Steppenwolf by Hermann Hesse (1927)

A wolf of the Steppes that had lost its way and strayed into the towns and the life of the herd, a more striking image could not be found for his shy loneliness, his savagery, his restlessness, his homesickness, his homelessness. (Steppenwolf, page 22)

Brief summary

Part one Steppenwolf was Hesse’s tenth novel. It starts in a fairly low-key, realistic style and for the first hundred or so pages is an extended exercise in self-pity, as the self-described ‘Steppenwolf’ dwells at length on his unhappiness, his broken marriage, his abandonment, loneliness and social isolation.

Part two However, about half way through the book he meets a woman, Hermine, a fun-loving dancer and courtesan at a popular local bar, and she completely turns his life around. Hermine introduces him to dancing and jazz music, providing him with a wonderfully sensuous lover (Maria) who reveals the hitherto unsuspected glories of sexual pleasure, and introducing him to a super-relaxed jazz player (Pablo), who smiles wisely, says little, and offers a variety of recreational drugs, including cocaine.

Part three And then, in the final forty pages or so, the book turns into a really delirious sequence of fantasy scenes, played out in THE MAGIC THEATRE (“For Madmen Only; Admittance Charge – Your Mind”), where each doorway opens into a new, extravagant, hallucinatory scenario.

The Magic Theatre almost certainly doesn’t exist because the sequence introducing it begins with Pablo, Hermine and the narrator sitting round in a room, after a long night dancing the night away at the town’s annual ball, drinking some of Pablo’s drug-spiked liquor and smoking drug-spiked cigarettes.

After an extraordinary series of fantasies (which include taking part in ‘the war against the machines’; reliving all the love affairs of his entire life but which, this time, are all positive, life-enhancing experiences; and meeting Mozart, who delivers a lecture about eternity and time) the novel ends without the narrative returning us to the ‘normal’ world.

One of the fantasy scenes involved our hero meeting a man sitting on the floor behind an immense chess board with many more squares than usual. This player prompts the Steppenwolf to take out of his pockets not just the two sides of his personality, but the hundreds and hundreds of aspects which Goethe and Mozart and Hermine and all the other wisdom figures in the novel have told him about. The player then arranges these avatars onto his board and plays a complex game with them. Moral: Life is just a game, it’s up to you how you play it.

And that is how the novel ends – not with the character returning sober and hungover to the ordinary, mundane reality it started in; it ends with the Steppenwolf taking up all these multiple aspects of his life, and determined ‘to begin the game afresh’, to live life in the light of everything he’s learned.

And it is this final, mad whirligig of fantasy stories – deeply mixed up with themes and ideas from the rest of the novel about suicide, death pacts, love, sex, the meaning of life, the multiple aspects of the human mind and so on – which, I think, leave a powerful, indeed bewildering impression on the reader’s mind, and whose garish extremity completely eclipses the mundane, realistic opening half of the novel.

You put it down feeling genuinely inspired, thinking, Wow, all these other lives are possible – sex and love and drugs and jazz and dancing and multiple ways of seeing not only the world, but your own life and experience – it’s all there waiting for you ‘to begin the game afresh’.

On the word ‘Steppenwolf’

The use of the single word ‘Steppenwolf’ in the English title makes it sound like a name (with distant echoes, for those of us of a certain age, of the English rock band which called itself Steppenwolf, and whose big hit was, appropriately enough, ‘Born To be Wild’).

But the title in German is The Steppenwolf, which makes it clear that the title doesn’t refer to one person’s proper name, but to a type of animal. In fact, Der Steppenwolf is German for ‘the Steppe Wolf’, also known as the Caspian Wolf, a distinct species of wolf which inhabits the steppes of southern Russia and the Caucasus.

Moreover, although the central character refers to himself as ‘the Steppenwolf’, the treatise about Steppenwolves embedded in the first part of the novel states quite clearly that there are thousands of Steppenwolves i.e. men who consider themselves part-sociable man, part-lonely, haunted wolf.

Part one – Steppenwolf’s self-pity

1. The nephew’s account

The thirty-page introduction is written in a muted, sober, naturalistic style by an unnamed youngish man. The nephew’s aunt rents out furnished rooms and one day, a few years earlier, a scruffy, nervous, 50-year-old man with short cropped hair (p.7) presents himself as a lodger. Against her nephew’s advice, the aunt lets out a bedroom and a living room to this stranger.

Over the first thirty or so pages, this nephew shares with us his impressions of the new lodger, whose name is Harry Haller. Haller refers to himself in conversation so often as ‘the Steppenwolf, that the narrator ends up using that name as well.

The nephew describes various encounters with the Steppenwolf, within his aunt’s house and sometimes in the local town, as he slowly forms an opinion about him. This is that Haller is a rebel. He doesn’t have a job but appears to have independent income. He drinks heavily and keeps anti-social hours (goes to bed late, gets up late). His bedroom is full of bottles of booze, but also of books by fashionably earnest and intense writers such as Dostoyevsky and Nietzsche, as well as photos from magazines and watercolour paintings which he himself paints.

The nephew comes to think of the Steppenwolf as a man torn between two extremes – sometimes a savage, angry, ironic loner; but at other times a perfectly sociable and civilised man, who the nephew bumps into attending a classical concert. He is defined by this tearing dichotomy in his soul.

One day the Steppenwolf packs his bags and goes. The nephew and aunt never hear from him again. But he leaves behind a manuscript diary, a sort of journal, and it is this manuscript which makes up the rest of the book, about 220 pages in my Penguin edition.

2. Harry Haller’s manuscript

The bulk of the book consists of this manuscript written by its protagonist, a middle-aged man named Harry Haller, which he leaves to the nephew when he leaves the house, and which the nephew finds himself arranging for publication and writing a short introduction to.

Broadly speaking, as described above, this manuscript is in two parts:

  1. Part one – Haller wanders the town feeling inconsolably sorry for himself
  2. Part two – Haller meets life-affirming Hermine who takes him on a whirlwind journey of self-discovery

In the first half, what comes over at great length is that the Steppenwolf is a loner, an outsider, a man who thinks his mind was made for great heights, for great achievements, who looks down on ‘ordinary’ people and the complacent comforts of the bourgeois middle classes, a man whose penetrating gaze has pierced to the heart of the human condition, no less:

The Steppenwolf’s look pierced our whole epoch, its whole overwrought activity, the whole surge and strife, the whole vanity, the whole superficial play of a shallow, opinionated intellectuality. And alas! the look went still deeper, went far below the faults, defects and hopelessness of our time, our intellect, our culture alone. It went right to the heart of all humanity, it bespoke eloquently in a single second the whole despair of a thinker, of one who knew the full worth and meaning of man’s life. It said: “See what monkeys we are! Look, such is man!” and at once all renown, all intelligence, all the attainments of the spirit, all progress towards the sublime, the great and the enduring in man fell away and became a monkey’s trick!

This is from the nephew’s account and shows the nephew falling under the Steppenwolf’s sway, and tending to see the world through the eyes of this super-clever but super-sad loner.

Yet the Steppenwolf is a conflicted man, a man of two halves, for the outcast loner also desperately yearns for all the little bourgeois comforts. He loves the tidy potted plants on the landings of the trim little boarding house, and the clean hallways, and venerates Mozart.

The Steppenwolf’s curse is that whichever mood he’s in – over-educated angst-ridden loner or polite, music-loving bourgeois – the other half of his personality consistently sabotages it. He can never be at rest.

