Steppenwolf's Lament

"Looked at with the bourgeois eye, my life had been a continuous descent from one shattering to the next that left me more remote at every step from all that was normal, permissible and healthful. The passing years had stripped me of my calling, my family, my home. I stood outside all social circles, alone, beloved by none, mistrusted by many, in unceasing and bitter conflict with public opinion and morality: and though I lived in a bourgeois setting, I was all the same an utter stranger to this world in all I thought and felt. Religion, country, family, state, all lost their value and meant nothing to me any more."

 -- Hermann Hesse, Steppenwolf

Most of us are likely to react to this passage in one of two ways. First, we might see Steppenwolf as a self-pitying and maladjusted soul who should just "get over himself." The problem, some would say, is his extreme self-absorption, his failure to follow an independent path, to leave his intellectual impress on the world. Life is hard for most people; some are born with the odds stacked overwhelmingly against them, but still manage to lead an inspiring and worthwhile existence. Sometimes it's our own lack of initiative and courage and love that dooms us: failing ourselves, we look for easy excuses and scapegoats, and blame "society" for all our ills. 

The second reaction is to sympathize entirely with our anti-hero, to agree that modern society is backward in a thousand ways, and that any exhortation to "get over yourself" is naive because it ignores the fact that human life unfolds within a communal and relational context. A society, for instance, which glorifies the reign of commerce over all aspects of life, which reveres wealth, sees no rational limits to technological expansion, and has evolved an electronic media apparatus which vaporizes all events into trivial, fleeting instants isn't exactly one conducive to an aesthetic and spiritual life. The world isn't for everyone a gracious and welcoming host: for some it can look and feel alien, and lead to a sickening feeling that Nietzsche once described as homesickness.

Perhaps there's a third way here. One that eschews the effete resignation of certain romanticists but doesn't justify society in the usual way at the same time. One that reminds the Steppenwolves of the world that there are creative outlets for their protest, and that to live in absentia is to leave the society in sorry hands, at the mercy of those destined to vitiate it. Imagine if our favorite musicians, novelists, filmmakers, writers, and poets succumbed to defeatism and said, in effect, "Nothing means anything to me anymore, so why should I bother to participate in society?" How poorer would we be without them, and how duller the world's symphony without the counterpoint of enlightened voices?

 

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