Autism in Hermann Hesse’s writing


I was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) two years ago. It triggered something of an identity crisis. By default, autism had been a fundamental part of who I am despite knowing virtually nothing about it, either within myself or in the wider world. I was forced to reassess every part of my life.

I’ve always loved reading. In hindsight, I realise that as a child I probably found it much easier to immerse myself in fictional worlds than to understand the real one. It’s not that other people had a particular aversion towards me, or me to them. We just weren’t on the same wavelength. As comedian Hannah Gadsby jokes, being autistic can often feel like being the only sober person in a room full of drunks, or vice versa. 

One of the things I considered with my fresh perspective was the literature I loved. Despite having read really quite widely, I’d recently always ended up coming back to the works of Hermann Hesse. Hesse is considered by many as an adolescent’s intellectual, and whilst I can appreciate the criticism, his intellectual rigour has never been why I love his stories. 

I read Hesse because I understand his characters on a fundamental level. Their hopes, their plights, and the basic outline of their lived experience have often directly reflected mine. Characters like Demian and Harry Haller in Steppenwolf have a similar complex to the one I did pre-diagnosis. I knew I saw the world differently to the majority of my counterparts. I just had no idea why.

I read Hesse because I understand his characters on a fundamental level

I’d always been considered clever and done well at school, so my flawless teenage reasoning deduced that in some way I must be just a bit better, a bit smarter, than everyone else. I believed there was something about me that made me stand out from any crowd, eerily like Max Demian and Emil believing they bear the mark of Cain in Demian

Most of, arguably all of, Hesse’s great works centre around trying to understand difference in some guise. Goldmund in Narcissus and Goldmund, Joseph Knecht in The Glass Bead Game, Max Demian and Emil Sinclair in Demian, Siddhartha, Harry Haller, and Peter Camenzind are all bound by a sense of not belonging to the world they live in. Whilst Goldmund travels the world, Knecht tries to join the real world and dies within days. Demian and Emil rebel against a world that doesn’t understand them. Siddhartha soul-searches across India and finally finds peace in himself and nature. Harry Haller believes himself to be half-wolf. Camenzind and Emil Sinclair both turn to drink to make sense of the world, something I’ve been guilty of too.

Of course, isolation and soul-searching are in no way endemic to the autistic community and I’m not trying to suggest that. A lot of people have read around these characters in different ways. The ‘60s adopted Steppenwolf and Siddhartha as their own because they contain elements of rebellion against the ‘real world’. They were characters who didn’t fit in and this suited a generation who didn’t want to fit in. However, much like people who say ‘they’re a bit autistic’ or ‘everyone’s on the spectrum somewhere’, I fear that’s somewhat missing the point. 

Labelling historic or famous figures as autistic without a formal diagnosis can be a dangerous game. It isn’t one I’m overly keen to play. However, I can’t avoid the almost eerie feeling I feel when I read Hesse. His words awaken a part of me very rarely acknowledged or understood. This was why I loved his works before I was diagnosed and go back to them now to help me understand myself. His simple yet beautiful prose details what it is to feel like an outlier in the world.

His simple yet beautiful prose details what it is to feel like an outlier

Everyone with autism is different. That’s why autism can be so hard to diagnose or for neurotypical people to understand. But when I read stories from autistic people or talk to the autistic people around me, an unavoidably unifying factor is the feeling of not belonging. It’s a feeling that this planet might just not be for you, but simultaneously you can understand certain things in a way very few others can. I can’t help but feel that Hesse experienced this too. It’s intricately weaved throughout everything he wrote.

Hesse is often read as the author of the spiritual journey but he may well only have been trying to find a place for himself, as so many autistic people do. I’ll finish with a passage from Demian, which is at points too close to home as someone with ASD. It vocalises both the difference I feel within myself and the grandiosity I’ve used as a defence mechanism at points to justify it. As ridiculous as they may sound, I can’t help but say these words speak to me on an almost molecular level. It’s why Hermann Hesse will always be an author of extraordinary brilliance to my mind.

“We who bore the mark might well be considered by the rest of the world as strange, even as insane and dangerous. We had awoken, or were awakening, and we were striving for an ever perfect state of wakefulness, whereas the ambition and quest for happiness of the others consisted of linking their opinions, ideals, and duties, their life and happiness, ever more closely with those of the herd. They, too, strove; they, too showed signs of strength and greatness. But as we saw it, whereas we marked men represented Nature’s determination to create something new, individual, and forward-looking, the others lived in the determination to stay the same. For them mankind – which they loved as much as we did – was a fully formed entity that had to be preserved and protected. For us mankind was a distant future toward which we were all journeying, whose aspect no one knew, whose laws weren’t written down anywhere.” – Hermann Hesse, Demian

Image: H.KoPP via Flickr

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