The Question of Elites:
An Essay on the Cultural Elitism of Nietzsche, George, and Hesse

Stanley J. Antosik

III The Imaginary Elites of Hermann Hesse



No sooner had Hesse arrived at his second imaginary elite than he began dreaming of another, but one determined to preserve European culture at almost any price, even that of stifling personal freedom with tradition. Again he was changing with the times. For, as is well known, one of the salient characteristics of the 1930’s was the subordination of the individual to collective ends. The cause of this was not democracy, industrialization, and technological progress, nor should it be sought in the mass society and powerful state they help bring about. None of these things need obliterate spiritual and artistic freedom. That resulted from man’s fearful and negative responses to modernism, responses which made possible, amongst other things, the popularity of the collectivistic ideologies advanced by the extreme right and left.

No doubt, the desires for national, class, and racial vengeance were aroused in no small way by the First World War and the Great Depression. But it is unlikely that the fascist and Communist elites could have changed Europe, had it not been for the widespread notion, going back to the turn of the century, that the modernistic West was moribund or decadent (1). Already in 1930, Ortega observed that “today everyone is talking of European decadence as if it were an uncontrovertible fact (2).” Not long thereafter, Robert Briffault, who believed the West bore “every appearance of decreptitude and decadence,” declared that very few people regarded Western civilization “with feelings of devotion, loyalty, and enthusiasm” and that “to the great majority of intelligent people it is an object of horror (3).” Although Briffault’s words reflect too clearly the agitated state of mind that marked the 1930’s, the loss of faith in Western civilization had, in fact, become so prevalent that elitism, as well as what Huizinga rightly decried as a puerile gregariousness, could seduce not only the masses, but also an increasing number of artists and intellectuals (4). Ortega, whose writings were a tribute to liberal conservatism, and men like Joyce and Sartre, both of whom avoided politics—the one struggling to finish Finnegans Wake, the other trying to live with philosophical nihilism—were all out of step with a decade in which Pirandello, Heidegger, Céline, Benn, and Pound espoused fascism, and Malraux, Breton, Rolland, Picasso, and Brecht were in league with the Marxists (5).

Hesse, to be sure, can be counted among those who steered clear of the elites of the extreme right and left. He rejected Marxism as detrimental to the human spirit, and he hated National Socialism to the point of calling it evil and satanic (6). Yet he was reluctant to oppose the Nazis, though they would have had difficulty getting at him in Switzerland. True, rather than delete several pro-Jewish passages from Narziss und Goldmund and “Eine Bibliothek der Weltliteratur” (1929), he chose not to have these works republished in Nazi Germany (7). More importantly, during 1936 he was severely reprimanded in the Nazi press for writing book reviews that


praised liberal, Jewish, and Roman Catholic authors (8). But this attack prompted him to stop writing literary criticism; and, all the while, he was having many of his books republished inside the Third Reich (9). Understandably, he fell into disrepute among the German emigrés who were trying to initiate an ideological crusade against fascism (10). But Hesse thought little of their rebukes. Apart from wanting to distinguish himself from his contemporaries by being politically uncommitted, he believed individuals were powerless to alter the course of Western civilization (11). Modernism had, in his opinion, generated so much scepticism, cynicism, anxiety, and despair that Europe could not but enter an age of totalitarian politics and suicidal wars (12). In short, Hesse returned to his idea that Western civilization was collapsing. And, since Hesse, unlike many people, saw no hope in either Communism or fascism, he was as convinced of the inevitability of this collapse as he had been during 1916-1923 (13).

