German Poets and Writers Narrate their Dreams

Hermann Hesse and the Downfall of the West

A skillful man reads his dreams for self-knowledge, yet not the details but the quality.
Ralph Waldo Emerson

From a historical perspective, many individuals have kept journals, diaries and notebooks. Think of the iconic American TV homocide detective Lieutenant Columbo's case notebook, in which he reads from his notes, using it as a dialogical tool in order to ask one more question in search of a forensic answer. Dream diaries have been kept by many. Both the Bible and ancient Greek literature as far back as Homer put stock into the significance of dreams. We do not have a dream journal of all of Socrates dreams, however Plato found it important enough in a variety of his dialogues to report the dreams he experienced and the wisdom Socrates found in them. As a poetic epitaph, one dream prognosticated the death sentence for Socrates to which he went willingly; read the International Institute for Dream Research (IIDR) interpretation Socrates on Death Row.

Unfortunately Martin Kiessig's anthological book Dichter erzaelen ihre Traeume (Poets narrate their Dreams) as far as I know has never been translated into English. The book brings the dreams of German poets and writers over the last two hundred years to the page. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Friedrich Nietzsche, Bettina von Arnim, Gottfried Keller, Hermann Hesse, Franz Kafka, Carl Gustav Jung and Walter Benjamin among many others. Many of these dreams are found in the poets or writers diaries, journals and notebooks.

Erich Heller The Disinherited Mind: Essays in Modern German Literature and Thought   discusses the literary ideas of German writers and thinkers from Goethe to Kafka. Discussing Oswald Spengler's Decline of the West Heller sees the post-WWI spiritual exhaustion of Western civilization being personified by T.S. Eliot's (archetypal) poem The Waste Land. It is noteworthy that Spengler's prophesy of the future fall of the West was based primarily on the historical imagination of German writers. In response to Spengler's model of civilizations, Arnold Toynbee would provide a different conception and explanation for the process of history and the rise and fall of civilizations.

Heller tells us that the silent (spiritual) centre of German thought was created by Friedrich Hoelderlin, however Heller does not go into detail. As well, Heller does not discuss the work of Walter Benjamin especially his Origin of German Tragic Drama in which Benjamin clearly understands that behind every literary transpersonal canon including the German one, stands the literary genre of Dream Vision. Finally Heller also excludes another prominent German figure of modern literature, Herman Hesse who chose Switzerland as his adopted home and became a Swiss citizen. Hesse's literary voice of "Weltschmerz" (World-weariness) is also missing in action from Heller's book.

As a young student, reading Hermann Hesse's work had a profound influence on my thought. As Marshall McLuhan might say; if a book is like a warm bath, then Hesse's books were something I could get into and feel at home in. Most likely for someone like Arnold Schwarzenegger some books like Hesse's might appear to be only for "girlie men". I guess for him getting into a book which provides a cold shower might be just fine? In the end it all depends on your cultural tastes, education and what you are interested in. Now to Hesse's dream which appears to strike closely to the core of Spengler's argument about the West's cultural, spiritual, political and moral decline.     

Hermann Hesse's Dream is found in his Notebook of 1920 (I have translated from the German);

"Last night I had an uncommon dream, uncommon in that, until now I never have dreamed of falling down into the depths, without waking up while falling. This time I did not wake up. It was like this: I was driving along a rural road with a large group (Gesellschaft) in a wagon with horses. We come to a place, where the road takes a big curve, so as to avoid an abyss, and then suddenly I see, that our horses, instead of following the curve, are running straight and vertically dropping into the abyss. In the wink of an eye we found ourselves also falling in the air - and at this point in my experience, with the moment of fear and feelings of dizziness the dream should have broken off. It proceeded a bit (piece) further. We (all) in the wagon became quiet and pale, waiting in terrible suspense for the moment where we would crash at the bottom underneath. Falling through the air was taking a long time, then one of us said: NOW! And we impacted and I lost consciousness. I had (the dream continued) the feeling that I would stay alive, however not uninjured, I was waiting with timid suspense about how when I re-awaken out of my dispirited fainting fit I would be. I awoke very slowly and gradually (bit by bit) and had the increasing ugly feeling of being sick and paralysed (lame)."

