I read a story about a man enslaved inside his own mind. Too much time spent in contemplation has made him view the world outside as foreign, irrational, dirty and repulsive. He has grown cynical and embittered, antisocial, morose and full of spite. He values nothing but a few timeless classics of literature and music which he worships as if they were infallible immortals. All else is shallow, disgusting, meaningless and abhorrent.
His name is Steppenwolf. To escape this despicable existence he resolves to kill himself, but is in the end too much a coward to pull through. As luck would have it, he is found by a girl who understands him. She pats him on the head and calls him silly. And slowly, one day at a time, she teaches him how to live again.
I have so much to say about this book yet somehow anything I write seems futile. Anyone can retreat into their mind and wallow in the fact that the society we have created for ourselves is one of suffering, abundance, trivialities and despair. Anyone can refuse to partake in the world and resolve to a life of cynicism. And anyone can do all this and blame it on the fact that they are merely too enlightened. Too aware to lead a normal, healthy life in this grotesque, shallow, complacent and ignorant world we have established for ourselves.
Anyone can fade away. It isn’t difficult to die. What’s difficult is to keep on living.
You think you lock yourself up in your room because you are too damn good for the world? Because you are the only one wise enough to see this shallow, cosy, stupid world for what it is?
No. You lock yourself inside yourself because you are too afraid to go outside. You refuse the invitations, the singing crowds and dancing mobs because you are too damn frightened to encounter friction. To mess things up and deal with contradiction. To face yourself within the mirror of the people you encounter. To know yourself and all your flaws. “You are willing to die, you coward, but not to live.”
The problem is you are correct. This world is shallow, vulgar and obscene. Too much of what humanity admires are a pointless waste of time. “Do you think I’m incapable of understanding your fear of the foxtrot, your distaste for bars and dance floors, your resistance to jazz music and all that sort of stuff? I understand it only too well, just as I do your disgust with politics, your sadness at the way the parties and the press ramble on and kick up a fuss about things, your despair over wars, the one there has just been and those still to come, and about modern habits of thinking reading, building, making music, celebrating things and providing education!”
Humanity is too content with way too little. It has to be this way or else society wouldn’t function. If it were inhabited solely by individuals who think outside the norms it would collapse. Those people are too inquisitive. They ask too many questions. They don’t just swallow and accept things the way they are presented and as such they pose a threat to order. “You are right, Steppenwolf, a thousand times right, and yet you must perish…It is no home, this fine world, for people like us who, instead of nonsensical noise, demand music; instead of pleasure, joy; instead of money, soul; instead of industrial production, genuine labour; instead of frivolity, genuine passion…”
The fact that you struggle in this state is no surprise. That does not mean your place within it does not exist. It just means you have to search for it. You have to put in the work. You have to dig a little deeper. Deeper than the world as it appears. Deeper than your inclinations, your proclivities, your innate personality and whatever fiction you claim to constitute your self.
“[T]he conquest of time and escape from reality…means simply the wish to be relieved of your so-called personality. That is the prison where you lie.”
Discard your simplifications. Your life is no mere good or evil, true or false, wealth or worth or nature or reason. It is no mere struggle between opposing extremes where one trumps the other. It is all of those and infinities in between. “His life oscillates, as everyone's does, not merely between two poles, such as the body and the spirit, the saint and the sinner, but between thousands and thousands.”
Your quest for completion is a fiction. The self is no mere singular conquest of which once you’ve reached its peak you may retire. Simplifying the grandeur of a human mind to that extent is a mistake and grave disservice.
“[A] man consists of a multitude of souls, of numerous selves.” These selves overlap, contradict, rejoice and engage in combat. Anyone brave enough to venture into their unfettered mind is well aware of this. It is shunned and dubbed insane in our society because complexity invokes contradiction. Unsurprisingly. It is easier to herd a flock of sheep than a band of wolves. But in punishing the mad, you castigate the genius. “In consequence of this error many…are looked upon as mad who are geniuses”.
Never fear the irrational, the extraordinary, combative and complex. It is the friction of contradiction that birth the sparks of invention. “Just as madness, in a higher sense, is the beginning of all wisdom, so is schizomania the beginning of all art and all fantasy.”
Keep worshipping your idols. Praise them on your bruised black knees with bleeding hands and torn red nails. Lock yourself inside your room with nothing but your soul and blues, stacks of books by men you love and women you admire. Beating rhythms to whispered words, heaving lungs so violent your ribcage bursts and shatters. Do this. Do it all and then again.
Then go to bed. Sleep it off.
Your worship of the genius, breathless, ocean–deep and speechless is laudable and precious. But don’t take it so seriously. Perfection is a heavy burden and these saints are already weighed down by the stones above their graves. “Seriousness, young man, is an accident of time. It consists…in putting too high a value on time. […] In eternity, however, there is no time, you see. Eternity is a mere moment, just long enough for a joke.”
Head outside in autumn rain. Call your sister. Claim a stranger in the street. Tell a man you met but once he reminds you of your soulmate. Make best friends with girls in nightclubs. Close your eyes. Flow along. It’s fine. It really is. To appreciate the depths of oceans you must first venture knee–deep into clear blue colourful lagoons. Set your anchor here. Make yourself at home and when the time feels right, dive into the depths. Find your jewels and return them to the surface. Yes, that is the point. To venture deep into the unknown and bring those treasures to the surface where they can be aired and dried and understood. “Your faith found no more air to breathe. And suffocation is a hard death.”
Be brave enough to venture into darkness. But do not forget that lightness has its value too. What else would the point be of all your crazed imaginations if not to realise them in the world? To help you make your life a little less confusing. A little less afraid. And a little more in love.
“A girl had bidden me eat and drink and sleep, and had shown me friendship and had laughed at me and had called me a silly little boy. And this wonderful friend had talked to me of the saints and shown me that even when I had outdone myself in absurdity I was not alone.”