This basic duality, and the Steppenwolf’s inability to settle his curse of being permanently at war with himself, recurs again and again, both in the nephew’s introduction and in the main text:

I saw that Haller was a genius of suffering and that in the meaning of many sayings of Nietzsche he had created within himself with positive genius a boundless and frightful capacity for pain. I saw at the same time that the root of his pessimism was not world-contempt but self-contempt; for however mercilessly he might annihilate institutions and persons in his talk he never spared himself. It was always at himself first and foremost that he aimed the shaft, himself first and foremost whom he hated and despised.

You can see why this kind of book would be a Bible to troubled teenagers and students. It perfectly captures that sense of being special, exceptional, blessed with superior wisdom and insight, of living a:

lonely, loveless, hunted, and thoroughly disorderly existence

And despising your comfortably bourgeois parents, poor drones who’ve never read Dostoyevsky or Nietzsche. Whereas you, the special soul who responds to Hesse’s book, have read the entire ‘How to be a tortured existentialist’ reading list, and so are blessed to wake up every morning feeling like a wild wanderer over the wide world, scorned of men and rejected by society.

And yet, and yet… deep down… at the same time… you don’t really want to leave home, where your mum can be relied on to do your washing and ironing and cooking and cleaning, and where there’s a nice hot meal every evening at teatime.

As Harry himself puts it:

‘But though I am a shabby old Steppenwolf, still I’m the son of a mother, and my mother too was a middle-class man’s wife and raised plants and took care to have her house and home as clean and neat and tidy as ever she could make it. All that is brought back to me by this breath of turpentine and by the araucaria, and so I sit down here every now and again; and I look into this quiet little garden of order and rejoice that such things still are.’ (p.20)

The two eras theory and ‘the sickness of our times’

The text is packed with sweeping generalisations about human nature and society, which read well but are of questionable practical use. Typical is a passage where Haller tells the nephew his theory about overlapping ages.

It interested me not because I think it’s true, but because something very like this idea of people tragically caught between two changing eras and marooned between two changing value systems underlies Hermann Broch’s immense trilogy of novels, The Sleepwalkers.

‘A man of the Middle Ages would detest the whole mode of our present-day life as something far more than horrible, far more than barbarous. Every age, every culture, every custom and tradition has its own character, its own weakness and its own strength, its beauties and ugliness; accepts certain sufferings as matters of course, puts up patiently with certain evils. Human life is reduced to real suffering, to hell, only when two ages, two cultures and religions overlap. A man of the Classical Age who had to live in medieval times would suffocate miserably just as a savage does in the midst of our civilisation. Now there are times when a whole generation is caught in this way between two ages, two modes of life, with the consequence that it loses all power to understand itself and has no standard, no security, no simple acquiescence. Naturally, every one does not feel this equally strongly. A nature such as Nietzsche’s had to suffer our present ills more than a generation in advance. What he had to go through alone and misunderstood, thousands suffer today.’

I think this is questionable as a theory of history or historical change or historical eras. But where it is a little useful is as indirect evidence of just how widespread the feeling was in Weimar Germany that society’s values had collapsed:

a whole generation is caught…between two modes of life, with the consequence that it loses all power to understand itself and has no standard, no security

This isn’t the only time the text confidently expands Haller’s feelings of confusion and unhappiness and projects them onto the whole world:

I see [Haller’s manuscript] as a document of the times, for Haller’s sickness of the soul, as I now know, is not the eccentricity of a single individual, but the sickness of the times themselves, the neurosis of that generation to which Haller belongs, a sickness, it seems, that by no means attacks the weak and worthless only but, rather, precisely those who are strongest in spirit and richest in gifts.

These records, however much or however little of real life may lie at the back of them, are not an attempt to disguise or to palliate this widespread sickness of our times. They are an attempt to present the sickness itself in its actual manifestation. They mean, literally, a journey through hell, a sometimes fearful, sometimes courageous journey through the chaos of a world whose souls dwell in darkness, a journey undertaken with the determination to go through hell from one end to the other, to give battle to chaos, and to suffer torture to the full. (p.27)

Ah, but it is hard to find this track of the divine in the midst of this life we lead, in this besotted humdrum age of spiritual blindness, with its architecture, its business, its politics, its men!

This kind of rhetoric sounds good, sounds wonderful if you’re of this kind of mindset, but means almost nothing.

Which generation has not been afflicted by a sense of collapse and confusion? We know this way of thinking was widespread among ancient Greek and Roman writers (‘O tempora, o mores’, meaning ‘Oh what times! Oh what customs!’  lamented the Roman orator Cicero in 70 BC). Anyone familiar with Anglo-Saxon or Norse literature knows that its characteristic genre is the elegy, a sense of irremediable loss of once glorious standards and values. The Middle Ages repeated these laments for a golden age, and any generation afflicted with plague (throughout the Middle Ages, Renaissance and into the early modern period) thought itself especially damned, especially punished for its sinfulness and moral laxity.

If you pick up any of the Victorian novelists or thinkers you will find them packed with laments for the collapse of civilised values (Thomas Carlyle was a leading offender, his 1829 essay Signs of The Times lamented ‘an artificial Morality, an artificial Wisdom, an artificial Society’), and most of the other Victorians lamented living in the sick world of frenetic activity which they find themselves plunged into.

In other words, this mood of lament for ‘the sickness of our times’ is one of the most consistent tropes in all Western literature, right up to and including the present day, with social media awash with laments that Donald Trump is the worst leader anywhere, ever, and the world is experiencing unprecedented horrors.

1. Actual corruption On one level the accusation is, of course, true. The grown-up, adult world is, once you’ve seen something of it, chaotic, confused and corrupt. It’s just that it’s always has been so, and young bookish men, raised on the beautifully clear and lucid works of the philosophers and poets, always end up disgusted to discover just how far short of those wonderful, inspiring works the actual world of marketing and business deals falls. The times are sick and corrupt. Thing is, they always have been.

2. Freudian interpretation Freud makes it simpler. He says everyone who thinks and writes like that is grieving for the lost certitudes of childhood, the warmth and simplicity of the nursery, when mummy and daddy protected you, and maintained a world of infant certainties, all gone, while you mope and moan about the sickness of the times.

3. A psychological interpretation And there is a third way of looking at this time-honoured trope, which is that it really boils down to saying that your times are special and that, as a result, you, the writer, and you, the reader who is aware enough to realise just how sick the times are, well, you also are special – blessed with a superior mind and perceptions but cursed, oh alackaday, to live through such a sick and chaotic era.

The hidden ‘appeal to specialness’ explains why these kinds of passages start off being about this generation or society as a whole, but have a tendency then to focus in on specially sensitive and wise individuals who are set against ‘the sickness of the times’, wise and sensitive souls who are doomed to suffer, precisely because they are so spiritual and superior and wise and noble.

You can see this tendency in the first passage I quoted which starts out lamenting whole epochs in history, and the collapse of values in our time, before moving on to worship an exception – a hero who stands out against it – in this case, Nietzsche, portrayed as an especially sensitive and prophetic soul.

And praise of Nietzsche leads, by an easy transition, into the idea that everyone who reads Nietzsche – reads and really understands Nietzsche – people like you and me dear reader, the elect, the elite, the special ones, that we are especially sensitive, what spiritual souls we are, that we, too are also condemned to suffer, suffer awfully, because of our special and superior sensitivity.

