If you want to find out what college kids are thinking these days, try asking one. Our current informant is Daisey, a 20-year-old Stanford marketing major with an IQ about as high as the dollar -- yen exchange rate plus a shrewd sense about what's happening in the culture-commodities market. We mentioned the name Hermann Hesse to Daisy and she looked puzzled.
"Sounds like a German tennis pro," she said with an Alley Sheedy grin.
"Hammering Herm won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1942," we explained.
"Trivial Pursuits?", replied Daisy. "Let me serve you a puzzler. Have you heard of Halldor K. Laxness of Iceland?"
"Exactly. He won the Prize in 1955," sighed Daisy. "So much for Old World literary fads."
And so much for the enduring relevance of visionary novelists . . . Feuilletonistes, as Hesse would say.
LITERARY VOICE OF THE '60S
Whereas. It was twenty years ago today, 1967, L`ete d`amour, when Hesse was revered by college students as the Novelist of the Decade. A mega-sage, bigger than Tolkien or McLuhan or Bucky Fuller or even Kahil Gibran!
In the '60s Hesse's mystical, utopian novels were read by millions. The popular electrically-amplified rock band "Steppenwolf" was named after Hesse's psyber-delic hero, Harry Haller, him who smoked loose "long, thin yellow . . . immeasurably enlivening and delightful" cigarettes and then zoomed around the Theatre of the Mind, ostensibly going where no fictional heroes had been before. Since Dante Alghieri, Coleridge, Rimbaud and Huxley, anyway.
The movie Steppenwolf was financed by Peter Sprague, at that time the Egg King (or Shah) of Iran. It starred Domenique Sanda. One of us had been offered $25,000 to play the Harry Haller role, but the cyber-cops of Attorney General John Mitchell closed down the Switzerland exile. The part fell to Max von Sydow.
But that story is filed in another data base.
Hesse's picaresque adventure, The Journey to the East, was a biggie too. It inspired armies of pilgrims (yours truly included) to hip-hike somewhere East of Suez, along the Hashish Trail to India. The goal of this Childlike Crusade? Enlightenment 101, an elective course. Cosmic unity, a sophomore year abroad course, familiarly referred to as The Big Brain Ride, the Orient Express.
Poor Hesse, he sounds out of place up here in the high-tech, cyber-cool, Sharp Catalogue, M.B.A., Lee Ioccoca '80s. No wonder our relevance detector, Daisy, said, "Hermann Who?"
HERMANN HESSE: COMPUTER AGE PROPHET
But our patronizing pity for the washed-up Swiss sage may be premature. In the avant garde, cyber-hip frontiers of the computer culture, around Mass. Ave. in Cambridge, around Palo Alto, in the Carnegie Mellon AI labs, in the backrooms of the computer graphics labs in Southern California, even in the Austin labs of MCC, a Hesse comback seems to be happening.
However. This revival is not connected with Hermann's mystical, eastern writings. It's based on his last, and least understood, work, Magister Ludi: The Glass Bead Game.
This book, which earned Hesse the Expense-Paid Brain Ride to Stockholm, is positioned a few decades in the future when human intelligence is enhanced and human culture elevated by a device for thought-processing called The Glass Bead Game.
Up here in the Electronic '80s we can appreciate what Hesse did, back down there (1931-1942). At the very pinnacle of the smokestack mechanical age Hermann forecast with astonishing accuracy a certain post-industrial device for converting thoughts to digital elements and processing them. No doubt about it, Hesse's Bead Game anticipated an electronic mind-appliance which would not appear on the consumer market until 1976.
We refer, of course, to that Unauthorized Fruit from the Tree of Knowledge called the Apple. In this Old Testament scenario Eve and her assistant Adam became the first psyber-punks; they committed the Original Sin. To Think for Yourself.
ALDOUS HUXLEY: HERMANN HESSE
I, for one, first heard of Hermann Hesse from Aldous Huxley. In the fall of 1960, Huxley was Carnegie Visiting Professor at MIT. His assignment: to give a series of seven lectures on the subject "What a Piece of Work is Man." About 2,000 people attended each lecture. Aldous spent most of his off-duty hours hanging around the Harvard Psychedelic Drug Project coaching us innocent novice Americans in the history of mysticism and the ceremonial care-and-handling of what he called "gratuitous grace."
Huxley was reading Hesse that fall and talked a lot about Hermann's theory of the three (3) stages of human development.
