Authors: Hermann Hesse
At the time, when the obsessional idea of killing his family had first gripped him, and he had been frightened to death by this diabolical vision, a trivial recollection had come to him, as if to mock him. It was this: Years ago, when his life was still harmless, almost happy, he and some office associates had begun discussing the horrible crime of a south German schoolteacher named W. (he could not recall the name right off) who had butchered his entire family in a horribly bloody way and then taken his own life. The question had been raised to what extent a man who did such a thing was responsible for his actions and whether there was any understanding and explaining such an act, such a gruesome explosion of human atrociousness. The subject had upset Klein greatly, and when one of his associates had attempted to give a psychological explanation of the killing Klein had exclaimed with extreme vehemence that faced with such an atrocious crime the only possible attitude for a decent man was outrage and abhorrence; such a deed could be conceived only in the brain of a devil, and no punishment, no tribunal, no torture could be harsh enough for a criminal of this type. He still recalled precisely the table at which they had been sitting, and the astounded, somewhat critical look with which that older associate had glanced at him after this outburst.
Later, when he for the first time saw himself lost in a hideous fantasy of being the murderer of his family, and had shuddered away from the thought, he had at once recollected that discussion about the murderer W., although it had taken place years before. And strangely, although he could have sworn that at the time he had expressed his truest feelings with complete sincerity, there was now an ugly inner voice mockingly calling out to him: even then, even then, years ago, during the talk about the schoolteacher W., you understood his act in your heart, understood and approved it, and your outrage and agitation sprang only from your own philistine, hypocritical refusal to admit what you really knew inwardly. Those terrible punishments and tortures he had wished upon the murderer, the outrage with which he had reviled the man's act, had really been directed against himself, against the germ of crime which undoubtedly had been present in him at the time. His intense agitation throughout this whole incident had its source solely in the fact that he saw himself in prison, accused of the murders, and that he was trying to salve his conscience by invoking on himself the charge and the verdict. As if by flaying himself he could punish or drive out the secret criminality within his own being.
Klein reached this point in his thoughts, and felt that something terribly important for him was involved, in fact life itself. But it was inexpressibly toilsome to unravel these memories and thoughts and to put them into some kind of order. A faint forewarning of ultimate, redeeming insights underlay his fatigue and his horror for his whole situation. He got up, washed his face, and paced barefoot back and forth until he was shivering with cold and thought that now he would sleep.
But no sleep came. He lay in bed, inescapably the victim of his memories, of ugly, painful, and humiliating feelings: hatred for his wife, pity for himself, perplexity, a craving for explanations, excuses, consolations. And since no consolations occurred to him and the way to understanding was so deeply and mercilessly hidden in the secret, dangerous thickets of his memories, and sleep still would not come, he lay for the rest of the night in a state of agony worse than anything he had hitherto known. All the horrible feelings that contended within him combined into a dreadful, suffocating, deadly anxiety, a nightmarish pressure upon his heart and lungs. It increased again and again to the very edge of his endurance. He had long known what anxiety was, had known it for years, and more than ever in the past few weeks and days. But never before had he felt it gripping his throat so fiercely. Compulsively, he was forced to think of the most trivial things, a forgotten key, the hotel bill, and to build mountains of cares and painful problems out of them. The question of whether this shabby little room for the night was likely to cost more than three and a half francs, and whether in that case he ought to stay on in the hotel, kept him breathless, sweating, and with pounding heart for about an hour. Yet he knew all the while how stupid these thoughts were and repeatedly talked to himself reasonably and reassuringly as to a defiant child, reckoning out on his fingers the utter insubstantiality of his worriesâin vain, totally in vain. Rather, something like cruel mockery gleamed even behind these cajoleries and attempts at self-comfort, as though the whole thing were mere make-believe, just like his make-believe over the murderer W. It was quite clear to him that his deathly fear, his ghastly sense of strangulation and condemnation, could not come from his worry over a few francs or any similar causes. Worse, more serious matters lurked behind thisâbut what? They must be things connected with the murderous schoolteacher, with his own cravings to kill, and with all the sickness and disorder within him. But how could he get at it? How find the bottom? There was not a spot inside him that was not bleeding, nothing that was not sick and rotten and insanely sensitive to pain. He felt that he could not bear this much longer. If it went on, and if many other nights like this followed, he would go mad or take his life.
