It was 1971. I was sitting on the grass at the east entrance to the University of Arizona. I had in my hands a copy of Steppenwolf by Hermann Hesse, and was leaning back against the base of the UofA sign, reading. I wasn’t in school; I was just there. Tucson wasn’t home anymore; I was just there. The air was hot and dry, pleasant if you’re used to it. But I felt like flotsam, jettisoned and left there by the storm which was the sixties.
I paused at a sentence in the book. A vivid memory had intervened, called up by the turmoil inside Harry Haller, Steppenwolf’s main character.
On October 21, 1967, 50,000 people marched on the Pentagon to protest the war in Vietnam. I was in that seething mass of dissidents. We crossed a great expanse of grass, and finally stood, gazing up at the imposing outside wall. We were exultant. I was exultant, too.. and yet, my heart was divided.
The march happened when I was still in art school at Syracuse. A friend told me about it, and said I could go with him. My parents, meanwhile, were in Tucson, watching it happen on television. Weeks later, when I was home for Christmas, my father said he was very proud of me. He’d always taken a principled stand against the idea of war, but he wasn’t against self-defense. He taught me how to box, and cheered me on sometimes when I wrestled in high school.
William Barrett, in his brilliant book, Time of Need - Forms of Imagination in the Twentieth Century (’72) writes on Hesse:
“Forty or fifty years before the hippie culture was to erupt among us, Hesse was its prophet— even down to the Oriental trappings with which it fits itself out. And rereading him now should help us to see what the revolt of today’s youth is really about. It is only secondarily political. Sometimes political causes are grasped only in order to externalize or objectify the more nameless malaise within. At bottom, however obscurely grasped, the revolt is for some psychological and spiritual wholeness which our civilization seems…to frustrate.”
Barrett calls it “one part of Hesse’s message that his youthful admirers tend to forget. His theme is the polarity that divides human nature.”
Barrett later says:
“Some children repeat the lives of their parents, even down to omitting all those things the parents themselves avoided…Other children, and they are fewer, seem driven to search out and experience the unlived life of their parents. These are the voyages of discovery that broaden the mind and enrich the spirit..”
For me, this is getting much closer to what was happening. The sixties were “only secondarily political.” There were profound changes going on. Everything was changing. I recall thrilling to the electricity in the air. And it didn’t just involve the young. It effected everyone.
It was like everybody suddenly sensed how wonderful it was to be alive. Nobody needed to justify their existence anymore! Admittedly, it was apprehended partly through the use of certain substances which became widely available, but, nevertheless, people were beginning to discover dimensions to their lives which they never knew existed, had never experienced before.
It seems like a bit of an aside at this point, but.. is it any wonder that a person, who may be just awakening to the marvel which is their life, would balk at the idea of being shipped off to fight a seemingly absurd war and thereafter very possibly be returned home in a body bag? Brief rewind to the march on the Pentagon.
But, like I said, there was more going on than this for me. My political activism was somehow only an exterior event. The sixties had to do with creative freedom, an inward change. My experience in life, limited though it was, told me that — creativity was where the energy was.
I heard it in the amazing music. I saw it in the trembling beauty of paintings. I drank it up in the passionate and diversely intelligent conversations I was having. I felt it pulsing through me as I started getting much more serious about my own work: in drawing, painting and, starting to write my own songs. The atmosphere was charged.
Horrific stories of the Vietnam war were constantly in the news. I was finding it so hard to stay focused on my schoolwork. I began to be constantly aware of the marital problems my parents were having. It pained me deeply. I was starting to consider dropping out, and not just from school. I knew, however, that I would be up for the draft as soon as I did. And throughout all this, I was becoming increasingly aware of aggravated divisions within me. Remember Harry Haller? Of course, the drugs only exacerbated the conflict. What divisions you say?
I’m learning now that Hesse, like myself, was a preacher’s kid. His parents, whom he honored and respected, were missionaries in India (which lends Siddhartha whole new added meaning). Young Hesse was a disciplined, educated and reasonable young man. But he desired to explore different territory. Whereas his parents hoped their son would embrace the ordered life of the theological seminary, he was drawn to spontaneity and emotion, intuition and instinct — the realm of poetry and art.
But, as Barrett describes so masterfully, Hesse was not willing to wholly cast off the values of his parents, which he, albeit reservedly, still honored. He chose a life that embraced what I describe as the necessary tension of contending opposites.. like wrestling.
In high school, I was a wrestler. I was familiar with its code. You were required to accept the premise of the match: the necessary tension of grappling with another wrestler who earnestly sought to gain the advantage over you. It was a dialogue, a fierce conversation.
My coach taught the art of “finesse wrestling.”According to this method, one trained oneself to counter any unwise moves on the part of one’s opponent with swift, decisive counter-moves. Skilled practitioners of this wrestling style were beautiful to behold. They never tried to bully their adversaries.
I was also on Tucson High’s 1965 undefeated state championship football team. It was an tremendous experience, don’t get me wrong. I’m proud to have been on that awesome team. But football is much different from wrestling. On the gridiron, you sought to be faster than, or simply overpower your opponent. There was beauty in that game, too. It just didn't have the same.. grace.
We're going through some tough times now. What we need is a new myth. I choose wrestling as the more compelling myth, in which adversaries step onto the mat as equals, accept the incumbent tension of the situation, and proceed to engage in a heated dialogue. Now there’s an honorable contest.
And, if we take this further, ideally.. it’s a myth in which we actually both love and respect our opponent—that is, if there’s honor in the game. So, let us celebrate opposition. After all, there’s plenty to go around. The world is rife with it.
Let us return to William Barrett, whose contention is that most of Hermann Hesse’s admirers miss the ultimate point he makes in Steppenwolf (and all his other novels as well) concerning the conflict between opposites, which is that
“Victory cannot belong to either side. One force cannot conquer the other without also eventually inflicting defeat upon itself…Man is condemned to live forever in the tension of…opposites; but his salvation lies in maintaining not civil war, but a fruitful dialogue between them.”
Of course, this can’t be the end of this conversation. Numerous questions remain. Is it really so that victory cannot belong to either side? Does this have to do with all competition, with each and every conflict? I would not be completely comfortable with a “yes” answer to that question. After all, what would that say about our entire western way of life?
I think there are some wars which must be won. But, and here I’m trying to get at a more nuanced view of this conjectural battle...to look through a different lens.
I’ve proposed the myth of wrestling because for me it relates to the creative process, which is something I’m passionate about. I’ve been trying to ascertain if a fierce conversation between opponents, even enemies, could ever be seen as worthy engagement, could ever become “fruitful” dialogue?
Only if it results in something surprising, welcome and entirely unexpected. Then there’s honor in the game. I wonder. Is there still.. any honor in the game?
Notes on the vicissitudes of the creative life.