I am in truth the Steppenwolf that I often call myself; that beast astray who finds neither home nor joy nor nourishment in a world that is strange and incomprehensible to him. (p.39)

We – you and me and Nietzsche and the Steppenwolf – are not like ‘normal’ people, ‘ordinary’ people, ‘little’ people, those uninformed, ignorant, narrow-minded philistines who are happy with our fallen age, content in these sick times, quite at home in our degraded society and its paltry pleasures, those little people who, sadly, do not share our superior insights and sensitivity, and whose silly superficial pleasures we cannot lower ourselves to understand. The Steppenwolf is not slow to skewer the little people:

Among the common run of men there are many of little personality and stamped with no deep impress of fate…

I cannot understand what pleasures and joys they are that drive people to the overcrowded railways and hotels, into the packed cafés with the suffocating and oppressive music, to the Bars and variety entertainments, to World Exhibitions, to the Corsos. I cannot understand nor share these joys…

At every other step were placards and posters with their various attractions, Ladies’ Orchestra, Variété, Cinema, Ball. But none of these was for me. They were for ‘everybody’, for those normal persons whom I saw crowding every entrance…

It has always been so and always will be. Time and the world, money and power belong to the small people and the shallow people. To the rest, to the real men belongs nothing. Nothing but death…

There is much more in this vein, written in a very persuasive melodramatic style. All in all, the first half of the novel is a kind of handbook for troubled teenagers.

But to the older reader, there is also something broadly comic about this self-dramatising, self-pitying, late-Romantic pose. And it is indeed very, very Romantic – Hesse’s phraseology is often drenched in unashamed romanticism which wouldn’t have been out of place in the 1830s or the fin-de-siecle 1890s:

How I used to love the dark, sad evenings of late autumn and winter, how eagerly I imbibed their moods of loneliness and melancholy when wrapped in my cloak I strode for half the night through rain and storm, through the leafless winter landscape, lonely enough then too, but full of deep joy, and full of poetry which later I wrote down by candlelight sitting on the edge of my bed! All that was past now. The cup was emptied and would never be filled again. (p.37)

It is as helpless and self-pitying as Shelley.

Treatise on the Steppenwolf (p.51-80)

Only twenty or so pages into what purports to be Harry Haller’s manuscript, he describes following a mysterious street-seller in the midnight streets of the unnamed town where all this takes place, a man who turns and hurriedly stuffs into Harry’s hands a little book, then is gone.

When Haller looks, he sees it is A Treatise on the Steppenwolf – Not For Everyone. (Note the ‘Not For Everyone’ – here as throughout the first half of the book, the implication is that only the special ones, the sensitive ones, the élite, those who know care allowed to share these sensitivie feelings and insights.)

This turns out to be another description of Harry Haller, but presented as if written by some kind of omniscient authority, almost a naturalist. it is, in effect, the third text about him (after the nephew’s description and Harry’s own memoir) and one of the interests of the book is this multi-textuality or multi-dimensionality i.e. the differing perspectives given by a) the nephew’s account b) Haller’s manuscript c) the Treatise, and then d) the mad fantasia at the end.

The Treatise repeats the ideas of the previous sections, that the Steppenwolf is half-beast, half-man, but of a specially superior lofty type. He is explicitly compared with the greatest artists of the ages. He looks down on ordinary, ‘normal’ people.

The Steppenwolf stood entirely outside the world of convention, since he had neither family life nor social ambitions. He felt himself to be single and alone, whether as a queer fellow and a hermit in poor health, or as a person removed from the common run of men by the prerogative of talents that had something of genius in them. Deliberately, he looked down upon the ordinary man and was proud that he was not one. (p.62)

Again and again his individuality and his independence are emphasised, and we know from all his writings that these are the core values which Hesse valued:

With this was bound up his need for loneliness and independence. There was never a man with a deeper and more passionate craving for independence than he…

He was ever more independent. He took orders from no man and ordered his ways to suit no man. Independently and alone, he decided what to do and to leave undone. For every strong man attains to that which a genuine impulse bids him seek…

Overuse of the word ‘hell’

All the characters are too free and easy in describing their self-centred depression as ‘hell’. Having nursed a parent with dementia, and then cared for children with mental health issues, I now know that even when I’m feeling depressed or guilty myself, it is very very very far from ‘hell’, and nothing compared to what they were going through.

Thus I couldn’t help despising the nephew and then the Steppenwolf for throwing around this serious word so glibly, for cheapening it:

  • These records… mean, literally, a journey through hell, a sometimes fearful, sometimes courageous journey through the chaos of a world whose souls dwell in darkness, a journey undertaken with the determination to go through hell from one end to the other [no they don’t]
  • Human life is reduced to real suffering, to hell, only when two ages, two cultures and religions overlap…
  • Haller belongs to those who have been caught between two ages, who are outside of all security and simple acquiescence. He belongs to those whose fate it is to live the whole riddle of human destiny heightened to the pitch of a personal torture, a personal hell.
  • He who has known these days of hell may be content indeed with normal half-and-half days like today
  • Despising the bourgeoisie, and yet belonging to it, they add to its strength and glory; for in the last resort they have to share their beliefs in order to live. The lives of these infinitely numerous persons [the Steppenwolves] make no claim to the tragic; but they live under an evil star in a quite considerable affliction; and in this hell their talents ripen and bear fruit
  • And supposing the Steppenwolf were to succeed, and he has gifts and resources in plenty, in decocting this magic draught in the sultry mazes of his hell, his rescue would be assured.
  • And every occasion when a mask was torn off, an ideal broken, was preceded by this hateful vacancy and stillness, this deathly constriction and loneliness and unrelatedness, this waste and empty hell of lovelessness and despair, such as I had now to pass through once more.
  • How had this paralysis crept over me so slowly and furtively, this hatred against myself and everybody, this deep-seated anger and obstruction of all feelings, this filthy hell of emptiness and despair.
  • And since it appeared that I could not bear my loneliness any longer either, since my own company had become so unspeakably hateful and nauseous, since I struggled for breath in a vacuum and suffocated in hell, what way out was left me? There was none.
  • 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.

Silly man.

The rebel

In this constant sense of being an outsider, Steppenwolf has a lot in common with the writings of Albert Camus, who wrote his classic novel, The Outsider fifteen years later (and mention of Camus makes you realise he is situated smack in the middle of the tradition of literary ‘outsiders’ which flourished, more on the Continent than in England, which would include Kierkegaard and Nitzsche, just for starters.)

According to the Treatise, the numerous ‘outsiders’ of which the Steppenwolf is merely one, play a vital role in maintaining the boring bourgeois world of law and order, as explained in this typically convoluted paragraph:

The vital force of the bourgeoisie resides by no means in the qualities of its normal members, but in those of its extremely numerous “outsiders” who by virtue of the extensiveness and elasticity of its ideals it can embrace. There is always a large number of strong and wild natures who share the life of the fold. Our Steppenwolf, Harry, is a characteristic example. He who is developed far beyond the level possible to the bourgeois, he who knows the bliss of meditation no less than the gloomy joys of hatred and self-hatred, he who despises law, virtue and common sense, is nevertheless captive to the bourgeoisie and cannot escape it. And so all through the mass of the real bourgeoisie are interposed numerous layers of humanity, many thousands of lives and minds, every one of whom, it is true, would have outgrown it and have obeyed the call to unconditioned life, were they not fastened to it by sentiments of their childhood and infected for the most part with its less intense life; and so they are kept lingering, obedient and bound by obligation and service. (p.65)

It’s eloquent, isn’t it? Eloquent and articulate and very readable and plausible and yet, in my opinion, not particularly useful.

I thought of Camus because as well as this hymn to The Outsider, the Treatise also contains an extended section about Suicide and suicides and the suicide mentality (pp.58-59).

