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Hermann Hesse, LSD and Me

How Steppenwolf’s teen spirit guided one man's journey to the inner self


By day I sold soft furnishings for a living; by night I drank copious amounts of beer in the pubs that were almost second homes to people in those days. Then I would stagger back to bedsit land where I was obsessed to distraction by a writer whose grocery lists I would have gladly pored over, if I could have found them. It was the early 1970s, I was 19 years old, and the writer was Hermann Hesse.

Obviously, I wasn’t the only one to have discovered the 1946 Nobel laureate. His work had been lavishly celebrated by the so-called ‘counter-culture’ movement of the 1960s, so by time I caught up with him you could read almost everything (bar those damn shopping lists) he’d ever written, translated into English and in paperback. And I did.

What I discovered in the German’s captivatingly lucid prose was one man’s private odyssey, a voyage to the inner self, in fictional guise. It began with the youthful works Peter Camenzind (1904) and The Prodigy (1906), and was developed through the spiritual and sensual quests of Siddhartha (1922), Narziss and Goldmund(1930), Journey to the East(1932), on to the ultimate self-realisation of Magister Ludi (The Glass Bead Game) (1943). But the novel that stood out for me was Steppenwolf (1927), with its misanthropic narrator Harry Haller grimly contemplating the imminent arrival of his fiftieth birthday, and the slip of the razor that was going to free him at last from his bitter disenchantment with himself and the world.

Before that day arrives, however, Harry is mysteriously drawn into a sensual world of dancing, sex, and jazz: a humanising process that serves as a prelude to his admission to a great arena of the self: the Magic Theatre – ‘Price of Admission, your Mind’ – a place where his skewed logic and absurd self-importance are revealed to him in all their foolishness.

What had all this to do with a West Riding lad, a teenage slasher of curtain fabrics? Well, as many a bumptious adolescent might, I thought I saw parallels between me and Harry: we were disgusted by much of the world around us, and we were both definitely ‘alienated’ (though from what, I’m not exactly sure). We also wanted answers to it all. And since, for Harry, that arrived in the form of an ostensibly psychedelic experience, then perhaps a similar enlightenment might also come, via a modern chemical equivalent, to the aid of my supposedly disenfranchised self.

When it came to a young person’s choice of recreational substances in those days, among the speed and the blow, the Moggies and the Blueys, there was also LSD, a real headline-grabber in its time, and eulogised to the heavens by Dr. Timothy Leary, a Harvard lecturer who, in his then hip paean to psychedelia, The Politics of Ecstasy (1965), considered Hesse to be the ‘master guide’ to the hallucinatory experience; he even advised his followers to read both Siddhartha and Steppenwolf before their ‘acid’ sessions. Leary considered Harry’s entry into the Magic Theatre a ‘priceless manual’ for this supposedly sublime encounter with one’s ‘true’ self. Any socially disenchanted youth (and what high-hatted teenage male does not see himself in that light of noble suffering) was bound to think this promising. Thus began an experiment with microdots of ‘purple haze’, or ‘yellow sunshine’ or whatever they were called, available back in the day in almost any urban alehouse or student bar.

Consider, then, this scene: me and my mates, in the pub, sporting the era’s finest habillements: Oxford bags, teardrop collar shirts, stacked brogues, acrylic tank tops, feeling the arrival of an odd soapiness in the mouth, and looking at a swaying table littered with pints of bitter, Rizla papers like white butterflies opening and closing their wings, the tab ends uncurling in the ashtray. The floor and all horizontal surfaces began to ripple and tilt, and a hapless barman would make some innocent comment sending us into paroxysms of incongruous laughter. We were on our way to that celestial realm of wisdom Leary and, I suppose, Hesse, had promised us.

This adventure, if you could call it that, led us on a climb up the central tower of York Minster where, boggle-eyed, we perused the landscape endlessly receding for twenty miles around, and watched the two main towers of the cathedral bouncing like pistons. From there we went through town, where the radiators of passing cars snarled like the mouths of gothic ogres, to the National Railway Museum, to inspect the great steam trains that seemed to be made of shiny black leather.

After a second dose of the tiny blue tablets, the late, late night found the last of us staring at the telly and the white static that came on the screen after broadcasting had ended for the day, and the Catherine wheels and clowns, and the whizzing spaceships we saw therein, still with the capacity for endless, guts-aching hilarity (my muckers were only in it for the giggles). With the almost indiscernible withdrawal, the senses returned to their regular perspective, the unearthly laughter subsided; and so to bed, with curtains and cushions to be sold in the morning. This psychedelic warrior had not had a glimpse of the Magic Theatre, or anything remotely similar. A bum deal. Leary had sold me a pup.

I don’t know how many times, at the age of 19, I read and re-read Steppenwolf looking for… well, I don’t know what, really. But after my dalliances with LSD (probably the easiest drug never to bother with again), I set my obsession with Hesse aside and, at the age of 20, solved that central predicament of being in a dead-end job by signing up to train as a psychiatric nurse. I discovered a hitherto unimagined dimension to the world I inhabited. A big old psychiatric hospital, seemingly adrift in the social twilight, and home to the nation’s truly alienated, anguished and abandoned citizens, would have been an eye-opener for any callow youth. It was for me, and almost overnight I became a wiser person for having discovered it. Indeed, a man at last.

Thirty years later, after an unexpected, passable career as an author in my own right, and having reached, like Harry Haller – and indeed, Hesse, at the time he wrote Steppenwolf – the spuriously ‘critical’ age of forty-nine, I decided to read the novel one more time. It is a masterfully constructed fable, both esoteric and excruciatingly blunt in its portrayal of a human being in the midst of an existential crisis. Much of the book’s premise – the showing of how Harry’s misanthropic impasse might be resolved – may well have derived from Hesse’s relationship with Carl Jung (he was both a disciple and friend of the Swiss psychologist) and the mystical element of Jung’s interest in the burgeoning science of psychoanalysis. The rest may simply echo the author’s lifelong quest to understand what it means to be human and survive the ‘condition’. Hesse, who died in 1962, was every bit as tormented as Harry Haller.

On a personal level, this re-acquaintance with Steppenwolf showed me that, as an adult, I had acquired little of Harry/Hermann’s brutal introspection. Unlike them, I had no self-reproach for the life I had led: mine had been a hoot, for the most part.

Though among the regrets – there are always a few – maybe I did rue having taken that period of my youth, and Hermann Hesse, so seriously. Indeed, Hesse himself counselled against his work, especially Steppenwolf, falling into the hands of the young. Perhaps I should have heeded his warning. But who, at 19, in teardrop collar and Oxford bags, with your pals around you and, if nothing else, the laugh of a lifetime to come, wants advice like that?

Paul Sayer’s latest novel is The True Adventures of Richard Turpin, a dramatic account of Dick Turpin based on his real-life exploits.

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