Steppenwolf by Hermann Hesse

steppenwolf_penguinHermann Hesse says in his 1961 Author’s Note to Steppenwolf (the book itself was first published in 1927), that this is the book of his that is ‘more often and more violently misunderstood than any other’, whose readers ‘perceived only half of what I intended’. And it’s easy to see why. A novel about the passage through the extremes of personal darkness to a renewed interest in life, it does the darkness so well, you can be inclined to think that’s all it’s about.

On a first reading, the thing that lingers most in the memory is the opening sections, where we’re introduced to Harry Haller, the middle-aged ‘Steppenwolf’ dragging himself through a weary, self-conflicted and exhausted life. A highly-cultured writer of independent means, he lives a transient existence, settling in boarding houses for a few months at a time, reading, walking, drinking, and wallowing in a constantly alternating self-disgust and a disgust with the modern world he lives in. Harry, we’re told, is ‘a genius of suffering’, seeing himself at times as a refined, poetic, cultured man, at others, a wild, dark-souled ‘wolf of the Steppes that had lost its way and strayed into the towns…’, constantly tearing at himself with his own too-sharp teeth:

‘For example, if Harry, as man, had a beautiful thought, felt a fine and noble emotion, or performed a so-called good act, then the wolf bared his teeth at him and laughed and showed him with bitter scorn how laughable this whole noble show was in the eyes of a beast…’

But then a little magic starts to seep into Harry’s life. Walking down a darkened street one night, he sees a door where there had not been one before, and above it a flickering neon sign:

MAGIC THEATRE
ENTRANCE NOT FOR EVERYBODY
FOR MADMEN ONLY!

Something in his weary soul stirs, but the door is locked, and when he returns to try it again, it has disappeared entirely. He finds a man with a sign-board apparently advertising the event (now an ‘ANARCHIST EVENING ENTERTAINMENT’), but in response to his queries, all he gets is a pamphlet. Entitled ‘TREATISE ON THE STEPPENWOLF’, this pamphlet lays bare Harry’s deepest recesses, itemising his beliefs, his poses and psychological defences, while lightly mocking them as the self-delusions of a man who only thinks he’s drunk life to the dregs.

Bantam books edition, 1969

Bantam books edition, 1969

Up to this point, Harry seems the archetypal Outsider (as Colin Wilson defined the type): a sort of unfulfilled genius unable to accept bourgeois life, or perhaps any human life, growling behind the bars of some societal cage he’s seeking to escape or destroy, whatever the cost. This is the version of Steppenwolf that appears in the song that brought me to the book in the first place, Robert Calvert’s brooding incantation on Hawkwind’s 1976 album, Astounding Sounds, Amazing Music: ‘a wolf-man who despises the strivings of common men’, ‘half in love with dark and despair’. (Hawkwind’s “Steppenwolf” is, along with Queen’s “Fairy Feller’s Masterstroke” and Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit“, one of the few works inspired by a novel that equal it in power, in my opinion.)

But after this evocation of a dark, self-devouring and suicidal soul at utter odds with the world he lives in, there comes salvation, though it’s not an easy one. After deciding to end his life, but unwilling to actually go back to his lodgings and face the task, Harry lingers in a late-night tavern, where he’s taken in hand by someone who seems his exact opposite, Hermine, a young woman of the hedonistic flapper generation. She gets Harry to eat a little, and drink a little, then makes him promise to do whatever she tells him to do, as a cure for his desperation. And what is her key commandment? Harry Haller, the ageing set-in-his-ways Steppenwolf, has to learn to dance — and not just dance, but dance to a form of music he despises, the jazz-dances of the age: the fox-trot, the Boston, and the Tango.

steppenwolf_penguin2Of course, this is just a symbol for the real process Harry and his Steppenwolf alter-ego must undergo. Harry and the Steppenwolf fight because they despise each other, but they are one person. The only way to find peace is for Harry to overcome his disgust at the Steppenwolf’s more earthy appetites for drink, for women, for anger, for destruction, for life. He has to learn to be whole, however ‘uncultured’ or ‘unrefined’ that whole is. For Harry is a man with ‘a profusion of gifts and powers which had not achieved harmony’, ‘always recognising and affirming with one half of himself, in thought and act, what, with the other half he fought against and denied’, suffering ‘the unendurable tension between inability to live and inability to die’. But, as Hermine says:

‘You have always done the difficult and complicated things and the simple ones you haven’t even learned.’

