A Halloween Tribute to Hermann Hesse’s “Steppenwolf”

“O dark dark dark. They all go into the dark,” wrote T.S. Eliot in a poem that was not about Halloween but maybe should have been. (It might have helped lighten Eliot’s mood.) Eliot was writing more about the encounter with non-being, rather than the relatively jocular invitation to explore the dark side of human nature via America’s second most commercially prosperous holiday (trailing only Christmas in economic activity.)

Sure, Halloween is rampantly commercialized and mostly a bonanza for the candy companies and costume stores. But it also reflects a rich tradition of human beings who are not only aware of the shadow side of life, but welcome it. Even though it takes the mostly light-hearted form of costume parties, house decorations and candy for the kids.

Halloween is a chance for our alteregos to get a little attention. To take a walk on the wild side.

Spending a lot of time on the East Coast the last few years, I couldn’t help but notice these interesting entities called “basements.” Hardly ever see one of those in the West.

And I have to say that a lot of them look pretty scary.

‘Whoa, where did that come from?’ we then wonder. Well: inside each of us resides a kind of unrepentant monster, is the lesson ofSteppenwolf.’

Basements take us into darkness and the underworld, where it can be cold, forbidding and damp. You pause at the top of some stairs going down to a basement and it’s easy to suffer a little vertigo or involuntary shiver.

It’s a universal fear, this aversion to darkness. It’s not for nothing that our forebears in various religions invented the concept of hell and put it deep under the earth, where the only light is from the fires that keep hell’s residents in eternal agony.

And what is it that lands us there? That’s simple. We go to hell when we give in to the dark part of our hearts and our animal desires.

Hell means we’ve come out on the short end of the very exacting scorecard God is keeping up there in the brightly lit sky…The better to observe exactly which of the seven deadly sins we are committing, or the 10 commandments we are breaking.

And according to the priests under whose stern countenance I was introduced to the darkness that awaits if I were ever to stray: God doesn’t miss a thing!

 ***

***

I can remember growing up worrying myself sick that I’d be entertaining some impure thought just as I suffered a horrible accident that killed me before I could make my last confession.

Woe would be me as God gazed at the ledger indicating I had died with a black mark on my soul without having performed the ritual “Our Fathers” and “Hail Marys” that would have given me absolution!

God would then instruct St. Peter to keep the heavenly gates locked, sending me plummeting downwards to meet my awful fate.

There was a solution to this worry, of course, and the padres seemed to rail about it every Sunday: just never have an impure thought!

For some reason, I seemed to have trouble with that as an adolescent boy.

Modern psychology has taught us very well about the nature and cost of such repression, I think. You know: the harder I try to banish some thought from my mind, the more the thought seems to keep intruding.

“I really want to eat that last vanilla drumstick in the freezer!”

“No, you’re off sweets now, and you should leave it for your child!!”

“Oh, right! God, do I Iove vanilla drumsticks!”

Edgar Alan Poe, aficionado of the dark that he was, has a much more terrifying version of this in his story, “The Tell-Tale Heart.”

A man kills and dismembers an older man for kind of nonsensical reasons that he doesn’t quite understand himself. But once the deed is done he sticks him under the floorboards of his home, hoping that’s the end of it.

Well darn if the detectives don’t show up after the neighbors report a ruckus. And then the dead man’s heart starts beating—or at least the sound of it does in the murderer’s ears.

It’s quiet enough at first but it soon reaches such an overwhelming din that the man breaks down and confesses all to the detectives, who had been chatting calmly and unsuspectingly with him the whole time.

And who hadn’t heard a thing…

***


***

All things considered, it’s probably better to be called to by a drumstick rather than the eerily beating heart of a dead man. But both of these tales illustrate the principle that there can be hell to pay for both indulging and denying our obsessions.

It had been more than 40 years since I read the novel “Steppenwolf” by Hermann Hesse. His other, more lyrical and popular novel of the 1920s, “Siddhartha,” was all about attaining the peace and equanimity of the Buddha.

But Steppenwolf and its main character, a middle-aged man named Harry Haller, were anything but peaceful. Reading it felt like full immersion in a kind of fever dream.

It was one of those books that haunted and followed you around if you dared to put it down.

The kind that seem to bore into your skull for the specific purpose of rearranging the contents of your brain. It brings to mind what Emily Dickinson said about poetry:

“If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can ever warm me, I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only way I know. Is there any other way?”

