The Babysitting Bachelor as Aryan Avatar:
James J. O'Meara
Clifton Webb in Sitting Pretty, Part 2
The Myth: Mr. Belvedere as Krishna
“Whenever there is a decline of righteousness, and the rise of unrighteousness, then I re-incarnate myself to teach dharma.”
—Bhagavad Gita, Chapter IV, Verse 7
Tacey King: Mr. Belvedere, you dance divinely!
Lynn Belvedere: Yes, I do.
Over and above all this, there are still some other, even stranger things going on in this movie. I think its original, and ongoing appeal, such as it is, also arises from the no doubt unconscious, but therefore all the more interesting, echoes of Traditionalist themes, especially from the Bhagavad Gita. As we finally get around to going through the storyline in some detail, I’ll point out some features not commonly associated with 1940s screwball comedies, and with any luck you’ll come to see the comparison is not that far-fetched.
There are two reasons to think Belvedere is Krishna: what he is, and what he does. Let’s go back to the movie and see how these play out in the storyline.
The King Family – that it, the King’s Family – is in disorder! Henry King is, as we’ve already noted, a king in name only; his children run wild, his dog jumps on his back, and he is forced to all but kowtow to his boss, including taking his wife to his boring bridge evenings, necessitating the hiring of a babysitter.
The first clue that Belvedere is may be their Avatar, or Redeemer, after his announcement that he is a “genius,” is that his imperious instructions about room and board include the information that he is a vegetarian, and that the rooms will be acceptable, once he “removes some items.” The next morning, the hallway is filled with the comfy furniture and knick-knacks that Tacey brought in to make expected babysitter feel at home.
The room is now an ascetic cell, and when the couple enters after hearing no reply to their knock, Belvedere is discovered to be standing on his head. He apologizes for ignoring them; when practicing Yoga, he is “completely out of this world; I neither see nor hear a thing.” (We recall his earlier comment that Harry’s absence when he arrives is “a matter of complete indifference to me.”) Harry concludes he is “weird.”
The audience would likely agree. In 1948, yoga was still the province of side-shows and fakirs at best, con men and sex-cults at worst. While, as we’ve said, modern audiences are horrified by the breakfast scene that follows, but find “yoga for kids” wonderful and “progressive,” contemporary audiences would have been more concerned by what follows it: Belvedere begins to instruct the children in yoga, the post-War equivalent of being recruited into the Manson Family, or at least Scientology.
There follows the breakfast table scene we’ve already looked at, which convinces the Kings to keep on Belvedere (or “give him a whirl” as Henry thinks). After instructing the children to chew their food exactly 28 times (another popular “health food” gimmick) the baby throws cereal on him. Belvedere dumps the bowl on his head, and announces to the parents:
“I have taught him an object lesson, and as you can see, he doesn’t like it. I guarantee he will never throw cereal at me or anyone else again. Ever!”
And Harry is convinced Belvedere is just what they need, since “He’s done that to me too.”
Belvedere is the first one, though, to have had the gumption to reply in kind. He’s taught the boy, and the onlookers, a lesson about Karma, the inevitable linkage of cause and effect, action and appropriate reaction, just as, earlier in the scene, he insisted Harry had no choice but to keep him on, once he responded to Tacey’s ad:
“I am perfectly willing to carry out my end of our agreement; I see no reason you should default on yours.”
The scene is book-ended by two remarkably explicit exchanges, first:
Lynn Belvedere: I am, in my way, a philosopher.
Harry King: Oh, I see, you just sit and think.
Lynn Belvedere: Mr. King, if more people just sat and thought, the world might not be in the stinking mess that it is.
Harry King: You’ve got something.
Lynn Belvedere: I couldn’t agree with you more, Mr. King. You might even say I have . . . everything.
What we see, in short, is that Belvedere is a philosopher who, by “just sitting,” has acquired everything. The furious activity of the world leaves it in a stinking mess, whilst the frantic King Family truly possesses nothing — it’s the American Nightmare of “work hard to afford to buy a commodified form of what you gave up and can never have the time to enjoy.”
While Harry ignorantly thinks he’ll give Belvedere “a whirl,” Belvedere will bring order to the King Family, by teaching them to stop whirling around “doing” things and instead just sit and think. He begins with the children; in the next scene, Harry arrives home and finds them not running around carousing in the driveway, but in the garage, practicing “yogi” headstands.
Inside the house, everything is “under control,” the children “good as gold” (the Platonic ruling caste and the alchemical goal), appliances fixed, and dog fully trained (Belvedere “had a talk with him” like many popular “dog whisperers” today). We also notice for the first time, since the name is repeatedly used, that the dog is named Henry. Who names a dog after himself? Anyway, this Henry is trained — the other one, and his wife, are next.
We’ve seen that Belvedere is an ascetic philosopher – really, a gymnosophist, as the Greeks called the Indian holy men – who practices yoga and teaches it as a technique to induce harmonious relations with children and animals. As the movie goes on, and shifts to the adults, we get a more detailed idea of how Belvedere’s Yoga works its magic, which makes my identification of him as Krishna more plausible.
In the Bhagavad-Gita Krishna describes and praises many forms of Yoga, but reserves his undivided endorsement, of course, to that form in which the devotee abandons concern with the fruits of action and concentrates their attention on Him alone (mat-manāḥ, “always-me-thoughted” as the Sanskrit language delightfully puts it). Concern for results, and for impressing others, falls away.
