Hesse on Language

Hermann Hesse: "Language" (1917), from My Belief: Essays on Life and Art, trans. D. Lindley (1974)

Language is a detriment, an 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 inner most 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 if he 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 wherever 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.

That is why people defend themselves with so much fear, as though from a deadly threat, when an artist or an entire generation of young artists begins to experiment with new expressions and new language and to tug at the bonds that constrain them.  For a citizen who has learned it, language (any language that he has painfully acquired, not just that of words) is holy.  To the average man everything is sacrosanct that held in common by society, that he shares with many, if possible with all, that never reminds him of loneliness, of birth and death, of the innermost I.  The poet's fellow citizens, like himself, have the ideal of a world language.  But the world language of the citizen is not the same one the poet dreams of, a primeval forest of riches, an immense orchestra; rather the citizen's is a simplified telegraphic sign language, the use of which will save people trouble, words, and paper and will not interfere without he earning of money.  Alas, writing poetry, composing music, and endeavors of that sort always, as it happens, interfere with the earning of money!

Now, if our fellow citizen has learned a language that he takes to be the language of art, he is content in the belief that he understands art and has mastered it; he then becomes furious if he discovers that this language he acquired so painfully is valid only for a quite small province of the world of art.  In our grandfather's time there were energetic and educated people who had pushed their way ahead in musical appreciation to the point of admitting, beside Mozart and Hayden, Beethoven too.  To that extent they "went along."  But then with Chopin and Liszt and Wagner, when they were required again and again to learn a new language, to become once more revolutionary and young, flexible and happy in their recognition of something new, then they grew deeply offended; they proclaimed the downfall of art and the degeneracy of the times in which they were condemned to live.  What happened to those people is now happening to many thousands more.  Art is producing new faces, new languages, babbling sounds and unfamiliar gestures; it is tired of always talking the language of yesterday and the day before, it wants to dance for a change, it wants to kick over the traces, it wants to cock its hat and walk zigzag.  And our fellow citizens are furious at this; they feel that they are being mocked and that their values are being attacked in every direction and pull the blanket of their education up over their ears.  And the same citizen who rushes off to the law courts at the very slightest slur or affront to his personal dignity now becomes prolific in horrid insults.

This kind of rage and fruitless excitement does not, however, free the citizen, does not unburden and cleanse his soul, does not by any means put an end to his inner unrest and disgust.  The artist, on the other hand, who has no less to complain about in the case of this fellow citizen than vice versa, takes the trouble to seek to discover and learn a new language for his anger, his contempt, his bitterness.  He feels that insults will not help, and he sees that he who utters them is in the wrong.  Since in our time he has no other ideal but himself, and since he wills and desires nothing except to be wholly himself and to do and speak what nature has implanted within him, he converts his enmity toward his fellow citizens into the most personal possible form, the most beautiful, the most eloquent; he does not translate his scorn into venom but rather sifts and kneads it into a new irony, a new caricature, a new insight that transforms what is unpleasant and irritating into what is agreeable and beautiful.

What an infinite number of languages nature has, and what an infinite number men have invented!  The few thousands simple grammars that nations have hammered out, from Sanskirt to Volapuk, are relatively meager accomplishments.  They are meager because they have always contented themselves with what was most essential--and our fellow citizens have always agreed among themselves that what is most essential is earning money, baking bread, and the like.  On such fare, language cannot thrive.  Never has a human language (I mean a grammatical one) achieved half the animation, wit, elegance, and spirit that a cat reveals in the waving of her tail or a bird of paradise in the silvery plumage of its wedding attire.

And yet man, as soon as he became himself and did not try to imitate the ants or the bees, greatly outdid the bird of paradise, the cat, and all other animals and plants.  He thought up languages that permit him to communicate and empathize infinitely better than German, Greek, and Italian do.  He conjured up religions, architectures, paintings, philosophies; he created music whose meaningfulness and richness of color far excel any bird of paradise or butterfly.


The average citizen likes to compare the dreamer to a madman.  The average citizen is right in feeling that he would immediately go mad if, like the artist, the man of religion, the philosopher, he allowed himself to become acquainted with the abyss within him.  We may call the abyss the soul or the unconscious or whatever; out of it comes every impulse of our lives.  The average citizen has set a watchman between himself and his soul, a consciousness, a morality a security police, and he recognizes nothing that comes directly from that abyss of the soul before it has been given that watchman's stamp of approval.  The artist's constant distrust, however, is not directed agains the region of the soul but precisely against that border watchman's authority; the artist secretly comes and goes between this side and that, between the conscious and the unconscious, as though at home in both houses.

While he tarries on this side, on the familiar daylight side where the citizen lives, the poverty of all languages presses heavily upon him, and to be a poet seems a thorny life.  But once he is over there, in the land of the soul, then, magically, word after word floats toward him from every wind, stars sing out, and mountains smile, and the world is perfect, and it is the language of God in which no word an no letter is lacking, where everything can be said, where everything chimes, where everything is resolved.