Harry Haller is beset by a kind of existential despair. He is sick unto death of his staid bourgeoisie life and its creature comforts. Having forsaken his job, his family and home, he prowls the streets and taverns of an unnamed European city, but he just can’t get right with himself.

He considers suicide, until he runs into a sign above a door one night that reads:

“MAGIC THEATER—ENTRANCE NOT FOR EVERYBODY.”

And then as an addendum:

“FOR MADMEN ONLY!” 

What tormented soul would not be intrigued by that? It’s the drumstick calling to him from the freezer.

Harry investigates, of course. He soon meets a most interesting woman who introduces him to the people and perspectives that begin to give some context to the disparate longings of his heart.

The woman gives him a pamphlet entitled “Treatise on the Steppenwolf” that perfectly describes the conflict raging inside him.

There are two beings living inside Harry. One is the respectable but repressed bourgeoisie with a settled life and a reputation to uphold. Harry despises this version of himself.

The other is a wild, unchained wolf with a ravenous appetite to take the whole of existence—the good, the bad, the staid and the crazed—into himself.

The repressed bourgeoisie had become like the walking dead to him, so much so that Harry was actively considering suicide. But to give way to the wild wolf was to court death of a different type.

It’s dangerous out there, exploring uncharted territory, pushing beyond previous boundaries and experiences. Looking hard at the things you’ve pushed down into the basement.

And that doesn’t mean just the awful things like rage and destructiveness and jealousy.

Just as scary and repressed can be our longings to be more open, curious and adventurous. To throw caution to the winds for a job, a bucket list item, a great wild love.

It could all end badly! There may be monsters in that basement we won’t know how to confront or contain!

Hesse endured a flood of criticism in the years after “Steppenwolf” was published. Critics decried it as too dark and despairing, to which Hesse let out a wolf-like howl of protest.

He called “Steppenwolf” his most deeply misunderstood work, which he maintained ended on a distinct note of hope.

I think so, too.

***

Harry’s hero Mozart makes an appearance in The Magic Theater at the novel’s end, setting him straight on some fundamental matters that had been all jumbled up in Harry’s mind.

The overarching message of “Steppenwolf” is that neither repression nor license lead to fulfillment.

Simple repression of our thoughts, impulses and longings means we judge them as bad. We try to scrub them out of our consciousness as unworthy, but they keep calling to us anyway. From the freezer, the basement, the theater.

(And let us be frank: from our loins…)

Those and a thousand other fleeting thoughts and images course through us at any given minute of the day. There they are, bobbing along in our stream of consciousness, occasionally like a class-4 or 5 river and its dangerous undercurrent.

These include the dark impulses we can find ourselves confronted with at unexpected times. They can strike like lighting when someone does something as innocuous as cut us off unknowingly in traffic.

Or when a friend or family member states a diametrically opposite political view from our own and we feel the blood throbbing in our temples.

All of a sudden, we’re either indulging or fighting off the urge to commence a heated argument with someone we care about, maybe even lashing out in uncharacteristic fashion that would make our mothers gasp.

“Whoa, where did that come from?” we then wonder.

Well: inside each of us resides a kind of unrepentant monster, is the lesson of “Steppenwolf.”

That certainly doesn’t mean we need to unleash it. We don’t have to give rise to every dark impulse. Matter of fact, we had better not if we want to maintain the sometimes thin veneer of civilization to which we all usually cling.

“Steppenwolf” more importantly suggests it is counter-productive to pretend all those dark impulses are not there, are not part of the full range of human emotion.

The fact that these emotions exist is nothing we need apologize for, or try to shoo away. They’re just part of the human kit & kaboodle that God presented to us at our birth.

(Please pardon my use of “kit & kaboodle,” which is a highly technical theological term.)

Of course, most religions have conveniently fobbed off all the dark stuff on the Devil, God’s always reliable old sidekick and co-conspirator.

In the end, all the good and the bad, the wild and the civilized, the gods and the devils, are us.

Us!

Who are we to think we are above anything human? If the horrors of the 20th century taught us anything, it is to be wary of any claims that deep inside, we don’t all own some part of every human capacity, every expression and piece of our history.

“There but for the grace of God go I” includes the actions of every person who has ever walked in the human pageant. Saints and sinners, n’er-do-wells, renowned philanthropists: all much more alike than we care to admit.

Wait: check that—most saints do know how close they are to sinners. That’s partly what makes them so compassionate and wise.

***

***

Near the end of “Steppenwolf,” Harry is seized by a sudden urge to kill the woman who has so enchanted him, and he actually does. Or so he thinks.

