I’m rereading Steppenwolf, written by Hermann Hesse in 1929. It’s one of those pivotal books my generation devoured during our feverish 20s and 30s. I’m trying to understand what they meant to me then and what they mean to me now.
I started this project with The Magus by John Fowles (1966). Then, I’m sure, we were enamored of the tricky plot and the satanic details. Rereading it in 2012, I still find it valuable because it explains why the men of my generation were such emotionally unavailable dicks.
I’m only a third of the way into Steppenwolf, but it’s already clear that I used the book to examine what the hell was wrong with me then, and wrong with my friends. The copy I’m reading is the very copy I read back then, and it’s underlined and the margins are scribbled with “Sartre,” “Nietzsche” “Brian,” “Peter” — and the names of all my boyfriends if you have to know. We identified with Steppenwolf the tortured loner, too weird to excel in society and too wounded to escape the bourgeoisie. Now it’s clear the Steppenwolf and the rest of us just needed the right medication. But in 1929, Hesse suggested that Steppenwolves take refuge in humor.
I had to stop and write about this because in between old books I am also thinking about comedians and what they are like. Think Lenny Bruce, George Carlin, Louis CK, Larry David, Dennis Leary, Sarah Silverman, Darrell Hammond, Lewis Black and anybody you know who is chronically, savagely funny. They are like the Steppenwolf. I’m going to quote a long passage from the book, so here goes:
“The lives of these infinitely numerous persons make no claim to the tragic; but they live under an evil star in a quite considerable affliction; and in this hell their talents ripen and bear fruit. The few who break free seek their reward in the unconditioned and go down in splendor. They wear the thorn crown and their number is small.
“The others, however, who remain in the fold and from whose talents the bourgeoisie reaps much gain, have a third kingdom left open to them, an imaginary and yet a sovereign world, humor. The lone wolves who know no peace, these victims of unceasing pain to whom the urge for tragedy has been denied and who can never break through the starry space, who feel themselves summoned thither and yet cannot survive in its atmosphere — for them is reserved, provided suffering has made their spirits tough and elastic enough, a way of reconcilement and an escape into humor.
“Humor has always something bourgeois in it, although the true bourgeois is incapable of understanding it. In its imaginary realm the intricate and many-faceted ideal of all Steppenwolves finds its realization. Here it is possible not only to extol the saint and the profligate in one breath and to make the poles meet, but to include the bourgeois, too, in the same affirmation. Now it is possible to be possessed by God and to affirm the sinner, and vice versa, but it is not possible for either saint or sinner (nor for any of the other unconditioned) to affirm as well that lukewarm mean, the bourgeois.
“Humor alone, that magnificent discovery of those who are cut short in their calling to highest endeavor, those who falling short of the tragedy are yet as rich in gifts as in affliction, humor alone (perhaps the most inborn and brilliant achievement of the spirit) attains to the impossible and brings every aspect of human existence within the rays of its prism. To live in the world as though it were not the world, to respect the law and yet to stand above it, to have possessions as though “one possessed nothing,” to renounce as though it were no renunciation, all these favorite and often formulated propositions of an exalted worldly wisdom, it is in the power of humor alone to make efficacious.”
That’s why I’m so thankful for comedy. It stands on the edge of the void, looks down into its horror, and comes back with the jokes.
Linda Frye Burnham, 2012