Barry Stephenson. Veneration and Revolt: Hermann Hesse and Swabian Pietism



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Barry Stephenson. Veneration and Revolt: Hermann Hesse and Swabian Pietism Wilfried Laurier University Press. 2009, 282 pp. $85.00

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The author Dr. Barry Stephenson holds a Ph.D. from the University of Calgary in the History of Religious Movements and Institutions with an interdisciplinary emphasis on ritual studies, and religion and literature. He teaches in the Department of Religion and Culture at W. Laurier University in Waterloo, CAN.
The book impresses not only by its professional style and language, but also by a large collection of end-notes which the publisher should have made easier to access. The frequent English translations of Hesse quotes are excellent and of a literate elegance which might have surprised Hesse himself who - true to his Pietist background - nurtured a plainspoken and often lyrical style that could be easily shared with his readers and which was often embellished by subtle irony and humor.
The book provides a thorough background and describes the historical development of Pietism in Germany throughout a number of centuries and eventually overlapping the onset of the industrial revolution and the new return of strife and conflict. The various religious traces of Pietism lead to the main topic of the German/Swiss Nobel Prize winner via the work of the Basle Mission and a publishing house in his small Swabian hometown of Calw where he was born in 1877.
Stephenson leads us to this point, but not before carefully tracing the history of Pietism back to the reformation, and notably to early efforts of defining a simpler and more straightforward approach to Christian devotion, and the role of the organized churches in all of this. The trend away from well-established churches led through the reformation to the inspired rediscovery of a direct and personal experience of God such as vividly described by the mystics and encouraged by various representatives of Pietist thought who turned to Jesus for enlightenment and salvation.
This tradition undeniably had a great initial impact on young Hesse, the somewhat difficult child of rather hapless parents who would have liked for him to continue in their tradition and become a priest. They had spent periods of their lives as devoted servants of the English mission in India and later dedicated their work to publishing materials for religious-educational edification and moral clarity. Hesse’s mother, of French-Swiss extraction, was writing a biography of the legendary Puritan missionary David Livingstone, who she hoped was to set an example for her son. On the other side of the spectrum was the scholar Hermann Gundert, Hesse’s grandfather and a well-known man of letters with an enormous library, instilling in Hermann an interest in India and Eastern thought, which was to presage much of Hesse’s later interest.
Stephenson describes how Hesse happened to be born into a conflicting and rapidly changing world, was stepping out from this Black Forest setting and grappled with challenges in his education and interests, coping with an independent mind which the small boy had begun to display often to the chagrin of his parents. He continued along his unique and headstrong path while still maintaining many of the values, views and customs he owed to his Pietist upbringing and his family. On the lighter side, it was almost amusing to notice Hesse’s perfunctory record-keeping, his compassionate willingness to listen and help others in extensive and patient correspondences, and in his ever evolving (auto)biographies.
Stephenson carefully tracks the influences of Pietism in Hesse’s correspondence and major works, and their connectedness with his life. And since religious study is often necessarily serious business, he may have missed much of the humor that accompanied Hesse’s style to most readers’ delight. In naming the figure Leo in the Journey to the East - which is richly populated with Hesse’s renamed acquaintances - the explanation might well be that the figure “Leo” was probably named after Hesse’s favorite cat, and Hermann Heilner like Harry Haller shared the initials with himself, while Hermine in Der Steppenwolf was his youthful and still unencumbered self. We will try not to make too much of this, but still need to point to Hesse’s comment to a reader who had discovered contradictions in Hesse’s writings and correspondences, that in the ancient Chinese tradition opposites do not cancel each other out, but they are both true and that wisdom comes with a smile.
(GUNTHER GOTTSCHALK)

Professor Emeritus



Dept. of Germanic, Slavic, and Semitic Studies

University of California, Santa Barbara


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