Saturday, November 27, 2010

A fallen idol

When I was fourteen years old, I was visiting in south Georgia. I had been given $5 and allowed to spend it any way I wanted, so long as I spent it. (This is what people did before there were gift cards.)

I went to the only store in walking distance, Boney's Drug Store, and looked through the spinners. I had attempted, previously, to read comic books, but the effort left me cold. There was far too little story. The whole issue could be summarized in four sentences, I found. (I didn't know that I was demanding. I was officially Slow. My IQ scores said so.)

I saw this (and this is the only photo I could find of it, folks, so sorry if it ain't pretty):

At fourteen, there was one thing that attracted me to the book. It was, of course, the fact that at that time (1975-6), there was a famous band with the same name. The fact that I could lay my head along the edge of the paper and imagine that I could see the woman with the dice hat's breasts had nothing to do with it. I bought the book, and I read the book.


The book hit me straight off with "Adalbert Stifter," with "Carl Jung," much praise of "Nietzsche," much more praise of "Wagner," and, at fourteen, I pronounced those names naively and sought the works of each. The book also told me of "Immanuel Kant." I could not find any books by Wagner, fortunately, but I found and read The Portable Nietzsche. It would have been more fruitful had I gotten Stifter or Hoffman. I then got Critique of Pure Reason. I read these books. I really did.

This was the gateway book, you see. It was the book that set the course, that made anything but Philosophy or literature impossible for me.

In the years that have passed, I have defended Steppenwolf from its many critics. I read Kierkegaard's Either/Or and there found (in the A volume), a short passage where he speaks of a "magic theater for madmen only where every dream will come true," and I saw that Hesse was copping existentialism. That had always been my view anyway.

So strongly did I defend this book that I never re-read it, and I have now assigned it for another to read. It looks like this now:

I should have left well enough alone. I re-read The Lord of the Rings not that many years ago, and I had been unable to ignore the homoeroticism and the palpable aristocracy of the book, the belief in Good Blood, as I had every time before. I can still endorse the books, still say that it takes a peevish reader to object for these reasons, but I could not ignore the reasons. That was a warning that the things of totemic power when a teen might prove less worthy in middle age.

I know that Steppenwolf was written in 1920. I know that Hesse can't know about the Nazis. I know that when he's in love with Wagner, it's a sign of how in love with Wagner a certain intellectual was. I know that the neo-eastern esotericism of Hesse isn't so very wildly different from the cultism of the theosophists or the Nazi interest in India. I know that we can ignore some of this as innocent in impulse and guilty only in act. The same impulse can go harmlessly toward the existential or awfully toward the nasty selfishness of Nietzschean Darwinism. (Oh no! No, you do not get to deny it. You can say that Hitler misunderstood Nietzsche, and Hitler obviously did, but there is no way to deny that Nietzsche's triumph of the will is not rooted in a battle of the greater over the lesser selves, who are to be dispensed with, that it has in it a knife and blood in the gutter.)

Still, if I can forgive all of the really smelly cabbage of the book, I'm having a hard time with the didacticism. I even know how it can be excused as the inverse of Kierkegaard's method. K. would tell in fiction a thing and then explain it in philosophy, while Hesse seems to have this tedious "treatise on everything my book will teach" before there is any fiction. Still, some balls! Some ego. Some isolation!

The reason the idol is wooden and hollow, I think, isn't even the style, the historical awareness, or my loss, but the fact that the young can conceive of the self as a project and as a pure project, with Society as an enemy, and, later on, one realizes that society is pretty wretched, but one is always in it. Pee in the water all you want, but you're still in the stream.

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