(Or, as he’s later told: ‘You are willing to die, you coward, but not to live.’)

Steppenwolf is based on Hesse’s own spiritual crisis of the 1920s. Just like his hero, Hesse spoke out against the growing fascistic elements in his post-war homeland, and was both reviled and exiled by the German elite of the day. Hesse applied to C G Jung for help, and some of what happens to Harry can be read in Jungian terms. Hermine is his anima, an imaginative embodiment of all he aspires to, all he needs in order to grow and live. As she herself says:

‘Doesn’t your learning reveal to you that the reason why I please you and mean so much to you is because I am a kind of looking-glass for you, because there’s something in me that answers you and understands you.’

But also she’s his Jungian shadow, the symbol for all he has repressed, despised or disowned: ‘Why, you’re my opposite,’ he tells her. ‘You have all that I lack.’

Hermann Hesse, image from The Dutch National Archives, via Wikipedia.

Hermann Hesse, image from The Dutch National Archives, via Wikipedia.

If this is so, then the final section of the book, when Harry finally gains entrance to the Magic Theatre, could be Jung’s idea of ‘Active Imagination’, a sort of self-healing through indulging in vivid waking daydreams and fantasies. For Harry, the Magic Theatre is a corridor with an infinite number of doors, each of which leads to a whole new world, a whole new existence, but always one that seeks to explore some unfulfilled aspect of himself. In one, his loathing for modernity is allowed free range in a war between men and machines, where he perches in a tree and takes potshots at passing automobiles; in another, he’s taught to break his personality into a thousand fragments and play with them like chess pieces; in another, he sees, acted out, the utter degradation of his inner wolf by his civilised man-self — then its equally degrading reversal… Only through living every aspect of himself to its fullest potential, through giving every despised and belittled and forgotten and dismissed part its full value, can Harry achieve unity and new life. As Pablo, dance-band saxophonist and proprietor of this Magic Theatre, tells him:

‘You have often been sorely weary of your life. You were striving, were you not, for escape? You have a longing to forsake this world and its reality and to penetrate to a reality more native to you, to a world beyond time. Now I invite you to do so. You know, of course, where this other world lies hidden. It is the world of your own soul that you seek. Only within yourself exists that other reality for which you long. I can give you nothing that has not already its being within yourself. I can throw open to you no picture-gallery but your own soul…’

Steppenwolf is about a man breaking free of a lifetime self-locked in inner conflict. Harry Haller achieves this by stepping out of reality itself — or, at least, reality as he has come, through disenchanted, weary and cynical eyes, to see it — to something that is magical, dangerous, but also healing and re-humanising. And behind it he glimpses another reality — a world of the Immortals, those greats such as Mozart and Goethe whom Harry venerates, but a world which, he’s at first distressed to learn, is infused not with seriousness and poetry and lofty ideals, but with an all-encompassing, all-accepting laughter. Laughter and fantasy, then, are the cure for Hesse’s Steppenwolf:

‘…the laughter of the immortals. It was a laughter without an object. It was simply light and lucidity. It was that which is left over when a true man has passed through all the sufferings, vices, mistakes, passions and misunderstandings of men and got through to eternity…’

Max von Sydow in Steppenwolf

Steppenwolf was filmed in 1974, with Max von Sydow in the lead — a perfect piece of casting. It remains faithful to the book, though perhaps too faithful for anyone who hasn’t read it to understand what’s going on at the end, I can’t help feeling. But it has some inspired moments — visualising the ‘Treatise on the Steppenwolf’ as a sort of Terry Gilliam-esque animation, for instance, really works. But the then-cutting edge video effects that dominate the Magic Theatre sequences now seem so dated as to make the whole thing feel like a bad 80s pop video wed to a 70s euro-arthouse film, all driven by a 60s sensibility. (Plus some truly awful dubbing.) For madmen only, perhaps.

