Authors: Hermann Hesse
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N THE BEGINNING
was the myth. God, in his search for self-expression, invested the souls of Hindus, Greeks, and Germans with poetic shapes and continues to invest each child's soul with poetry every day.
As a child I knew no names for the lake, mountains, and brooks where I grew up. My eyes beheld the broad, smooth, blue-green lake lying in the sun, glistening with tiny lights and wreathed by precipitous mountains whose highest crevices were filled with glazed snow and thin waterfalls, and at whose feet there sloped luminous meadows with orchards and huts and gray Alpine cattle. And on my poor little soul, still blank and calm and full of expectancy, the lake and mountain spirits etched their proud deeds. Rigid cliffs and scarred precipices spoke, in tones of awe and defiance, of the age that had given them birth. They spoke of ancient days when the earth heaved and tossed and, in the moaning agony of birth, thrust mountain peaks and crests from its tortured womb. Rock masses surged upward, screaming and cracking until, aiming into nowhere, they toppled. Twin mountains wrestled desperately for space until one rose triumphant, pushing his brother aside and smashing him. Even today you can find broken-off crags, toppled or split, clinging precariously to the edge of a gorge. During each thaw, torrents sweep down blocks of rock the size of houses, shattering them like glass or implanting them in the soft meadows.
These mountains proclaim a message that is easy to understand when you have seen their steep walls and layers upon layers of rock, twisted, cracked, filled with gaping wounds. “We have suffered most brutally,” they announce, “and we are suffering still.” But they say it proudly, sternly, and with clenched teeth, like ancient, indomitable warriors.
Yes, warriors. I saw them do battle with lake and storm in the harrowing nights of early spring, when the angry FÃ¶hn raged about their hoary peaks and the torrents tore raw pieces from their flanks. They stood there at nightâbreathless and unyielding, their roots stubbornly straddling the ground, exposing cleft, weather-beaten walls and crags to the storm, gathering their strength as they crowded together defiantly. With each fresh wound they received, I heard their dreadful roar of rage and fear; their terrible moans resounded through the remotest valleys, broken and angry.
And I beheld meadows and slopes and earth-filled crevices covered with grass, flowers, ferns, and mosses that bore odd and ominous old provincial names. These were the children and grandchildren of the mountains and led colorful, harmless lives. I touched and examined them, smelled their perfumes and learned their names. It was the sight of the trees, however, that affected me most deeply. I saw each tree leading a life of its own, formed in its own particular shape, casting its own individual shadow. Being recluses and warriors, they seemed to have greater kinship with the mountains, for each treeâespecially those in the upper reachesâhad to struggle tenaciously against wind, weather, and rock to survive and grow. Each had to bear its own burden and cling desperately, thereby acquiring its own shape and wounds. There were Scotch pines with branches extending only on one side, and some whose red trunks crawled snakelike around protruding rocks so that trees and rocks pressed and clung together in a tight embrace, preserving each other. These trees gazed at me like warriors and inspired respect and awe in my heart.
Our men and women resembled these trees. They were hard, stern, and close-lippedâthe best of them the most so. Thus I learned to look on men as trees and rocks, and to honor and love them as I did the quiet pines.
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Nimikon, our hamlet, is situated on a triangular slope hemmed in on two sides by protrusions of rock, on the other by the lake. One path leads to the nearby monastery, the second to a neighboring village four and a half hours away by foot. Other villages bordering the lake can be reached only by boat. Our cottages, built of timber frame in the old style, are of no discernible age. A new cottage is rarely built; old buildings are repaired piecemeal, as requiredâone year the floor, the next a section of the roof. Many half beams and boards, once part of the living-room wall, and still too good to be used as firewood, come in handy when the stable or barn needs repair or the front door a new crosspiece. The people who live in these cottages undergo similar transformations: each of them plays his part as long as he can, then withdraws reluctantly into the circle of extreme old age, finally sinking into oblivionânot that much fuss is made about it. If you returned after many years' absence, you would find everything unchangedâa few old roofs renewed and a few new ones grown old. The old men you knew would have disappeared, to be sure, but only to be replaced by other old men who inhabit the same cottages, bear the same names, watch over the same dark-haired brood of children whose faces and gestures are scarcely distinguishable from those they have succeeded.
What our community lacked was a frequent infusion of fresh blood and life. Almost all the inhabitants, a passably vigorous breed, are the closest of cousins; at least three-quarters of them are called Camenzind. This name fills the pages of the church register and can be found on most of the crosses in the graveyard. It is crudely engraved or painted in loud colors on houses, wagoner's carts, stable buckets, and lake boats. My father's house bears the following painted legend:
This house hath been built by Jost and Francisca Camenzind,
referring not to my father but to his predecessor, my great-grandfather. When I die, even if childless, I can be sure that another Camenzind will settle in the old house, provided it is still standing and has a roof.
