Hemann Hesse: On Trees

One of the rare portraits of Hesse as a young man
Bildnis Hermann Hesse. Brustbild. Tempera auf Kart. Ca. 33,5 x 27,5 cm,
Date 1905
Source kiefer.de
Artist Ernst Würtenberger (1868-1934)

 

The banner photograph on this site was taken by me at Honeymoon Point, Katoomba.  I wanted to place the certainty and solidity of the tree against the void of space in the valley, stretching to the far horizon. The valleys of the Blue Mountains are replete with ancient trees, with their long breathing and restful thoughts.Hermann Hesse was particularly moved by trees. The more I look at trees, the more profound I find his thoughts.  Here is a famous passage from one of his reflective works.

For me, trees have always been the most penetrating preachers. I revere them when they live in tribes and families, in forests and groves. And even more I revere them when they stand alone. They are like lonely persons. Not like hermits who have stolen away out of some weakness, but like great, solitary men, like Beethoven and Nietzsche. In their highest boughs the world rustles, their roots rest in infinity; but they do not lose themselves there, they struggle with all the force of their lives for one thing only: to fulfil themselves according to their own laws, to build up their own form, to represent themselves. Nothing is holier, nothing is more exemplary than a beautiful, strong tree. When a tree is cut down and reveals its naked death-wound to the sun, one can read its whole history in the luminous, inscribed disk of its trunk: in the rings of its years, its scars, all the struggle, all the suffering, all the sickness, all the happiness and prosperity stand truly written, the narrow years and the luxurious years, the attacks withstood, the storms endured. And every young farmboy knows that the hardest and noblest wood has the narrowest rings, that high on the mountains and in continuing danger the most indestructible, the strongest, the ideal trees grow.

Trees are sanctuaries. Whoever knows how to speak to them, whoever knows how to listen to them, can learn the truth. They do not preach learning and precepts, they preach, undeterred by particulars, the ancient law of life.

A tree says: A kernel is hidden in me, a spark, a thought, I am life from eternal life. The attempt and the risk that the eternal mother took with me is unique, unique the form and veins of my skin, unique the smallest play of leaves in my branches and the smallest scar on my bark. I was made to form and reveal the eternal in my smallest special detail.

A tree says: My strength is trust. I know nothing about my fathers, I know nothing about the thousand children that every year spring out of me. I live out the secret of my seed to the very end, and I care for nothing else. I trust that God is in me. I trust that my labor is holy. Out of this trust I live.

When we are stricken and cannot bear our lives any longer, then a tree has something to say to us: Be still! Be still! Look at me! Life is not easy, life is not difficult. Those are childish thoughts. Let God speak within you, and your thoughts will grow silent. You are anxious because your path leads away from mother and home. But every step and every day lead you back again to the mother. Home is neither here nor there. Home is within you, or home is nowhere at all.

A longing to wander tears my heart when I hear trees rustling in the wind at evening. If one listens to them silently for a long time, this longing reveals its kernel, its meaning. It is not so much a matter of escaping from one’s suffering, though it may seem to be so. It is a longing for home, for a memory of the mother, for new metaphors for life. It leads home. Every path leads homeward, every step is birth, every step is death, every grave is mother.

So the tree rustles in the evening, when we stand uneasy before our own childish thoughts: Trees have long thoughts, long-breathing and restful, just as they have longer lives than ours. They are wiser than we are, as long as we do not listen to them. But when we have learned how to listen to trees, then the brevity and the quickness and the childlike hastiness of our thoughts achieve an incomparable joy. Whoever has learned how to listen to trees no longer wants to be a tree. He wants to be nothing except what he is. That is home. That is happiness.
― Hermann HesseBäume. Betrachtungen und Gedichte

See Post:  “Hermann Hesse’s art” for some of his tree and landscape images.

 

What is Art? Thoughts on bodies and animals.

The making of marks and images is embedded in human life.  From the blown ochres outlining handprints on cave walls to the ceilings in Renaissance palaces to the production of every form of visual material in today’s world productivity seems never to have faltered. Some of the most extraordinary art is made using the human body itself as canvas. Before modernity, in hunter-gatherer/horticultural societies, the artistic impulse seems already to have reached its full potential.  Without modern technologies, artists (almost everyone) understood how to obtain natural sources of colour (ochres, pipeclay, charcoals, earths) and how to use different media to mix and fix them to the body, to walls and onto the ground.  Although designs were usually inherited and traditional there was always room for innovation.  This is art in its purest, cleanest sense.  It has no environmental negatives and links the natural and bodily worlds in the deepest way.

Is art-making exclusively human? Do animals make art?  There are some amazing examples, although they seem to be limited to very specific circumstances.  [accessed 7/2/14]

http://www.ucl.ac.uk/news/news-articles/January2012/270112-art-by-animals

http://www.kshb.com/dpp/lifestyle/pets/Kansas-City-Zoo-animals-bust-out-their-paint-brushes

Art, its existence and practice, raises complex philosophical and psychological questions.  Freud and post-Freudian theorists have proposed theories about art and its meanings which are not widely known, let alone accepted, in the art world.  The political meaning and function of art has received more attention.  The changes in the significance and function of art in era of technological modernity (and near universal commercialisation) are closely related to this question, under the influence of Walter Benjamin and Theodor Adorno.  Many resist any attempts to traverse these fields and assess their implications.  Meta-theory is not necessary for the practice of art which always transcends philosophy.  But for anyone trying to practice art under contemporary conditions it can offer stimulus and insight.

One of the most fascinating aspects of the human commitment to art-making is how absolutely useless it is.  There is nothing to be gained from it in terms of the usual requirements for survival: it can’t be eaten, built with, or made to do anything other than to signify and please. Yet the desire for aesthetic pleasure seems embedded and the ability to respond to it seems part of the cognitive system.  Wherever it is possible to decorate something people will do it.  Making a basket to carry produce doesn’t require the intricate modes of weaving which so often appear, but there they are.  As soon as survival is assured and people can live somewhere above a bare subsistence, art-making appears.

Today’s systems of production mean that images are everywhere so nobody needs to feel obliged to make them in order to experience them.  Many feel they can take art or leave it.  But for others, it is something they are simply drawn to.  There are all kinds of art-making, some recognised and rewarded far more than others, but for art-makers one or more forms of expression seem to be pulling at the heart, or maybe the soul, with so much power that it can’t be resisted.

Art-making is a challenge as well as an intensely gripping activity.  I often feel the paintings I want to work on are actively demanding my attention, as if they already exist somewhere and are revealing themselves through me.  My ability to respond is limited by my inadequate technical understanding and lack of training.  Being able to make better art will meet the desires of my conscious, and unconscious, life process.