Hawkwind 1976-1979: The Calvert Years

Astounding Sounds, Amazing MusicAfter Warrior on the Edge of Time, Hawkwind shed its psychedelically-scaled skin. Lemmy, the Doom Lord of Bass, was jettisoned; Stacia, the Dream Lady of Dance — shock! — got married; the band changed management and switched record company (to the Charisma label — an appropriate name, considering this era was so much about Robert Calvert’s highly theatrical presence). After their next album, the wonderfully-titled Astounding Sounds, Amazing Music (so wonderfully titled, the band members sometimes have trouble remembering it), Nik Turner was ejected like a roller-skated shooting star honking saxophonic free jazz (he went on to play flute in the Great Pyramids of Egypt), and this beast of a band morphed — or perhaps burst from its previous incarnation’s chest to slide squealing through the blood-spattered remains of the sixties love-feast — into a very different entity. A community-binding collective of tribal shamans no more, Hawkwind became, for the next three studio albums, something like a normal band.

Back cover to Astounding SoundsAt its core were the Morecambe & Wise of Space Rock, Dave Brock and Robert Calvert. (They didn’t so much bring you sunshine as send you hurtling towards the heart of the nearest star, Nova Drive blazing.) But it’s Calvert who really defines this era of Hawkwind’s output. He’d been in the band before, as poet and sometimes singer during the Space Ritual tour, but had left to produce some quirky concept albums (consisting of Hawkwind-ish rock, musical pastiches, and mostly unfunny comedy routines). Now he became what Hawkwind hadn’t till this point had — a front man. I mean, you need a manic depressive in charge of your spaceship, don’t you?

Quark, Strangeness and CharmI can’t speak for Calvert’s attitude towards, or involvement with, the sort of community-oriented feel of Hawkwind’s early years, but his artistic attitude is very much about the individual — the blazing individual, reaching for the heights and gleefully crashing into the wreckage of its own manic drive. Calvert’s lyrics are all about freedom, flight, falling and flame. Icarus gets name-checked in “The Only Ones”, along with the other “daredevil angels” of the sky, but Calvert’s songs are full of people achieving freedom only through a death-risking plummet (“Free Fall”: “You’ve cut the puppet’s strings/In free fall”; or the more coercive need for freedom from the “human zoo” in “High Rise”: “Well somebody said that he jumped/But we know he was pushed”) or the earth-bound alternative in the vehicular crash-and-burn of “Death Trap”‘s “fiery crucifixion”, and “Damnation Alley”‘s “Diving through the burning hoop of doom”. There are more subtle means of gleeful self-destruction bubbling inside the misanthropic, self-consuming “Steppenwolf” (Calvert’s finest moment, for me), the Cold-War Kid (“In a town by the wall the machine gunners wait/To type out the orders that seal his fate”), or the anonymous sky-diver in “Free Fall” (“While destiny is on your case/the gods look up your file”). So much fate, doom and destiny, too.

Robert CalvertCalvert didn’t just sing about these heroes, he became them. In this era, Hawkwind, still trying to create the full experience for its listeners, switched from its earlier attempts at a sort of trance-and-psychosis-led initiation, to something more theatrical, more something to be watched than actively participated in. Calvert dressed up like a WWII pilot or Lawrence of Arabia. He wielded a starter pistol and a sword. (At one point, he tried to attack one of his fellow band members with that sword, on stage. At another, he chased his frightened band-mates through a Paris traffic jam, wearing jodhpurs and a pistol belt; they were so scared they ordered their driver to mount the pavement to escape.)

Calvert could do vitriolic satire (in “Uncle Sam’s On Mars”, which takes its form and feel from Gil-Scott Heron’s “Whitey on the Moon”), and silly humour (“Quark, Strangeness and Charm”, with its frankly inaccurate portrayal of Einstein’s love-life), but his most mordant diatribes were reserved for that monotone set of non-individuals who least embodied his ideal — the mediocrities, the button-pushers, the “tiny creeps”, the clones, drones and “insect men”, from the “good morning machine” of “Robot”, to the archetypal “Micro-Man” “who sees the detail but never the plan”.

