On Separation & The Ephemera Of Existence

"I thought of nothing but her. I expected everything from her. I was ready to lay everything at her feet. I was not in the least in love with her. Yet I had only to imagine that she might fail to keep the appointment, or forget it, to see where I stood. Then the world would be a desert once more, one day as dreary and worthless as the last, and the deathly stillness and wretchedness would surround me once more on all sides with no way out from this hell of silence except the razor."

-- Hermann Hesse, Steppenwolf

The agony of Hesse's romantic anti-hero might first appear rather extreme, even contemptible. How sympathetic, after all, is a figure whose very existence depends on another's presence? How fragile and frail the psyche that assumes it's life's responsibility to fill it up and provide many hours of joy? How unlike the real hero, who is busy saving other lives, performing good and honorable deeds, transforming rather than cowering from a world that is cold and impersonal.

And yet, the morbid, sickly, maladjusted, despairing Steppenwolf opens a window in the mansion of our soul, and the vista we see is the pathos of desertion and separation, the elusiveness of the beautiful and the good. We can conjure up enough examples from everyday life that approximate this vista:

The parting of two lovers at an airport, both saddened by the prospect of not seeing one another again for months, even years;

Seeing a child off to college after years of rearing her, feeling the blow of separation after the last wave of the hand or the last embrace, knowing that in a very real sense, you have lost her to independence and to the onset of adulthood;

Leaving an apartment or dorm room or house that holds so many memories, good and bad, realizing there's no other way but to acquiesce in the momentum of circumstances;

Bidding farewell to a friend with whom you enjoyed an intelligent and sympathetic camaraderie, and lamenting the dearth of such friends in the world;

Returning to the town or neighborhood in which you grew up and being profoundly aware that no one you knew is there anymore, realizing that the world you once thought permanent and imperishable is gone forever;

Looking at an old love letter or photo album and relishing the recollection while taking note of the cruel march of time;

Seeing a young kid strum a guitar or hit a tennis ball over a net or hurl a football and being reminded quite suddenly that you were once that kid.

What is it about these examples that inspire the romantic stirrings of a Steppenwolf and render us almost incapable of words when in the middle of the experience? It is, I think, the friction between the unstoppable flow of life and the discernment of a static meaning in the already-past. The parent who sees his child off to college for the first time is aware both of the immediate loss and of the uncancelable meaning of all those years with her; if he could find the words and put them in order, he might say, "How unfair that time and circumstance should immediately consign my love for my daughter -- a love built up over years -- to the background of life and leave it to dwindle." The couple at the airport would have no occasion for tears without the tension of stasis and change: the most special thing between them is an eternal, timeless fact -- the undeniable fact of their love -- but the material conditions of their life dictate onward movement and necessitate separation.

It might be said, too, that for all the romantic's self-pitying and mourning, for all the protestations against life, he is keenly aware of this disjunction. A pariah and pococurante like Steppenwolf desires most of all unity and closeness, and the world he is condemned to live in offers too little of it. Indeed, the allusion to the woman above may be no woman at all -- not the one he fancies anyway -- but instead a metaphor for love, a love unthreatened by separation and transitoriness.

( Tim Ruggiero, January 13, 2002)

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