Despite this surface uniformity, our small hamlet had in it good people and bad, eminent and lowly, powerful and impotent. Side by side with a number of clever ones, there flourished an amusing handful of foolsânot counting the village idiots, that is. Here, as elsewhere, the large world was represented in small, and since the mighty and the lowly, the sly and the foolish were inextricably related and intermarried, it was no surprise to find overweening pride and narrow-minded silliness jostling each other under the same roofâour life had sufficient breadth and scope for the entire range of human life. Yet a permanent veil of suppressed or subliminal uneasiness hung over all of us. The wretchedness of a life of unrelieved toil and dependence on the forces of nature had in the course of time invested our declining race with a penchant for melancholy. Though this may have suited our rough, angular faces, it failed to produce fruitâat least any that afforded pleasure. For that reason we were glad to have in our midst a sprinkling of fools, who, though only comparatively foolish, provided a touch of color and some occasion for laughter and mockery. Whenever an incident or escapade made one of them the butt of local gossip, merriment would flash over the wrinkled, deeply tanned faces of the people of Nimikon, and the enjoyment of one's own superiority added a delicate philistine piquancy to the joke. They delightedly smacked their lips, feeling confident that they themselves were immune to such aberrations and gaffes. To this majorityâwho occupied a middle ground between the righteous and the sinners, and gladly would have accepted the honors accorded bothâmy father belonged. Every piece of tomfoolery filled him with blissful uneasiness: he would teeter back and forth between genuine admiration of the culprit and smug awareness of his own innocence.
One of these fools was my Uncle Konrad. Not that he was less bright than my father or any other villager. Quite the contrary. He was sly enough, driven by an ambitious spirit that the others might well have envied. Yet nothing went right for him. To his credit, he did not hang his head or become despondent over his failures; instead, he renewed his efforts and even displayed a remarkable awareness of the tragi-comical aspect of all his endeavors. However, this last trait was ascribed to comic eccentricity and merely earned him a place among the community's unpaid jesters. My father's attitude toward Uncle Konrad was a constant tug-of-war between admiration and contempt. Each new project of his filled my father with avid curiosity and excitement, which he sought to hide behind deceptively ironic inquiries and allusions. He would restrain himself until Uncle Konrad, certain of success, began putting on airs, whereupon my father joined the genius in fraternal speculation. When the inevitable catastrophe followed, my uncle would shrug it off, while my father heaped fury and insults on him and then would not favor him with a single word or glance for months.
It is to Uncle Konrad that our village is indebted for its first sight of a sailboat, an experiment in which my father's skiff was a partial sacrifice. My uncle had copied the sail and rigging from calendar woodcuts, and could hardly be blamed if our skiff lacked the necessary beam to carry a sail. The preparations took weeks, with my father on tenterhooks from all the tension, hope, and anxiety, while the rest of the village talked of little else than Konrad Camenzind's new venture. It was a memorable event when the boat was finally launched on a windy day in late summer. My father, filled with forebodings of imminent disaster, did not attend the launching and, to my great disappointment, had forbidden me to go along. Baker FÃ¼ssli's son was the sailing expert's sole companion. The entire village assembled on our graveled patch and in our little garden to witness the extraordinary spectacle. A snappy off-shore wind was blowing, but the baker's son had to row until the breeze caught the sail and it bellied out; then the boat skimmed proudly away. Admiringly, we watched them disappear around the nearest mountain spur and prepared to accord my clever uncle a victor's welcome; we resolved to feel properly ashamed for all snide doubts we had previously entertained. The boat returned that nightâwithout its sail, the sailors more dead than alive. The baker's son coughed and sputtered: “You missed the best part, you almost had yourselves a double funeral next Sunday.” My father had to replace two planks in the skiff and since that day no sail has been reflected in our lake's blue surface. For a long time afterwards, whenever my uncle was in a hurry, people would shout at him: “Use your sails, Konrad!” Father bottled up his anger and for a long while would avert his eyes when he encountered his unlucky brother-in-law; spittle squirted in a wide arc as a sign of his unspeakable contempt. This state of affairs prevailed until Konrad approached him with his project for a fireproof oven, a scheme which brought infinite ridicule down on its inventor's head and ended up costing my father four whole talers. Woe to anyone who dared remind him of the four-taler episode! Much later, when our household was again in financial straits, my mother casually remarked how nice it would be if the criminally wasted money were available now. My father turned purple but controlled himself; he merely said: “I wish I'd drunk it all up some Sunday.”
Toward the end of each winter the FÃ¶hn approached with a roar. The terrified people of the Alps listened to it, trembling; yet, when away from home, they always long to hear it.
The FÃ¶hn's approach could be sensed by men and women, bird and beast and mountain, several hours beforehand. Its actual arrival, heralded almost always by cool counter-winds, announced itself with a deep whirring. The blue-green lake instantly turned ink-black and was suddenly covered with scudding whitecaps. Though inaudible only minutes before, it soon thundered against the shore like an angry sea. At the same time the entire landscape seemed to huddle together. You could now discern individual rocks on pinnacles that usually brooded in remote heights, and could distinguish roofs, gables, and windows in villages that heretofore lay like brown dots in the distance. Everything appeared to close inâmountains, meadows, houses, like a frightened herd. Then the grumbling roar began; the ground trembled. Whipped-up waves were driven through wide stretches of air as spume, and the desperate struggle between storm and mountain rang continually in one's ears, especially at night. A little later, news would spread through the villages of choked mountain brooks, smashed houses, wrecked skiffs, missing fathers and sons.