Again Hesse tried to strike a heroic pose—this time by emulating the stately resignation of Jakob Burckhardt (14). Resignation, however, was not one of Hesse’s characteristic states of mind. He soon concluded that modernism and its ills stemmed from the failure of the Europeans to subordinate their freedom to an authoritative tradition of one kind or another after they had rejected the aristocracy and spiritual elite of the Middle Ages (15). And this illiberal view of history did not prevent Hesse from indulging in the very freedom he detested. Along with the radical conservatives, he yearned for the authorities who would set things to rights again (16). Accordingly, the idea of an aristocracy now lured him as never before; and he would surely have been seduced by the Nietzschean dream of a hereditary and spiritual elite, had he not clung, as twentieth-century elitists usually do, to the democratic notion that the elect can be found in all strata of society (17). Besides, he agreed with neither Nietzsche’s nor George’s Platonic vision of a cultural elite ruling society, because he believed that, in the last analysis, politics and culture were irreconcilable (18). Unlike his contemporary, Wyndham Lewis, Hesse was not one to want a caste of artists and intellectuals which would build and govern a new society conducive to the creation of art (19). Nor, had he heard of it, would Hesse have agreed with T. S. Eliot’s opinion that the “nucleus” of a cultural elite should come from the dominant political and social class (20). Indeed, he would even have had misgivings about Mosca’s conception of “a small moral and intellectual aristocracy” which, by “molding the minds” of its contemporaries, might “in the end succeed in forcing . . . [ its] . . . programs upon those who rule the state (21).” (My italics.)

But, seeing during the 1930’s what politics could do to culture, Hesse was unable to dissociate the two in his mind completely. Convinced, as were many Europeans, that the West faced another world war, he began to envision the reconstruction (Neubildung) of Western civilization (22). For this to occur, “a spiritual elite” (eine geistige Elite) would have to form itself into thinkers who were determined to uphold the True Europe and to apply all their energies for “preserving a core of good tradition, discipline, method, and intellectual conscience (23).” But, in contrast with


his old Chiliastic hopes, as well as those of George, Hesse no longer thought a cultural elite could change the world by itself. He dreamt simultaneously of a new breed of republican-minded patricians. Like the ancient Chinese, they would realize that nothing worthwhile could be accomplished in any sphere of life without authoritative traditions (24). Accordingly, the aristocrats would subsidize the spiritual elite in return for its serving as the arbiter in all cultural and educational matters (25). The “authoritative influence” of this elite, together with the wise rule of the aristocracy, would lead to the creation of a new order, an order free of political extremism and spiritual chaos, let alone industrialization and class antagonisms (26). In keeping with the nature of modern elitism, Hesse was dreaming of substitutes for the vanquished ruling minorities of pre‑modern Europe. But, unlike most elitists, he so detested modernity as to long for the “end of modern times” (Ende der Neuzeit) and the literal “rebirth” (Wiedergeburt) or “return of the Middle Ages” (Wiederkehr des Mittelalters), forgetting, as did George, Edgar J. Jung, and other admirers of medieval Europe, that the Middle Ages had never been the quintessence of social and cultural harmony (27).

Just as the Sinclairian elite had fallen short of Hesse’s visions after 1922, so now the League of Journeyers to the East would not do as the model of an elite which could bring about the new Middle Ages. To offer his public such a model Hesse created the ritualistic, disciplined, and rigidly hierarchical Order of Castalia (28) in his utopian novel, Das Glasperlenspiel (1943). This elite, despite its name, owes less to the traditions of ancient Greece than to those of Roman Catholicism in general and the Society of Jesus in particular (29). For, besides speaking Latin, the Castalians produce teachers and various cultural functionaries for the Order and society by subjecting talented boys to a decade of rigorous intellectual discipline and inculcating the virtues of poverty, bachelorhood, and spiritual self-­mastery on them. Yet this education is hardly intended to propagate the religious teachings of Catholicism (30). The Castalians’ highest end is the formation of encyclopedic and self-possessed minds that could so master the simultaneously aesthetic, religious, and intellectual operations of the Glass Bead Game as to make of its content—the True Europe—a means for entering into the Spiritual Kingdom (31). Exactly what these Romantic operations are cannot be ascertained from Hesse’s novel. What is certain, though, is that Hesse’s imaginary Game is a further expression of his religion of culture (32). But this time the elite he invented is at variance with the origins of art and thought; because there is even less room for personal freedom in the Order of Castalia than there had been in the Georgekreis.

Admittedly, traces of a Romantic individualism can be discerned in the protagonist of Das Glasperlenspiel, the Magister Ludi (Master of the Game) Josef Knecht, who is no less successful than Leo in synthesizing his reason with his emotions and in grasping the Spiritual Kingdom through culture (33). Nonetheless, in keeping with the illiberal mood that obtained in Europe during the 1930’s, Hesse now tended to regard spiritual and artistic freedom as something which would have to be overcome


along with the rest of the modern world (34). Hence, in Das Glasperlenspiel the elite subordinates each novice to itself by instilling in him the duties of reverence, obedience, and humility (35). Whereupon, he is taught the goal of becoming not a unique person, but an anonymous example of the universal human type manifest in every Magister Ludi (36). This is the same as saying that each devoted Castalian is made to live for the Game. And to live for the Game is to live for a tradition, inasmuch as the Game is inseparable from everything the Order holds dear from one generation to the next (37).