Then he is overwhelmed with guilt and quickly begins to imagine his own execution for this heinous act. But he is thrown off when his hero Mozart steps forth from the shadows of the Magic Theater and says (and I am rather severely paraphrasing here): “Yo Dude—you are taking this wayyyy too seriously!”

Harry seems to have forgotten that this is the Magic Theater, where all thoughts are permitted, all fantasies allowed.

Where you can fill all the roles at your leisure. Where there is no running away from anything.

Mozart just laughs at Harry’s bumbling ways. So self-conscious, self-recriminating, so attached to judgment and guilt and drama.

What a dolt!

And here is an important point, I think: It is not an accident that Hesse chose Mozart, well-known not only for the transcendent beauty of his music, but also for his maniacal laugh and devil-may-care whimsy, to confront Harry, the man whose every utterance projects existential angst, the weight of his guilt for merely being alive bearing down on him.

Sure, you accept all the dreadful parts of yourself, Mozart clearly implies. Man up!

But you do so only partly with sober acceptance.

The other part? A rollicking good humor. That’s what ultimately saves and sustains us through dark times and their occasional impulses to veer into the nearest ditch, or slit our wrists.

Humor is the great distancer, perhaps the best tool we have to provide perspective and thus acceptance for all the conflicts and contradictions that course through every human life.

This is why humor and forgiveness are forever joined at the hip.

In the end, Mozart lays into Harry with perhaps the most withering assessment of all. He intones:

“When it’s a question of anything stupid and pathetic and devoid of humor or wit, you’re the man, you tragedian. Well, I am not. I don’t care a fig for all your romantics of atonement. You wanted to be executed and to have your head chopped off, you lunatic! For this imbecile ideal you would suffer death ten times over. You are willing to die, you coward, but not to live.”

I would like to repeat that line:

“You are willing to die but not to live.”

To go meekly into the night without ever exploring its depths.

To repel our wolf rather than ride it to freedom.

To loathe and flee rather than stop to listen and learn and make peace with our inner bourgeoisie, our criminal, all of our dark appetites.

If Mozart were a man of this time, I would imagine him finally relenting, picking up on the current vernacular, and saying a little more gently to Harry Haller, “It’s all good, Bro, it’s all good. There’s nothing in that basement to be afraid of.”

***
Let’s take a ride to THAT place with Eddie & the Cruisers!

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Deep appreciation to the photographers! Unless otherwise stated, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing.

Elizabeth Haslam, whose photos (except for the books) grace the rotating banner at top of page.
 https://www.flickr.com/photos/lizhaslam/

Library books photo by Larry Rose, all rights reserved, contact: larry@rosefoto.com

Wolf photo by Pete Favelle, London, England, https://www.flickr.com/photos/ganders/

Basement and shadow photo by Quika Brockovich, https://www.flickr.com/photos/quikabasevi/

First edition of “Steppenwolf,” 1929 (reportedly owned by Henry Miller), by Darcy Moore, Kiama, Australia, https://www.flickr.com/photos/darcymoore/

Theatre Magique by Herve Ma, https://www.flickr.com/photos/madzoy/

Bearded man by Alexandru Paraschiv, https://www.flickr.com/photos/alexandru-paraschiv/

7 comments to A Halloween Tribute to Hermann Hesse’s “Steppenwolf”

  • David Jolly  says:

    And then there’s Rilke’s take on the dark – from which we enter the world, to which we return, representing all we don’t see, understand, or accept:

    You, darkness, of whom I am born—
    I love you more than the flame
    that limits the world
    to the circles it illumines
    and excludes all the rest.

    But the dark embraces everything:
    shapes and shadows, creatures and me,
    people, nations—just as they are.

    It lets me imagine
    a great presence stirring beside me.

    I believe in the night.

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Thanks for that, David. I depend on you to keep me up with any Rilke I missed in earlier go-’rounds with him! Strikes me as s a poetic version of Hesse’s basic point, and it also reminded me that Hesse and Rilke were pretty much contemporaries in German letters (born just two years apart) and had to know each other. Searched around for evidence of that, references to each other in their works, but so far no luck.

  • Jeanette Millard  says:

    No accident that Karl Jung, who compared our psyches to a house, called the unconscious our basement. And I will say that getting into that place and feeling around in there, has been the source of great wisdom and deep meaning. I feel so comforted seeing some of the true guidance that that “shadow” has given me over the years (whether I realized it at the time or not…) I think my life was immeasureably enriched when I decided my “dark side” is not just my friend, but a strong and important part of myself.
    Thank you for putting your finger on it Andrew.
    Next up: How to move our crazed populace from reveling in hate (and being led there by the perp-in-chief) and finding *beauty* in there. Mozart, speak up please!

