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Coffee with Hermann Hesse or How I Survived the 1960s

My senior year in college, 1970-1971, the German born Swiss author and painter Hermann Hesse was all the rage. Hesse wrote both fiction and nonfiction and was awarded the Noble Prize in Literature in 1946. I suspect his popularity on college and university campuses began with his novel Siddhartha, at least that was the first of his novels that I read. I followed Siddhartha with Steppenwolf, Demian, Rosshalde, Narcissus and Goldmund, and The Glass Bead Game, and probably in that order. If you click on this Wikipedia link you’ll read that Hesse’s novels “explore an individual’s search for authenticity, self-knowledge and spirituality.” As it turned out, just the thing for the late 1960’s and early 1970’s.

If I were to divide my life into periods – you know, Period I: Birth, Period II: Pooping and Pissing – the period in which I was reading Hesse would best be described as my Self-indulgent and Pretentious period. You can’t blame Hesse. It wasn’t his fault. Nor should you judge me too harshly. I really was searching for authenticity and self-knowledge. Unfortunately, I also wanted a rather creative, intelligent, and beautiful woman to know, indeed observe, that I was searching for authenticity and self-knowledge. Often times when we were together I would give the impression of being lost in my search, unware of the mundane reality around me. As Emil Sinclair was led in his search by Max Demian, I too was being led by my unnamed daemon. I did my best to enter a trance-like state of self-reflection, or at least did my damnedest to give that impression. I indicated that I had entered my state of self-realization by staring into space, or at the floor, and pretending I was oblivious to what was happening around me. It’s difficult to attain authenticity when you are working to create the impression of authenticity. What can I say? I was young and falling in love. 

I should also note, that this period defined by my daemon-lead search for authenticity was also my poetry writing period. I wrote my first poem on an anti-Vietnam war march. I remember pausing, retrieving my small journal and a pen, holding the journal against a post, registering that the creative, intelligent, beautiful woman was watching, and wrote. I would wander around the campus by myself waiting for my daemon to inspire me. As it turned out, during that beautiful spring when it only rained at night, my daemon inspired me twenty times, and then thankfully stopped.

I still have those poems and the other day I showed them to my wife. We had killed a bottle of wine at dinner and while doing so, for reasons I don’t remember, I told her I had written poetry and done some drawings while in college. When we got home from the restaurant I handed her both and went downstairs to watch TV. The next day I asked if she had read the poems. She had. I then said, with a sincerity and enthusiasm meant to impress: “Aren’t they great! I never should have stopped writing poetry.” The look on her face was a joy to behold. It was a combination of loving concern, painful embarrassment, and unsolvable conflict. I started to laugh and said: “I’m just kidding! They’re horrible! I mean really horrible! They’re so bad I can’t  throw them away.” Yes, those poems are a proud artifact of my important daemon period. If ever I feel pretentiousness surfacing from the deep dark hole where I mercilessly drive most of my character flaws, all I have to do is read the poems.  

It's important to note that I was just emerging from the late 60’s. Vietnam, and then the bombing of Cambodia, disturbed me to distraction, awakening in me moral outrage. I was playing the White Album over and over again. I was reading Abraham Maslow’s Motivation and Personality, studying the hierarchy of needs, seeking peak experience, pursuing self-actualization. I was reading the Population Bomb by Paul Ehrlich and doing my best to convince my parents that doom was just around the corner if we didn’t act. I was introduced to the new and exotic word “ecology” and began to understand what we were doing to the planet, and in a flash was back to my parents telling them the oil would run out one day. I was traumatized by the killing of four students at Kent State University and then fractured again eleven days later by the killing of two students at Jackson State College.

I was political and practical. I read, wrote, spoke, protested, got arrested, and fell in love. I was hopeful and angry. And I was searching for myself. Laugh now if you will, but the times were inspiring and challenging. A cultural revolution actually was taking place. I walked around barefoot for goodness sake.

In the folder where I keep my magnificently horrible poems are five drawings, not very good, but not magnificently horrible either. They only exist because I was asked to draw them by one of my professors. I took a class on Hermann Hesse in the spring of 1971. I remember the prof was very good and, I realize now, young. I can still vaguely see his face. I don’t remember his name. During the semester we read and discussed the Hesse books I listed above. The class didn’t meet in a proper classroom. We met outside sitting on the grass under trees. I remember I couldn’t hear people very well. We met in a cafeteria, or was it in a lounge. Either way, I remember I couldn’t hear people very well.

The prof asked if I would do drawing of my impression of some of the female characters in the books. I don’t remember why he asked me to do that, nor do I remember how he knew I could draw. I do remember that there was a final “project” in which all the students contributed (there were only six of seven of us), and that those contributions would be shared/displayed somewhere on campus. My contributions were the drawings and it came as a surprise to me, and I suspect the others, that the prof wanted to make public our work. I refused. My drawings were never shown. Why? Well, mostly because they are not that good and I try to avoid embarrassment at all cost. I do not like feeling the fool.

The drawings scattered about this text are they. I don’t remember which characters in which books are represented in the drawings. Obviously the eyes are male and I don’t remember who they represent. Still, the drawings and the poems are miniscule, but nonetheless important, happenings on my journey towards authenticity. Why else would I still have them after all these years? I refused to show them in 1971, but am willing to do so now in 2017. Why? I’m not sure. Certainly not because they are worthy. Perhaps the showing and the vulnerability move me ever so closer to authenticity. Perhaps not. However, the poems will forever remain hidden.

Copyright © 2017 Dale Rominger

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