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.

A lion leaping from the brushwood

Quite miraculously he survived the muddy hell of European battlefields, the deadly labyrinth of the trenches and the storm of shelling that mashed men and earth alike. Ernst Jünger (1895-1998) will always be, first of all, the German soldier who kept escaping the clutches of death. In 1918, the war at last ended, he suddenly found himself centre stage, a national hero, a heavily decorated young Spartan. He then could have become a true champion of nationalist revenge and political ‘frontism’. Many wanted the bravest of veteran soldiers to stand up as the new leaders of the beaten fatherland. But Jünger wanted to be a writer.

Considering his background as one who so often had stared into the empty face of death, it comes as no surprise that the subject of nihilism fascinated him for many years. It is not the nihilism of endless trench warfare he addressed, though, but the nihilism he found in modern culture. This can be seen in Über die Linie, the long essay he published in 1950, after another world war had raged and Germany had, more or less, forgiven him for serving the Nazis as a military man.

Nobody could escape from nihilism, Jünger wrote in his essay, but still it was hard to define its essence. He began by explaining what it is not. Nihilism should not be confused with chaos. In fact, it strongly prefers a disciplined order, a strong state and an elaborate bureaucracy. However, this political order of the nihilistic state completely lacks an ethos of any kind. Nihilism needs such a power-based political order because it can no longer revert to the binding force of (Christian) values.

Nor should nihilism be called a disease, Jünger felt; it is not the result of decadence. Quite the contrary: it promotes physical health and cultivates the strong performance in both work and sports. The physical hardening of men, the relentless training to achieve an ‘automated’, machine-like strength and tireless capability, these are nihilism’s goals. Jünger used to speak of the “total mobilization” of the workforce to describe the strategy of the nihilistic state.

Next he tried to make it clear that, although nihilism results in the degradation of all the higher values, is should not be associated with evil as such. What nihilism does, instead, is to blur right and wrong. It propagates its own indifference towards all ethical questions of good and evil.

Many of nihilism’s characteristics Jünger mentioned in his essay are a consequence of this non-ethical position. ‘Holiness’ no longer exists for the nihilist, in whose eyes nothing (neither in the realm of religion, philosophy, art, or nature itself) could represent an absolute value. The last reason for veneration had evaporated. Because of nihilism all values and rules became provisional and instrumental, and it remodelled life after the image of the factory or the working space.


Jünger reached the conclusion that nihilism had developed into a style. A style of order and physical discipline, of competitive spirit and athletic strength, but also of cold mechanics and technology. It is the style of industrial man and the anonymous masses in the modern extended cities. But most of all, he thought, it was the style of reduction.

The world of nihilism is a sharply reduced world, in which beauty, truth and the moral good are stripped of their deeper meaning. Scientific theories lose their rich complexity and are simplified to one or two laws or patterns. The polymorphic character of the world is ignored, reducing reality to economic prosperity, speed, and machine-power. Men are forced to adhere to a strict specialisation in their labour or study, and to make sure everything is measured and quantified, as well as reduced to pure causality.

Jünger told his readers that he was convinced nihilism was the main theme in literature and history ever since 1850. Nevertheless, in the year he published Über die Linie – 1950 – he perceived certain signs indicating a turning point. Mankind was moving away from “the line”, the “primary meridian”, of nihilism. Following Nietzsche and Dostoyevsky he stressed that, from the start, nihilism had been a phase in cultural development, not a permanent situation. The first sign of the turn was, in his view, that the spell of radical political ideologies was beginning to wane. Simultaneously the power of Leviathan – the monstrous state of totalitarian nationalism – was becoming less powerful because of globalization.

Why did he believe globalization to be an anti-nihilistic force? He saw it as a development that stimulated the people’s concern with the future of the planet as a whole and that could lead to a world state. The then emerging unified Europe, as a “third force” on the world’s stage, would stimulate globalization, he expected. Besides, astronomy, physics and biology were expanding our general knowledge to such a degree that fundamental levels were reached, which could no longer be reduced to some simple laws or quantifiable relations. These findings demanded interpretations of a theological kind and, as a parallel, he saw “theological themes” emerge in literature.

