Steppenwolf, by Hermann Hesse— For Madmen Only!

Steppenwolf, by Hermann Hesse, is a stirring account of the battle between the opposites that intersect human nature.

In this Novel the protagonist, a middle aged man named Harry, tries desperately to find contentment in himself and his own life.

As Harry’s journey into the interface begins, he is confronted with “signs” pointing him in the direction to the answers he so desires and to his potential freedom from his own discontent.

At one point he runs into a man holding a sign, “For Madmen Only”.  This man gives him a booklet; the “Treatise on the Steppenwolf” which Harry feels describes himself perfectly.  This booklet becomes a literary mirror for him.  It describes the dilemma between the needs of sophisticated man and the animalistic, lonesome nature of the wolf.  Harry believes that these two entities battle within him and are the cause of his great dissatisfaction and unhappiness in life.

Harry’s dilemma reaches culmination after a visit to a  former academic friend’s home with whom he often discussed mythology.  While there, Harry is disgusted by the nationalistic mentality of his friend and offends the man and his wife by criticizing the wife’s picture of Goethe; which Harry feels is poorly done, highly sentimental and an insulting photo of the genius.

After this debacle, Harry rambles through town trying to find the courage to go home (where he planned to rendezvous with a razor).  During this nighttime wandering, the hero finds a beautiful young woman in a dance hall (who is also dualistic in nature) that Harry calls Hermine.

Hermine instantly recognizes Harry’s desperation and both comforts and mocks him for it.  Through his relationship with Hermine, Harry is introduced to the indulgences of the “bourgeois” such as dancing and casual drug use; she finds him a lover and forces him to accept these as worthy aspects of life.  Through this meeting, the hero comes to understand that his existence is more than his self-battle between Man and the Wolf.

While Harry’s interaction with  Hermine opens him up to other parts of himself and in some ways helps him gain freedom from his battle between loneliness and acceptance; he also finds in her more questions, more dichotomies yet to be understood.

Although this novel is full of intense and moving scenes, one of the most poignant happened in the “The Magic Theatre”.  In this place, the lines between reality and fantasy become completely blurred.

Harry enters a room of the theatre that has a stage in front.  At first he sees a man with a whip and a wolf– skinny and beaten.  The man does all sorts of tricks with the wolf- gets him to sit, roll over, etc.  The man brings out a lamb and a bunny and sticks the wolf between them.  Even though the wolf is salivating, he obeys and does not touch the frightened animals.

Next Harry sees a wolf standing with a poor man on all fours at his command.  The wolf orders the man to do tricks- to sit, roll over etc.  The wolf then puts the man between the lamb and the bunny.  This time, the man is ordered to kill the frightened animals and he rips them apart- spouting blood everywhere.  The hero is shaken by this site and runs from the room.

The Man and the Wolf are part of the mirror reflection that is Harry’s person.  He sees their duality, their interplay and comes to understand that he is neither of them.  Rather, he is both and in being both- becomes something more- something eternal and immortal.  This allows Harry to finally be free from the constant circle that both engulfed him and trapped him.

While in the “Magic Theatre” Harry is confronted with a myriad of dichotomies (rooms) of himself.  He is guided by the immortals themselves through these rooms of duality until he is finally reunited with Hermine (and perhaps himself) where he stabs her in the heart, right under the breastbone.

It is notable that the very existence of Hermine in the novel is never confirmed.  In fact, when Harry asks Hermine what her name is, she turns the question around.  When he is challenged to guess her name, he tells her that she reminds him of a childhood friend named Hermann, and therefore he concludes her name must be Hermine.  Metaphorically, Harry creates Hermine as a fragment of his own soul.

Hermann Hesse published Steppenwolf (Der Steppenwolf) in Germany in 1927.  It was first translated into English in 1929.  Steppenwolf is a combination of autobiographical and psychoanalytical elements and was named after the lonesome wolf of the steppes.  This story largely reflects Hesse’s own spiritual crisis that he experienced in the 1920s.

