Thursday, March 19, 2009

MIDLIFE CRISIS LIT

1. I Was a Teen-aged Steppenwolf!

Recently I re-read two novels to revisit certain mental territory, namely the place in my mind where I stored impressions from my earlier readings. This is one of the big attractions of re-reading after time has passed. No one, of course, has done more to extract the truths of being a different person dipping into what is supposedly the same stream than Proust. And maybe it's the changes made in my head by my first reading of Proust that have established this ongoing sense of rediscovery -- not only of the books themselves, but of me -- in the act of re-reading. Which, if so, means there's nothing quite like re-reading Proust, for then one gets to contemplate all of the narrator's re-visitings while always alive to the fact that the reader is revisiting too. It doesn't get any better than that.

The two books I was re-reading were not Proust caliber, but both had left a mark on me that I wanted to trace again. Or it might be more accurate to say that my reading of the first, Hermann Hesse's Steppenwolf (1927) occasioned an interest in re-reading Saul Bellow's Herzog (1964). Why? Well, that's the point of this commentary.

Steppenwolf is irrevocably associated with my adolescence. I can still remember sitting on the top bunk in my bedroom reading it by the light through the front window, looking out on the church across the street. I don't know why that memory is so clear, since I read the novel probably about six times in the course of high school. Was that the first reading? Probably, but so what? I can only assume -- and Proust would understand -- that my mind went on a little journey when I paused in my reading to look up and that, in some sense, my mind is still on that journey. What part of the novel was it? Of that I'm not sure. Probably it was the part when Harry Haller, the hero of the novel, is reading the little book For Madmen Only. It's at that point that a teen reader would be looking inward, trying to decide if he were in fact 'a steppenwolf' -- enthralled by bourgeois respectability but also harboring a certain lunatic urge to be a glorious outcast. The kind of reflection that comes easily when seated in one's parental home, annoyed to be called for punctual dinner before hitting a natural break in the text. 'Oh, if only I could live according to the demands of my spirit!' one says, shutting the book angrily and then taking one's place docilely at the family board.

But what hit me this time is the fact that Harry is almost fifty years old (as am I). And the book is essentially a midlife crisis book. And the fact that I strongly associated with Harry says something, indeed, about the teen I was or aspired to be. My own father was probably forty-six at the time. So here comes that premature aging that literature has a way of bequeathing. Suddenly I was a high school student in the midst of a midlife crisis: 'the wine of life is drawn and the mere lees is left this vault to brag of,' as Macbeth would say, and as I knew he said, then. There was something heady in that feeling -- which Hesse does his best to convey -- that the quaint little social rituals of high school and family life, and even of the big world of regular jobs beyond, is nothing but a sham, something to escape by means of . . . imagination? art? daring adventures? Could be. Hesse wisely refrains from making Harry some kind of undiscovered genius or former adventurer. Harry is simply what I wanted to be: a person whose interiority is entirely determined by books. And, lately, the books don't work any more. Thus the crisis. The lesson, more or less, is that one must look to one's fellow man for the meaning of life, not in books, not in the precise satisfactions of aesthetic fabrications. And yet this truth is brought home to him by a rather aesthetic night-out, a nightclub Walpurgisnacht in which he must experience something like the dissolution of his conscious, ego-driven mind. As Mozart tells him, in person (it's magic! or it's hallucination! -- in either case, it's cool for readers after the '60s); 'you must learn to laugh.' Laughter is the key.

To give Hesse credit: it's thanks to him and his rather tendentious evocation of humor that I sought out the philosopher I like to call 'the laughing lion': Nietzsche and his Zarathustra. But that story's for another time. For the moment, it's enough to say that humor, even if not much in evidence in Hesse's novel, is a good lesson to give to a painfully self-conscious and shy kid with a mind full of literature and little else. Fair enough, but is it a good lesson for the same kid pushing fifty? I wanted to think so, reading Steppenwolf again and charmed to find Harry deciding that he'd end his life on his fiftieth birthday. But then a lovely young woman takes him in hand and shows him a good time. What more is there? I'm sure as a kid I thought this was a cop-out. Girls! Jeeze, as if. They (the teen version in the 'burbs anyway) were the fiercest upholders of bourgeois sanctity and social rituals -- all seemingly eager for dating, mating, and the whole long slog through parenthood. Who needs it? But of course Hesse had his answer to that -- enough to beguile any teen with a fondness for fantasized versions of otherwise flesh and blood females -- a woman of the demimonde! And even if it was too late to find someone with the panache of Hesse's Hermione -- essentially a flapper with a penchant for existentialism -- in the age of feminism and the aftermath of the sexual revolution, there was still cause for hope, sorta, in the idea of a woman who knows (cf Page/Plant).

