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Unlocking Life’s Meaning: Exploring Hermann Hesse’s “Klingsor’s Last Summer”

Hermann Hesse’s poignant novella, “Klingsor’s Last Summer,” delves deep into the existential crisis he faced around 1919, reflecting his personal struggles and philosophical musings. Through the protagonist, Klingsor, Hesse navigates the profound themes of life’s purpose and the challenges of self-exploration. Klingsor emerges not only as an artist but as a soul driven by a passionate love for life and a relentless quest for self-discovery through his artistic endeavors.

In this introspective work, Hesse portrays Klingsor’s unwavering dedication to art as a means to seek the deeper meanings of existence. The novella captures the essence of grappling with one’s inner conflicts and balancing them against a fervent appreciation for life’s beauty and complexities.

Through Klingsor’s character, Hesse illustrates the transformative power of art and the pursuit of perfection. Klingsor’s journey embodies a quest for self-realization and a relentless pursuit of inner peace and acceptance.

“Klingsor’s Last Summer” invites readers to ponder the myriad choices and possibilities life presents, urging them to embrace the journey of self-discovery and find solace in the beauty of art and the mysteries of existence.

In 1919, Hermann Hesse wrote his novella “Demian”, embarking on a journey of exploration deep into the interior of life. The following year, another of his novellas, “The Last Summer of Klingsor”, was published. 

Some people say that if there had not been Klingsor’s summer, there would have been no subsequent “Siddhartha”, “Steppenwolf”, “The Glass Bead Game”, “Narcissus and Goldmund”… This “autobiographical” novella about Hesse reflects the life and spiritual crisis he suffered around 1919. 

At that time, the world after World War I had not yet recovered from the chaos. People who were surviving the disaster were like frightened birds. Although they temporarily returned to freedom, they were not truly stable and free in their hearts.  

Some civilians were displaced and some prisoners of war left their homes. Many young soldiers were dragged away by war in their childhood. Some died on the battlefield, and some returned by luck, but there was no peaceful and peaceful home waiting for them when they returned.  

Running away as a child has become an eternal nostalgia.  And for some older people, their most precious youth has passed away. The pace of the times has become faster, and before they have time to adapt, they lose the opportunity to compete. At least young people still have the capital to fight and wake up from the boring and cold old world and be reborn. As for the old people who came from the old times, the worldviews they once highly recognized no longer have a foothold.  

There will always be a new order, new rules, and a new world view.  The war is over, but its shadow remains.  Everyone is facing a completely unfamiliar world, and everyone has their own fears and uneasiness.  Humanist Hesse has always opposed war and defended peace. He once wrote an article indicting the war, but he was condemned as a traitor by newspapers in his homeland.

Many newspapers published articles attacking him, some friends turned against him, and his family and economy were also affected. Despite the malice coming at him from all sides, Hesse chose to follow his heart. Since 1915, he “intervened” in the war by visiting hospitals for wounded soldiers and prisoner of war camps to listen to the inner voices of the people who suffered from the war.  

After the First World War, the 42-year-old Hesse returned to his personal life without changing his original intention. He hopes that the world will return to reason and unity, and he hopes to gain a place for the spirit, regardless of whether the world still needs poetry. The turmoil and damage of the war years almost completely destroyed his life, leaving him with not much in the past.  But there is a strong self in his heart, calling: 

To regroup and give meaning to your life, you must bid farewell to everything you have hitherto through intense introspection and transformation.

  Everything yesterday is like death yesterday, and everything today is like birth today. In his middle age, Hesse turned to Nietzsche’s philosophy and Jung’s psychoanalysis, and asked about Indian Buddhism and Chinese Lao-Zhuang philosophy. He tried to explore the path to human spiritual liberation from the aspects of religion, philosophy and psychology, and constantly explored and asked questions about the inner nature of life.
Whether it is “Siddhartha”, “Steppenwolf”, “Demian” or “Klingsor’s Last Summer”, it is not only Hesse’s analysis of his own life, but also guides readers to constantly examine themselves and find the meaning of their lives. .
After all, we will all understand that true peace in life cannot be obtained from the outside. Looking inward is the fundamental answer.


01 Internal friction, because you have higher requirements for yourself

 In the work “The Last Summer of Klingsor”, Hesse created a painter Klingsor who spent his whole life “burning” himself. At the end of one summer, the 42-year-old Klingsor used up all the “fuel” in his life to complete the final painting – a freely reshaped form of the real world. The painting is filled with strange, bright and silent colors, dreamy twisted trees and plant-like houses. 

 “A deep creative ecstasy, like a dripping and joyful storm.”