No question about it, Hegel's three thumb prints (thesis-antithesis-synthesis) were smudged all over the construct, but Hesse and Huxley didn't seem to worry about it, so why should we untutored Harvard psychologists?
We all dutifully set to work reading Hesse.
Huxley claimed that his own spiritual-intellectual development in England followed the developmental life-line of Hesse in Germany. Aldous delighted in weaving together themes from his life which paralleled Hesse's.
HUXLEY RECAPITULATES LITERARY PHYLOGENY
Huxley was born in 1894. His grandfather, Thomas Henry Huxley, was a philosopher of evolution and the principal advoccate of Darwinism in England.
During his Serious, Idealistic, Romantic Youth Aldous wrote critical essays and symbolic poetry. These works expressed the standard dissatisfactions of a 19th century educated class which was very busy rejecting the Industrial Smokestack Society. Eton-Oxford ecological concern for the land and scorn for the sooty factories.
Wordsworth had laid down the basic EPA theme. Coleridge kept it going. Byron, Shelly, Burns, Keats, Southey -- to a man these poets detested the satanic mills and pined for something more flowerlike. Thomas De Quincey in his Confessions of an English Opium Eater won the Greens prize for poetic eloquence. William Blake was the undisputed Sierra Club spokesman of the period.
Aldous Huxley's genetic debt to the Romantics was recognized in some of his most compelling quotes; his use of Blake's phrase "Doors of Perception," for example.
Huxley's disillusionment stage began at age 25 when he began that series of brittle, skeptical exposes of European decadence: Chrome Yellow, 1921, Antic Hay, 1923, Point Counter Point, 1928. Huxley's neo-Romantic cynicism about the tenement society peaked with Brave New World, the portrait of a grim Bladerunner, 21st century assembly-line society. This book surely deserved its mega-rep. Huxley was writing about happy-pills and test-tube pregnancies back there in 1932, the very year when Adolph Hitler was losing his first presidential race against Paul von Hindenburg and Franklin Delano Roosevelt was winning his race against Herbert Hoover, another H.H.
In the late '30s Huxley, having worked out his vein of irony, followed Hesse into the Third Stage of Hegelian Transcendence. This, naturally enough, involved a migration to Southern California where Aldous joined the legendary Golden Age of Far-Western Philosophy personified by Thomas Mann, Christopher Isherwood, Alan Watts, Swami Yogananda, Gerald Heard, Cary Grant, et al. There, amid the palm trees, Aldous devoted the rest of his life to psyberdelic philosophy and test-tub mysticism, both theoretical and experimental.
PARODIES OF PARADISE
Huxley's last book, Island, presents an atypical, tropical utopia in which meditation, gestalt therapy and psychedelic ceremonies create a society of Buddhist serenity.
I spent the afternoon of Nov. 20, 1963 at Huxley's bedside, listening carefully as the dying philosopher spoke in a soft voice about many things.
We fashioned a pleasant little literary fugue as he talked about three books he called "Parodies of Paradise," his own Island, Orwell's 1984 and Hesse's Bead Game.
Aldous told me with a gentle chuckle that Big Brother, the beloved dictator of Orwell's nightmare society, was based on Winston Churchill. "Remember Big Brother's spell-binding rhetoric about the blood, sweat and fears requisitioned from everyone to defeat Eurasia? The hate-sessions? Priceless satire." As soon as he said this, I "got it." Sure, and the hero's name is Winston Smith.
Aldous was, at that moment in time, fascinated by the Tibetan Book of the Dying, which I had just translated from Victorian English to American. This manuscript which was later published as The Psychedelic Experience was used by Laura Huxley to guide Huxley's passing. The book proceeded to have a publishing life of its own, running through 30 printings in several languages.
Along the line of endings, Huxley spoke wryly of the dismal conclusions of Island and The Glass Bead Game and Orwell's classic. His own idealistic island society was crushed by industrial powers seeking oil. Hesse's utopian Castalia was doomed because it was out of touch with human realities. Then he spoke of the brutal mugging of love in 1984.
Aldous was into Unhappy Endings, it seems. I timidly asked him if he was passing on a warning or an exhortation to me. He smiled and nodded. I told him that we'd write a happy sequel "for him and George and Hermann."
Two days later Aldous Huxley died. His passing went almost unnoticed because John F. Kennedy also died on Nov. 22, 1963. It was a bad day for utopians and futurists all over.
Eric Gullichsen is a software programmer, par excellence, He is co-founder of Sense 8, a software company with the mission of bringing virtual reality to everyone's desktop.