restricted access Hermann Hesse's Fictions of the Self: Autobiography and the Confessional Imagination (review)
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Reviewed by
Eugene L. Stelzig. Hermann Hesse's Fictions of the Self: Autobiography and the Confessional Imagination. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1988. 346 pp. $35.00.

Over the past decades, readers and critics of Hesse in the U.S. have benefitted from five important studies: those of Theodore Ziolkowski (1965), Mark Boulby (1967), George W. Field (1970), Ralph Freedman (1978), and Joseph Mileck (1978). These investigations clarified major aspects of Hesse's writing and provided fresh insights into his often troubled existence. Stelzig's book continues the tradition of reciprocal illumination of the author's life and work. It differs in the insistence on the proposition that Hesse's works reveal the confessional and self-referential voice of an author whose unrelenting pursuit of introspection shapes the self-exposure, self-masking, and self-development of all the major figures he created.

The book is based on a thorough knowledge of Hesse's works and Hesse scholarship. It is well-written; the discussions are lively; the selection of texts is representative; and the basic premise is developed coherently in the initial three chapters. The positive results of Stelzig's approach are a systematic, chronological presentation, many excellent observations, and, by foregrounding the often difficult-to-establish interrelations of life and fiction, original interpretations of puzzling aspects of well-known novels. In addition, Stelzig succeeds in showing a unique, never fully resolved conflict in Hesse's narrative voice between a literary confession that focuses on the self and a religiously oriented confession that strives for spiritual enlightenment. Perhaps the study's most important contribution can be found in the re-valuation of Hesse's works in the light of these polar forces. Certainly, Stelzig argues convincingly that Hesse either transformed the modern search for an elusive self into a spiritual quest or translated the medieval search for salvation into the exploration of the fragmented, multi-faceted self of the spiritually disinherited mind in the twentieth century.

However, despite a sincere effort and considerable expertise in commenting on a wide-ranging selection of texts, the evidence for the central argument remains inconclusive. Stelzig discusses the autobiographical literary tradition in the light of his premise and also points to specific examples in Hesse's narrative technique that could support his definitions of self-will, self-realization, and self-knowledge. But the actual critical analyses lack the taxonomic rigor necessary for a psychoanalytically based study. It is symptomatic that Stelzig compares primary aspects of Hesse's confessional voice and the quest for self-knowledge with Goethe's perception of the polar dimension of poetry and truth, but neither cites K. R. Eissler's psychoanalytic study of Goethe nor the investigations of Ernst Kris. It is equally noteworthy that Stelzig does not define satisfactorily the essential difference between a manifestation of self-insight rooted in introspection and a self-knowledge based on a continuous, productive dialogue with the world. Certainly, a self-knowledge that evolves from attempts to comprehend the impact of historical forces on social change differs from a persistent primary impulse that gives direction to existence. Because Stelzig believes in the timelessness of the unconscious (Oedipus complex, father conflict, Hesse's Eigensinn, defense strategies), the possibility of error increases even in an abundantly documented life. [End Page 292]

As a result of unresolved questions, the investigation drifts into discussions of an informed reader, at times canvasses the research of others, and periodically becomes diffuse in relating everything from the effect of the World Wars to the impact of a book Hesse read to his narrative technique. A study of the continuous interplay between an author's life and his fiction may require a shifting focus or different approaches, but they should be mutually enlightening and not remain at odds. Some sections of Stelzig's investigation are excellent; others gloss over the methodological problems that had to be resolved, thereby diminishing the force of the presentation.

Horst S. Daemmrich
University of Pennsylvania