Siddhartha, Journey to the East, Steppenwolf, and Magister Ludi

What might Hesse's dream mean?

We can read in the reference section of Kiessig's Poets Narrate their Dreams, that the dream is part of the materials Hesse used while creating his novel Siddhartha. With the writing of Siddhartha Hesse found that he had created the beginnings of a literary cure for his spiritual sickness with life. We can point out numerous poetic themes and metaphors in the dream;    

  • Life as a poetic "journey"; is a metaphor already found in the poetic works of Homer's Odyssey and Dante's Divine Comedy. James Joyce Ulysses would provide a critique of the modern state of the poetic journey of urban consciousness. Such conceptual metaphors are discussed by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson in Metaphors We Live By. James Barry (ed) Themes On The Journey: Reflections in Poetry provides an anthology of what he terms "a poetic documentary in 82 parts" of the poetic meaning of the journey of life. Hesse would use the metaphor of a journey in his novel Journey to the East in which "H.H." becomes a member of "the League", a religious sect who personify a fictional and real group of characters including Plato, Pythagoras, Don Quixote, Mozart, Tristram Shandy, Charles Baudelaire and Paul Klee. In search of the ultimate truth they travel through imaginary and real space and time only to find their journey end in vain. However the story does not end there.
  • The theme of "depth" is a dominant metaphor of Hesse's dream. Northrop Frye Romanticism Reconsidered sees the introspective rhetorical style of the romantic poets who explored the depths of emotion, sentiment and temperament as the central literary work of the epochal phenomena of romanticism. Burkhard Meyer-Sickendiek Tiefe: Ueber die Fascination des Gruebels (Depths: On the Fascination of Rumination) discusses the problem of "rumination" as it relates to German romanticism. Meyer-Sickendiek points out that poets such as Novalis and E.T.A Hoffman used the poetic device of the journey into the depths as a guiding theme. Freud Interpretation of Dreams at the beginning of the 20th century attempted to use this romantic depth psychological journey for scientific and medical therapeutic purposes. Of interest is that Hesse one of the great literary ruminators of the depths in the 20th century is conspicuously absent from Meyer-Sickendiek's book.
  • The poetic theme of the "abyss"; is also not something Hesse could claim sole literary ownership over. Peter Brooks The Melodramatic Imagination discusses the work of Henry James; "The Beast in the Jungle" is one of the best examples of James's virtually epistemological explorations of the abyss, and the relation of melodrama to this exploration." Brooks sees James use of the abyss as a poetic vehicle to explore the "depths" of consciousness and the imagination in "quests for meaning". A conscious problem develops when poetic centres of the meaning of life become meaningless. Consciousness when confronted by the "abyss of meaning" takes melodramatic action by entering the unconscious mind. Here we can find meaning in the melodramatic "suspense" of Hesse's dream. This is the literary use of dreams and depth psychology at its artistic finest. The literary and artist use of dreams can be traced back to human transpersonal pre-history.  This archetypal journey of the poet finds expression in the IIDR article Anatomy of Hate: The Poets Decent into Hell.
  • In Hesse's dream the "horses" instead of taking the curve in the road, head straight for the abyss. The dream archetype of the horse finds historical expression in primitive wall painting, the Bible (think of the Four Horsemen of The Apocalypse), mythology (think of the Trojan Horse), folklore and popular culture films such as National Velvet, Ben Hur, Equus and newer films such as Lord of the Rings and Seabiscuit they are the cinematic stuff horse dreams, daydreams and psychopathology are made of. However the most likely explanation is that Hesse's horses are an ambivalent metaphor representing both dream and night-mare. The artist Henri Fuseli's The Nightmare is an expression of this fainting folklore. Hesse may have been a nightmare and sleep paralysis sufferer. Since the nightmare continues until he reaches the bottom, the dream could be viewed as a form of therapeutic nightmare imagery rehearsal.
  • In the dream Hesse states that he lost "consciousness". Consciousness and unconscious appear to play an important role in the dreams poetic mentations. Hesse appears to be somewhat lucid in the dream, because he recognizes upon waking that he had always woken up before he hit bottom, in this dream he says that when the wagon did hit bottom, he lost consciousness. Hesse would expand these metaphors in his novel Steppenwolf where consciousness and the unconscious, fantasy and reality become parts of a "magical theatre". The magical theatre is a horseshoe shaped corridor that has a great many doors. Each door provides entry into a theatrical piece of his character's life. Elisabeth Lenk Die Unbewusste Gesellschaft (The Unconscious Society) provides insight into the workings of this artistic dream theatre of society (Gesellschaft). Lenk uses the dreams collected by Charlotte Beradt Third Reich of Dreams to illustrate the communal effects of the totalitarian media of the Nazi's on the dreams of Germans living in Nazi Germany. Each dream acts as a social psychological door of perception into understanding the Nazi's dramaturgical mind control techniques of consciousness and the unconscious.
  • Hesse evidently feels that he and his "group" (society) is headed for the spiritual abyss. Much as in the Biblical and ancient Greek creation mythology the hero (Hesse) is struggling against the metaphoric archetypal forces of primordial psychological chaos. This sense of Spenglerian downfall of the West causes inner nihilism, resignation  and sense of doom for both the individual (Hesse) and the group (Society/Gesellschaft). In the dream, they sit quiet and pale waiting for the wagon to hit bottom. This fear can only cause ontological anxiety, masochistic suspense and Sickness until Death as Soren Kierkegaard called it. Hesse when he awoke felt sick and paralysed.
  • Hesse's spiritual poetic crisis is one of "being" (Sein). As if the dream is an existential and experiential thought experiment, Hesse states that he was waiting to see "how when I re-awaken out of my dispirited fainting fit, I would be (Sein)". Hesse sees the poetic need for an existential ego death and thereby creating poetic self-renewal of being (Sein) for the individual and the community. These existential problems of life would find conscious expression in the philosophical treatise of Jean Paul Sartre Being and Nothingness: An Essay on Phenomenological Ontology and Martin Heidegger's Being and Time who also wrote a book entitiled Poetry, Language and Thought.

