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Hermann Hesse : At the Badenau spa

Hermann Hesse in 1906



July 9, 1909

My dear friend,

I’m a little ashamed to confess my whereabouts and present condition, but I have owed you a letter for a long time, and besides, there’s so little to do here — I haven’t felt like this since the long Sundays during my vacations as a youth. I have learned how terrible boredom can be, even thinking about it can give me the shudders; it’s worse than all the other illnesses, even seasickness.

The situation is as follows: I’ve been a guest here at the spa in Badenau for the past two weeks ! You’ll be astonished and may even laugh, which is what I do whenever I get a chance to reflect on my situation. I shall be released in three weeks’ time; till then there is no escape.

A clever, sensitive physician has taken charge of my nerves, and a well-to-do friend — you can guess his identity — is paying the hefty hotel bill; I wouldn’t be here otherwise. This is how my day goes: After getting up, I take a thermal bath, have breakfast, and must then go on a so-called promenade until one o’clock. Lunch is at one, then I’m supposed to rest until four; from then until early in the night I’m permitted to read and write, and thus engage in what my physician politely calls work. Then, at half past nine, a young attendant in white linen comes to my room; he soaks a large linen towel in cold water, wraps me in it, and then beats it with his flattened hands until he is exhausted. It’s quite amusing, and the fellow must have no trouble sleeping soundly afterward, but I certainly can’t.

As you know, I’m a native of the Black Forest; when I was a small boy, I used to feel a mixture of amazement and contempt at the sight of the numerous spa visitors, or “air grabbers” as we called them, who came to our region in the summer. Now I myself am an air grabber. My days are spent climbing the clean forest paths, cautiously and in decent attire, lying for hours on the wicker chaise longue in the hotel garden, staring in a bored and envious manner at the farmers working in the fields, exhibiting on my face perhaps a faint, somewhat helpless expression, which I interpreted in my youth as a sign that all air grabbers were idiots.

During my first few days here everything irritated me. A spa such as this can destroy the magic and ravish the beauty of the most beautiful valley in the Black Forest. The buildings are outrageously large and garish; there are hundreds of completely unnecessary signposts painted in all sorts of colors; tiny artificial ponds with decrepit swans and idiotic goldfish, and equally tiny artificial waterfalls with tin gnomes or deer, and little walls with water trickling down. Moreover, a gang of musicians fills the peaceful valley with the sound of an absolutely diabolical brass band, for an hour and a half, three times a day, from which there is no escape. Although the audience here is large, elegant, and cosmopolitan, it not only puts up with this stuff but actually seems to enjoy it. It’s enough to make one weep.

Those first few days, I was so tired and the weather was so wet that all I got to see of Badenau was those splendid spa monuments. But, of course, I soon noticed that this elegant spa is tiny and rather laughable; it’s a ridiculous little kindergarten in which the guests disport themselves in a very odd, apelike manner.

The spa is surrounded by a dark, mighty hundred-year-old forest and soft blue-black mountains, which seem to smile wryly at the colorful and quite childish antics occurring at their feet. These are the fir-tree groves, forests of silver fir, fast, transparent, trout-filled streams, and the old, forsaken mills and sawmills of my youth; they greet me again, and in spite of all that has since transpired, I can hear the old, familiar sounds in my ears and in my heart. Something emerges from deep within my soul, the muffled clamor of my youth, the remnants in my heart of my childhood sensibility; the waves may have submerged that part of me, but they have left it unscathed.

During the four or five hours I spend outside each day, this entire world belongs to me alone, with all its mountains and wide, high plateaus, its wild spots covered with ferns, its strawberries and lizards, its ravines and quiet, sleepy, brown-gold water wagtails amid the alders.

For, strange as this may seem, the guests aren’t in the least bit interested in nature. They know nothing about it, and just reject it out of hand. They traipse around aimlessly on a few level paths at the spa, and then sit around on one of the many benches, looking either satiated and happy or yellow and out of sorts, and not one of them ever ventures more than a thousand meters from the pump room. Lots of shimmering white dresses can be seen in this restricted area; costly ladies’ hats and hairdresses flit about; all sorts of flowers and perfumes release their fragrance; mouths buzz with the sounds of ten languages — but beyond the perimeter there isn’t a trace of a single guest, even though that’s where there is a real forest and genuine mountain air.

