I picked up Hesse’s Steppenwolf after returning from a visit to the Spoleto Festival USA last month. First read it 15 years ago while a young professional at the Spoleto Festival USA.
Returning to W & L next week as a guest lecturer on 19th century Romanticism. Particularly of the German variety.
Recalling Hegel’s dialectic. Thesis – Antithesis – Synthesis. Synthesis: ay, there’s the rub.
Steppenwolf embodies several manifestations of the dialectic. Apollonian / Dionysian, Bourgeois / Bohemian, Reason / Emotion, Society / Artist, Harry Haller / Steppenwolf.
Artists may be first among those caught between two ages, who are outside of all security and simple acquiescence…those whose fate it is to live the whole riddle of human destiny heightened to the pitch of a personal torture...
That personal torture is cause and effect, symptom and illness, sickness and cure. Hesse carries the Romantic torch, articulating the dialectic between the artist and society. His enterprise is romantic on multiple levels. As the surrounding quotes should show, his mission is the artist’s realization of his many-flowered self. Soul flowers opening to the world new sights and smells via the creative imagination. The artist as the ideal human being; servant to a higher, greater power; bringer of the soul’s boon; bearer of the cups of the fullness of life. Lofty, yes. And a necessary essential to the well-being of the individual and the world.
He reminds us of some hallmarks of true heroes: the engaged will, relentless striving and uncompromising standards… there are always a few such people who demand the utmost of life and yet cannot come to terms with its stupidity and crudeness!
But such aspirations sometimes produce bittersweet fruit. Here is Karl Schumann on Schubert’s & Müller’s Winterreise, one of the seminal works embodying the tortured Romantic soul:
The young man with the incurable wound in his heart, since Lord Byron an altogether commonplace cliché figure of Romanticism, is taken bitterly seriously by Schubert and pushed to the point of no return. It borders on the pathological; the wandering youth of Winterreise, … driven out by overwhelming emotional frustration into the hostile, frostbound winter landscape, … is the magnified symbol of the Romantic man at the mercy of his feelings, the homeless stranger on the cold earth, the fugitive from the world, excluded from human fellowship by the overwhelming, self-destructive strength of his emotions.
Schumann’s essay is entitled “Twenty-Four Stages on a Journey into the Void.” The Romantic Dialectic has so many dimensions. Soul flowers. As Steppenwolf learns…
You have a dimension too many…whoever wants music instead of noise, joy instead of pleasure, soul instead of gold, creative work instead of business, passion instead of foolery, finds no home in this trivial world of ours…
With such Byronic heroic striving comes the tension and ambivalence of contingency, mortality, humanity. Thank the Romantics for the return of humor as antidote to such torture.
The Janus-faced Heroes like Beethoven and Goethe look back to the Classical world of ancient Greece. Beethoven Hero. Goethezeit. For inspiration in the fragments and relics of antiquity. For models and symbols in mythology. For the transformative power of the imagination. The heady & spiritual intoxication of the awakening of the aesthetic impulse. Dionysus (Bacchus), among other things god of the theater, symbolizes the tragicomic dialectic in poetry and drama. Ironic?
One of the highlights of Spoleto USA this year was a chamber music recital of Shostakovich’s great piano quintet. Amazing piece of music. Haunting. Poignant. Droll. Sad. Vivacious. Mordantly witty. Searing.
Shostakovich, taking up the mantle of ironic musical humor from Mahler, Haydn and Mozart, journeys into the modern void (via Stalin’s Russia) and laughs as often as he despairs.
In Steppenwolf, he would be genius enough to attempt the quest…instead of discoursing pitifully…at every difficulty encountered.
(Is the pitiful discourse one of the reasons we mistrust Odysseus / Ulysses as a hero?)
Shostakovich Hero? Steppenwolf Hero? Don Quixote Hero?
And whoever wants more and has got it in him – the heroic and the beautiful and the reverence for the great poets or for the saints – is a fool and a Don Quixote.
Steppenwolf’s elusive muse and oracle and mythic guide, Hermine, as another sign of her eminent qualifications, loves Cervantes. The Artist / Society (or Bohemian / Bourgeois) tension manifests like the “hundred integuments” of the onion that is the human being.