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Jeannette, a friend asked that very question yesterday—how does this shadow issue apply to our president? Oy, if I had a dollar for all the words that would cascade from opening that vein…

      Suffice to say at the moment that the strength you and most psychologically healthy and well-intentioned people get from making peace with their dark side can also be put to evil ends by those who cynically exploit our dark nature and incite not only psychological but physical violence as well. We are seeing that in almost every corner of our country now, and I fear it is far from exhausted. “Mozart, speak up!” indeed, though when we hear from him, I think it will be important that he include strains of his symphonies, concertos, etc. Know what I mean? :-)

  • Robert Spencer  says:

    I grew up as a basement kid. My childhood home in Carlinville, a small Illinois town halfway between St. Louis and Springfield, possessed one of the most possessed basements imaginable. It breathed a dampness beneath the house like some evil dragon with designs on devouring the rooms above. Only two 60-watt bulbs in the far reaches of its expanse and a window the size of a paper plate provided this dungeon with any light. In its north side, the one closest to the street, hung this strange door, which would open its mouth every week from Halloween to Lent, inviting these hard, almost glossy black rocks to fall into a dusty bin adjacent to a furnace, where they melted into a dust that coated wood beams and concrete floor. God, I hated those rocks. When my older brother and I heard that truck rolling up to the house and unload its stash though this evil cellar door, we knew it was time to don our worst clothes, pick up our shovels that lay near the top of the stairs, descend like Virgil into hell’s fire, and stuff our furnace with a dinner of sooty stones and dusty burps. What a messy repast. Our t-shirts, stained gray from previous engagements, were black. Our jeans, once blue, were also black. We were more Black Irish than Irish., This stygian basement must have taken some haughty pleasure knowing that its dark, damp environs provided so much warmth and life to those residing above. In many ways, this basement epitomizes the duality of human behavior. The light and lightless. Prufrock’s “you and I.” Security for a car and angst for the imagination. Whenever the temperature dropped 20 degrees in 30 minutes and the sky turned a pale gray-green, we hightailed it to the basement anticipating a nearby tornado, which aligns itself pretty much with my fear of taking chances; I tend to play it safe most of the time. I bet Golden State will win another NBA championship, the Patriots will make the playoffs, and Trump will tell another lie today. It’s funny how your recent introduction to basements brought out my memories of Carlinville….and its metaphoric tie to my psyche.

  • Jay Helman  says:

    Fascinating to read this post today as I happened to have been rummaging around in my “basement” throughout a mostly sleepless night brought on by a careless, thoughtless, and hurtful comment made to a loved one. I wrestled with the origins of the comment and how I, who pride myself on thoughtfulness and compassion, could have uttered such a thoughtless and hurtful comment to someone for whom I care deeply. Repressed frustration and anger? Possibly. First time that it has come up? Hardly. This post is a reminder that the basement is there, and it is alive. I will take a little visit as time allows, give it proper attention and take it seriously (but not too seriously), and then move on into the light with fresh perspective and an open heart. By the way, terrific choice and placement of Eddie and the Cruisers.

  • Jay Helman  says:

    I continue to ruminate on your post, Andrew, as well as the posts by David and Jeannette. Now a few days out from my own “basement rummaging” (noted in October 29 post), I’ve begun thinking more about Jeannette’s comment about the crazed hate manifested by our leader and his followers in the context of David’s reminder of Rilke’s point that darkness embraces all. Abraham Lincoln, I read recently, was inaugurated one month after seven southern states had decided to secede from the Union, and with South Carolina squeezing him that they were about to do the same. Imagine the threat to Lincoln and the Union as Charleston, SC threatened to seize federally-owned Fort Sumter as a new, and unpopular, President prepared to take office. It was a dark time, indeed. Lincoln called for unity and the South sneered. Somehow Lincoln embraced the darkness and had the strength and faith that things would somehow work out. The fact that so many lives and horrific circumstances ensued cannot be overlooked and must not be allowed to happen again. Yet somehow democracy prevailed and ultimately thrived in full light. Meanwhile much of the dark shadow remained and has been brought to life by our current President and his followers. It is incumbent upon us all to have the courage and resolve of Lincoln to see us through this darkness, to be engaged, and to correct our direction as a beacon of light for the world. November 6 approaches; and reason and dignity must prevail.

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