According to the Treatise, ‘suicides’ are not defined by the act itself, but by a sensibility for whom suicide is always a realistic option. They have to fight against it as the kleptomanic fights against his urge to steal everything. the thought of suicide is a constant companion and way out which pops up every time the ‘suicide-minded are blocked, frustrated, embarrassed or humiliated.

Compare and contrast Camus’ lengthy essay about suicide, The Myth of Sisyphus (1942). It’s not the specific of the ideas, it’s the fact that both writers thought it worthwhile devoting extensive though to the subject which is revealing.

The final section of the Treatise berates Harry for being so simple-minded as to think man is made up of just two souls, in his case wolf and man. Man is made up of thousands of parts and pieces, man is a kaleidoscope of confused and clashing wishes, dreams, desires, intentions, plans, moods and memories and emotions.

The author of the Treatise closes by dwelling at some length on Eastern philosophy and Buddhism for indicating the complex nature of the human soul, and how hard it is to fully own and possess it in order to transcend it and encompass the All.

Back to sad Harry

Then the Treatise ends and it’s back to sad Harry.

Granting that I had in the course of all my painful transmutations made some invisible and unaccountable gain, I had had to pay dearly for it; and at every turn my life was harsher, more difficult, lonely and perilous.

Things happen:

  • Harry wanders round town feeling sorry for himself
  • he bumps into an old acquaintance, a professor of Eastern philosophy, who invites him for dinner that evening at 8.30pm, throwing him into paroxysms and anxiety and self-loathing and, sure enough, he makes a horlicks of it by getting into an argument about a portrait of Goethe the professor and his wife have which our hero thinks is too sentimental
  • Harry storms out of their house and wanders the streets, as usual giving into thoughts of shame and guilt and suicide, eventually plunging into a noisy smoky inn
  • here he sits next to a fancy women (a prostitute?) who quickly gets his measure, within a few minutes she realises that Harry is a helpless baby who needs to be looked after, who needs mothering, who has memorised his Nietzsche and is an expert on despair and hell and inauthenticity, but doesn’t know how to talk to a girl or dance, who knows, in fact, nothing about actual life
  • Harry falls asleep at the pub table and dreams a dream of Goethe, who starts off lofty and admirable but slowly becomes more fanciful and jokey, the medal on his chest turning into flowers as he explains that one must escape time, time is an illusion, in heaven eternity is a brief moment just long enough to tell a joke (reminding the reader of the reflections about time in Siddhartha)

After a week of anxiety worthy of a 16-year-old on his first date, having washed and dressed in new finery (new shoelaces!) he returns to the Black Eagle pub and meets the pretty flirtatious slender young girl there.

For a moment she reminds him of his boyhood friend Herman and he hazards a guess that her name is Hermine, the female equivalent. She nods delightedly but who knows, she is an experienced prostitute, maybe she’s lying.

[Rereading The New Objectivity: Modern German Art in the Weimar Republic 1918-33 ed. Stephanie Barron and Sabine Eckmann (2015), I was struck by the way all the essays in it at least mention, if not make their central theme the issue of gender-bending, gender alterity and gender fluidity in Weimar Germany. the book includes numerous photos and paintings of women, especially, dressed in men’s clothing, or with slender boyish figures and bob haircuts, all of which I was reminded of in the short moment when Hermine reminds Harry of a boy. He even asks if she’s a boy, and she jokes that, yes, she might be a boy in woman’s clothing (p.127). And a lot later, towards the climax of the book, at the big town ball, Hermine arrives dressed as a man, in a gentleman’s smart suit and fools even Harry into thinking she’s a male.]

Part two – Hermine

It isn’t formally divided into a new part but in practice, from the moment he meets Hermine, the book takes on a steadily different tone. In a nutshell, Hermine teaches Harry in a hundred and one ways to stop being so self-pitying and self-centred, to come out of himself, to engage with the world, to lighten up, to live a little (the variety of phrases which spring to mind indicate how widespread this injunction has become in the English-speaking world).

Almost immediately Hermine realises that despite all his fancy learning Harry is basically a child. He needs to be mothered. I thought I’d been reasonably clever in spotting this within a page or so but she then goes on to make it super-explicit quite a few times, telling him he’s a baby and needs a mother and she’s going to mother him. She makes him swear he will obey her in all things, so there’s an echo of the mistress-slave relationship in the world of S&M, or BDSM as it’s called nowadays.

Hermine teaches Harry to dance and like jazz. Characteristically, Harry initially hates both and nurses a long-standing dislike of jazz, and is ready at the drop of a hat to pontificate about the greatness of Bach and Handel and Mozart.

[Jazz] was repugnant to me… It was the music of decline. There must have been such music in Rome under the later emperors. Compared with Bach and Mozart and real music it was, naturally, a miserable affair; but so was all our art, all our thought, all our makeshift culture in comparison with real culture…

(In an interesting footnote, Hesse makes his character dislike Beethoven and really dislike both Brahms and Wagner: by their time music had, in his opinion, become too clotted and heavy; he prefers the infinite lightness and grace of Mozart).

Anyway, this is where the saxophonist Pablo comes in. ‘A dark and good-looking youth of Spanish or South American origin’, Pablo is effortlessly cool, rarely speaks but, when the band has finished playing a set comes and sits with Hermine and Harry and listens in silence while Harry rants on about Bach and tonal colour and harmonies.

Finally Pablo breaks his silence and reveals that he knows all about Bach and counterpoint but that is not his job. He is paid to play music which makes people tap their toes, and then their legs, and get to their feet, and start dancing, and lose their inhibitions and be happy.

The text tells us that ‘A new dance, a fox trot, with the title “Yearning,” had swept the world that winter’. Here it is. This is what these wild characters are jitterbugging to, getting drunk, taking cocaine, clasping each other tightly and dancing the night away to:

Hermine may become Harry’s mistress, but she doesn’t have sex with him. That, she says, is reserved for a special day, when he has finally completely fallen in love with her. Meanwhile, Hermine fits Harry up with a gorgeous dancer at the club, Maria, sleek and sexy in her velvet dress. With her Harry rediscovers not just sex – he had sex with his wife – but a magnificent new world of sex, of all kinds of subtle sensualities, of looks and poses and aspects and ways of touching and kissing which are completely new to him.

In other words, his body is brought to life just as much as his soul. The Steppenwolf rediscovers the radical innocence of sex (p.183-4).

The book continues to be packed with ideas and issues except that now he is not mulling them over in isolation and stewing in self-pity. He gets to discuss them with Hermine, with Pablo and with Maria, all of whom shed interesting and unexpected lights on the Steppenwolf’s obsessions. Thus there is:

War An extended discussion about war – we learn that the Steppenwolf was a writer and wrote an article during the Great War calling for moderation and less hatred, and was roundly condemned by conservatives and militarists and subjected to a campaign of hate and vilification. We know from his biography that exactly the same thing happened to Hesse himself, in fact this is straight autobiography. Harry is full of foreboding that all part of sciety – politicians, journalists, business – are greedily galloping towards the next war, which will be far worse than the last. Very prophetic. In fact Hesse left Germany to live in Switzerland precisely because he was a pacifist and wanted to dissociate himself from his countrymen’s crude militarism and lust for revenge. (pp.228ff)

German intellectuals There is a damning page where Harry harshly criticises the entire German intellectual class for their ineffectiveness. (p.159)

Weimar sexuality At their very first meeting, Hermine strikes him for a moment for her boyishness, and this theme recurs for the rest of the book. At the Town Ball Hermine arrives dressed as a man. But at one of the druggy sessions with Pablo and Hermine, Harry feels someone kiss his closed eyelids and knows it’s Pablo and doesn’t mind. In fact Pablo stonedly suggests a threesome, explaining how wonderful it would be, but Harry can’t quite bring himself to go that far. On one of the occasions when Harry discusses Maria with Hermine, Hermine makes it quite clear that she knows Maria is exceptional in bed because… she’s slept with her too. You can almost feel Harry’s mind being expanded. This is an aspect of Hesse I whole-heartedly approve, his completely relaxed, candid and honest attitude to sexuality. It seems extraordinarily ahead of his time, the 1920s. Then again, it was the Weimar Republic, where anything went. (Hesse on Weimar women p.162, and bisexuality p.194, 196.)