The war against death…is always a beautiful, noble and wonderful and glorious thing, and so, it follows is the war against war. But it is always hopeless and quixotic too.
Quixotic. Adventurous. Idealist. Utopian. Chivalrous. Noble. Courageous. Foolish. Independent. Fearless. Impossible. Poetic. Visionary. Mad.
Hesse links those last two attributes and indentifies one of the risks of the artist’s self-realization. To break through the illusion of the unity of the personality and perceive that the self is made up of a bundle of selves…say so and at once the majority puts them under lock and key…
The visionary &/or mad poet – composer – artist is another Romantic trope that is Janus-faced and ever present. In a world dominated by philistines, Heine is a truly literate and insightful critic. And visionary, mad poet himself. Here he is on Liszt after an 1841 Paris concert:
The electric effect of a demonic nature on a crowd that is all pressed together, the infectious power of ecstasy, and perhaps the magnetism of the music itself, this spiritualistic illness of the age, which vibrates in almost all of us—I have never encountered these phenomena so distinctly and so frighteningly as in the concert by Liszt.
Heine’s wit is of the mordant, ironic variety. I recall advice from the best director I know, Tim Carroll on the seriousness of playing humor with a reminder the word “sarcasm” comes from the Greek sarcasmos, “to tear the flesh off…”
That illuminates a description like “cutting” or “biting” wit. It opens a window into its appearance in art, from the ancient Greek tragedies through Shakespeare and Cervantes to Blake and Coleridge, Goethe and Heine, Mahler and Shostakovich.
Ovid’s Metamorphosis is one of the seminal sources of our mythological heritage. These versions of creation stories and other mythological figures & heroes involve transformation. And like all mythology, mean more figuratively than literally. The literal interpretation is intended to open a window into the imagination. They are artistic creations of immense psychological, emotional and spiritual depth. And the Romantic era awakened a connection to these powerful sources we are in danger of losing.
The opera director Luc Bondy, writing on Handel’s Hercules (itself based partly on Ovid) could be a classics scholar or mythology guru like Joseph Campbell, rather than the avant-garde Regietheater maverick he is considered to be.
There are some versions that are undeniably more interesting than others…fundamentally, we are more sensitive to these more perilous dramas. They represent a real rupture, and to my mind, embody a modernity that has never been surpassed since the ancient Greeks. This is because the Greeks invented a form and for that form they had myths at their disposal. Today we have the forms but we no longer have the myths.
But we have Handel and Heine and Hesse. We have music and poetry and drama. We have mythology at no more than one remove. Heroes and Titans. Prometheus unbound and defiant.
The pianist and art song scholar Graham Johnson describes one aspect of Heine’s persona using Promethean terms in an essay about Schumann’s great song-cycle Dichterliebe.
Heine is the poet of change and insurrection, both personal and political. He appears here to us exactly as he appeared to Schumann…the incarnation of the misunderstood poet, sinned against by the stupidity and insensitivity of others, smiling ironically at his small-minded critics, and suffering betrayal with a stoicism born of a greatness of soul that effortlessly shames the pettiness of everyone around him.
We should all live so large! (As Johnson goes on to illustrate, Heine's life did not equal his artistic achievement). Let us wrap up this romantic and rambling musing with more music. Steppenwolf (in his bourgeois incarnation as Harry Haller) meets a gypsy-like musician who may or may not be an incarnation of Mozart. And in that enigmatic detail is one of many reasons I love Hesse so! This is great advice for any apprentice or artist in any discipline in any era.
Music does not depend on being right, on having good taste and education…[It depends] on making music as well and as much as possible and with all the intensity of which one is capable.
Mozart appears near the close of Hesse’s novel, and using Handel as an example reminds us why music is not a luxury but a necessity.
Let the sense of this ritardando touch you. Do you hear the basses? They stride like gods. And let this inspiration of old Handel penetrate your restless heart and give it peace. Just listen…listen without either pathos or mockery…Listen well. You have need of it.