PXR5Despite this being, to my ears, the most musically successful era of the band’s output, Hawkwind itself seemed to be suffering some sort of psychosis, unsure of its identity (masquerading at times as its split-personalities the Sonic Assassins and the Hawklords), releasing albums in the wrong order (PXR5, recorded after Quark, Strangeness and Charm, was released after the Hawklords album, 25 Years On) before the band made a suicide attempt when, after a US tour, Dave Brock sold his guitar to a fan and decided to give up on Hawkwind altogether. (And Dave Brock giving up on Hawkwind means no Hawkwind.)

Of course, this wasn’t the end. But, for the rest of its life, Hawkwind would continue to switch freely between two identities — the straight-ahead rock band, and the community-binding musical shamans, in an almost polarised division in the next era’s alternations between straight-ahead guitar riffery (thanks to the fabulous Huw Lloyd-Langton) and electronic trippyness.

Hawkwind 1970-1975

Hawkwind - Warrior on the Edge of Time2013 is a bit of a year for long-awaited reissues. First off, in March (in the UK, anyway — the US got it earlier), there was the Blue Öyster Cult’s Columbia Albums Collection, a box set that polished off the band’s back catalogue, digitally remastered and extra’d up with rarities and archive live material, meaning I could finally replace my vinyl rip of Imaginos. (Ditto for 1975’s double live album, On Your Feet Or On Your Knees, whose opening riff to its second track made me take up the guitar.) And this September will hopefully see the last classic-era Doctor Who finally make it to DVD: Terror of the Zygons, also from 1975. (It feels I’ve been waiting for that one since 1975.) And last month Atomhenge brought out a hard-fought-for deluxe remaster of Hawkwind’s Warrior On The Edge Of Time… Also from 1975. It’s the kind of thing to make me want to look back at the massive output of one of my favourite bands and try to make sense of it. And, at over forty years of mostly continuous studio albums, live albums and touring, it’s not going to be done in one Mewsings post. So, for now, Hawkwind’s first major musical era: from their self-titled debut in 1970 to 1975’s Warrior on the Edge of Time.

Hawkwind on Stage

A note on the sleeve of their first album outlined the band’s initial intentions:

“We started out trying to freak people (trippers), now we are trying to levitate their minds, in a nice way, without acid, with ultimately a complete audio-visual thing. Using a complex of electronics, lights and environmental experiences.”

Hawkwind - HawkwindI like that “in a nice way”. Because there’s nothing nice about Hawkwind’s debut. Aside from two songs that are basically Dave Brock busking numbers Hawkwinded up (both of them about breaking out of a complacent worldview to see life for the potentially miserable thing — “it may bring war”, “the tears you’ve shed” — it is), the rest of the album is a series of frankly terrifying instrumentals, full of moans, groans, echoes and disorientatingly weird sounds. Two of them are called “Paranoia (Part 1)” and “Paranoia (Part 2)”, for Heaven’s sake. (And the theme of mental illness keeps popping up in songs of this era, from the robotised weirdness of the next album’s “Adjust Me”, to its successor’s “Brainstorm”, a B-side called “Brainbox Pollution”, and Warrior‘s “The Demented Man”. If Hawkwind really were trying to sell the psychedelic experience, they weren’t putting the best face on it.)

Hawkwind - X In Search of SpaceThe band needed something better than paranoia and despair if they wanted to present their audience with a truly immersive experience. Fortunately, “oral space-age poet” Robert Calvert had the answer. He decided the band needed a mythology, or at least a viable stash of imagery and story that could take the place of their bleak inward mental journeys of doubt, disintegration and “a world of emptiness”. The answer was science fiction. Michael Moorcock was already associated with the band. (His first impression: “They seemed like barbarians who’d got hold of a load of electrical gear.”) He provided some poetry, as did Calvert. Calvert also penned the “Hawklog”, a booklet included with the band’s second album, X In Search of Space, which told of how the technicians of Spaceship Hawkwind arrived on Earth only to be transformed into a two dimensional black platter, indistinguishable in size, shape and function from what you Earth people call a vinyl LP. Hawkwind were now a — if not the — Space Rock band, and suddenly they had a universe of dystopian nightmares to take the place of their previously merely psychotic ones.