By reason of its being associated with the True Europe, this fictitious tradition is undoubtedly more eclectic and enlightened than the provincial ideals of most radical conservatives. But it is also more crushing to individual freedom. For, in tune with Spengler’s dictum that Western culture has no future, Hesse describes the playing of the Game as an endless recreating, manipulating, and combining of ideas and images from the past. The elite creates nothing new (38). Instead, it regards every creative impulse that is not channeled into the playing of the Game as a sign of indiscipline or self‑indulgence (39). Worse still, the Castalians stifle cultural freedom not only in their own ranks, but in society as a whole, because the patrician government permits them to be the source of all spiritual authority in the new Middle Ages. When compared with this imaginary epoch, any age of European culture cannot fail to appear as a diverse world of staggering creativity. Nor can the Castalian world bear comparison with George’s Spiritual Kingdom, not to mention Nietzsche’s empire of Supermen. All three Germans, of course, shared in the growing penchant of post‑Romantic Europe for cultural planning; but it was Hesse who conceived of a utopia that is spiritually more vapid than the official cultures of Stalinist Russia and Nazi Germany.

Since Das Glasperlenspiel is opposed to man’s creativity, some interpreters of Hesse think he was actually adverse to the idea of a Castalian elite (40). And it cannot be denied that towards the end of the novel, Knecht leaves the Order after taking it to task for neglecting the study of history, giving society an insufficient number of teachers, stressing intellectual virtuosity at the expense of meditation, and preferring the study of specialized disciplines to the pursuit of universal knowledge (41). Unfortunately, Knecht’s criticism and defection are not a revolt against the elite’s sterile tradition (42). Rather, they are a reflection of Hesse’s new belief that history is determined by a mysterious, cyclical process which eventually dooms every civilization to decadence and destruction (43). Knecht is depicted as seeing in his colleagues’ shortcomings the symptoms of an incipient spiritual decadence which increasingly prevents the Castalians from remaining faithful to the traditions of the centuries‑old Order (44). At the same time, he senses that Europe will eventually have to turn its attention from culture to war on account of the growing threat from an imperialistic power in the Far East (45). Realizing that civilization and culture will again disintegrate, he leaves the Order with the intention of laying the ground for the emergence of a new spiritual elite that could preserve


some of the Castalian tradition for another historical epoch (46). His departure is the only Castalian act possible in the face of an Irreversible fate. Knecht is one of the few genuine heroes in serious twentieth‑century literature. With his example Hesse hoped to inspire people to uphold the Spiritual Kingdom in times of doom and to strive endlessly for the creation of a Castalian Age (47).

This is not to say that Hesse wanted every page of his novel to be interpreted as part of a blueprint for the future (48). But to his mind, something like a Castalian epoch was possible, because, apart from having precedents in the Mandarin system, the Platonic Academy, and the Roman Catholic Church, it was in accord with man’s innate yearning for order and the superior individual’s inborn craving for the Spiritual Kingdom (49). Indeed, Hesse was so convinced of the necessity of a Castalian age that, in keeping with the activism of the 1930’s and early 1940’s, he decided to start laying the foundations for it. Again he avoided politics, remaining content to predict that “the Germany of 1950 will be ruled by the few men who are still youths today” and who, instead of being “party to this swindle” of Nazism, are secretly developing their personalities (50). But now he called himself the spokesman (der Sprecher) of a widely‑scattered and anonymous elite of German youths who were fated to perceive the Spiritual Kingdom after going through a demonic phase of self‑development (51). These youths he regarded as an actual League of the Journeyers to the East, but one given the tasks of surviving the self‑destruction of Europe and assisting in the restoration of Western culture along Castalian lines (52). No doubt, the grand mission of these young Germans and their very existence as an elite were a part of Hesse’s private world and no one else’s. This, however, failed to perturb Hesse, an old hand at blurring the distinctions between the imaginary and the actual. Determined to have some influence in the Third Reich, he went on to imply that he and his League belonged to the Secret Germany that would someday save European culture from extinction (53). And he would have pursued this form of cultural nationalism further, had the horrors of the Second World War and the Allies’ discovery of the Nazi concentration camps not convinced him that the Germans were unfit to be the sole initiators of the new Middle Ages (54).

