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Surviving Modernism Through Life and Death

Today there is a lot of discussion revolving around the possibility of a traditional art form, breaking the boundaries of modern subjectivism and materialism. For many artists the main problem with modern art is the unhealthy focus on crossing conventionalism with traditionalism in an attempt to establish a new art form free from its forerunners. It is said that modernism is the focus on the human mind and its revolt against the physical boundaries, maintaining natural laws and limitations. We see it in the denial of ethnic differences, in "equality" between individuals, in "relativistic art", but perhaps most clearly, in the worldview of modern man: the human individual is the central creature of the cosmos and, as such, is seen as the highest form of idea in the universe.

Several artists raged against this social conception, interpreting it as a crime against the system in which we all live. They based their ideas on the inseparability between object and subject and, as such, denied the modern worldview where the human mind is thought to enact total control over its physical surroundings. This journey proved to be confusing, dramatic, and close to impossible - but their strong wills aroused their senses with courage to live in a world they hated, and to create something out of the past, presented for people living today. Two of these heroes are the modernist writers Hermann Hesse and Thomas Mann.

It is said that it took Hesse about six weeks to finish his novel "Steppenwolf", hinting that this period in his life included personal crisis. The story is about Harry Haller, a lone wolf living in a room rented by an old lady and her son, hiding from the bourgeois city with its jazz music, sex, democracy, and modern materialism. His life is a secluded one, completely isolated from the world around him. Haller's passion is classicistic art, namely Goethe and Mozart. These figures represent a clean, sparse, traditional, idealistic art, expressing the nobility of the European soul. Harry devotes most of his time reading literature and listening to music, now and then visiting the city at evening to eat and drink.

One night when he's out walking, he meets a strange man who hands him a treatise. The book is about himself and his conflict between idealism and moralism, human and wolf. It analyzes his mental condition as suffering from a modern form of dualism, where the liberal society forces him to morally restrain his life, pushing him back into his room and art - the place where he can unleash his animal inside, the wolf that celebrates the aristocracy and heroism of past glories. The treatise is cold and logical, but also sad and despairing. It ends with a call for Harry to realize the potential in his multiple personalities, to deconstruct his binary vision of moral right and wrong, and find his inner self by exploring categories far beyond "human" and "animal". Harry is left alone with his destiny, tackling it through a woman, Hermine, he meets in a bar and a jazz player called Paulo. In the end, he is only wolf - a wolf with a laugh on his face.

Thomas Mann wrote a similar novel on the thematic platform that Hesse built through "Steppenwolf". It is called "Death in Venice" and is a more allegorical and symbolic story about the author named Gustav Aschenbach, a lonely man celebrated for his great books, but in reality a very sick man. Aschenbach's view on art is a modern one: he believes it is possible to achieve idealistic art by morally perfecting his behavior. This causes an inner clash between the birth of art (emotional and experiential) and his attempts to reach it (morality and perfection).

His condition becomes so bad that one day he needs to travel away from his current home. Aschenbach decides to visit Venice, a place on earth he loves very much. While in Venice he checks into a hotel and notices a young, blonde boy named Tadzio. Aschenbach falls deeply in love with this young boy, almost possessed by his unnatural beauty, innocence, and perfection. In Tadzio Aschenbach finds something that suddenly disturbs him: he's beautiful only through the inner senses, thereby free from moral perfection; this slowly breaks down Aschenbach's view on art, forcing him to realize that beauty does not inherently exist within social constructs but exists as a manifestation of something that an artist is able to perceive only by experience and emotion. Aschenbach becomes more and more sick, and after having seen that Tadzio's physical appearance isn't as perfect as he first thought, his mind cannot take it anymore, and it drags his physical condition down; once again he is forced to leave.

What these two novels have in common is a basic thematic denominator: two modern individuals trying to achieve and experience the noble idealism of past European art, and at the same time, living in an age of liberalism, democracy, and populism. This forces them to morally restrict their behavior, thereby giving birth to an inner dualism, an inner conflict between idea and form, heroism and morality. The two traditionalists are exposed to their opposites in an attempt to break the modern dualism and become one with idea and art. Harry Haller is drawn by Hermine into the bourgeois lifestyle, something for which he has great contempt, dancing to jazz music, visiting restaurants - even having sex with women he doesn't love. Gustav Aschenbach experiences a Venice plagued by a growing disease, covered up by the government authorities. In reality Venice is a physical manifestation of Aschenbach's inner mind, growing increasingly uneasy over the uncontrollable love for Tadzio - a love he knows is morally forbidden, especially since the motive is emotional and not platonic.

