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Hermann Hesse and Japan

A Study in Reciprocal Transcultural Reception


Neale Cunningham

Hermann Hesse once stated that his Japanese readers understood him best among all his readers worldwide – a little known fact among readers of Hesse in the West. This book examines Hesse’s reception in Japan and of Japan in the context of a transcultural reception process. It traces the different phases of Hesse’s reception in Japan and contextualises this reception in terms of the regional setting of East Asia and the cultural authority of imperial Japan. The role of transcultural mediators as figurative nodes in the world literature system is analysed, with a particular focus on the key role played by Hesse’s «Japanese» cousin, Wilhelm Gundert. Finally, Hesse’s epistolary exchange with his Japanese readers is unfolded to show how deep affinities arise, which result in the creation of a type of «spiritual» capital. This epistolary exchange, together with the translation of the Zen bible Pi Yen Lu by Wilhelm Gundert, inspired Hesse to write a series of three unique Zen-poems as a means of expressing a lifelong search for transcendence.

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Chapter 4 Hesse’s Zen-Poems: Beyond Das Glasperlenspiel to the Transcultural ‘Essence’


You are neither a savage nor poorly educated, but rather a devotee of Zen Buddhism, and therefore have a belief and an idea of a spiritual discipline which like few others educates people to let in the light and to become silent in the face of the genuine truth.1

This chapter shows the process by which Hesse arrives at the Zen-poems he writes at the beginning of 1961. This is the final strand in the project of analysing Hesse’s reciprocal reception of Japan. Hesse’s deep transcultural ←271 | 272→affinities with some of his Japanese readers led him to write a ‘preparatory’ poem in December 1958. This poem was a step on the way to a new mode of penetrating expression in the Zen-poems, written in January and February 1961, which capture a new spiritual experience and insight into the singularity of the universe. I point out that Hesse’s literary production did not end abruptly with the publication of the novel Das Glasperlenspiel in 1943. Hesse biographer Ralph Freedman maintains that ‘The Glass Bead Game [was] a summa of his efforts in both art and life’, adding that ‘the years following the Bead Game were essentially occupied with reissuing, rearranging, and re-editing old work.’2 Joseph Mileck characterises the novel as Hesse’s ‘Crowning Synthesis’,3 while also arguing that ‘the last period of Hesse’s life was primarily one of literary entrenchment.’4 In 2012, Gunnar Decker, writing about Das Glasperlenspiel, writes that ‘The will to write a magnum opus which is...

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