lived a realist in Montagnola.