Does a penchant for the hippie favourite Hesse reveal Ratzinger's secret side?

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The Independent Online

If Pope Benedict XVI really does draw inspiration from Hermann Hesse's Der Steppenwolf, then the famously rigid arch-conservative must have a hitherto unknown secret side. That, as it happens, would be highly appropriate. In his eerie, dream-like fictions, the Swiss novelist (1877-1962) returned again and again to divided characters and warring doubles in the throes of a surreal, traumatic journey towards wholeness and unity.

If Pope Benedict XVI really does draw inspiration from Hermann Hesse's Der Steppenwolf, then the famously rigid arch-conservative must have a hitherto unknown secret side. That, as it happens, would be highly appropriate. In his eerie, dream-like fictions, the Swiss novelist (1877-1962) returned again and again to divided characters and warring doubles in the throes of a surreal, traumatic journey towards wholeness and unity.

Hesse's psychoanalysis with a disciple of Jung underlies the mystic quest in his 1927 novel. Its artistic outsider of a hero, Harry Haller the "Steppenwolf", moves through the alien night-time city in search of the "Magic Theatre". There, ritual and fellowship will break down his conflicts and miseries.

Yes, you might read it as a Christian allegory, but equally as a psychedelic trip or a plunge into the underworld of Jungian archetypes.

Ratzinger's reported admiration for Hesse has more obvious oddities. We know that the Pontiff withdrew in disgust from the "relativistic" chaos of German student radicalism in the late Sixties. Yet Hesse's works famously wowed the hippies of the time. His books laid one of the cultural foundations of the New Age thinking that the Pope seems to abhor.

Ratzinger has also taken a high-profile stance against compromise and conciliation between faiths, reasserting the unique wisdom of the Roman church. But Hesse was a pioneering champion of mix-and-match spirituality. The child of missionaries in India, he always respected Christian piety but broadened the boundaries of faith and hoped for the advent of a sort of "world-belief", or Weltglaube. Scarred by the terrors of the First World War, he also became a firm pacifist.

Who knows? A Hesse-influenced pope might still shock the militaristic US President who rushed to welcome his election.

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