Time and eternity For me the best thing about Siddhartha was the profound discussion of time, what it means to be trapped in time, as we all are, and what it might mean to be able to escape time. What life, or existence, would feel like if there was no time. This theme is picked up here again, and is, for me at any rate, a particularly thought-provoking aspect of Hesse’s philosophy.

Part three – The Magic Theatre

As described in my brief summary, the book processes through these successive awakening of Harry’s narcissistic and self-pitying soul – jazz, sex, dancing, flirting, sensuality, relaxing, stopping being aloof but plunging into life – before heading towards the giddy climax of the Magic Theatre.

Harry attends the annual Town Ball in the town hall which has been converted into a catacomb of entertainments, with different bands playing in different rooms. This epic night of dancing and debauchery is vividly describe, it sounds almost like a rave, he makes it sound like London nightclubs I used to go to, where you dance all night long and eventually lose yourself completely in the throng, in the great mass of pulsing bodies, leave your poor pitiful ego behind and join a larger rhythm and music.

Anyway, as dawn comes up and the last of the dancers finally stop shimmying and the band packs away its instruments, Pablo takes Harry and Hermine to a small drab room where he feeds them spiked booze and a jazz cigarette and then… takes them through a doorway and parts a plush curtain to present THE MAGIC THEATRE (“For Madmen Only; Admittance Charge – Your Mind”). It is like the curved corridor which runs behind the private boxes at a grand theatre, except that each door has a motto on it, indicating what you will experience inside, a little like Alice in Wonderland. These include:

ALL GIRLS ARE YOURS
ONE QUARTER IN THE SLOT

JOLLY HUNTING
GREAT HUNT IN AUTOMOBILES

MUTABOR
TRANSFORMATION INTO ANY ANIMAL OR PLANT YOU PLEASE

KAMASUTRAM
INSTRUCTION IN THE INDIAN ARTS OF LOVE
COURSE FOR BEGINNERS
FORTY-TWO DIFFERENT METHODS AND PRACTICES

DELIGHTFUL SUICIDE
YOU LAUGH YOURSELF TO BITS

DO YOU WANT TO BE ALL SPIRIT?
THE WISDOM OF THE EAST

DOWNFALL OF THE WEST
MODERATE PRICES. NEVER SURPASSED

COMPENDIUM OF ART
TRANSFORMATION FROM TIME INTO SPACE BY MEANS OF MUSIC

LAUGHING TEARS
CABINET OF HUMOUR

SOLITUDE MADE EASY
COMPLETE SUBSTITUTE FOR ALL FORMS OF SOCIABILITY.

GUIDANCE IN THE BUILDING UP OF THE PERSONALITY
SUCCESS GUARANTEED

And so Harry indulges in some of them – namely the car hunting one which is set in a future war between machines (cars) and men – All Girls Are Yours in which he relives every feeling and encounter he’s had with a girl or woman except that they all turn into beautiful love affairs instead of occasions for frustration and anger. Then he goes through the door marked:

MARVELLOUS TAMING OF THE STEPPENWOLF

Which isn’t such a good idea because he sees both man and wolf being pitifully tamed and humiliated.

He meets the chessplayer with a super-sized board who explains to Harry that he has not two but two thousand aspects to his soul and proceeds to play vast super-complex chess games with them, demonstrating to Harry that Life is a Game. Make of it what you will.

Finally he is back in the corridor and the next door he sees bears a sign:

HOW ONE KILLS FOR LOVE

This needs explaining. At several moments during their conversations, Hermine had explained to Harry that he must obey her in all things, up to and including the final one – she will command him to kill her. I wasn’t happy with this idea, since it seemed to me to take us back into the melodramatic, late-Romantic world of the Steppe Wolf, but here it is.

In fact before anything happens, Harry sees himself in a vast floor-to-ceiling mirror and sees a wolf. He reaches into his pocket and finds a knife. Ah. Mack the Knife, weapon of choice for the Weimar murderer. In a weird (it’s all beyond weird) twist, Harry ends meeting Mozart and has a lengthy conversation with him about art and music and time and eternity.

But Mozart laughs the cold, icy laughter of eternity, of those who have transcended time and Harry finds himself entering a room to find the naked bodies of Pablo and Hermine sleeping side by side as if after sex.

Beautiful, beautiful figures, lovely pictures, wonderful bodies. Beneath Hermine’s left breast was a fresh round mark, darkly bruised – a love bite of Pablo’s beautiful, gleaming teeth. There, where the mark was, I plunged in my knife to the hilt. The blood welled out over her white and delicate skin. I would have kissed away the blood if everything had happened a little differently. As it was, I did not. I only watched how the blood flowed and watched her eyes open for a little moment in pain and deep wonder. What makes her wonder? I thought. Then it occurred to me. that I had to shut her eyes. But they shut again of themselves. So all was done. She only turned a little to one side, and from her armpit to her breast I saw the play of a delicate shadow. It seemed that it wished to recall something, but what I could not remember. Then she lay still.

Pablo stir and is not greatly upset by what has happened. Maybe because it hasn’t happened. Mozart reappears and laughs at Harry’s stricken guilt. he says Harry must learn to laugh, too. All humour is gallows humour because we are all on the brink of the grave. Harry must learn the laughter of the gods of the immortals, a cold glacial laugh of eternity.

HARRY’S EXECUTION

The final scene is Harry’s trial, where he is convicted of the murder of Hermine but, in an unexpected twist, the court sentences him to live and laugh him out of the court.

At which point Mozart and the court disappear and Harry is talking to Pablo. Pablo, in his wise understated way, is a little disappointed with Harry for bringing the mud of reality and passion into his Magic Theatre but forgives him. None of it is real. The figure of Hermine appears as a toy, a little model. Could things be more trippy?

He took Hermine who at once shrank in his fingers to the dimensions of a toy figure and put her in the very same waistcoat pocket from which he had taken the cigarette. Its sweet and heavy smoke diffused a pleasant aroma. I felt hollow, exhausted, and ready to sleep for a whole year.

I understood it all. I understood Pablo. I understood Mozart, and somewhere behind me I heard his ghastly laughter. I knew that all the hundred thousand pieces of life’s game were in my pocket. A glimpse of its meaning had stirred my reason and I was determined to begin the game afresh. I would sample its tortures once more and shudder again at its senselessness. I would traverse not once more, but often, the hell of my inner being. One day I would be a better hand at the game. One day I would learn how to laugh. Pablo was waiting for me, and Mozart too.

Those are the book’s final words, the final words of the manuscript the Steppenwolf left with the nephew and which he promised to publish way back at the start of what is, physically, quite a short book, but one which feels like it’s taken us on a trip right around the universe of human possibilities.

Conclusion

I spent a lot of energy ridiculing the morbid self-pity of the lead character in the first half of the book, only to realise by the end that this was a narrative strategy, that Hesse took the maudlin self-pity he himself was prone too, especially after his second marriage collapsed in the 1920s, and blew it up out of all proportion… in order to make the character’s transformation all the more vivid and memorable.

