Authors: Hermann Hesse
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A Child's Heart
OMETIMES WE ACT
, go in and out, do this and that, and everything is easy, casual, and unforced; seemingly it could all be done differently. And sometimes, other times, nothing could be done differently, nothing is unforced and easy, and every breath we take is controlled by some outside power and heavy with fate.
What we call the good deeds of our lives, the ones we find easy to tell about, are almost all of that first, “easy” kind, and we easily forget them. Other acts, which we find hard to talk about, we never forget; they seem to be more ours than the others, and they cast long shadows over all the days of our lives.
Our father's house stood tall and bright on a sunlit street. You entered it through a high gate and at once found yourself embraced by coolness, dusk, and stony moist air. A high dark hall silently received you; the red sandstone squares of the flooring led at a slight incline to the stairs, which lay far at the rear, in semidarkness. Many thousands of times I entered through that high gate, and never did I pay attention to gate and hallway, stone flooring and stairs. For these were always merely a passage into another world, “our” world. The hall smelled of stone; it was dusky and high. At the rear of it, the stairs led up out of the dim coolness into light and bright coziness. But the hall and the somber duskiness always came first. There was something of Father about it, something of dignity and power, something of punishment and guilty conscience. A thousand times I passed through, laughing. But sometimes I stepped inside and at once felt crushed and reduced, afraid, and I hurried to the liberating stairs.
One day when I was eleven years old I came home from school. It was one of those days when fate lurks in the corners, when something can easily happen. On such days every failing and disturbance in our own souls seems to be reflected in our surroundings, distorting them. Uneasiness and anxiety grip our hearts, and we seek and find their presumed cause outside us. We see the world as ill arranged and are met by obstacles everywhere.
That was how it was on that day. From early morning on, I was dogged by a sense of guilty conscience. Who knows what its source wasâperhaps dreams of the night. For I had done nothing particularly bad. That morning my father's face had worn a suffering and reproachful expression. The breakfast milk had been lukewarm and insipid. Although I had not run into any trouble at school, everything had once more felt dreary, lifeless, and discouraging; everything had combined to form that already familiar feeling of helplessness and despair which tells us that time is endless, that eternally and forever we shall be small and powerless and remain under the rule of this stupid, stinking school, for years and years, and that this whole life is senseless and loathsome.
I had also been vexed by my best friend on that day. Lately I had struck up a friendship with Oskar Weber, the son of a locomotive engineer, without really knowing what drew me to him. He had recently boasted that his father earned seven marks a day, and I had answered at random that my father earned fourteen. He had let that impress him without argument, and that had been the beginning of the thing. Before the week was out I formed a league with Weber. We set up a joint savings account to be used later to buy a pistol. The pistol was displayed in a hardware shop's window, a massive weapon with two blued steel barrels. And Weber had calculated that we only had to save hard for a while and we would be able to buy it. Money was easy to come by; he was often given ten pfennig for errands, or picked up a tip here and there, and sometimes you found money on the street, or things worth money, like horseshoes, pieces of lead, and other things that could be easily sold. Moreover, he promptly contributed a ten-pfennig piece for our savings, and that convinced me and made our whole plan seem both feasible and hopeful.
As I entered the hall of our house that noon and in the cool, cellarlike air felt dark admonishments of a thousand bothersome and hateful things and systems wafting into my face, my thoughts were preoccupied with Oskar Weber. I felt that I did not love him, although I rather liked his good-natured face, which reminded me of a washerwoman's. What attracted me to him was not himself but something elseâI might say, his class. It was something that he shared with almost all boys of his type and origins: a kind of cheeky facility with life, a thick skin that protected him from danger and humiliation, a familiarity with the small, practical affairs of life, with money, stores and workshops, with goods and prices, with kitchens and laundries and things of that sort. Boys like Weber, who seemed impervious to the blows dealt out in school, who were kindred to and friendly with hired hands, draymen, and factory girls, stood differently and more securely in the world than I did. They knew how much their fathers earned in a day and undoubtedly knew many other things about which I was wholly inexperienced. They laughed at expressions and jokes that I did not understand. Altogether, they could laugh in a way that was closed to me, in a filthy and coarse but undeniably grownup and “manly” way. It did not help that I was smarter than they and knew more in school. It did not help that I was better dressed, combed, and washed. On the contrary, these very differences were to their credit. It seemed to me that boys like Weber could enter without trouble into the “world,” as it appeared to me in a nimbus of strangeness and glamour, while the “world” was so utterly closed to me that I would have to conquer each of its gates by a wearisome, endless process of growing older, sitting in school, examinations, and upbringing. It was only natural that such boys also found horseshoes, money, and pieces of lead in the street, that they were paid for errands, received all sorts of gifts in shops, and thrived in every possible way.
