Hesse On Facing The Abyss Within


A human being walks the knife-edge between two abysses… the uncrossable chasm between souls… and the unsoundable depths within.

Novelist Hermann Hesse (who actually spoke more of himself as a “poet” than a novelist) wrote several thought-provoking essays on the plight of humanity and its brief suspension between eternities.  When he contemplated the abyss within, Hesse realized that he had discovered a horror that most people could not handle.  The average person, said Hesse in his essay Language (1917)– unlike us artists and philosophers, of course– “would immediately go mad if” […] “he allowed himself to become acquainted with the abyss within.

For Hesse there is no innate moral compass within, not unless you count the impulse to do whatever we want.  And most people, thinks Hesse, simply could not handle that sort of freedom.  It would induce what I call an agoraphobia of the soul.  To keep from facing this vast and shapeless moral space, Hesse contends that “the average citizen has set a watchman between himself and his soul, a consciousness, a morality.”

It is not that base desires and instincts are bad in themselves, says Hesse in Brothers Karamazov (1919), “but every age and culture chooses the instincts to fear more than others and to punish more severely.”  This is the source of both law and custom.  “Every organization of mankind, every culture, every civilization, every order rests on an agreement about what is permitted and what is forbidden.”

Two types of people, however, (says Hesse) see through the artificial morality imposed upon us, see beyond the lace and frills of our conventions and agreements, see the animal within and hear the call of the wild… These are The Young and The Artist.  Myself, I wonder if this is one of the source-reasons as to why much of the greatest art in history has been accomplished by the young…

As for Youth, the dawning of awareness concerning the deeper reality around us takes the form of an awakening, one that comes with a painful shock of disillusionment.  Some people doubtless can lead their whole lives without facing the abyss within, without acknowledging the semi-arbitrariness of the morality of their particular time, place, and class.  But others, with more sensitive or aware souls, may discover this disorienting truth early– often during the teen years or early college.  This sudden new and broader awareness can feel like a betrayal– and indeed, in a sense it is, but it is an unconscious betrayal, or at least, it is a well-intentioned one.  The feeling of betrayal causes many of us, when this awareness of society’s illusions begins to slip from over our once-ignorant eyes, to feel all sorts of negative emotions– FEAR at this powerful and new and undiscussed underworld churning beneath the film of society– ANGER at being betrayed by those we loved and trusted most– SADNESS at the unrecoverable loss of innocence.

Hesse sees this stage of angst-filled disillusionment as inevitable for any thoughtful person.  Although speaking particularly of the writer Jean Paul, Hesse describes a spiritual dark passage that could tell as well of any man’s painful voyage toward self discovery; writes Hesse…  “Indeed, disillusionment was the constant fate of this demanding and insatiable soul who sought the ideal everywhere, and was fated everywhere to encounter the deathly smell of so-called reality.”

Once the youth has reached this state of disillusionment, a state of anger and rebellion will often understandably ensue.  One can even be led, after rejecting some rules and wisdoms of the previous generation, to rejecting all-– and why not?… they lied to you before… why should you trust them about anything now?  And worse, look how stupid they all are… they’ve come to be believe their own lies.  As Hesse describes the mood of the disillusioned youth.. “the ‘proper’ world is completely odious to you, and you have the inclination to smash streetlights and set fire to the temples.”

Writing in About Good And Bad Critics (1930), Hesse is sympathetic to this stage of development…  For “a person of high intellect endowed with delicate, vulnerable sense– a superior, highly talented person” it could understandably become “oppressive –in fact horrible– to live in the midst of today’s conventions about Good and Evil, about what is Beautiful and Ugly.”

But what to do about those instincts and desires that are not supposed to exist, that are not supposed to be acted upon even if they are found to exist?  Whither repression in an enlightened state?

Hesse offers no answer.  He refrains from judging the instincts, yet he also hints that maybe they SHOULD be contained.  I do know this much… that the classic view, the view that has been held by almost every strong and noble person who has lent a talented hand and strong back to build this human civilization– who has held together a family– who has helped his neighbor instead of taking advantage of him– who has protected women and children instead of abusing them– that view has been that the ability of man to rise above bestial nature is precisely what makes man, man– this rising above the animal state is the very substance and definition of nobility– and it is symbolically represented by the upright posture of man, by the man who is not bent over on all fours but stands straight and tall with shoulders back, strong enough and balanced enough to stand without help upon his own two feet.

