For Madmen Only

by Matthew Koslowski on November 4, 2009
in Essays

In This Essay

Steppenwolf: A Novel by Hermann Hesse (Basil Creighton, trans.)
The Collected Poems of W.B. Yeats (Richard J. Finneran, ed.)
Don Juan in Hell: From Man and Superman by George Bernard Shaw

Last night I finished rereading Steppenwolf. I had put it down for a while and flitted among the arts.

I know for certain I am in the middle of two other novels. But I think I may have forgotten that I am in the middle of any number of others.

The past few weeks have been filled with theatre and opera.

As if that were not enough, I have been reading from the poetry of Rumi, W.B. Yeats, and John Keats. In fact, I have been working on memorizing Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale.” I have the first stanza of ten lines memorized; only seventy lines left to commit to memory.

“Why are you spreading yourself so thin?” I asked myself earlier.

Castles Built in the Air

I looked at the stacks of books piled up around my room. Looking at my room, I could not stop thinking of the descriptions of Harry Haller’s room nor the scenes of Will Hunting’s room. I have towers and towers of precariously balanced books; so many that I spend much of my time at work worrying if my cats have knocked them over.

These towers of covers, these garrets of paper, these gates hinged with glue enclose a beautiful courtyard of thoughts and ideas.

But they are also doorways to the Magic Theater.

The Magic Theater: For Madmen Only

What is the Magic Theater?

This little theater of mine has as many doors into as many boxes as you please, ten or a hundred or a thousand, and behind each door exactly what you seek awaits you. It is a pretty cabinet of pictures, my dear friend; but it would be quite useless for you to go through it as you are. You would be checked and blinded at every turn by what you are pleased to call your personality. You have no doubt guessed long since that the conquest of time and the escape from reality, or however else it may be that you choose to describe your longing, means simply the wish to be relieved of your so-called personality.
–Pablo to Harry Haller in Hermann Hesse’s Steppenwolf, page 176.

Who has not had the desire to lay his personality, her self, aside for a few hours? Each of us, I believe, gets tired of the little dramas and games that occur in our day to day lives. We seek out the adventure and the relief of being someone else.

And this is why I am myself enmeshed in so many different books right now. I enjoy the intensity of Elena Ferrante’s characters who are both interior and self-aware while being bundles of chaos, drives, and impulses. But equally I enjoy the the relaxed stateliness of Jane Austen’s austere character dramas. I see myself as much in the personal poetry of John Keats as I do in the more affected poetry of W.B. Yeats.

The times that I most enjoy a book are those times when I can lose myself in a book. That is what Pablo is asking Harry to do on entering the Magic Theater. That is what so many of us do when we sit down with a book or in front of a television screen, when we enter a theater or a cinema.

Many great thinkers since the time of Socrates, if not before, have had their own variation on this theme. Socrates asks us why we run when what we run from is ourselves, the very thing we cannot escape through running. Seneca writes the same.

And Laughing Break the Mirror Sweet

And looking in the mirror, I asked myself again, “Why are you spreading yourself so thin?” And laughing, I realize it is because I want to escape for a little while from myself that I have spread myself so thin.

The mirror breaks.

And the image of myself dissolves. In my pocket I find a number of figures, each of them my self — each at least a sliver of self — that I can assemble into a number of different constellations. Some grow big, take on aspects that I do not recognize, while others recede, shrink away until they have almost disappeared.

I observe all this happening to me just as it happened to Harry.

The Wolf and the Scholar

As I was reading through Harry’s adventures in the Magic Theater, especially when he enters the box “All Girls Are Yours”, I found myself thinking of one of my favorite poems by W.B. Yeats.

The Scholars

Bald heads, forgetful of their sins,
Old, learned, respectable bald heads
Edit and annotate the lines
That young men, tossing on their beds,
Rhymed out in love’s despair
To flatter beauty’s ignorant ear.

All shuffle there; all cough in ink;
All wear the carpet with their shoes;
All think what other people think;
All know the man their neighbour knows.
Lord, what would they say
Did their Catullus walk that way?

–W.B. Yeats

Early in the novel Harry became disillusioned at seeing someone else’s painting or bust of Goethe, thinking his own image of Goethe — because it was in his mind and not vulgarly committed to clay or canvas — was any less a graven image. He believed he inhabited a more rarefied air than his contemporaries until he began to find the sweetness of popular entertainments.

Throughout the book, Harry Haller realizes that he has made quite a hash of his own life by creating these false dichotomies between the high arts and the low arts. Within his soul, Harry under Hermine’s tutelage found that he could find as much enlightenment in dancing a foxtrot as he could in listening to Mozart.

The Great Divide

I do not wonder, though, that he makes the dichotomies that he does, however. This idea of the gulf is pervasive. Shaw speaks to it in Don Juan in Hell. The Devil says:

The gulf is the difference between the angelic and the diabolic temperament. What more impassable gulf could you have? Think of what you have seen on earth. There is no physical gulf between the philosopher’s class room and the bull ring; but the bull fighters do not come to the class room for all that.
– The Devil in George Bernard Shaw’s Don Juan in Hell, page 15.

Mozart’s Don Giovanni, which Harry hints at throughout the novel but does not cite by name until the end of his time in the Magic Theater, and much of Goethe’s poetry is in praise of life’s pleasures. Perhaps Harry took Don Giovanni’s punishment too much to heart. That Harry takes things outside of the Magic Theater too seriously and that he cannot become enlightened because he has no sense of humor are major themes of Steppenwolf.

Entering the Magic Theater, Harry begins to take things less seriously. Through the illusions and entertainments of the Magic Theater, he begins to learn. At the critical moment, though, he lapses into his past thoughts and forgets the good humor he has learned.

And so it is with us, is it not? We close a book or leave a movie, in good cheer, in good humor, thinking we have learned to be better people — more loving, more generous, and more good-humored — and then our old selves come crashing down on us.

Is there no hope, then? Harry will tell us:

I understood it all. I understood Pablo. I understood Mozart, and somewhere behind me I heard his ghastly laughter. I knew that all the hundred thousand pieces of life’s game were in my pocket. A glimpse of its meaning had stirred my reason and I was determined to begin the game afresh. I would sample its tortures once more and shudder again its senselessness. I would traverse not once more, but often, the hell of my inner being.

One day I would be a better hand at the game. One day I would learn how to laugh. Pablo was waiting for me, and Mozart too.

–Harry Haller in Hermann Hesse’s Steppenwolf, page 218.


One Response to “For Madmen Only”
  1. Matthew Koslowski says:

    Much of the imagery in the section “And Laughing Break the Mirror Sweet” is drawn from Steppenwolf. If you’ve not read the novel, this section may not have made much sense.