So the real interest of the book is in the way the Steppenwolf is humanised, literally brought to Life and instructed in how to Live it and Enjoy it, by the beneficent guidance of Hermine, the hermaphrodite healer. The journey is packed with weird and wonderful scenes involving Goethe and Mozart, discussions of suicide and time and eternity and human nature and music and sex, it is a gallimaufrey of intensely felt ideas and insights.

And then the final forty pages take it to a different level altogether, a mad science fiction / horror / drug trip fantasy which in its combination of weirdness and philosophy does something hardly any other book I’ve ever read manages.

What an incredible book!

Credit

Der Steppenwolf by Herman Hesse was published in 1927. This translation by Basil Creighton was published in 1929. All references are to the 1973 Penguin paperback edition.


Related links

20th century German literature

  • The Tin Drum by Günter Grass (1959)

The Weimar Republic

German history

Under Cover: A Secret History Of Cross-Dressers @ the Photographers’ Gallery

The Photographer’s Gallery is a tall, narrow building on a corner of Ramillies Street (numbers 16-18, to be precise) just behind Oxford Street, a hundred yards east of Oxford Circus. It’s an enjoyable maze, with exhibition spaces on the 5th, 4th and 3rd floors, a café on the ground floor and a shop of photography books and film cameras in the basement.

Under Cover: A Secret History Of Cross-Dressers

I came to see the large exhibition of rare vintage photos of men and women cross-dressing, entitled Under Cover.

The exhibition is drawn from the personal archives of French film-maker and photograph collector Sébastien Lifshitz. For over 20 years he’s been building up an extensive collection of amateur photographs from Europe and the US documenting the surprisingly widespread practice of adult cross-dressing. The very earliest photos are from the 1860s and the collection goes on through to the 1960s.

Man in makeup wearing a ring. Photograph from a photo booth, with highlights of color. United States, circa 1920.© Sébastien Lifshitz Collection courtesy of Sébastien Lifshitz and The Photographers’ Gallery

Man in makeup wearing a ring. Photograph from a photo booth, with highlights of color. United States, circa 1920.© Sébastien Lifshitz Collection courtesy of Sébastien Lifshitz and The Photographers’ Gallery

The photos are all ‘found’ – meaning none were commissioned or taken by Lifshitz, but are largely anonymous photos of unnamed and unknown figures which he has picked up at flea markets, garage sales, junk shops and on Ebay, among other non-specialist sources. As the exhibition introduction puts it:

These photographs of men and women posing for the camera, using the clothes and gestures traditionally assigned to the ‘opposite sex’ offer a moving and candid view into the hidden worlds of countless individuals and groups who chose to ‘defy gender conventions.’

Lifshitz’s initial impulse was simply to document the act of cross-dressing, limiting his aim to accumulating photographs which showed men dressing as women and vice versa.

But as the collection grew, he began to detect different themes among the images, themes which began to suggest more interesting ways of categorising and explaining cross-dressing culture.

A group of 12 cross-dressing women in America, 1912

A group of twelve cross-dressing women in America, 1912

The historical prevalence of cross-dressing

I’m not all that surprised that lots of men have enjoyed dressing up as women because I was raised on the TV sitcoms It Ain’t Half Hot, MumThe Dick Emery Show and the Kenny Everett Show in which men routinely dressed up as women, albeit for comedic purposes.

Drag queen Danny La Rue was all over the telly in my boyhood. He was awarded an OBE. Later on came the popular success of Lily Savage and the ongoing career of her creator, Paul O’Grady, who was awarded an MBE in 2008. Somewhere in between was Julian Clary who dresses fairly modestly now but was on TV throughout the 1980s wearing in the most outrageous outfits.

As a teenager I read biographies of Oscar Wilde and his gay circle which included cross-dressers. Also accounts of the ‘decadent’ Paris of the Second Empire or the ‘decadent’ Germany of the Weimar Republic, where men dressed as woman, wore lipstick and so on, and women wore men’s clothes, smoked cigarettes. And so on and so on.

In fact it’s a strange thing about the present generation of art curators that they sometimes give the impression of thinking that they’ve invented ‘deviant’ sex – homosexuality, bisexuality and all manner of other sexual practices – as if all these things are somehow new or can ‘only now’ be brought to public attention. This ‘now it can be told’ tone was also apparent in the recent exhibitions of Queer Art at Tate Britain and Outsider Art (featuring plenty of transvestites and transsexuals) at the Barbican.

As if there aren’t records of this kind of thing happening among the ancient Greeks or among the Romans, as if we don’t have records of it in Hindu and Moghul societies, as if Shakespeare’s comedies aren’t packed with cross-dressing gender ambivalence, or as if playing with gender roles hasn’t even been recorded among tribal societies. My point is that there is good evidence for so-called ‘deviant’ sexuality having been a permanent feature of the human race for as long as we have records.

  • From Sappho to Sand: Historical Perspective on Crossdressing and Cross Gender (1981) This paper reviews the history of cross-dressing, commencing with the Great Mother Cult through the Greco-Roman period and Judeo-Christian times, followed by the Renaissance period up to the 19th century to illustrate that cross-gender behaviour and cross-dressing are not new phenomena but have been present since the beginning of recorded history.

What, I suppose, is new about this treasure trove of material which Sébastien Lifshitz has collected is not the fact of extensive cross-dressing – it is that it has been so extensively documented in photographs.

The photographs provide a treasure trove of incontrovertible visual evidence, as opposed to all previous accounts which are based on the more slender and unreliable evidence of written records, anecdote, autobiography etc.

What photography does that written journalism or history or ethnography can’t is to say Here we are: we were real people, we had lives like you, we were short and tall and fat and thin and had freckles and spots and imperfections, we were flesh and blood like you and this is what we liked to do. You can’t deny or block or repress us. We were here and this world is our world, too.

Themes and chapters

The most interesting thing about the exhibition is not the news that for hundreds of years men have liked dressing up as women and women dressing up as men. That in itself is boring. What I found fascinating was the themes or areas into which Lifshitz divides his material.

There are about a dozen of them, each introduced by a lengthy wall label and they are as well-ordered and thoughtful as the chapters of a book.  They include ‘the New Woman’, cross-dressing in prison camps, cross-dressing in cabarets and vaudeville, the phenomenon of ‘drag queens’, cross-dressing in turn-of-the-century in American universities, in circus and travelling shows, and many more.

Cross-dressing prisoners of war

It’s the specificity of many of these sub-sets which grabs the attention. Thus anyone who didn’t realise there is a great deal of homosexual activity in any army is naive, but a wall of photos here demonstrate the existence of cross-dressing cabarets in prisoner of war camps during both the First and Second World Wars, surely a very specialised category of activity and image. It is extraordinary that prisoners were allowed to take photos of each other dressed up, and that so many of these images have survived.

French prisoners of war in the German camp Königsbrück circa 1915 © Sébastien Lifshitz Collection. Courtesy of Sébastien Lifshitz and The Photographers’ Gallery

French prisoners of war in the German prisoner of war camp Königsbrück circa 1915 © Sébastien Lifshitz Collection. Courtesy of Sébastien Lifshitz and The Photographers’ Gallery

Not a job for a woman

A section deals with the backlash against the ‘New Woman’, a term coined to describe a new vogue for independent and assertive (generally upper-class) women in the 1890s.

The usual type of panic-stricken cultural conservative predicted that if women started taking up masculine habits and activities they would soon stop menstruating, become infertile and Western civilisation would grind to a halt. You can read this kind of thing in any number of histories of feminism.