In his Karamazovs essay, Hesse seems to say that, though he does not morally judge the instincts (they are beyond the human-made categories of Good and Evil)– nevertheless, the transcending of these base instincts is part of the journey of mankind…

“Man, on the road between the animal and the distant future of his race, always has a great deal to suppress within himself –to smother, to deny– in order to be a respectable fellow fit for society.  Man is full of the animal and primeval world, full of vast, barely controllable instincts or a brutish callous selfishness.  All these dangerous instincts are there, always there, but culture, convention, civilization hide them.” […]  “They all stay alive, none is destroyed, none.”  They can only be “transformed and ennobled.”

There is of course, the other road to take.  To give-in entirely to the instincts and desires welling-up from our deepest depths.  This is what I call, after reading Hesse’s essay on Dostoevsky’s novel, the Karamazov Approach.  Hesse tells it this way…

“Now when these instincts re-awaken as unresolved and only superficially and painfully controlled forces of nature, when these animals go on the rampage like beaten and oppressed slaves rising in revolt, with all the fury of their primeval nature, then the Karamazovs emerge.”


AS FOR THAT SECOND ABYSS, the one between people, this proves most obvious to Hesse in the city, where people never even get to know the person living for years a mere quarter-mile away.  When a city dweller passes another of his ilk upon the street, writes Hesse in About Jean Paul (1921), “he is as little able to feel any warm glow of love as the crew of a ship encountered by chance feels for the crew of the passing vessel.”

In the same essay, Hesse contends that there is an “impossibility of true understanding between human beings” and that some artistic souls, those with a melancholic bent like Jean Paul, feel “enclosed in lonely greatness.”

And the chasm between individuals opens even wider between generations or eras.  In an early essay by young Hesse, At Year’s End (1904), he writes, “whoever has taken an honest look at what we call ‘world history’ must know that every former time and race and culture is shut away from us by a hundred seals and will remain forever mysterious.”

As we go about our lives walking the knife-edge between abysses, even the greatest thinker remains mostly oblivious to the dark eternities gaping on either side of us, and most people can only jeer at those peculiar few who suffer under a more vivid and brutal awareness of life’s true condition.  These people the common folk may laugh at and blithely label “crazy.”  But for Hesse (writing in his essay on the Brothers Karamazov), what seems like the babble of a disturbed soul can sometimes represent the mad songs sung “along the edge of the abyss” while “on the road to chaos.”

We are all on that road, that taut and fragile thread strung between the infinite past and infinite future, and it is to keep from falling off that we have learned to block out the true nature of our real condition.  It is only the “holy man,” says Hess, or “the Seer” who listens to these mad songs of the too-aware and is moved by them to tears.

Hesse pretty much equates the Holy Man or Seer with the Artist.  The Artist is the only person capable of crossing the uncrossable abyss between two souls, as he is also the only one who can submerge himself into that dark and churning abyss inside himself (what can be labelled the “unconscious”) and re-surface bearing gifts of self-knowledge and understanding.  This chasm-diving, of course, can come at great cost to the Artist.  In this way, the Artist is a martyr, a mini-messiah– sacrificing himself for our own enlightenment.  He goes to the dark places; he visits the far shore on our behalf.

Says Hesse in Language, “the artist secretly comes and goes between this side and that, between the conscious and unconscious.”  And because our own sense of morality is basically just the internalized view of authority, the Artist, by surpassing mere morality, is by nature anti-authoritarian.  Whereas, says Hesse, the rest of us seem to require a God and a Devil as much as we require Day and Night, the Artist goes “beyond the opposites” where there exists both “the nothingness and the all.”  In this way, and for all of us, the artist is “coming to terms with the devil.”  For the human race of today, there is a deep connection between repressed desires and the Devil.  Says Hesse… “To the tamed, cultivated, and moral eye we all have, the repressed material we carry within us is satanic and hateful.”

To avoid being judged, reproached, or outcast by our fellow man, most of us ignore and repress some of our most deeply seated instincts and desires.  To preserve some of society’s illusions for ourselves seems the safest way of maintaining sanity.  However, this sanity-saving technique of blocking out what we do not wish to see also cheats us of a full experience of life.  Hesse’s views on the value of living a more fully aware life will be the subject of my next post…


More Posts from Hammering Shield On Hermann Hesse:

Hesse On the Decline Of The West 

Hesse On Clear Contemplation And The Cloudy Mirror Of Desire

Hesse On Critics:  The Good, The Bad, And The Actually Helpful

Hesse On Living A Life Of Heightened Awareness



One thought on “Hesse On Facing The Abyss Within

  1. I’m impressed with your take on this. I am the artist, the writer and in so many ways you are describing me, here. For a number of reasons today I started looking for something that would further enlighten me in this regard…I found the above. Thank you. It’s just what I needed for my next step for the current novel I am writing about facing the abyss within related to all kinds of things including death. I’ll stop the comment here…don’t want to run-over at the keyboard.

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