He made sure to underline that nihilism had not been overcome yet. The deep wounds of the two world wars would have to heal first. The economic singleness of mind and the moral indifference of later-day liberalism were still in place. So was the wasteful exploitation of “the world of machines and automatons”. These destructive and levelling tendencies would still have to be adjusted.

But most of all the inner emptiness people experienced, as well as the existential fear it caused them, had to be remedied. As long as this void had not been ‘filled’, modern man would be tempted to flee in the expansion of political power and nationalist conquest, or in the speed and efficiency of transport and large-scale production.

What was most needed, however, was a new “turn to Being” (Zuwendung des Seins). This is the formula of Heidegger that Jünger adopted. The very moment the line of nihilism would be crossed, such a turn to Being would take place. It would be the confirmation that the nihilistic phase had been left behind. At this point Heidegger firmly disagreed (though he much respected Jünger’s view on the topic). He took the trouble to write a brochure to answer Jünger, explaining that nihilism went deep, being at the core of the whole philosophical tradition the West had established on the basis of Greek metaphysics. To leave nihilism behind, the basic traits of Western philosophy would have to be redrawn according to Heidegger, creating a philosophy of being.

Jünger kept to his belief that, with the great political ideologies and their monster states gradually losing control, the individual would reclaim its liberty. He felt sure that, since liberty could not be found in the emptiness nihilism had created, the individual would choose to live in the ‘oases’ outside the state’s order. The metaphors he used to depict this newly found freedom were the ‘wilderness’ and the ‘forest’.

These were not places of exile, but of a proud retreat from the terrain the state controlled. In the forest (the Wald) the independent individual would be reunited with the primeval grounds of his existence. Jünger didn’t mean all free individuals would, literally, have to go and live in the woods. One could find one’s own ‘wilderness’ within social and creative life: the ‘areas’ of love (Eros), artistic creation, and the personal relation to one’s own death could not be controlled by the state. The day will come, he predicted with some drama, that truly free man will suddenly step forward from such ‘wilderness’ places, “like a lion leaping from the brushwood”.

Jünger’s essay begs the question where we stand, more than 65 years later. Is our mainstream culture still nihilistic? If we accept Jünger’s elaborate defining description of nihilism, the answer probably would have to be affirmative. The absence of the higher values in modern lives, the daily roundelay of immoral and amoral actions, the heavy claim of work and rule-based living in large organizations striving for ‘lean’ efficiency, the domination of the economy and the omnipresence of economic reasoning, the attraction of speed and thrills as substitutes for a meaningful existence, the enduring emptiness inside and, above all, the lead modern technology has taken over everything: it all strongly resembles an extension of the cultural situation Jünger described in 1950. Is being constantly ‘on line’ not basically a kind of ‘total mobilisation’?

Of course, we could (in Nietzsche’s way) revalue the values set by Jünger. Does it make me a nihilist when I frequently participate in sportive activities? Doesn’t the internet offer new possibilities for meaningful personal education and development? Can not the same be said of the enormous speed in the global interchange of information we have achieved? Still, the fact remains that technology has gained more and more control over our lives. We have developed over the past decades a culture that is profoundly technological, becoming more data-driven and mass-controlled every year. This seems to be exactly the kind of culture Jünger (as well as Heidegger) was anticipating with quite some anxiety. Are we in the process of selling our souls to a new Leviathan? What freedom is left to us when every lion hiding in the brushwood is permanently monitored from above by drones and a whole army of security satellites?