What does she know? As a teen I couldn't quite figure that out. But she knew something, enough anyway to master the Steppenwolf and treat him fondly as though a child. Is it a truth that an aging, played out artist manqué merely wants to be fondled fondly? I guess so, and, since I was reading this in the Gay Lib era, the suggestion that Harry needed to go bi a little really to live wasn't exactly a headtrip. Later, in both lit history and my reading, the Beats would be more aggressive on that point; in Hesse, it was Freudian thematics of the self, but without the hilarity at the unconscious that Joyce whipped up in his own Magic Theater in Ulysses. In any case, it should be pretty evident that a teenaged Steppenwolf grows into a middle-aged Steppenwolf, still enthralled primarily to literature, no matter how funny popular culture is, or how laughable the times. In Steppenwolf, Harry/Hesse has to try mightily to overcome his dislike of jazz (Pablo, the sax player, being both the purveyor of animalistic jazz and androgynous sex), but when I was first reading the novel, the kids had already killed the man, and so I had to break up the band (cf Bowie).

And that, I think, is the main point about midlife crisis lit like Steppenwolf. Hesse turned fifty the year it was published and all it can offer, as a means to overcome the malaise, is some kind of detente with youth and whatever they're into at the time. In a sense it's about surrendering one's heroes to the times, leaving off the querulous dissatisfaction that underwrites every evocation of "in my day." But what Hesse tries to push to -- to give him credit -- is dissatisfaction with the consolations of literature. It's a cautionary tale about a man who let his texts furnish him a world and then found that world stale. While outside, the times they were a-changin'. As far as the '20s were from Hesse's twenties in the 1890's, in other words, is the 2010s from the 1980's? Guess so. Tattoo it, pierce it, and upload it, Harry, it's a brave new world.

And what about Herzog? 'That's for another time,' Daddy said, as he put the book back on the shelf.

9 comments:

Andrew Shields said...

I read Steppenwolf when I was about 21 or so (having been a reader of Siddhartha at 17 or so), and I had to stop reading and start all over again when I figured out that the book was not about youth at all, which meant that I had been completely misreading it (or so it seemed to me). Once I got the book's reputation out of my head (its "tag"?), then I could read the book on what seemed more like its own terms, rather than the terms of its reception.

But the Hesse I have been wanting to re-read for years is "The Glass Bead Game." Which lately came up again, because it is referred to (and summarized) in Ciaran Carson's "For All We Know."

As for Siddhartha ... been there, done that, I think.

Donald Brown said...

Were you expecting a young character to appear or a flashback to Harry's youth? I read all Hesse's novels in high school, before 16. That seems the time for him, to me. But I'd like to re-read "Glass Bead Game" too because it's the only major one that I've only read once. I even have a library copy out, but haven't done it yet.

I'd like to read Steppenwolf or Narcissus and Goldmund in German some time, but don't know if I ever will.

Andrew Shields said...

I don't remember what I was expecting, but I was expecting something that would more clearly connect with Steppenwolf's reputation as a book for young hippie types in the late 60s! Once I cleared that out of my head and started over, the book made more sense to me.

I've only read The Glass Bead Game once myself, and it's very vague in my memory, but the idea of the game as a figure for aesthetes and intellectuals in "interesting times" (as Brecht would say) has stuck with me for two or more decades now.

Tobias Boes said...

Take it from someone who wrote an entire dissertation chapter on "The Glass Bead Game": it's really not all that you may remember it to be. The premise is good, but the execution somewhat sloppy and the ending abysmal. You should read Thomas Mann's "Doctor Faustus" instead, which is basically the same novel (Mann acknowledge as much when his book came out two years after TGBG), only better.
I'm more and more convinced that Steppenwolf really is the only Hesse worth reading. Thank you for describing the impression it left on you; it reaffirmed me in my decision to include it on my "Crises of Modernity in German Culture" syllabus next semester!

Donald Brown said...

Andrew -- I can understand where you were coming from, man, it's because of hippie promotion of Hesse that all his novels were so readily available in our youth.

Tobias -- glad to hear you bear out my feeling about GBG: when I look at it, I'm not drawn in. But I read it in 9th grade and some part of me has always wanted another look. However, I've no doubt it seemed better then than it would to me now. I read Doctor Faustus in 12th grade, another one I've always wanted to go back to. One of the most fascinating reading experiences of that era of my life, along with the first attempt at Ulysses. But I disagree that DF is the same book as GBG; there's no Faustian aspect to GBG, if memory serves. And it was the reworking of the Faust material that got me to read Mann's novel, being a big fan of Goethe's Faust since 10th grade.

Let me know how Steppenwolf works in the course. I'm curious how students of today will respond to it.

Andrew Shields said...

I was looking at Das Glasperlenspiel in a bookstore the other day and I thought, "God, it's thick, do I want to read that again?" And I didn't buy it.

Donald Brown said...

some things are best left as memory fables them...

Andrew Shields said...

"Memory fable": that's actually a beautiful way to describe how the Glass Bead Game is remembered in Carson's "For All We Know."

Donald Brown said...

Wow, didn't know Carson referenced GBG.

"fabled by the daughters of memory" is in Ulysses, but I seem to think SD referencing Blake.