Lifshitz has found various photos which are designed as a satire on this fashion. They show women posing in the costumes of traditionally ‘male’ roles (the army etc) and are designed to show how ridiculous it is for women to do the work of men – but done in a comically stylish way which suggests the photographer was taking the mickey out of the conservative critics as much as the women. The sequence is titled ‘Women of the Future’.

Women of the Future © Sébastien Lifshitz Collection. Courtesy of Sébastien Lifshitz Collection and The Photographers’ Gallery

Women of the Future © Sébastien Lifshitz Collection. Courtesy of Sébastien Lifshitz Collection and The Photographers’ Gallery

It’s a tiny window on the past and its popular prejudices, but also shows photographers and their audience quite capable of joking about the subject, about traditional gender roles and their ‘subversion’.

Cross-dressing weddings

Apparently, cross dressing was fairly common on women-only university campuses in America in the last decades of the nineteenth century. There were clubs in which women could openly wear mannish dress. What I’d never heard of before is that there was a fashion for carrying out wedding ceremonies with an all-female cast, many of whom – well, at least the groom – were dressed as men.

Mock wedding, United States, circa 1900 © Sébastien Lifshitz Collection. Courtesy of Sébastien Lifshitz Collection and The Photographers’ Gallery

Mock wedding, United States, circa 1900 © Sébastien Lifshitz Collection. Courtesy of Sébastien Lifshitz Collection and The Photographers’ Gallery

Were these a preparation for ‘adult’ life and marriage, or an odd fashion, or a satire on heterosexual norms?

The more of these sub-sets or sub-types of cross-dressing which Lifshitz presents, the more you realise that this apparently simple topic in fact covers or brings together a surprisingly diverse range of activities, attitudes and motives.

The nineteenth century growth of bourgeois conformity

Just to step back and remind ourselves of a little social history. The mid- and later-19th century saw a hardening of gender roles and stereotypes, and a concomitant a loss of psychological and sexual flexibility.

The flamboyant costumes which men commonly wore in the 16th, 17th and 18th century and which had endured into the Regency society which young princess Victoria grew up in – all those silks, ribbons, ruffs and bows – were steadily dropped as the century progressed in favour of increasingly plain, black, stiff and constricting clothes for men, and absurdly big, complex skirts with baffles and corsets, for women.

One of the complaints against Tory Party leader and Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli was that he dressed, oiled his hair and perfumed himself like the fashionable dandy which he’d been in the 1830s, long into the 1870s when such looks and behaviour had become frowned upon.

It is only in this particular historical context, in the setting of an increasingly ‘bourgeois’ concern for strict conformity to repressive social appearances, that all manner of previous types of ‘dressing up’ increasingly came to be seen as unfashionable, then undesirable, and then began to be perceived as a threat to social norms and conventions.

Why did all this happen? The conventional explanation is that the industrial revolution made life harder, more embattled and more intense for everyone, and that this was reflected in increasingly repressive cultural and social norms.

In the 18th century there had been the landowner who occasionally came up to Town and saw a small circle of bankers or courtiers, but mostly lived in reasonable agreement with the labourers who worked his land.

All this changed and kept on changing relentlessly throughout the 19th century as the new system of factories and industrialisation swept across the country. This turned rural labourers into an embittered and impoverished urban proletariat living in hastily thrown up terraced hovels, who periodically threatened to march on London or overthrow the entire political order.

In parallel was created a new class of arriviste factory owners who took advantage of their new-found wealth to try to and compete with the land-owning aristocracy in terms of lifestyle and attitude, but nervously aware of the fragility of their wealth and status.

All the classes of Britain felt more threatened and insecure. Britain had more wealth than ever before, but for many (many businessmen, factory owners and the bankers who served them) their wealth was more precarious that the wealth generated from land – as demonstrated by successive economic depressions and banking crashes through the later 19th century. These periodic economic depressions led to the steady sequence of violent socialist revolutions on continental Europe (for example, in France in 1848 and 1870) which put the fear of God into the English bourgeoisie.

In this socio-economic context, culture was permeated by a permanent anxiety, a dread that the existing state of affairs could easily collapse, from any number of causes. (I haven’t mentioned the dark cloud of anxiety created by the writings of Thomas Malthus who speculated that, if unchecked, the poorest of the poor would breed like rabbits and swamp society in illiterate thugs – yet another source for the widespread conviction that the uncontrollable sex instinct must be bridled, restricted and channelled into only the most strict, state-endorsed practices.)

And so the upper sections of society policed their own behaviour with ever-increasing anxiety that any lapse from the impeccably high standards of behaviour they set themselves might be it, the crack, the first tremor of the great social apocalypse they all feared.

The stress and anxiety about sexual deviation which had built up throughout the century into a permanent neurosis helps to explain the viciousness of the gaol sentence given to Oscar Wilde for homosexual behaviour (two years hard labour) since the judge and his class felt that an example must be made to terrify all other homosexuals into abandoning a practice which, according to their history books, had accompanied the decline and fall of the Roman Empire.

Imperial dressing up

Speaking of empires, it might be illuminating to take a detour to the big exhibition about the British Empire and Artists which Tate Britain held a few years ago.

This had a section about imperialists dressing up. It made the point that throughout the 18th century and the first half of the nineteenth century, British men, in particular, had a fancy for ‘going native’ and dressing up in the costumes of their colonial subjects. Take, for example, this image of Captain Colin Mackenzie of the Madras Army, wearing traditional Afghan Dress, by the painter James Sant (1842).

Captain Colin Mackenzie of the Madras Army, lately a hostage in Caubool, in his Afghan Dress (1842) by James Sant

Captain Colin Mackenzie of the Madras Army, lately a hostage in Caubool, in his Afghan Dress (1842) by James Sant (Tate Britain)

But the Indian Mutiny (or the First War of Independence as Indian historians call it) of 1857 changed all this. It introduced a new note of bitterness between ruler and ruled. After the British Government took over direct rule of India from the East India Company it enforced far more strict divisions between ‘natives’ and their colonial masters, divisions which, within a generation, had hardened into unbreakable taboos.

My point is that it wasn’t only in the realm of ‘sexuality’ that people (generally well-off, well-educated people) who had once felt free to dress up as natives or women or generally amuse themselves in fancy costumes, felt themselves, in the second half of the nineteenth century, increasingly constricted in all aspects of their behaviour. It became wise to keep quiet about their little hobby or fetish.

The strictness of the taboo reflected the profundity of the anxiety – the anxiety widespread among the ruling, law-making and judging classes that one millimetre of flexibility around these issues of ‘correct’ behaviour would open cracks and fissures, which would quickly see all the ‘civilised’ values of society snap and unravel, the natives throw off their imperial masters, the great mass of impoverished proles rise up and overthrow their frock-coated masters – just as the barbarians had overthrown Rome once it abandoned the high moral principles of the republic and declined into the Tiberius-Caligula-Nero decadence of the empire.

Dressing up, wearing lipstick – isn’t that precisely what the Emperor Nero had done!

More cross-dressing

Back to the exhibition, which continues to entertain and provoke by demonstrating the wide variety of meanings cross dressing can have.

Transvestite entertainers

Take the enormous subject of cross-dressing entertainers. The wall label usefully distinguishes between men dressing as women to entertain and the far more flamboyant tradition of burlesque, which is characterised not just by women dressing as men, but by the outrageous exaggeration of ‘female’ qualities of grandstanding, elaborate dress, vamped-up make-up and so on.

The exhibition has several sets of photos of entertainers from way back at the start of the 20th century, showing how simple, naive and innocent an activity men dressing as women can seem.

