Friday, December 23, 2011

Adventure classics -- A wolf in the Magic Theater


by Hermann Hesse


In his 1961 author’s note to perhaps the strangest of his stories, Nobel Prize winner Hermann Hesse writes, “. . .it seems to me that of all my books Steppenwolf is the one that was more often and more violently misunderstood than any other, and frequently it is actually the affirmative and enthusiastic readers, rather than those who rejected the book, who have reacted to it oddly.”

No kidding, Herr Hesse -- everybody wants to skip from protagonist Harry Haller’s late-life crisis to the giddiness of the underground Magic Theater.

But if we reach that destination without paying proper attention to the landmarks along the way, we may not be able to find our way out again. We may even mistake the theater’s violent plays for reality. Or vice versa.

Which is just as well, since Haller’s adventures, not so coincidentally begun when he was the same age as Hesse, might otherwise be merely commentary on the state of Hesse’s psyche during the 1920s. Or (and also) on the state of his native Germany when even an intellectual like the old friend Haller encounters “sees nothing of the preparations for the next war that are going on all round him.”

I first read Steppenwolf at the end of the heady 1960’s, whose cults of music, sex and drugs Hesse seemed to have foreseen decades earlier. When I reread it, I was closer to Haller’s age and understood why the death of his alter ego, the beautiful young woman Hermine, was neither a suicide nor a murder.

And why his punishment for the crime -- both terrifying and healing -- was to be laughed at.

Hesse volunteered for service in Germany’s Imperial Army during the First World War, but by the end of the war’s first year, he appealed to intellectuals not to be seduced by the
propaganda of patriotism. You don’t even have to be told that his works were eventually banned by the Nazis, do you?

But I’ll leave everyone to find her own way to the Magic Theater and back. As Hesse also notes, “Poetic writing can be understood and misunderstood in many ways. . . Many an author has found readers to whom his work seemed more lucid than it was to himself.”

(Next Friday: As the New Year approaches, we zoom through space in C.S. Lewis’s science fiction novel, Perelandra.)

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