Thomas Mann and the Other Sanatorium

Imagine your memory having turned into some sort of Google database, and then type in the words ‘Thomas Mann sanatorium’. You would expect Mann’s The Magic Mountain immediately to pop up on your mind’s screen. In that novel the elevated sanatorium Berghof in Davos completely takes in its inhabitants; it becomes their world, closing them off from the real world in the lowland. At 1600 meters above sea-level they live through their special epoch of recovery from tuberculosis, or await impending death, while redirecting their sense of time and being.

There is, however, another sanatorium that played its role in Thomas Mann’s complicated life. In Riva del Garda, a small but elegant town on the most northern tip of Lake Garda in Italy, there used to be a Kurort of great renown. It was founded by the Viennese doctor and homoeopath Christoph Hartung von Hartungen (1849-1917), who settled in Riva in 1888. He called his health resort a ‘psychiatric sanatorium’, a Naturheilanstalt, and a ‘Reform sanatorium’.

It is important to remember that this area of northern Italy used to be part of the Austrian-Hungarian empire. Riva then was like an Austrian Riviera. This may explain why Kafka and Rilke (both born in Prague, also part of the empire) went to Riva, hoping to find recovery there. Kafka first came to Riva as a tourist in 1909, and returned in 1913 to take the von Hartungen cure. Earlier even Nietzsche, always on the look-out for the best conditions Europe could offer him to lighten his heavy head, came to Riva. From the Mann-dynasty it was Heinrich who was the first to discover the sanatorium here. Until 1908 Heinrich Mann would be a regular guest. Brother Thomas, like a true Hans Castorp, would several times come to visit him.

It all started in 1893, when Heinrich, plagued by high blood pressure and bronchial disorders, consulted Hartung von Hartungen, who sent him to yet another sanatorium in Mitterbad (Tyrol), near the Italian border. In the years to come he would often return here. In July, 1901, Thomas Mann joined his brother for another stay in Mitterbad (Ulten), after he had gone through the ordeal of correcting the galley proofs of his Buddenbrooks. In February he had begun writing a story called ‘Tristan’ after Wagner’s opera. He was still working on this story when he went to the Mitterbad sanatorium, and ‘Tristan’ developed into his first attempt at making a literary theme out of sanatorium life. In several respects it is a dress rehearsal for The Magic Mountain.

For a large part of the year 1901, Thomas felt “permanently weak”. So after his Buddenbrooks had appeared in October, following doctor von Hartungen’s advice, Thomas went to Riva in November. He stayed here at the Villa Cristoforo (nowadays called the Villino Campi), just outside the sanatorium. The doctor prescribed physical exercise and forbade him to read or write in order to preclude any mental strain.

Thomas would return several times to von Hartungen’s sanatoria in both Mitterbad and Riva, where he stayed both in 1902 and 1904. In a sense he was a hypochondriac who cherished his overly sensitive condition because, he believed, it offered him literary inspiration. Disease and general weakness were accepted reasons to withdraw from active and noisy society and live the self-centred and marginal life of the artist. However, it was his wife Katia who, in 1912, had to be treated ‘for real’ in a Davos sanatorium because she was suffering from tuberculosis. Thomas himself, again, was cast into the role of the patient’s visitor. His experiences as an observer and relative outsider, contemplating sanatorium life, went directly into The Magic Mountain.


The Villino Campi

The Villino Campi, just about a hundred yards from the lake and its small beach, has been restored and nowadays is in relatively good condition. The main building of the former sanatorium on the other hand, although still standing, is a wreck. It could be a grandiose hotel if someone would invest the money to bring it back to its former glory. All the right conditions for a resurrection – a successful ‘cure’ for the sanatorium itself – seem to be present.


The former sanatorium in Riva del Garda

Will it live to see another belle époque? Our troubled times could do with some extra havens of retreat, where pampering the body is the shortest road to ‘inner emigration’.

Walter Benjamin reads Proust

Let’s consider the ninth sentence from Marcel Proust’s Within a Budding Grove, which is the second volume of In Search of Lost Time.

