Hesse On “Clear Contemplation” And The “Cloudy Mirror” Of Desire


Certainly Soul is everywhere, is possible everywhere,” states Hermann Hesse in Concerning The Soul, 1917.  And it is equally obvious to him that “man’s present duty is to develop the soul– as it was once his duty to walk upright, discard his animal fur, invent tools, make fire.”  And as the individual life is pathetically short whereas the species-life stretches much farther into eternity, it is not merely one man’s development of soul that matters, but also the growing of the soul of all humanity.  For Hesse, “collective mankind becomes for us a representative of the soul.”  As the soul is to man, humanity is to the Universe.

In spite of the importance Hesse attaches to the development of the human soul, Hesse believes that “there are not a great many people who have spiritual experiences” (A Bit Of Theology, 1932).  “The majority never become fully human.  They remain in their primeval condition” and stay childishly stuck “in the irresponsible animal world of their instincts and infant dreams.”

Part of the problem is that, whereever we go, we tend to bring our psychological baggage with us.  We look at the world through us-colored glasses.  Our perceptions come to us shaded with our own hang-ups and desires.  “The man whom I look at with dread or hope, with greed, designs, or demands,” says Hesse in Concering The Soul, “is not a man but a cloudy mirror of my own desire.”  Hesse, long before Jean-Paul Sartre was hurling similar accusations, points-out that we attempt to shape the people we see to fit our concerns and preconceptions.  Hesse asserts that whenever we come in contact with a fellow human being, we “regard him in the light of questions that limit and falsify:  Is he approachable or arrogant?  Does he respect me?”  Often as not, we view others as objects or obstacles to our own desires, and we attempt to ascertain by the other person’s “appearance, manner, and behavior” whether they “will abet or hinder our plans.”

To get past this me-centered mentality, Hesse believes that we must experience others without judging their usefulness as tools for satisfying our own desires.  “The eye of desire dirties and distorts,” he cautions.  We must move beyond looking outward full of desires and fears and instead observe the world with “clear contemplation.”  Says Hesse…

Only when we desire nothing, only when our gaze becomes pure contemplation, does the soul of things (which is Beauty) open itself to us.”   […]   “At the moment when desire ceases and contemplation, pure seeing, and self-surrender begin, everything changes.  Man ceases to be useful or dangerous, interesting or boring, genial or rude, strong or weak.  He becomes Nature, he becomes beautiful and remarkable as does everything that is an object of clear contemplation.”

For Hesse, clear contemplation works like magic– not fairytale magic, but the magic of the open heart, the magic of accepting everyone, embracing everyone.  “There is only a single magic,” he states in From My Diary, 1918, “a single power, a single salvation… and this is called Loving.”

Hesse believes there is a pleasure higher than sensual gratifications.  There is a enraptured state that comes to one who has attained clear contemplation and unselfish seeing.  One cannot reason one’s self to this sort of bliss– “Happiness,” says Hesse, “cannot be found in the Intellect.”  Instead this higher attainment of eudaimonia is achieved by turning the heart inside out, turning it away from inward-throbbing greed to outward radiating love.

The only sadness, says Hesse, is that even the greatest guru cannot remain in an enraptured state for every moment of every day.  As Hesse has his character Joseph Knect say in  Joseph Knecht to Carlo Ferromonte (1961):  “I cannot imagine a perpetual state of illumination, a continuing condition of ecstasy.”  It would be like finding a way to turn “the lightning into a sun.”


More Posts from Hammering Shield On Hermann Hesse:

Hesse On the Decline Of The West 

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

Hesse On Living A Life Of Heightened Awareness

Hesse On Facing The Abyss Within



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s