Sep 19, 2014

The Gay Werewolf of Steppenwolf

When I was an undergraduate at Augustana College in the early 1980s, I took three German classes with tall, gray-haired, constantly-scowling Professor Weber, who was obsessed with demonstrating that homosexualitat did not exist in modern Germany.

Stefan George, Thomas Mann, the Physical Culture Movement, Robert Musil, Magnus Hirschfield, the Kit-Kat Club of Berlin between the Wars?

"Posh!  Nonsense!  About friendship and the nationalist ideal, not homosexualitat!"

He would allow no discussion of current campus favorite Steppenwolf  by Herman Hesse: "Posh!  Nonsense!  A book of monsters!  Fit only for the Late-Late Show!"

So of course, I had to read it.

The cover illustration of two nearly-naked women nearly turned me away.

As did the clueless school librarian who kept trying to point me to the music section, insisting that the book was about the rock band Steppenwolf.

But finally I managed to get a copy.

I saw immediately why Dr. Weber forbade the class from discussing it.

The protagonist, Henry Haller, feels depressed, friendless, and alienated from the world he no longer understands -- what adolescent hasn't felt like that?  Especially gay adolescents.

The source of his alienation: he is a werewolf, a man with two natures, one civilized and stable and heterosexual, the other wild.

Wild, savage, untamed, homoerotic.

While wandering aimlessly through the city, he sees an advertisement for "Magic Theater -- not for everybody." (Or, in this Spanish sign, "for lunatics only.").

 Maybe in the Magic Theater he will find a way to reconcile his two natures.  Or maybe it will lead him to oblivion.  He resolves to seek it out.



En route, he meets two people.  Hermine nurtures his "civilized" side, introducing him to the pleasures and constraints of heterosexual normalcy, including sex with women.

Seductive saxophonist Pablo offers him a "walk on the wild side."

(In the 1974 film version, Henry is played by Max von Sydow, and Pablo by Pierre Clementi).

Eventually Henry kills his "civilized side," and Pablo announces that he is ready for the Magic Theater. He walks inside, through a narrow corridor into the future.

For the gay men of my generation, it sounds precisely like your first visit to a gay bar.  You circle the block a few times, then park, and walk slowly, terrified, to that door marked "Magic Theater: Not for Everybody."  Your future lies behind it.

Hesse envisioned several other close male "walks on the wild side," in Narcissus and Goldmund (1930) and Magister Ludi (1943).  

See also: Death in Venice; and Male Nudity in German Class;