Five performers on a platform. Albumen print, Hungary, circa 1900 © Sébastien Lifshitz Collection. Courtesy of Sébastien Lifshitz Collection and The Photographers’ Gallery

Five performers on a platform. Albumen print, Hungary, circa 1900 © Sébastien Lifshitz Collection. Courtesy of Sébastien Lifshitz Collection and The Photographers’ Gallery

It describes the different forms these entertainments took in different countries, from vaudeville, burlesque and music hall at the turn of the century, on to nightclubs and revue bars between the wars.

But the sweet innocence of the turn-of-the-century is a world away, in style, glamour and bombast, from the really outrageously flamboyant cross-dressing entertainers of the 1950s onwards, a hugely popular form of entertainment in post-War Germany and France, which in England was named ‘drag’ – hence ‘drag queens’ – which continued in English popular entertainment down to my day.

Straight or gay?

Not all these men need have been gay. Many cross-dressers have been happily heterosexual but just enjoyed dressing up as women. There is, quite obviously and supported by the evidence here, a spectrum of cross-dressing behaviours and motivations, from essentially straight men who just liked slipping into a comfortable floral dress and putting on a bit of lippy – all the way to the experience of transgender men who feel from puberty or even earlier that they are inhabiting a body of the wrong gender, and so have gone to various lengths to try and transition to the other gender.

Transgender

On this theme of tansgender – the story of Marie-Pierre Pruvot (born Jean-Pierre Pruvot, 11 November 1935) takes up a couple of walls but is well worth it.

Born a male in Algeria, Marie-Pierre became a French transsexual woman who performed under the stage name ‘Bambi’. Bambi was famous enough by 1959 to be the subject of a TV documentary. When her performing days were over she studied for a degree from the Sorbonne and became a teacher of literature in 1974.

There are several walls full of photos of her here because Lifshitz made an award-winning documentary about her in 2013. There’s no doubting that in her prime she was gorgeous, in that glamorous late 50s, early 60s way.

Bambi (Marie-Pierre Pruvot) in the early 1960s

Bambi (Marie-Pierre Pruvot) in the early 1960s

Bambi undertook her own gender reassignment in an amateur way, buying over the counter hormones, until she had enough money to arrange an operation and help from medical professionals. There are several photos of her nude showing well-formed ‘female’ breasts. She didn’t just want to dress as a woman; she wanted to become a woman.

My point is that the transgender experience of wanting to become another sex is completely different:

  • from the heterosexual who likes dressing up as the opposite sex, for a while, as a hobby or fetish
  • from the homosexual who is likewise happy in his or her own skin, but as part of their character or as occasional role-playing likes dressing mannishly or femininely
  • from the homosexual who makes a living as a flamboyant drag queen

The Washington cross-dressers

Off to one side is a room which exhibits what seem to be the photos taken and shared among a network of rather boring, homely men who lived in 1950s Washington D.C., and who liked to dress up as rather boring, homely women and meet up at each other’s houses for parties – as recorded in a trove of photos Lifshitz has come into possession of and puts on display here.

Nothing loud or garish about it. The opposite. Rather humdrum. ‘Hello Mr Peters’, ‘Hello Mr Philips’ – except that the men passing the time of the day are wearing tasteful 1950s dresses with matching handbags.

Washington cross-dressers © Sébastien Lifshitz Collection. Courtesy of Sébastien Lifshitz Collection and The Photographers’ Gallery

Washington cross-dressers © Sébastien Lifshitz Collection. Courtesy of Sébastien Lifshitz Collection and The Photographers’ Gallery

This sequence immediately reminded me of the section at the Barbican exhibition about the Casa Susanna, a retreat in the Catskill Mountains of New York state, created solely for cross-dressing men.

The more you look, the more you see.

Women dressing as men

As to women dressing as men, some were famous lesbians who made a point of their mannish attire – I can think of a number of Weimar portraits of such aggressively masculine women who cultivated a louche bohemian image.

Portrait of the journalist Sylvia von Harden by Otto Dix (1926)

Portrait of the journalist Sylvia von Harden by Otto Dix (1926)

But for everyone one of these ‘notorious’ literary or artistic figures, there must have been thousands of essentially ‘straight’ women at American campuses who enjoyed dressing up as men (apparently). And then millions and millions of women who were in no way homosexual but just rebelled against wearing the ridiculously encumbering outfits society had assigned to their gender at the turn of the twentieth century, and so – without ceasing to be heterosexual women – just wore more practical, less ‘feminine’ clothes.

What I’m struggling to say is that, the more you look at these photos and the more you study Lifshitz’s fascinating wall labels which draw distinctions and categories and types and flavours of cross-dressing, the more you realise that this apparently ‘simple’ activity has in fact been carried out by a staggeringly wide variety of people, over a long period of time, and for all kinds of reasons, from trivial game-playing to profound identity crisis, from student high jinks to being the basis for a prime-time television career.

The photos

The long section on Bambi is a bit of a spoiler, really, because not many of the other people on display here are quite as drop-dead gorgeous as her.

In this respect the photos serve as a reminder (like most other collections of historic photos) of the way in which sitters for photographs (and the photographers themselves) have become steadily more savvy, more stylish, more self-aware, from the embarrassing lumpishness of 1900 –

Burlesque comedian Crun-Crun in Avignon, France, 1900, courtesy of Sebastien Lifshitz and The Photographers’ Gallery

Burlesque comedian Crun-Crun in Avignon, France, 1900, courtesy of Sebastien Lifshitz and The Photographers’ Gallery

to the knowing, rebel fagginess of the 1960s.

Man dressed as a woman, Mannheim, Germany, c.1960, courtesy of Sebastien Lifshitz and The Photographers’ Gallery

Man dressed as a woman, Mannheim, Germany, c.1960, courtesy of Sebastien Lifshitz and The Photographers’ Gallery

This latter photograph could have been taken today, a reminder that the world changed out of all recognition in the 60 years from 1900 to 1960, from the Boer War to the Beatles, whereas in the sixty years since then most aspects of culture – sex and drugs and rock and roll, package holidays, blockbuster movies and the ‘rebel’ look – have remained surprisingly static.

Interview with Sébastien Lifshitz

P.S. Size isn’t everything

Contrary to the impression given by the reproductions above, all of the images are quite small, certainly none of them are poster-size or painting size. The biggest ones are postcard-size being themselves old prints made from photographic film in the old-fashioned way.

Some are even smaller than that – there are whole walls of images no more than a few inches wide: for example, the iconic image of the man wearing lipstick at the top of this review is in reality only a few inches across and you have to lean right in to see it properly.

Installation view of Under Cover at the Photographers' Gallery (photo by the author)

Installation view of Under Cover at the Photographers’ Gallery (photo by the author)

Somehow this makes the images seem all the more rare and precious. Not commercially-made images capable of being blown up and sensationalised, but hundreds of small, often intimate, snapshots of secret lives, secret pleasures, secret wishes and secret fantasies, preserved in this fragile format to come back and haunt our brasher, more loudmouth age.

P.S. Floof yourself

A room to one side of the exhibition contains a big fabric blob covered in felt stick-on glasses, beards, moustaches and so on. To quote the instructions:

“Soof the Floof is a genderless, gelatinous, hairy little blob. This installation invites visitors to question ideas of gender, how wear gender, how we can subvert, deconstruct and reimagine gender. Soof the Floof is large felt Floof with felt props you can mix and match and playfully challenge ideas of gender.”

The room was empty. Shame. I’d have liked to watch some gender subversion in action.

Instructions on how to floof yourself

Instructions on how to floof yourself


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