Sunday, February 15, 2009

Steppenwolf

I had read the novel Steppenwolf, by Herman Hesse, when I was in my late teens. I was not sophisticated enough to understand that I did not understand what was going in the book, but the feelings, tone, and mood, captivated me. It was a time in my life when I needed something like that, though I knew no one else who read Hesse.

The name Steppenwolf made me think of StephenWolf. (Stephen is my first name.) I used to fancy myself a rugged individualist, a sort of lone wolf, but I understand now that this was really a rationalization of fear and insecurity over social engagement with others.

I then saw the movie Steppenwolf (released 1974), a few years later, when I was in college. An understanding of the complete story was still a mystery to me, but parts of it resonated so vividly with me that I still remember the salient points today, 30+ years later. The protagonist, Harry Haller, was an overwrought, isolated, and unhappy intellectual. But I identified with and admired Harry for his objectivity, his independence of mind, and his freedom from social conformity.

Harry had dinner with an academic friend. Harry became disgusted with the nationalism of his friend. The friend then ridiculed and condemned an article that had been published in the newspaper which was against war. The friend's wife (relying on my fallible memory) also joined in the ridicule. The friend and his wife did not know that Harry wrote the column. Harry felt further isolated, alone, and beleaguered. I feel the same way about my own beliefs.

I remember Harry entering the Magic Theater. The entrance to the theater was enchanting. I felt that Harry was on the verge of despair due to his isolation and lack of social acceptance. I felt that his entering the Magic Theater was an escape, a flight from despair. Once in the theater, Harry did not find happiness or inner peace, only more anxiety and alienation from himself. In the theater, I felt Harry compromised or abandoned his principles. He disappointed me. He gave me anxiety in the pit of my stomach, and I lost respect for him.

However, I, Stephen, am not in flight from despair, and I have no intention of compromising my beliefs.

In my teens and early twenties, I had read perhaps 6-8 novels of Herman Hesse. I loved them. They moved me. I related to them greatly. I ate up everything about India and the world of The Glass Bead Game (Magister Ludi). Since then, I have picked up novels by Hesse, and they mean absolutely nothing to me now--nothing. I think certain books are for a certain time in your life. We move on. Life moves on.

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