Hesse On The Decline Of The West

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Hermann Hesse, writing in the 1920s, asserts that the West is experiencing “the complete triumph of industrialization” (1926’s Our Age’s Yearning For A Philosophy Of Life) and is suffering from “the weariness of overspecialized functions of the soul,” (1922’s Exotic Art) and the “exaggerated one-sidedness of its intellectual cultural development” and “scientific specialization” (The Speeches Of Buddha, 1921).  It is due to this lopsidedness that Westerners experience the angst, dread, pessimism and other “symptoms of decline” of our culture.  This situation, this reliance on technology and assembly lines, says Hesse, “requires a corrective, a refreshment of from the opposite pole.” 

In Hesse’s day, even more than our own, the speed of modernization was dizzying and unnerving.  An old man found himself living in an entirely different world from the one he grew up in.  The young people around him possessed a worldview more alien to his own outlook than his worldview differed from that of the middle ages.   Culture shock was common among the elderly.  “The ideals and fictions, the dreams and wishful thoughts, the mythologies and theories that dominate our spiritual life,” says Hesse in Our Ages’ Yearning…, have been transformed completely.  Instead of traditions, modern man has “fashion.”  It is fashion that feeds the addiction for the latest “necessary stylish expressions, buzzwords, dances, tunes” and that keeps us chasing ever after “last month’s smash hit tune” and this season’s “stylish entertainments”— but the realm of fashion, so “ephemeral, perishable, valueless,” proves a poor substitute for the comfort and wisdom of old, hard-earned ways and traditions.

It is the absence of continuity, says Hesse, the replacing of the old world with the new, that cuts man adrift and gives him the feeling that his civilization is in a state of decline.  As Hesse writes in About Jean Paul, 1921, “every individual, insofar as he does not belong to the dying world, finds a chaos in himself, a world unregulated by an tablet of laws.”

During a time of extreme uncertainty, it is no surprise to Hesse that we in the West would feel a natural impulse to retrace our steps and try to discover where we got off track.  “This is what I call the Decline Of Europe,” he states in Brothers Karamazov (1919).  “This decline is a turning back to Asia, a return to the mother, to the sources.”  If this is interpreted as the “death” of Western culture, than it is a death that “will lead like every earthly death to a new birth,” and what we perceive as a decline is actually but the first step in a new Renaissance..,. the so-called “Decline Of The West” is  not only part of a “natural” process, it is, in the long-term, “healthy.”

Of course, this turbulent time is to be an age of moral confusions.  No handed-down ideal or morality will be accepted without the greatest scrutiny.  Bearings will be lost.  Horizons darkened.  Ethics shattered. We will experience the anxiety of living in a rudderless era… “Our lives are entirely lacking in propriety,” writes Hesse in Our Age’s Yearning…;  “There is no longer the traditional, established, unwritten agreement about what is proper and decent behavior between human beings.” 

Hesse, in his Brothers Karamazov essay, plunges even deeper into the psychology of “decline”…

When a culture that attempts to domesticate mankind grows weary and begins to totter, then people in ever greater numbers behave strangely, become hysterical, have weird desires, act like youths at the age of puberty, or pregnant women.  The impulses that stir in their souls have no names and from the point of view of the old culture and morality, they have to be called ‘bad,’ but they can no longer speak with so strong, natural, and innocent a voice that all good and evil become problematical and every law is put in doubt.” 

When what was held-up as “the Good” begins, in a declining society, to be doubted, the culture starts showing signs of breaking down… and people can be found naturally reverting to instinctual behaviors.  “In times when such an atmosphere of collapse prevails, strange gods emerge– and appear more like devils.”

During this time, “good and evil, beautiful and ugly, bright and dark are no longer separate.  It becomes “the business of each individual” at such times to redefine all such terms (About Jean Paul, 1921).

“Before the old dying culture can be replaced by a new one,” Hesses says in Bros Karamazov, “during that anxious, dangerous, painful stage, man has to look anew into his soul, see once more the animal rising within him, acknowledge anew the existence of primeval forces that are supramoral.”

Nihilism becomes the ultimate danger during such an epoch… extreme skepticism… the belief in no belief, the fear that– because we cannot name the Good– the Good does not exist, that because our eyes are blurred and we cannot tell Beauty from Ugliness, then there must be no Beauty– and thus, no Art.

Writing in 1915’s Letter To A Philistine, Hesse complains of “that stupid cheap skepticism that is more inimical and dangerous to Art and to the life of the spirit in general than any vice.”  One can doubt one’s inherited set of values, but this does not mean that no values exist at all.  As Hesse rhetorically asks in A Night’s Work (1928), “is it really proper and necessary to regard everything that has gone before, from Jesus Christ to Schubert to Corot, as stupid, old-fashioned, superseded, and ludicrous?”

Hesse is not convinced that Western nations will have to suffer annihilation or subjugation in consequence of our culture’s so-called decline.  “It is possible,” he says in Bros K., “that the whole ‘Decline Of Europe’ will run its course ‘only’ inwardly, only in the souls of a generation.”  He predicts that, ultimately, heroes and icons will not be turned-out, but that there will occur a “reinterpretaion of worn-out symbols” and a “transvaluation of spiritual values.”

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More Posts from Hammering Shield On Hermann Hesse:

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

Hesse On Facing The Abyss Within

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