Hawkwind - Doremi Fasol LatidoThe message remained bleak: “We Took The Wrong Step Years Ago” and “Time We Left This World Today” are just two SF-tinged tales of pessimistic environmentalism. “The Watcher” was looking in on us, had found us wanting, and promised that “The last thing you will feel is fear” before avarice destroys our sphere. The tales of psychic disintegration took on a science fictional tone — “Space is Deep” taking its cue from the opening passages to Moorcock’s 1969 novel The Black Corridor, about a man getting cabin fever in the utter nullity of deep space (and which was itself read out to freaky-spacey trip-music at concerts); meanwhile “Master of the Universe” hints at how hitting the borders of madness might at least help you break out of the complacent worldview attacked in the first album (“If you call this living I must be blind”). There were bursts of optimism: in the sheer vitality of Bob Calvert’s lyrics (and their delivery) in his paean to the spaceward urge, “Born to Go”; in the defiantly solipsistic hedonism of his “Orgone Accumulator”; or in the gleeful destructiveness of his “Urban Guerrilla”; also in the rather more gentle optimism of Nik Turner’s SF-tinged flower-power dreams like “Children of the Sun” and “D-Rider”. Even Dave Brock’s shamanic “Assault & Battery/The Golden Void”, though it may make him “Lose my body, lose my mind”, at least has a message of hope:

Lives of great men all remind us
we may make our lives sublime
And departing leave behind us
footprints in the sands of time

(Even if it is nicked from Longfellow’s “Psalm Of Life“.)

Hawkwind enlightenment, it seems, is enlightenment through psychosis. As Brock says in “You’d Better Believe It”:

The gentle madness touched my hand
Now I’m just a cosmic man

Hawkwind - Hall of the Mountain GrillOne thing that’s notable about Hawkwind’s output in these five years — particularly when compared to the next five, which is dominated by the fierce Icarus-like individualism of Robert Calvert’s manic side — is how much the lyrics are about “we” and “us”: “Deep in our minds”, “we shall be as one”, “So that we might learn to see/The foolishness that lives in us”. Consciously tribal, Hawkwind were seeking to create a communal experience. Their trance-inducing guitar grunge and join-in chanted choruses were trying to lift everyone to the same plane — if not through the previously promised levitation, maybe through a blast of sci-fi rocket power.

Hawkwind - Space RitualThey achieved their goal of presenting the “complete audio-visual thing” in their Space Ritual tour, whose double live album (1973) is the quintessence of this era’s recorded output. By this point they weren’t just a band of musicians. They had their poets (Moorcock and Calvert), their artists (Barney Bubbles), their light show (Liquid Len), their dancers (Miss Stacia). They had their tribe. They were the Technicians of Spaceship Hawkwind, and had achieved lift-off.

At the end of their confusingly-titled 1999 Party album (recorded live in 1974, released in 1997), someone says: “You have been experiencing the imagination of Hawkwind.” A shared imaginative experience. As it says in their first recorded song, “Hurry on Sundown”:

Look into your mind’s eye, see what you can see
There’s hundreds of people like you and me

Or in the later “Brainbox Pollution”:

Take my hand, I’ll lead you on
To learn so far, my dream’s your own

Hawkwind had shared their dream. Oh, and they also released a silly one-hit wonder single called “Silver Machine”.

Hype by Robert Calvert

calvert_hypeIn 1981, Robert Calvert, the poet who wanted to be a fighter pilot and became, for a while, the figurehead of the spaceship Hawkwind, published his only novel, Hype, about upcoming rock star Tom Mahler and the promotional shenanigans surrounding the release of his make-or-break third album. In 1982, Calvert released an accompanying LP, Hype: Songs of Tom Mahler, featuring the songs referred to in the novel. It’s an excellent record, and one of the more polished and commercially accessible of Calvert’s solo albums, but it created, in me, a feeling that, as Calvert effectively took the part of Mahler (by singing his songs) on the album, he would naturally identify with him in the novel. The novel’s actual protagonist is Tony Cahn, the Mahawat-smoking APR Records exec who sees the success of Tom Mahler as his route to the top.

