Steppenwolf

               

I was 12 years old when my parents decided they would take each of us kids separately on a sort of bonding trip to Chicago.  Being the oldest, I went first.  What I still remember vividly from that trip is going to Marshall Fields department store, where I bought a copy of Don McLean’s “American Pie” album and a paperback copy of Herman Hesse’s “Steppenwolf”  I understand there is (or at least has been) a Steppenwolf theater in Chicago, so there may be others who make an association between the Windy City and that novel, but I may be one of the very few (perhaps the only one) who groups Chicago, Steppenwolf and American Pie into one little unit of memory.

There is a passage in that novel that causes me to come back to it from time to time.  Pony bought me a copy on my kindle for Christmas, and that passage (according to my kindle) is at the 60% point in the book.  It is an exchange between Harry Haller (the Steppenwolf and narrator of the story) and a jazz musician named Pablo.  This is the passage:

“Herr Pablo,” I said to him as he played with his slender ebony walking stick, “you are a friend of Hermine’s and that is why I take an interest in you.  But I can’t say you make it easy to get on with you. Several times I have attempted to talk about music with you.  It would have interested me to know your thoughts and opinions, whether they contradicted mine or not, but you have disdained to make me even the barest reply.”

He gave me a most amiable smile and this time a replay was accorded me.

“Well,” he said with equanimity, “you see, in my opinion there is no point at all in talking about music.  I never talk about music.  What reply, then, was I to make to your very able and just remarks?  You were perfectly right in all you said.  But, you see, I am a musician, not a professor, and I don’t believe that, as regards music, there is the least point in being right.  Music does not depend on being right, on having good taste and education and all that.”

“Indeed. Then what does it depend on?”

“On making music, Herr Haller, on making music as well and as much as possible and with all the intensity of which one is capable.  That is the point, Monsieur.  Though I carried the complete works of Bach and Haydn in my head and could say the cleverest things about them, not a soul would be the better for it.  But when I take hold of my mouthpiece and play a lively shimmy, whether the shimmy be good or bad, it will give people pleasure.  It gets into their legs and into their blood.  That the point, and that alone.  Look at the faces in a dance hall at the moment when the music strikes up after a longish pause, how eyes sparkle, legs twitch and faces begin to laugh.  That is why one makes music.”

“Very good, Herr Pablo.  But there is not only sensual music.  There is spiritual also.  Besides the music that is actually played at the moment, there is the immortal music that lives on even when it is not actually being played.  It can happen to a man to lie alone in bed and to call to mind a melody from the Magic Flute or the Matthew Passion, and then there is music without anybody blowing into a flute or passing a bow across a fiddle.”  [to be continued]

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