Hesse’s Immortals

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One of the songs my old band played was a tune that Anders had written to a poem by Hermann Hesse. It’s in his 1927 novel Steppenwolf and treats one of the central themes of the book, the idea that immortal genius (such as that of Mozart or Goethe, Hesse felt) might exist on a plane immeasurably far above everyday human life. Writing the book, Hesse was close to suicide from trying to live alone on this rarefied plane. The novel describes his alter ego’s return to the simple mortal pleasures of earthbound humanity.

Anders used the 1932 Swedish translation by Sven Stolpe (or was the poetry in that edition translated by the poet Anders Österling, who wrote the introductory essay?). Here’s Basil Creighton’s 1929 English translation.

The Immortals
By Hermann Hesse

Ever reeking from the vales of earth
Ascends to us life’s fevered surge,
Wealth’s excess, the rage of dearth,
Smoke of death-meals on the gallow’s verge;
Greed without end, spasmodic lust;
Murderers’ hands, usurers’ hands, hands of prayer;
Exhales in fœtid breath the human swarm
Whipped on by fear and lust, blood raw, blood warm,
Breathing blessedness and savage heats,
Eating itself and spewing what it eats,
Hatching war and lovely art,
Decking out with idiot craze
Bawdy houses while they blaze,
Through the childish fair-time mart
Weltering to its own decay
In the glare of pleasure’s way,
Rising for each newborn and then
Sinking for each to dust again.

But we above you evermore residing
In the ether’s star-translumined ice
Know not day nor night nor time’s dividing,
Wear nor age nor sex for our device.
All your sins and anguish self-affrighting,
Your murders and lascivious delighting
Are to us but as a show
Like the suns that circling go,
Changing not our day for night;
On your frenzied life we spy,
And refresh ourselves thereafter
With the stars in order fleeing;
Our breath is winter; in our sight
Fawns the dragon of the sky;
Cool and unchanging is our eternal being,
Cool and star-bright is our eternal laughter.

For those who read German, here’s Hesse’s original. And here’s a prose translation of mine to give a better idea of what Hesse actually says.

Time and again the urges of life steam up to us from Earth’s valleys: wild distress, drunken exuberance, gory smoke from a thousand last meals, spasms of pleasure, desire without end, the hands of murderers, of usurers, of people praying.

Swarming humanity, lashed by fear and desire, reeks sultry and foul, raw and warm; breathes bliss and unfettered rutting, eats itself and spits itself out again, breeds wars and high art, decorates the scalding brothel with delusions, swallows and gnaws and prostitutes itself among the garish fairground attractions of its childish world, rises anew out of the waves for everyone, just as it eventually falls to pieces for everyone.

We, on the other hand, find ourselves in the ether’s star-translumined ice. We know neither days nor hours, are neither men nor women, neither young nor old. Your sins and fears, your murders and lascivious pleasures are stage entertainments to us, just like the orbiting suns. Every day is to us the longest one. Silently nodding to your spasmodic life, silently gazing upon the spinning stars, we breathe the winter of outer space and are friends of the celestial dragon. Our eternal existence is cold and unchanging. Our eternal laughter is cold and lit by stars.

Comments

  1. #1 Deborah
    December 29, 2010

    How utterly … metallic. Well, I always could attest how well read are the metal musicians I personally know—much to the amazement of certain prejudiced individuals who only hear “crash crash growl” in it.

  2. #2 Martin R
    December 29, 2010

    I’m not quite happy with the English translation, finding the Swedish one far more melodious, but that must in part be because I used to sing it. Interesting, anyway.

  3. #3 Birger Johansson
    December 30, 2010

    “Steppenwolf” became the name of a band….if you want to seriously piss off the Real Americans (TM) you should play Steppenwolfs “Monster”. That song is nearly impossible to get hold of now, BTW.

    — — — —
    I am not familiar with Hesse. “A plane immeasurably far above everyday human life” -is this Nietzche by way of Hitler’s ubermensch?

  4. #4 Martin R
    December 30, 2010

    I’m not familiar with him either. I read half of the Glass Bead Game in my late teens but found it kind of boring and pretentious. Later I learned that the point of that book is to chart what happens to the protagonist when he realises that he is boring and pretentious. Anyway, Hesse waited too long for my taste with that development in the story.

  5. #5 Deborah
    December 30, 2010

    Well, Steppenwolf did a catchy song called Magic Carpet Ride, that ought to have had a longer version. Hermann Hesse’s most well known novels (over here anyway) are Siddhartha, based on the early life of The Buddha, and Steppenwolf. He opposed anti-semitism and the Nazis but was not terribly politically active, though he helped several artists who fled the Nazis. He is known more for exploring spiritual themes. Hesse was influenced by Nietzsche, but in no way did this translate (on his part) to racialist views, only in terms of spiritual & intellectual development of the individual—”enlightenment”; he was against traditional organized religion and very interested in India & Buddhism and was a favorite among the 60s counterculture.

  6. #6 Janice
    January 1, 2011

    Your prose translation far exceeds the poem translation!

  7. #7 Martin R
    January 1, 2011

    Thank you! But give Basil Creighton a break. Translating poetry involves keeping the sense of the words while also sticking to the metre and producing good word music. It’s extremely hard to get all those parameters right. The Swedish translator took great liberties with the sense of the poem, which is kind of cheating. Though the result is beautiful: “Endast vi ha, ovan jorderunden / I en isklar stjärnrymd löst vårt bann…”

  8. #8 Jonathan Jarrett
    January 3, 2011

    There is also a Hawkwind song called ‘Steppenwolf’ based on the novel; here’s a video of a recent line-up doing it with the aid of another sadly recently-deceased musician.

  9. #9 dogteam
    January 4, 2011

    @Birger: I thought everyone had forgotten “Monster”! I still have the vinyl, it’s a forgottem masterpiece.

  10. #10 wenz
    April 19, 2012

    Nice post.Croatian translation is getting more and more important, almost by the minute. But so is translation into other languages of Eastern Europe. As production shifts eastward, so does a certain increase in wealth and thus market possibilities. In order to take advantage of these new opportunities, addressing the people in these markets in their own language is nothing if not a no-brainer.

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