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The General in his Labyrinth: a Commentary on the Maze of Life

The General in his LabyrinthGabriel Garcia Marquez’s novel, The General in his Labyrinth is a moving tale of a man, an exile, a General who makes the slow journey into his past en route to a future he never actualizes.

 The General, whose labyrinth exists in the complexity of his mind and memories, as well as in his fading, consumptive body relives past victories, defeats and passionate love along the road to his eventual death.

There are many manifestations of the Labyrinth throughout the novel, but the most moving is the puzzle he must complete of his own life, in entirety, before he moves on to that quiet and forever sleep.  The General is faced with reconciling his past with his present before making his transition into a future he has difficulty accepting… the end of the road.

The wilderness in his mind and the wanderings of his party into his past recall the joy and pain of a great man, “A Liberator”, “A General” who is both reviled and respected by his people. His mind, lost in the throws of illness and haunted by his memories, suffers greatly; especially during the quiet of the evening when his thoughts gain the most speed.

The slow journey into death, and the quiet resolution the comes with letting go create a truly beautiful character and one that provides opportunity for reflection- as we are all lost in our own labyrinth with  time- our one true companion.

 

Witchcraft, Wethersfield and The Witch of Blackbird Pond

 

The Witch of Blackbird Pond, By Elizabeth George Speare

Witchcraft, Wethersfield and The Witch of Blackbird Pond

Witch Trials in Connecticut were among the first in New England; happening long before the more famous trials in Salem, Massachusetts.  Connecticut heard 43 witchcraft cases between 1648 and 1668, with 16 ending in execution. 

 Mary Johnson of Wethersfield, Connecticut was the first recorded confession of witchcraft in the colonies.  In 1648 Mary worked as a house servant and had been convicted two years earlier on two separate occasions of thievery (first in Hartford and then in Wethersfield) and whipped.  In her case there was no trial or even a documented accusation.  She confessed under pressure from Reverend Samuel Stone (and after extended whipping).  Mary confessed that she was guilty of witchcraft (or, as it was called, “familiarity with the Devil”) and described her crimes including using the Devil to help her with her household chores.

 Three years later, John and Joan Carrington (a married couple) were accused of and executed for witchcraft, but even less is known about this couple or the circumstances surrounding their ordeal.

 Documentation surrounding this history is slim and piecing the story together is challenging at best.  Many court records are either incomplete or missing and those that do exist offer biased accounts.  Since most victims were poor, personal belongings left behind for historians to study are few and far between; much of what we know comes from the trials themselves.

 Interestingly enough, the most prominent source of information about Wethersfield’s witchcraft history comes from Elizabeth George Speare’s 1958 classic, The Witch of Blackbird Pond.  In it, Wethersfield meadows and cove and several real people from that time are described; making it seem biographical.  This novel, while thoroughly researched and beautifully written, contains much misinformation and is more fiction than fact.  For instance, the witch of Blackbird pond is a Quaker (while Quakers were viewed as dissidents, they were not persecuted in Connecticut as witches).

 The trial of Wethersfield resident, Katherine Harrison, helped bring closure to this period of sordid Connecticut history.  The Harrison trial, where she was found guilty in 1669, provoked a major revision of Connecticut trial law.  Governor John Winthrop, Jr, who maintained a strong interest in the occult as it pertained to alchemy, mining and industry and was an avid astronomer (bringing the first telescope to the colonies) sought clarification of the standard for evidence in witchcraft cases.  This inquiry led to the development of a set of standards that strengthened the evidentiary requirements for conviction including requiring a plurality of witnesses to testify to the same fact.

 Harrison’s death sentence was overturned and she was released with the recommendation that she leave town for her own safety.  Accusations, trials and even convictions would continue for several more decades, including a second Connecticut panic in Fairfield, but never again would a witch be executed in the state of Connecticut.

 

Happy Halloween…..

 ** Many thanks to the Wethersfield Historical Society for information posted