… our virtues themselves are not free and floating qualities over which we retain a permanent control and power of disposal; they come to be so closely linked in our minds with the actions in conjunction with which we have made it our duty to exercise them that if we come to engage in an activity of a different kind, it catches us off guard and without the slightest awareness that it might involve the application of those same virtues.

Whereas so many of Proust’s sentences are of great beauty, this one is not. (The sixteen words I have left out would not have made much of a difference in this respect). Still, it is typical of Proust. The most important words in the sentence, I believe, are ‘linked’ and ‘conjunction’. They make it pure Proust. From a philosophical point of view the sentence proclaims there is no such thing as a general ethics of virtues; since in our minds virtues ‘come to be so closely linked’ with certain actions or situations, in other situations we have to re-establish the link between action and virtue. Therefore the sentence is about the permanent act of forgetting and the ensuing need to remember. As Walter Benjamin observed: “Proust’s method is actualisation, not reflection.”

Benjamin published his essay ‘The Image of Proust’ in 1929. At that time it was already generally known that Proust was most interested in involuntary recollection, a spontaneous remembering triggered by a particular smell, sound, object, or by the play of light and shadow or some other image. Walter Benjamin, however, tried to convince his readers that what Proust really recorded in his writing was the constant role of forgetting. To forget and to remember are, essentially, the same thing.

To prove his point Benjamin began, most elegantly, to reconstruct the raison d’être for Proust’s unusually long sentences. He first called them “the Nile of language” which “overflows and fructifies the regions of truth”. Later on he described them as nets, cast into “the sea of the temps perdu” (Proust’s personal past) in order to catch memories. He also said that Proust developed his special way of writing for “the weaving of his memory, the Penelope work of recollection.” In a similar way Jean Cocteau, who often met Proust, said his sentences were ‘the honeycombs of memory’, a structure made to gather the swarming thoughts of remembrance.

Marcel Proust Venice 1900

Proust in Venice (1900)

‘Nets’, ‘weaving’, ‘honeycombs’: each image suggests the presence of open spaces. However dense Proust, with the help of his endless sentences, tried to make his structure of verbal threads or combs, he could never reach the point where all the blanks of forgetting were filled in. Walter Benjamin clarified how this inevitable process of forgetting takes place. Because our daily activities focus on certain purposes, and our deliberate acts of remembering too are purposive, there is much we almost immediately forget (because it is not connected to these purposes). Besides, during the following night, while sleeping, “the tapestry of lived life” is further reduced to “but a few fringes”.

Hence Proust preferred to write in the middle of the night, free from purposive action, and denying himself the sleep of forgetting. The no man’s land of the night, he found, was ideal for remembering. He was able then to enrich his sentences with all the wonderful observations of the not-purposeful that had not yet been forgotten. Still, despite these literary night flights Proust could not completely stop the ongoing process of forgetting, and his writings are just as much the product of such forgetting as they are of remembrance. Recollection’s work of weaving sentences inevitably reveals the gaps of forgetting. This should not surprise us: the Latin word textum means ‘web’, Benjamin informs us.

Behind all this nightly work, Benjamin – following Cocteau – believes, was Proust’s quest for happiness. Benjamin distinguishes between two forms of happiness: the ‘hymnic’ form derives happiness from “the height of bliss” in experiencing “the unheard-of, the unprecedented”. The ‘elegiac’ form, on the other hand, derives happiness from “the eternal restoration of the original, the first happiness”. It is this elegiac idea of happiness that Proust pursued. He was passionately interested in studying resemblances and in uncovering similarities (in actions, mannerisms, faces), stepping from the present to the past, to reconnect to an original source of former happiness. Nevertheless he knew that this world of resemblance would always be a distortion (a surrealist image) of the real former world he felt so homesick for.