Tensely, he sat up in bed and tried to drain utterly his sense of his predicament, in order to be done with it once and for all. But it was always the same. Alone and helpless, he sat with fevered brow and painful pressure around his head, gripped by a fear of fate which held him spellbound like a bird watching a snake. Fate, he now knew, did not come from just anywhere; it grew within himself. If he found no remedy for it, it would consume him. Anxiety, this horrible anxiety, would pursue him, would dog his every step, would drive him farther and farther from rationality, until he reached the brink. Already he could feel how close that brink was.
If only he could understandâthat might mean salvation. He was still far from grasping his predicament and what had led up to it. So far he had made no more than a beginning; his feelings told him that clearly. If he could pull himself together and sum up everything precisely, arrange and consider all that had taken place, perhaps he would find the thread. The whole would acquire meaning and outline and might then be endurable. But this effort, this last struggle to pull himself together, was too much for him. It exceeded his strength. He simply was not up to it. The more strenuously he tried to think, the more he bungled it. Instead of memories and explanations he found only empty holes within himself. Nothing came to him, while once again he was overwhelmed by the feeling that he might have forgotten the one most important thing. He poked and probed around inside himself like a nervous traveler who fumbles through all his pockets and suitcases for his ticket, which he possibly has tucked into his hat, or is even holding in his hand. But what good did that “possibly” do?
Earlier, perhaps an hour or more ago, had he not had an insight, made a find? What had it been? What? It was gone; he could not locate it again. Despairingly, he struck his forehead with his fist. God in heaven, let me find the key! Let me not die this way, so wretchedly, so stupidly, so sadly! Torn to tatters like drifting clouds in a storm, his whole past flew by him, millions of images tangled and intertwined, unrecognizable and mocking, yet each one reminding him of something. Of what, of what?
Suddenly he found the name “Wagner” on his lips. As if unconscious he spoke it aloud: “WagnerâWagner.” Where did the name come from? From what shaft within himself? What was it driving at? Who was Wagner? Wagner?
He hung on to the name. He had a task, a problem, and that was better than floating in formlessness. All right: Who is Wagner? What concern of mine is Wagner? Why are my lips, these twisted lips in my criminal's face, murmuring the name Wagner here in the middle of the night? He pulled himself together. All sorts of notions came into his mind. He thought of Lohengrin, and then of his somewhat ambiguous feelings about the composer Richard Wagner. At the age of twenty he had been wild about him. Later he had grown wary, and in time had accumulated a number of reservations and doubts on the subject. He had done a great deal of criticizing of Wagner, and perhaps these criticisms were directed less toward Richard Wagner than to his own former love for the composer's music? Ha, had he caught himself again? Had he uncovered another fraud, a small lie, a minor crime? Oh yes, one thing after another was coming to light. In the irreproachable life of Friedrich Klein, husband and civil servant, things had not at all been so irreproachable, not at all so clear. There was a skeleton hidden in every closet. Yes, of course, that was the case with Wagner too. Friedrich Klein had taken a very strong line against the composer Richard Wagner. Why? Because Friedrich Klein could not forgive himself for having raved about this same Wagner as a young man. In Wagner he was persecuting his own youthful enthusiasm, his own youth, his own love. Why? Because youth and artistic enthusiasm and Wagner and all the rest reminded him painfully of things he had lost, because he had let himself be married by a woman he did not love, or at any rate not in the right way, not sufficiently. Oh yes, and as he behaved toward Wagner he had in his official capacity behaved toward many persons and things. He was such a decent fellow, Herr Klein, and behind his decency he was concealing nothing but filth and iniquity. If he had tried to be honestâhow many secret thoughts had he hidden from himself? How many glances at pretty girls in the street, how much envy of loving couples whom he encountered in the evenings when he walked home from his office? And then the thoughts of murder. And had he not turned the hatred which he should have directed toward himself against that schoolteacherâ
He started suddenly. One more connection! The schoolteacher and murderer hadâwhy, of course, his name had been Wagner. So there was the crux of it. Wagnerâthat was the name of that madman who had killed his whole family. Hadn't his entire life for years been somehow connected with this man Wagner? Hadn't that evil shadow pursued him everywhere?