  After painting that painting, he committed suicide. At this point, the insomnia and eye diseases that have troubled him for a long time, as well as the different opinions of the outside world on the paintings, are no longer obstacles.  Whatever the final interpretation of the painting was, it had nothing to do with him. He has completed himself from a certain spiritual level and he no longer has to explain anything to anyone. In this way, by killing the physical self, one can achieve spiritual “resurrection”; and by using the silent colors and patterns in the painting, he silently confronts everything in reality. He once said that fire at death with color, with burning green, exploding vermilion, sweet geranium paint… Faced with the shortness of life and the passage of time, he has questioned and denied himself countless times, and even questioned the value of painting.  Has this exhausting lifelong pursuit just reached zero? When he couldn’t find the answer, he continued to create. Creation itself was the meaning.  Every time it blooms, it faces a withering. Behind every vivid painting, there have been months or weeks of depression and struggle.  He burned with abandon in the midst of sorrow and joy. 

 “It’s great pain that makes people profound.”

  Having lived passionately, he can also die calmly.  Life is as gorgeous as summer flowers.  Death is as quiet and beautiful as autumn leaves. For Klingsor, there was an invincible summer that forever stopped in 1919. 


02 Life is the ultimate battle with yourself

  Hesse once wrote in his book “Demian”: 

Each person’s life represents a road leading to himself, his attempts on this road, and the revelation he has received on the subtle path.

No one has ever completely become himself. Despite this, everyone still tries hard. Some are ignorant, some are sober, and everyone does their best.

 …

Everyone is trying to get out of the abyss and work towards their own goals. We can understand each other, but only each person can truly understand himself deeply.

  Klingsor died during the last summer of his life. At that time, rumors spread about his suicide, and some said he had been crazy for months. Some people say that in the last few months of his life, he drank heavily and drank heavily to numb the pain and relieve his inner melancholy. Some art critics have tried to explain the shock and ecstasy of his final paintings.  …  All that happened during life will be commented upon by future generations after death. But each statement can only represent people’s respective perspectives, and the parties involved have become silent.  As Hesse said, “They are only talking about who they think I am.”  What people see is the result, and what they experience and feel is life.  At the age of 12, Klingsor had “ten lives.”  Back then, boys loved to play bandit escape games. The rules of the game are that each bandit has ten lives. If he is touched by the pursuer’s hand or javelin, he will lose one life. The longer the game goes on and the longer you deal with your opponent, the more lives you’re likely to lose. But whether you have seven lives, five lives, or one life left, you still have a chance to escape.  Only if you lose ten lives will you lose everything.  Some people are cautious throughout the process, fearing that their lives will be exhausted. Some people didn’t take it seriously at first. Seeing their lives getting fewer and fewer, they felt uneasy, so they “protected” the remaining lives. Klingsor is different, he must use up ten lives to feel proud, otherwise, he will feel ashamed.  He had been so brave and determined as a child. For him, nothing is impossible and nothing is difficult.  He loves all, rules all, owns all. He just kept moving forward without hesitation, living without reservation, as if he really had nine other lives. Gradually, on the road of growth, he came up with his own pursuit of life – painting, so he burned himself for art throughout his life. In his eyes, art is compensation for wasted life, vitality and love.  Art is life. If we cannot create, the color of life will be much darker and the vitality of life will be greatly reduced.  Life cannot be just about eating and drinking, which is empty and boring. 

“If you have never drawn something like this, then all the good wine, good food, and beautiful women’s coffee will be of no use to you. You are just a pathetic ghost.

But with these paintings, you are a rich guy, a guy that people like. “

  Life is short, art is sublime. Because of pursuit, the limit of life is not the end of death, but a high-spirited spiritual attitude that is unwilling to be mediocre.  Because of pursuit, no painting can be called perfect. Even if we never reach perfection, every time we transcend ourselves, we are constantly approaching the circle.  If you have ten lives, you must make the most of them.  You only have one life, and you won’t settle for it.  In the ultimate battle with yourself in life, there is no winner or loser. It’s love, it’s hope, it’s inner abundance, it’s the vitality of life that blooms to the extreme. It’s the right thing to do, and it inspires people to keep moving forward until the end of life. 


03 We only have one life, but there is more than one way to live.

 At nightfall in August, Klingsor, exhausted both physically and mentally, wandered into a sleepy tavern. The old woman in the shop brought him a glass of wine. He opened his backpack and took out the remaining cheese and plums. That was his last supper. The old woman is pale, hunched, has lost all her teeth, and has wrinkles on her face, but her old eyes are particularly calm. The old woman told him about her life – about the village and family, about the war, prices and farmland, about wine, milk and prices, about her dead grandson and her son who traveled far away… The old woman’s life is a mixture of joy and sorrow, fear and vitality, which is simple, down-to-earth and beautiful.  For her, maybe walking through her life like this would be satisfying.  Live seriously and grow old calmly. Klingsor ate, drank, listened, talked carefully with the woman, gave her the last plum, said goodbye, and left.  What about himself?  Klingsor, how many lives does he have left?  Sanjo? Two? There is at least one left. 