I’ve loved Calvert’s witty, incisive lyrics for years. The Charisma-era records he did with Hawkwind (Astounding Sounds, Amazing Music, Quark, Strangeness and Charm, PXR525 Years On) contain some of my all-time favourite lyrics, not to mention songs, period: the brooding “Steppenwolf” still gives me the chills whenever I really listen to it, as Calvert’s Hermann Hesse-inspired misanthropic rant achieves such a height of intensity it slips into German, like a darkly religious ecstasy of speaking in tongues. Calvert’s poetry lies in the cool, precise choice of words, and his novel’s prose is no exception. Everything is succinctly and exactly described, leaving you with a feeling that here is a writer who is really seeing the scene he’s describing:

“Cahn moved his chair forward for Sammy to get by as she went to her usual place at the table. She undid and slid out of the green parachute-silk coat and settled it over the back of her chair. Finger by finger she began pulling off her gloves, revealing long vermillion nails which she combed through the glossy black of her hair.”

This sort of crystal-clear description of little details focuses the reader’s imagination. Its commanding, confident tone leaves you in no doubt about the writer’s authority. But its downside is that, if the writer keeps to the same tone, you can end up feeling detached from the characters, as if you’re watching them on a big cinema screen, rather than being (as in the best fiction) transported to a spot just behind their eyes, connected to their feelings as much as their actions. Throughout Hype, although you spend a lot of time in Tony Cahn’s company, and a lesser but still significant amount in Tom Mahler’s, you don’t really get close to either. You never really understand why they’re doing what they’re doing. You can’t quite tell if, for instance, Tony Cahn is nothing but a cynical manipulator simply in it for his own gain, or if Tom Mahler has any substance as an artist beyond a manufactured cultish appeal. (And I think that, in a novel of any length, the main characters need to have a bit more dimension than that.) Another downside is that such monotone prose, beautiful and precise though it is, prevents any variation in pacing. It wasn’t till right near the end that the story started to rear its head towards a climax, and that, interestingly, is when Calvert loosens up and uses (in the last three or four chapters) different narrative styles (an excerpt from Mahler’s ghostwritten autobiography, for instance, which, because it’s brief and close to the end, doesn’t have much of an effect). The most interesting chapter, “The Evolution of Rock’n’Roll” has Calvert sounding most like himself (or, at least, as he sounds in a series of self-interview tapes he made in response to a fan’s questionnaire — available online as Ramblings at Dawn), as he launches into a non-fictional account of how the British chart system (as it existed back then) could be, and most probably was, easily manipulated.

In some interview quotes on Knut Gerwers’ excellent Calvert resource, Calvert says he was aiming, in Hype, for something like P G Wodehouse’s satires on 1920s Hollywood, but my biggest disappointment with the book was just how unsatirical, how unscathing, it was of the characters it portrays, and often how unwitty it is compared to Calvert’s pithy lyrics (“Quark, Strangeness and Charm”, for instance, or “Over My Head” from the Hype album). Mahler comes across as too uninteresting to be the artist-hero crushed by an uncaring recording industry — he contributes too much to his own downfall, and seems to have no real principles, just a fashionable, and quickly lost, for-the-people attitude. Cahn, on the other hand, is built too much into a hero to be the object of satire, coming up trumps in his one fist fight (against a woman, though — there’s a nasty undertone of misogyny throughout the book, particularly in its numerous, rather shoehorned-in sex scenes), but unrealistically winning through on business deals through nothing but mouthy chutzpah.

Aside from these faults, I found it quite a readable book, but perhaps more because I was interested in the man who wrote it than what he was writing. The scenes featuring Mahler’s band rehearsing and recording were the highlights, both because they must have echeod Calvert’s own experience of such situations, and because their portrayal of the sort of micro-politics that come to bear on creative, collaborative situations was spot on.