They’re paying the high spa fees for all those swans, tiny ponds, tin gnomes, signposts, and concerts. One encounters only a few fat gentlemen outside this Holy of Holies, and they run panting along the forest paths, trying to lose weight. It’s not as if the thousand-odd spa guests were weak or ill, and thus incapable of going on hikes — whenever there are evening dances, they all seem astonishingly healthy and agile. But they’re all afraid of nature, and can tolerate only the extremely adulterated form of nature they see during their “promenades.” They’re dimly aware that their narrow, self-imposed regulations no longer apply in the woods, and also that their vain demands and petty worries and ailments would seem just as ridiculous there. If they were somewhere in the mountains a couple of hours away, old Pan might suddenly sneak up on them, gaze into their unliberated eyes, and give them a well-deserved shock. The ravines and wolves are not what frightens people “out there”; it’s the solitude, and that’s something which none of the guests at the spa can tolerate.

So they stay down below in their narrow little garden and, on the rare occasions when they venture out into the very enticing countryside, they venture forth only on group outings in carriages full of merrymakers. On the other hand, some are so stir-crazy that they show up for the morning concert in the park, wearing sports clothes and loden hats, which they take off as quickly as possible afterward. If somebody is known to head off occasionally for distant summits, even if he has only been away for one day on a serious hike, he is treated with diffident awe, partly as a hero, partly as a madman.

At the dinner table I have to sit with my fellow patients for an hour a day, listening to their exhaustive discussions of their ailments. One of them has again slept poorly; it took another four weeks to lose a single pound. A fat man, who is still quite young, spent four hours yesterday running around in the woods, going back and forth the whole time along the same path, only to deprive himself subsequently of the benefits of this activity: that evening he couldn’t resist the tempting pudding (which he is not allowed). So once again he didn’t lose any weight, and it’s the fourth time that this has happened. He goes on a diet and doesn’t exercise or vice versa.

Having to contend with such foolish and ridiculous ailments is so aggravating that one feels a sense of relief on encountering genuine illness. One can certainly find examples of the latter here; all these spas and guesthouses were built for seriously ill patients, but one hardly ever sees them now, since the jaded splendor and aimless bustle of life at the resort have pushed them into the background. But there are some places, along a few of the more modest forest paths or in the lying-in room of one of the guesthouses, where one comes across the pale face of real misery and genuine suffering and feels moved and quite shocked, yet oddly enough, the experience also makes one feel good. It’s not just that one begins to laugh at the self-important airs of this comical and useless little world; one can see one’s own complaints in perspective and doesn’t take them quite so seriously. And on a rare occasion one finds oneself gazing quietly and with brotherly fellow feeling at a white, suffering, and very human face, responding to a glance which suggests seriousness rather than curiosity, or a silent greeting.

That’s what my life here as a patient at the Badenau spa is like. I roam about the quiet forest paths in the morning, spend the afternoons resting and dozing off, occasionally read a bit of Walther von der Vogelweide or Mörike in the evening until the fellow in the white linen arrives with his water bucket. There are times when I don’t have anything at all on my mind, and I just listen to the rustling treetops and murmuring brooks. I sometimes spend hours thinking about the intense suffering marking the anxious, pale faces that greeted me. And I sometimes get a kick out of the guests, the little ponds, the whole fraud. One gets to see some beautiful people here, just like everywhere else. There are few really beautiful English people around since they are either at a higher altitude or at the seaside. But one can certainly find racial features that are characteristically Slavic, German, and Latin, well-dressed children, and some interesting women’s faces. I’m pleased to discover that our good Schwarzwald folk have nothing to be ashamed of when set among all these ethnic types; the Alemannic features can stand comparison with the firm, finely chiseled features of all these foreigners.

That’s quite enough ! You’ll be hearing from me soon again."

☆ ☆ ☆


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