 “Compared with following the rules and living a mediocre worldly life, you will always have more lives.

Moreover, he has done a lot, seen a lot, painted a lot on paper and cloth, aroused love and hate in many people’s hearts, and brought a lot of troubles and fresh winds to the world in art and life. “

  He loved and hated, but in the end, love defeated hate. He has been bound and crushed by many traditional dogmas, and he has also destroyed many traditions and dogmas. He was also fragile, timid, afraid of change or slacking off, but he still tried many new things.  He has also been depressed and frustrated, and he has also filled his wine glass and drank many glasses of wine. He claimed to be Li Bai, and perhaps he even shouted drunkenly, “If you want to live life to the fullest, don’t let the golden bottle stand empty against the moon.” He spent many days and starry nights, basked in many suns, and looked at the moon countless times. He also traveled far away alone, in Italy, India or China, where the summer wind blew the chestnut crowns…  He has seen many landscapes and painted many pictures. 

It no longer matters whether I paint hundreds more paintings or ten; whether I go through another twenty summers or just one.

 He was tired, tired. Everything is dying, everything wants to die.

 He only had one life at best, but he lived it seriously, as if he had more than one life.  At 42 years old, halfway through life, it seems like a lifetime has passed. I have tried my best to discover the parts of myself that can be changed, and I no longer cling to the reality that cannot be changed. Some people choose a life where they can live to old age, simply contented, calm as water, and indifferent to the passage of time.  Some people are getting older and some are still young.  Everyone sticks to their own way of living, either timidly or unswervingly. If one road doesn’t work, try another road at worst. There is more than one way to live in life.  If there is a south wall in front of you, you will have to hit it before you are willing to do so. There are talented people from generation to generation. They have a lot of curiosity and thirst for knowledge, and they either seek alone or join a group to keep warm. They just want to find a place for themselves in this big world. Klingsor stands in the middle of life. No matter whether he looks back or forward, he can at least be true to his heart.


04 The path to relief goes neither left nor right, it leads within

  “Klingsor’s Last Summer” says: 

“Once upon a time, I wanted to be both a poet and a citizen; I wanted to be an artist and a visionary, but I also wanted to possess virtue and enjoy my hometown.

 It took me a long time to understand that one cannot be and have both at the same time.

I understand that I am a nomad, not a farmer; I am a seeker, not a possessor. “

 Thinking about it, many times in our lives, we are dealing with various choices. You may like the opportunities, resources, and relative freedom to be yourself in big cities, or you may miss the paths, fields, ponds, and flowers in your hometown, or the porridge and rice in your hometown. You may have your own desires, but be doing a job that you don’t like and that goes against your true desires.  You may have a free heart, but choose to be trapped in various constraints.  Just as this world is so wonderful, sometimes it can be boring.  Life is full of possibilities, but also restricted by all kinds of impossibilities. And one day, maybe we will all understand that the important thing is not what we choose, but that no matter what we choose, we can feel the beating of our souls in it.  When you become peace itself, there is no need to chase peace.  When you are free inside, you are no longer obsessed with finding freedom. Whether he’s a priest or a homeless man on the street, in the end, it’s all the same in Klingsor’s eyes. As long as we can reconcile with ourselves, without confrontation or pulling, everything will be reasonable. No matter how people view or evaluate you, no matter what kind of embarrassment you have experienced before awakening… everyone will reach the end. When Klingsor was able to let go of himself, he finally came to peace and was redeemed by his own will. 

“The world is getting more and more beautiful. I am alone, but I am very comfortable. I want nothing more than to be exposed to the sun. I long for maturity. I am ready to die, ready to be reborn. The world is getting more and more beautiful.”

 When a heart returns to tranquility, nature, cleanliness, and clarity, it will be able to see a better and grander world. After going through all the detours, you know that the road to a smooth road is often full of thorns.  Every goal that is achieved is no longer a goal.  Every inner desire in life is accompanied by torture.  Joy accompanies emptiness.  Pain breeds peace and joy. 

“You can’t be a wanderer and an artist and still be a citizen and a decent, healthy person. You experience intoxication and you experience the pain of intoxication.”

 When you no longer oppose and seek outside, your soul will find its own homeland and gain peace and happiness. 

 “The place where contradictions and opposites cease is nirvana.”

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