But even the war and its immediate aftermath could not shake Hesse’s faith in the coming of a Castalian epoch. Although he stopped talking about the presence of an anonymous elite, he prophesied that Europe would become “a centre of spiritual power” (ein geistiges Kraftcentrum), and he propagated his works in the hope of leading extraordinary persons through an iconoclastic individualism to dreams of a Castalian future (55). Such optimism was rare in the German parts of Europe after the war, and Hesse was undoubtedly being encouraged by the fact that, shortly after receiving the Nobel Prize in 1946, more was written about his work than during all the preceding years combined (56). Better still, he was being widely read. For the almost medieval preoccupation in his writings with doom and salvation could not but appeal to many Germans who felt disoriented and disillusioned as a result of the war (57).


And the sense of catastrophe was not restricted, nor were the feelings of disillusionment and disorientation, to the German parts of Europe. With each passing year, increasing numbers of artists, intellectuals, and young people in many non-Communist countries were falling prey to confusion and despair. There were several reasons for this, one being the widespread dislocation and incalculable psychological damage caused by the war, another the imminent threat of a third, still more destructive world war. Moreover, much anguish was occasioned during 1945‑1965 by the almost complete modernization of Western Europe, because, while complicating life and hastening its pace, the mounting effects of modernity undermined the stoic and fatalistic attitudes which could lighten the burden of being forced to live with an ever growing awareness of change. And now, as a consequence of many revelations about the unspeakable practices of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, most post‑war malcontents found It far more difficult than their counterparts of the 1930's to flee from a supposedly unbearable reality Into the messianic dreams of Communism and fascism (58). Besides by living in a society that was becoming completely modernized, most West Europeans were influenced by liberal ways of thinking which prevented them from unequivocally accepting elitist, let alone totalitarian, solutions to the real or imaginary problems of the world around them (59).

In this climate of political disillusionment and scepticism, the novels Hesse wrote since 1914 could inspire people who felt spiritually alienated from their surroundings. By reading these novels without a full knowledge of the historical circumstances in which they arose and apart from Hesse’s other writings, it is easy to overlook or misunderstand his elitism and the content of his Spiritual Kingdom. What tends to impress the average reader is not only Hesse’s sense of catastrophe and reverence for the occult, but, more specifically, the solipsistic self‑indulgence of

an allegedly superior mind in Steppenwolf and Morgenlandfahrt, the feeling of spiritual omnipotence in Demian and Siddhartha, and the complete self‑effacement, or depending on one’s interpretation, total individualism in Glasperlenspiel—all absolute means for escaping the modern world. And, since these conspicuous aspects of Hesse’s work are also the ones he was particularly adept at expressing, it is no wonder that after 1950 Hesse’s fame continued to grow, persisting among the Germans and spreading to other peoples, including the Americans and Japanese (60).

Just as George could not endure the Germany in which he reached the meridian of his success, so Hesse eventually found it impossible to sustain his elitist dreams when he looked at the world in which he achieved international fame. The tensions of the Cold War and the spread of modernism were, in his opinion, proof that not just Europe, but the entire planet was nearing the end of a historical cycle (61). Culture and civilization, he prophesied, would either perish in the horrors of an atomic war or be ruined as a result of the environmental pollution, the spiritual uprootedness, and the other ills of an advancing modernism (62). And Hesse thought the wheel of history would never turn again—unless various Castalian elites arose throughout the world to salvage man’s cultural traditions


in the wake of the coming catastrophe (63). But this hope soared beyond Hesse’s powers of faith an [sic—RD] imagination. By the late 1950’s, he could not even bring himself to believe in the possibility of a European Castalia. Nowhere on the Continent did he find any sign of the republican‑minded patricians and extraordinary persons who could prepare the way for a Castalian epoch. Instead, even the best Europeans now impressed him as being too materialistic to appreciate the truth, beauty, and divinity that he saw in the True Europe (64). Moreover, he imagined, as many alarmists then did, that the fear of Communism would soon prompt the West to go fascist (65). Grief‑stricken, he began looking back with nostalgia to pre‑1914 Europe, and he concluded that anyone who still loved Western culture was an anachronism on the verge of extinction (66).

