Herman Hesse

1905 Portrait by Ernst Würtenberger (1868–1934)

Today's quote comes from Herman Hesse's 1917 essay "Language" (to be found in My Belief: Essays on Life and Art). It's long and it packs a serious metaphysical punch. I put it out there as it is, without adding much of my own. In part that's because I still need time to digest it and see how much of it I agree with (offhand: a fair bit). But also because - taking his point to heart - I'm not sure I possess the words at the moment to express my thoughts about it and still be understood. For his point is a profound one; how does one communicate thoughts, ideas, dreams, love, in ways that will be more or less understood the right way, considering how words can mean different things to different people. How do you cut across cultural habits to reach people's hearts directly, to speak to their soul in a language that transcends grammatical barriers? I'm not sure. I'm not even sure visual artists and musicians can accomplish it either, by the way (a point on which I might disagree with Hesse, for it is disarmingly easy to misunderstand a piece of music or a painting, or to interpret them in different ways that are all in some sense valid).

In a way I fear this problem is inherently unsolvable. There will always be someone who misunderstands you, no matter how hard they (and/or you) try. But at the same time, I feel that to keep on trying to communicate what's inside us is at the heart of art, and we can't give up without dying a little bit inside.

Language is a detriment, and earthbound limitation from which the poet suffers more than anyone else. At times he can actually hate it, denounce it, and execrate it - or rather hate himself for being born to work with this miserable instrument. He thinks with envy of the painter whose language - color - is instantly comprehensible to everyone from the North Pole to Africa; or of the musician whose notes also speak in every human tongue and who commands so many new, individual, subtly differentiated languages, from simple melody to the hundred voices of the orchestra, from horn to clarinet, from violin to harp. 

For one reason, however, the poet envies the musician constantly and especially profoundly: the musician's language belongs to him alone, it is just for making music! The poet on the other hand must use for his work the same language employed in school and in business, dispatching telegrams and conducting lawsuits. How handicapped he is in having no individual instrument for his art; no dwelling of his own, no private garden, no attic window through which to look at the moon - each and every thing must partake of the commonplace! If he says "heart," meaning thereby the most vibrant of man's qualities, his innermost abilities and weaknesses, the word at the same time signifies a muscle. If he says "power," he must contend for the meaning of his word with the engineer and the electrician; if he speaks of "blessedness," a flavor of theology creeps into the expression of his idea. There is not a single word he can use that does not squint in another direction from the one he intends, that does not in the same breath recall alien, disturbing, contradictory notions, that does not bear within itself restrictions and abridgments; it breaks apart like a voice striking too-narrow walls and rebounding, incomplete and muffled. 

And so if a scoundrel is to be defined as someone who gives more than he has, a poet can never be a scoundrel. Indeed, he does not give so much as a tenth, not so much as a hundredth part of what he would like to give; in fact, he is satisfied he if is quite superficially, distantly, and, as it were, accidentally understood by his listener, or at least is not grossly misunderstood on the most important points. He seldom achieves more than this. And whenever the poet is praised or blamed, wherever he is effective or laughed to scorn, wherever he is loved or despised, it is never his real thoughts and dreams that are in question but only that hundredth part of them that can force its way through the narrow channel of speech and into the equally narrow channel of his reader's understanding.