Lit React ~ Analysis & reactions on works of fiction.

26 Aug 2011

(Short Story) Within and Without by: Herman Hesse

(Reaction) That old black magic by: Antonio Conejos

Rational people can oftentimes subscribe to irrational beliefs. Thus superstition and magic still abound in our modern world which is built on logic, science and reason. In this short story by Herman Hesse, the reader meets the limits of imposing a clean line dividing reason from the irrational, science from mysticism.

Within and Without serves as its cautionary example a young man by the name of Frederick. He is quite self-assured in his intelligence and his beliefs. What he loved and revered was logic - that so admirable method - and, in general, what he called 'science.' Frederick, as described, is quite intolerant then of anything which even hints at the mystical, everything he recognized as superstition was profoundly odious and repugnant to him.

What jars Frederick out of his smug orthodoxy is a simple sentence pinned to his friend Erwin's wall, Nothing is without, nothing is within; for what is without is within. From the very beginning though Erwin blends both the rational and the irrational into one world view. He freely admits that the saying is magic but describes it as well as an epistemology.

Epistemology is the philosophical branch concerned with a theory of knowledge, ie. examining how we know what we know or how we construct our worldview. As it is part of philosophy, epistemology is also imbued with that field's need for logic, rigor and rational thought. And yet for Erwin what is an epistemology is also magic. Erwin then seeks to construct a worldview based both on reason and superstition, Beyond the pair of antitheses of which our world consists a new and different knowledge begins.... It appears there is a touch of Hegel in Erwin as well.

Gradually Frederick succumbs to this view of the world as a synthesis of both the rational and the irrational. This is seen visually in the idol which so troubles him. The idol is two faced and both faces appear exactly the same. But upon further reflection Frederick wonders if one face is different from the other. He probes the idol (a symbol of superstition) with the limits of his mind (the rational).

Thus, Hesse's short story details how a highly orthodox mind eventually surrenders to the niggling uncertainties of any orthodoxy. In a way Frederick drives himself mad as his mind can't help but probe the graven idol and the implications of its demise. Ironically then it is Frederick's rationalism which leads him to magic; which is what Erwin may have intended all along.

In the end, no matter how logical man fancies himself, superstition and mysticism will always remain, insubstantial but not vapid, like a warning, like a white hand's ghostly writing on a white wall.


Hesse's Within and Without centers around a tautology and neither the two principal characters every recognize it as such. I share with Frederick his frustration at how easily benignly mysterious occurrences are suddenly imbued with some supernatural cause. However I do not share with him his love of rigid orthodoxy. After all, to quote-mangle the Bard again, there are many more things and heaven and hell which are dreamt of in any of our philosophies.

That said, this short story finds me neither here nor there, it failed to excite me intellectually or viscerally.

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