The result of these experiences are for us dramatic and chaotic: at the end of Hesse's novel, Harry is forced to explore his inner mental state by visiting a "magic theatre" - a Freudian look into his own mind. There he is able to experience the collapse of the Western world, the love of an unlimited number of women, and the perverted plays demonstrating the conflict between moral man and amoral wolf. Harry ends up stabbing Hermine, his feminine bourgeois side, to death, having realized that the modern lifestyle is not to fear or despise as that is the origin of his inner dualism. He rejects the modern disease by recognizing its inherent emptiness of value. Gustav comes to a similar conclusion when he realizes that there is no hope for him to escape the plague in Venice; he is one with the sickness and only after accepting his emotive love for Tadzio and seeing past his imperfections can he continue writing on a novel intended to become a masterpiece. In the end he sits in his sun-chair, looking at the sea, while Tadzio stands in the water waving to him a last good bye: the artistic ideal is becoming one with the waves of eternity - but too late.

What we may learn from these allegories is a key to the survival of modernism and the continuation of idealistic art; it is the realization that moral restrictive behavior is a dead end. It is so easy for us to revert back into our egos and live secluded lives where no people can hurt us, free from the city and its madness. Thus we become a Harry Haller - torn between our wolf, alone in our private confinements experiencing a time now past, and human, trying to tackle the things we all must face in modern society: tedious jobs that kill our passions, discussions about politics with empty people that talk to look good, dance clubs for lost souls to find collective peace; we are trapped in a time not meant for us. How do we tackle it? How do we preserve our Faustian spirits? How do we combine social disease at day and Beethoven at night? Are we, the idealists from another century, destined to walk this earth as dualists? Where is our escape, our hope for the future?

When Harry Haller realizes that he needs to find a way to deal with modern society, but still preserve his idealistic spirit and hope, he at last faces Hermine and decides to kill her. His feminine opposite, the Harry Haller at daytime in society, becomes a natural part of his human creative soul. As Mozart exclaims in Hesse's novel when he finds a sad Haller raging against the horrible noise from the radio: under the distortion we may find a structure of life, of spirit, of idealism. Yes, it is horrible, but to deny it is to commit suicide. The only way, says Mozart, to escape the pitiful existence of a lone wolf destined to either become a split personality (Harry Haller) or a decaying soul watching the ideal escape from him (Gustav Aschenbach) is to laugh at the insanity of our modern time. The key to success is to go beyond the conventional dualism (human at day, wolf at night) and join these two together, exploring all of the characteristics found within yourself and using them to your advantage in the quest for eternity.

If we do not find peace within ourselves, we will end up like Gustav Aschenbach: dead, yet still longing for beautiful art and noble ideals to once again rise from the dead. If we say no to our social life and no to anything connected with the society in which we live, not only are we left with a disease without medicine, but also an impotent life deprived of a natural part of us: happiness. There is no way out from a life in isolation. We must dare to face the social, popular, common side of us, dare to face our inner jokes of which Mozart so mockingly speaks.

However abstract or pragmatic this may sound, all Steppenwolf's reading this know who they are and whether or not they suffer from the same disease that plagues Harry Haller and Gustav Aschenbach; trust me when I say there is no point in denial. The strength, contrary to what we may believe, lies not within the Steppenwolf, but in the wolf as a whole, in the animal being able to transform into human and live out that side as if it was a part of him. For the desperate ones: I have no complete solution, nor any definitive answers to a path leading to absolute success in this dilemma. However, like I understand the greatness of Mozart, I firmly believe in the ideas of Hermann Hesse and Thomas Mann. I believe they have something important to tell us, and that, indeed, it is reading only for the Steppenwolf's and Aschenbach's. These are basic ideas which all people on some level can understand, but not necessarily to which they can relate, unless they are a disguised Haller or Aschenbach, perhaps in a search for a more complete life. Is there a way to believe in traditions and ideas from centuries ago and still manage a normal life in a modern society gone mad?

I often ask myself this question and will be perfectly honest with you, the path to eternity is long and covered in mists. It is like walking through the woods on summer nights when the humidity from the fields condenses and becomes large white clouds of fog. You wander alone at night, releasing your inner wolf to declare both war against the lights from the city and your passionate love for nature, and struggle to the peace found at night under the starlit sky. Somewhere up there lives Goethe and Mozart, looking down on us misplaced souls, perhaps with anger, perhaps with a mocking smile. But as I walk, I come to think of what past heroes have said, what their lives communicate with mine - and suddenly, I feel the truth is closer than ever; we are and always will be wolves, wolves with bitter laughs on our faces. -Alexis

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