On the word bread

Hermann Hesse's voice


We writers rely on language. It is our tool, a highly complex tool that no one individual ever manages to master completely.

I, for one at least, can say that since I started school, seventy years ago, there has been nothing I have pursued so tenaciously and so unceasingly as my efforts to understand and master the language, and that I still feel like an awestruck beginner allowing himself to be cast under a spell and - half fearful, half joyous – led into the labyrinths of the alphabet, in which one can, from a little pile of letters, compose words, sentences, books, and vivid depictions of the entire universe.


The bedrock and primal elements of the language are formed by the actual words. In our dealings with them, we discover that, the older a word is, the greater the vitality and evocative force resonating through it. Our languages are old, yet their vocabulary is a source of delight on account of the fact that it is perpetually changing. Words can get sick, die, and vanish for ever. And, each day, new words can join the existing stock of any language. Yet the problem with this growth is like that inherent in any kind of progress. We can express our astonished admiration at the ability of language to invent terms for new things, new circumstances, new functions and needs, yet, on closer examination, we very soon notice that, of one hundred seemingly new words, ninety-nine are merely mechanical combinations formed from the old stock, and that they are not, in fact, real or genuine words but mere designations, makeshift contrivances.


The new vocabulary that has accrued to our language over the past two centuries is vast and amazing in numerical terms, yet pitifully meagre in terms of weight and expressive force, linguistic substance, beauty, and genuine gold. For the most part, it is but inflationary goods.

Take any page of any newspaper and one comes across dozens of such items of vocabulary that did not exist until recently, and of which we do not know whether they will still be around the day after tomorrow. Such words, taken from a random newspaper page without any kind of bias or partiality, may include, for example: Tochtergesellschaft (subsidiary, literally = “daughter company”), Dividendenausschüttung (dividend payout), Rentabilitätsschwankung (profit volatility), Atombombe (atom bomb), Existentialismus (existentialism).


These are complicated, long, and sophisticated items of vocabulary. Yet they all display one and the same flaw: they lack a dimension. They denote but they do not evoke. They do not come from below, from the earth, and from the people, but from above, from the editorial desks, the financial departments of industrial concerns, the offices of bureaucrats and administrators. Old, genuine, naturally evolved, golden, solid and wholesome words include: father, mother, ancestors, earth, tree, mountain, valley. Each of these is as readily understood by a young shepherd boy as it is by a professor or federal councillor.


Each of them appeals not only to our intellect but also to our senses. Each of them evokes a host of memories and imaginings. Each of them signifies something eternal, immortal, irreplaceable, without which life would be inconceivable.


One of these good words so pregnant with meaning is the word bread.


One only needs to utter it, to admit the word’s content into oneself, and already all of our vital forces, those of both the body and the soul, are invoked and stirred into action. Stomach, palate, nose, tongue, teeth, hands also utter the word. We are put in mind of the dining room table in our father’s house. Around it are seated the dear familiar figures of childhood. Father or mother are cutting slices from the large loaf, appraising their size and thickness, according to the age and hunger of the recipient. From the cups comes the smell of the hot morning milk. Or, we recall, very early in the morning, when it was still half night, the aroma wafting over from the direction of the baker’s house, warm and nourishing, stimulating and soothing, arousing, and also half-sating, a feeling of hunger. And, thinking on, we recall all the scenes and images in which, down through the entire history of the world, bread has played a role.


The words of the poets come to mind, and many passages from the Bible, and, everywhere, the bread has, in addition to its daily, down-to-earth meaning, a higher significance, culminating in the Messiah’s parable when breaking bread at the Last Supper. The flow of evocations and recollections is so great that they completely overwhelm us. They flood and spring from a hundred images of great painters, and from all realms of human gratitude and piety, extending through to the high, mystic sound in Sebastian Bach’s Passion: Take, eat, this is my body.


In place of a short piece such as this, one could write an entire book on the word bread.


The people, the real creator and preserver of the language, have come up with expressions of gratitude and tenderness for bread, only two of which I need to mention in order to unleash a whole series of reminiscences.


The German people like to speak of “dear bread,” and the Italians and people of Tessin, when wishing to term someone genuinely good, call them “buono, come il pane.”


(Published with kind permission of Suhrkamp Verlag Frankfurt/Main.)