In evoking involuntary memory, of which the dipping of a madeleine cake in a cup of lime tea is the most famous example, Proust opened up a world of resemblances, of correspondances. The unique taste and smell of the combination of madeleine and lime tea corresponded perfectly to that same combination he had experienced in boyhood. So, most of all, involuntary memory was an act of rejuvenating, Benjamin tells us. While life is an ongoing process of aging, the reliving of the past (during the magic moments of involuntary remembering) recapitulates experiences of a younger age.

“To observe the interaction of aging and remembering means to penetrate to the heart of Proust’s world, to the universe of convolution”, Benjamin states. Most characteristic of Proust is his idea of convoluted time, of time like a winding road, coiled up like a snake: at a certain moment you will reach a turning in the road that virtually brings you back to a place and a time where you were earlier, enabling you to ‘touch’ the past. The convolution of time (rolled-up in our memory, but also in objects from the past which are still present) enables a ‘re-turning’. The day dreamer and the night owl are time-travellers.

Aldous Huxley’s trouble

On a black and white photograph, representing a middle aged Aldous Huxley, I found an imprint of his observation on the relationship between fiction and reality:
“The trouble with fiction is that it makes too much sense, whereas reality never makes sense.”

Rilke and Apollo’s torso

Why would a sculptor, working with stone and bronze, need a secretary? Rodin was convinced he could not do without one, and in 1902 hired Rainer Maria Rilke. Sculptures were a major source of inspiration to the poet, who had, the year before, married the sculptress Clara Westhoff. In this period Rilke became convinced that his poems should directly relate to objective reality, and should be tangible, like a thing.
This being his ideal, it is perfectly understandable that, when he visited the Louvre in 1907, he was struck by a Greek torso. This was the marble torso, dating from 470 BC and representing Apollo, which had been excavated in 1872 in Miletus. It probably had decorated the local Roman theatre.
Here is, in my own translation, the poem Rilke wrote in 1907 to commemorate his encounter with this impressive shard of Apollo.

Apollo’s archaic torso

We never knew his fabled head
that held the ripening apples of his eyes. And yet
his torso still glows like a candelabrum,
in it his gaze, turned low now,

still holds and gleams. Or else the bow of his breast
would not blind you, and in the silent shifting
of the loins could not hover a smile
towards the middle, where procreation once was born.

Or else this stone would stand deformed and short
beneath the shoulders falling into transparency,
would not be glistening like the wild beast’s fur;

and would not from all its sides
radiate like a star: for there is not a spot here
that does not see you. You must change your life.

Rilke understood that, if one looked intensely at this torso, it was inevitable to also see the elements (the head, the arms, the legs) that had disappeared. Our imagination more or less forces us to fill in the vacant parts. Apollo’s eyes and gaze, though disappeared, are still there if we look at the chest or the abdomen. The whole is included in the fragment. The imagination may supplement the objective, and in doing so itself becomes objective. In the visible image of the imperfect the perfect may be seen, and the incomplete somehow represents the complete.

In front of this Apollo Rilke realized he was looking at his own imperfection. In this sense the statue looked back at him, judging him, and telling him: “You must change your life.” He knew that, given his shortcomings and his room for personal growth, he himself was a torso too. The realism of his self-image as an incomplete person and a not yet matured poet told him how he could be. Thus, what had been lost in the torso corresponded to his own possibilities that lay ahead. The imperative ‘you must change your life’ was ‘the command from the stone’, as Peter Sloterdijk called it. We all must improve ourselves. We are obliged to make use of our potential and our opportunities to better ourselves, since we are the only beings in the universe who can.

Kafka and the wind

LoireetBateau3‘My barge has no rudder’, says Kafka’s hunter Gracchus, who is both dead and alive, and therefore is eternally roaming the earth and its waters. Being adrift – Gracchus explains – my little boat is sailing along with the wind, wherever that wind is blowing. Alas, it is from the lowest spheres of death, in the underworld, that the wind is blowing. That is why Gracchus cannot find his death.

It appears that, to meet with one’s death in due time, apt steering is required. We all need a rudder to set out and follow our life’s course, sailing to the end, and to make sure we get there.