This total loss of faith in the future of Europe and the rest of the world is not to be marveled at in an elitist whose thinking after 1914 reflected the nay‑saying spirit that has bedeviled much of twentieth­-century art and thought. True, Romantic notions colored the ideals of man and culture that entered into his last two imaginary elites; and, for this reason, it is sometimes tempting to see Hesse through the eyes of Hugo Ball as ‘the last knight with the splendid features of a Romantic (67).” Yet Hesse really exemplifies the truth that no one in the Twentieth‑Century can be a Romantic. Whereas the men of Goethe’s time tended to synthesize individualism with a sound respect for tradition, Hesse ultimately preferred the fixity of order to the uncertainties of freedom. He could hardly have done otherwise. After the First World War, modernism evoked within him the un‑Romantic fear of change that runs throughout most twentieth‑century elitism, including the two major elitlst movements of the 1930’s—Communism, after all, has as its final goal the elimination of the “dialectic of history,” and fascism, as Nolte points out, is both a “resistance to practical transcendence and [a] struggle against theoretical transcendence (68).”

An un‑Romantic dread of life lies at the heart of this fear of change. This dread is one of the negative characteristics of the twentieth‑century temper. It lurks behind most theories of Western decadence and within much of European literature since 1914. But in no literary figure, not even in Broch, Kafka, Aldous Huxley, Céline, and Sartre, does it bulk larger than in Hesse. Besides wishing in Das Glasperlenspiel, for a future which would in some ways be as futile as either of those found in 1984 and Brave New World, he tended to regard the political, social, and economic forces of history as evil (69). This is one reason why the League in Die Morgenlandfahrt is depicted as existing apart from life and why the Castalian elite, for all its co‑operation with society In Das Glasperlenspiel, is defined by a spirituality that is inimical to the practical concerns of man (70). Like most cultural elitists, he could not completely separate the power of the spirit from that of the world; but he went further than George in lauding one at the expense of the other. Ultimately, nothing mattered to Hesse except the Spiritual Kingdom (71). And it must be admitted that sometimes his espousal of this Kingdom’s truth, beauty, and divinity cannot but appear as a noble and courageous feat of will in a century which so many people have


declared hopeless. Yet, in the last analysis, the ideal of the Spiritual Kingdom never goes beyond the initial predicament of Hesse’s Russian Man (72). Behind the Ideas and Images, lies the mystical realm of simultaneity and eternity, where the principle of individuation, along with human cognition and striving, vanishes in what Sartre would have defined as “a primitive un‑differentiation of all qualities. . . a pure form of being, anterior to all qualifications (73).” Even the brilliant, but perverse games conceived in Das Glasperlenspiel by the decadent Castalian, Fritz Tegularius, are not more nihilistic than this side to Hesse’s thought (74). In fact, Tegularius, apart from being illustrative of the Order’s spiritual decline, could be Hesse’s unconscious portrayal of himself (75). It would have to be unconscious, for Hesse was loath to admit to his nihilism. In response to a reader’s discovery that within the Spiritual Kingdom everything dissolves into a non‑descript unity, Hesse said those individuals who belonged in either of his last two elites would see no contradiction between the realm of simultaneity and eternity and the noumenal and phenomenal differentiations without which culture is impossible (76). Say what he might, he could not refute the sad truth that the Spiritual Kingdom ultimately negates these imaginary elites, as well as the other ideas he held dear after 1922. There is room in the world of Hesse for the Hippies and their imitators, even though the very sight of these people would have either thrown their idol into a rage or driven him still further into despair (77).

SOURCE: Antosik, Stanley J. The Question of Elites: An Essay on the Cultural Elitism of Nietzsche, George, and Hesse (Bern; Las Vegas: Peter Lang, 1978), section III: The Imaginary Elites of Hermann Hesse, chapter 2: The Order of Castalia, text pp. 159-166 [this web page], endnotes 167-178.

Note: Endnotes are not reproduced here. Obvious typographic errors have been corrected; others are noted by ‘[sic]’. Die Morgenlandfahrt = Journey to the East.

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