Well, thank God he had found the thread again. Oh yes, and once upon a time, in long-past, better days, he had savagely denounced this man Wagner and called down the cruelest punishments upon his head. Yet he himself had later, without thinking of Wagner, had the same thought and had several times seen himself in a kind of vision killing his wife and his children.
And was that not perfectly understandable after all? Was it not right? Was it so very difficult to see that the responsibility for the existence of children could become intolerable to a man, as intolerable as his own nature and own being, which he regarded as sheer error, as nothing but torture and guilt?
With a sigh, he thought this thought through to the end. It now appeared quite certain that even then, when he first heard about it, he had understood Wagner's killings in his heart and had approved of them, approved of them only as a possibility, of course. Even then, when he did not yet feel unhappy and regard his life as a mess, even then, years ago, when he still thought he loved his wife and believed in her love for him, even then his inner nature had understood the schoolteacher Wagner and had secretly concurred with his horrible act of butchery. What he said at the time had expressed only the opinion of his intellect, not that of his heart. His heart, that innermost root from which his destiny sprang, had forever and ever held a different opinion. It had understood and approved crimes. There had always been two Friedrich Kleins, one visible and one secret, a civil servant and a criminal, a paterfamilias and a murderer.
But in those days he had always been on the side of his “better” self, the civil servant and decent person, the husband and upright citizen. He had never condoned the secret intentions of his heart, had never even recognized them. And yet that inner voice had been secretly guiding him and finally made of him a fugitive and outcast.
Gratefully, he clung to this thought. It was at least an element of consistency, something approaching rationality. It was not yet enough; everything important still remained obscure; but he had achieved a certain amount of light, a modicum of truth. And truth was what mattered. If only he did not again lose the end of the thread.
Between waking and sleep, feverish with exhaustion, poised on the brink between thought and dream, he lost the thread again a hundred times, found it anew a hundred times. Until day broke and the noise of the streets sounded in through his window.
N THE COURSE OF THE MORNING
Klein tramped through the city. He came to a hotel whose garden he liked, went in, looked at rooms, and took one. Only as he was departing did he note the name of the hotel. He read: Hotel Continental. Wasn't this name familiar to him? Had it not been prophesied? Just like the Hotel Milano? But he soon gave up searching his memory and was content with the atmosphere of foreignness, playfulness, and peculiar portentousness into which he seemed to have stumbled.
The magic of the day before gradually returned. It was very good that he was in the south, he thought gratefully. He had been guided well. Were it not for this charming enchantment all around him, which promoted this calm sauntering and self-forgetfulness, he would have been entirely at the mercy of his compulsive thoughts with all the suffering they entailed. But as it was, he succeeded in vegetating in pleasant fatigue for hours at a time, without compulsions, without anxiety, without thoughts. That did him good. It was fortunate that this southland existed, and that he had prescribed it for himself. The south made life easier. It comforted. It anaesthetized.
Even now, in broad daylight, the landscape looked fantastic and improbable. The mountains were all too close, too steep, too high, as if envisioned by some eccentric painter. But everything near and small was lovely: a tree, a patch of lake shore, a house painted in gay colors, a garden wall, a narrow strip of wheat among the grapes, small and tended as a kitchen garden. All this was charming and amiable, gay and sociable; it breathed haleness and trustfulness. This small, amiable, hospitable landscape with its serenely cheerful people was something you could love. And something to loveâwhat a salvation!