Other dreams received by the IIDR found in the Spiritual Dreams and Dreaming section point to similar experiences, read the Born again Christian interpretation. From a modern popular culture perspective Scott Peck's The Road Less Travelled speaks to the need for spiritual growth and health.

From a different perspective Hesse's dream shows how dream time and real time are different, Hesse states in the dream that falling through the air was taking a long time. This lucid dreaming idea was used in the popular film Inception where the truck which is falling towards the water is moving very slowly. The IIDR has discussed this phenomena in Dream Time.

Finally Hesse's The Glass Bead Game (also known under the title Magister Ludi) for which he won the Nobel Prize for Literature, we find his most mature description of his school of thought, dreams and inner conflicts. Magister Ludi can be loosely translated as master of the game, and is a book that is fashioned by the perennial inner conflicts of Hesse's life. The book represents a unifying bildungs- and kunstlerroman design and is the magnus opus of his poetic work. Hesse who had been in Jungian therapy used Jung's four psychological functions of consciousness to personify his character's poetic learning of the mastery of the agonistic dream game of life. Via Hesse's word games various German writers such as Friedrich Nietzsche, Thomas Mann and Walter Burckhardt find their expression and place in the Hesse's archetypal literary and artistic landscape.

For further reading;

Ralph Freedman. Hermann Hesse. Pilgrim of Crisis   


All material Copyright 2006 International Institute for Dream Research. All rights reserved.