I felt obscurely that my friendship with Weber and his savings was nothing but a wild longing for that “world.” There was nothing lovable about Weber but his great secret, by virtue of which he stood closer to adults than I did and lived in a more naked, less veiled, more robust world than I did with my dreams and wishes. And I sensed beforehand that he would disappoint me, that I would not be able to wrest from him his secret and the magic key to life.
He had just left me and I knew he was now on his way home, thickset and smug, whistling and cheerful, troubled by no longings, no forebodings. When he met the housemaids and factory girls and saw them leading their mysterious, perhaps wonderful, perhaps criminal life, it was no mystery to him, no vast secret, no danger; it was nothing wild and exciting, but as natural, familiar, and homelike as water is to a duck. That was how it was. And I, for my part, would always stand outside, alone and uncertain, full of intimations but without certainty.
Altogether, on that day life once again tasted hopelessly pallid. The day had some of the quality of a Monday, although it was a Saturday. It smelled of Monday, three times as long and three times as dreary as the other days. Life was damned and disgusting, horrid and full of falsehood. The grownups acted as if the world were perfect and as if they themselves were demigods, we children nothing but scum. These teachersâ¦! I felt striving and ambition within myself; I made sincere and passionate efforts to be good, whether in learning the Greek irregular verbs or in keeping my clothes clean. I struggled to achieve obedience to my parents or silent stoicism before all pain and humiliation. Again and again I rose up, ardent and devout, prepared to dedicate myself to God and to tread the ideal, pure, noble path toward the heights, to practice virtue, to suffer evil silently, to help others. And alas, again and again it remained only a beginning, an attempt, a brief fluttering flight! Again and again, after a few days, even after a few hours, something happened that should not have been allowed, something wretched, depressing, and shaming. Again and again, in the midst of the noblest and staunchest decisions and vows, I fell abruptly, inescapably, into sin and wickedness, into ordinary bad habits. Why was it this way? Why could I recognize so clearly the beauty and rightness of good intentions, could feel them so deeply within my heart, when all of life (including the adults) reeked everlastingly of ordinariness and everything was so arranged that shabbiness and vulgarity triumphed? How could it be that in the morning, on my knees at my bedside, or at night before lighted candles, I could pledge myself to goodness and the light, could appeal to God and renounce all sin forever and everâonly to commit, perhaps but a few hours later, the most wretched betrayals of this same solemn oath and sincerest resolution, if only by chiming in with tempting laughter, or by lending an ear to a stupid schoolboy joke? Why was that so? Was it different for others? Had heroes, the Romans and Greeks, the knights, the first Christiansâhad all these others been different from myself, better, more perfect, without bad impulses, equipped with some organ that I lacked, which prevented them from forever falling back from heaven into everyday life, from the sublime into inadequacy and wretchedness? Was original sin unknown to heroes and saints? Was holiness and nobility possible only for a few rare, elect souls? But why, if I were not one of the elect, why was this impulse toward beauty and nobility innate in me? Why did I have this wild, painful longing for purity, goodness, and virtue? Was I being made mock of? Could it possibly be, in God's world, that a person, a boy, would simultaneously have all the sublime and all the evil impulses within himself and be forced to suffer and despair, to cut an unhappy and ridiculous figure, for the amusement of God as he looked on? Could that be so? Rather, wasn'tâyes, wasn't the whole world a joke of the devil that ought to be spewed out? If that were so, then was not God a monster, insane, a stupid, horrible prankster?â¦ And even as I had this thought, with a faint savor of voluptuous delight in rebellion, my fearful heart punished me for the blasphemy by pounding furiously!
How clearly I see, after thirty years, that stairwell with the tall opaque windows giving on the wall of the house next door and casting so little light, with the white-scoured pine steps and risers and the smooth wooden banister polished from my innumerable sliding descents. Distant as my childhood is, and incomprehensible and fabulous though it seems to me on the whole, I still sharply remember all the suffering and doubts I felt at the time, in the midst of happiness. All those feelings existed in the child's heart, where they have been ever since: doubt of my own worth, vacillation between self-esteem and discouragement, between idealistic contempt for the world and ordinary sensuality. And just as I did then, I later continued to regard these aspects of my nature sometimes as a miserable morbidity, sometimes as a distinction. At times I believed that God wished to lead me on this painful path to a special isolation and deepening of my nature, at other times I took it all as nothing but the signs of shabby weakness of character, of a neurosis such as thousands of people bear wearisomely through their lives.
If I were to reduce all my feelings and their painful conflicts to a single name, I can think of no other word but: dread. It was dread, dread and uncertainty, that I felt in all those hours of shattered childhood felicity: dread of punishment, dread of my own conscience, dread of stirrings in my soul which I considered forbidden and criminal.