While traditionally such teaching addresses situations of grave spiritual crisis, such as Arjuna’s despair at the apparent conflict between his warrior’s duty and his filial piety, this movies does not try to present an updated version in modern Manhattan, as Salinger would a few years later in Franny and Zooey. As Alan Watts pointed out, such “metaphysical” notions are really “rockily practical,” and the movie wisely stays on the level of domestic disorder.
For paradoxically, action undertaken without concern for results becomes more, not less, effective, for:
Yogah karmasu kaushalam, Krishna uvacha.
Yoga is skill in action, Krishna says.
Like Krishna, Belvedere has answered the call and arrived to restore order, through his Yoga of non-action (“just sitting,” like the Taoist wu-wei), activated by capturing the attention of the family through his imperious charisma, distracting them from goals and the expectations of others.
Another paradox: just as action is easier, more successful, when unconcerned with results, so the object of devotion grows more attractive the less he responds, as writers from Aristotle (the unmoved mover) to Baron Evola (the resolute, upright individual who attracts rather than pursues spiritual influences) to the theorists of “game” in today’s “Manosphere” have observed.
If all this sounds a little “furrin,” then it should be noted that the same, or largely similar, doctrine can be found in the West, specifically the great Neoplatonist, Plotinus. As Brian Hines notes, Plotinus:
[T]urns upside down one of the most widely accepted tenets of modern culture: that action is the key to success in life. [Kindle loc. 2197]
We think the answer is to concentrate more and more on ourselves, our desires, our clever plans, rather than on the One who knows all and is all and thus really does all:
Plotinus “advise[s] us to shun the role most people long to play, albeit unconsciously, but are terribly unqualified for: Master of the Universe. . . . [W]e do our best to be mini-masters of our mini-universes, an exhausting, frustrating, unfulfilling and ultimately impossible task. We try to create order in our lives but messiness always seeps in around the edges of the little personal islands of peace and harmony we keep trying to construct in the midst of a larger cruel world.” [loc. 2126]
Belvedere will concern himself with these “little islands of peace and harmony” that the Kings have tried to set up, without success. As with Krishna, what’s needed is, ironically, to stop acting, to step back, step away, and . . . just contemplate the One:
“The problem . . . is [that] effective creation requires concentrated contemplation. . . . Most of us, unfortunately, lack the willpower to focus so attentively on what we desire to achieve or create.” [loc. 2135]
And as we shall see more in a moment, the main problem is that rather than contemplating, they are worried about results, and especially, making an impression on others, thus losing the single-pointed focus — Pater’s “hard, gem-like flame” that is “success in life”:
. . . when they propose to act . . . it is because they want their act to be perceived by others [Plotinus, Enneads III-8-4; Hines, loc. 2217]
Belvedere introduces himself as a genius, but we see he is more than some theoretical nerd, like Sheldon Cooper of The Big Bang Theory. Rather than being socially and physically inept, Belvedere is a master of many disciplines, a “jack of all trades.” No wonder he thought himself qualified to answer an ad for a live-in babysitter. Pressed by Harry for a profession, he deigns to call himself a philosopher, which Harry glosses as someone who “just sits and thinks,” but Belvedere immediately sets him straight: it is the key to restoring order to the world!
How does just sitting lead to such technical mastery? Of course, Belvedere does not literally just sit; he stands on his head in the mornings, and always takes a walk after dinner. And he insists that the only thing he hasn’t been is an idler or slacker.
Let’s get back to the movie, where we can see these themes play out.
The real charm, and advantage, of the path of bhakti, or devotion, is that it is also easier than the others, especially easier, because more natural (in the sense of “appropriate to their predominant qualities or gunas”) for women and children. As we have seen, the children are easily converted to the cult of Belvedere, and by the time Harry gets home Tacey is smitten as well.
Of course, it is essential that she not like him “that way,” which is where Belvedere’s implied, and Webb’s actual, sexual indifference become useful. “The fascination is not mutual” as Belvedere says on Day One. The scandals involving everyone from Oriental gurus to televangelists to Catholic priests are well-known. Within older Aryan traditions that had not been perverted by liberalism, we find strict rules and customs to limit this, from the systematic taboos of Hindu civilization — ignored by modern “gurus” East and West — to the monastic rules of mediaeval Catholicism. Perhaps most familiar to us are the rules of chivalry and courtly love; we recall how Bogart’s treatment of women was called “courtly” while his “indifference” leant an authentic note of chivalry to his characters — Sam Spade sending Brigid to prison, Rick sending Ilsa on to Madrid with her husband (while striking up a beautiful friendship with Louis), etc. Belvedere is so strict he won’t let the boys call him “Uncle,” which is the traditional title for such a role, and one Darwinian explanation for the role of homosexuals in genetic success.
Like countless men whose partners have acquired gay best friends, Harry nevertheless finds himself jealous, the very epitome of a useless and counter-productive emotion. Belvedere will, however, actually use this jealousy (remember, yoga is skill in action) just as Tantra uses the strategic breaking of taboos, to break down Harry and convert him. Harry is then subject to two trials.
First, Harry is sent off on the usual “business trip.” At first, he refuses, fearing to leave Tacey alone with Belvedere. Since he needs to please his boss’s “royal decree” Tacey agrees to stay with friends. In both his jealousy and obsequiousness toward his boss, we see Harry’s other-directed nature.
One night, while he’s gone, one of the children becomes ill, and Belvedere summons Tacey. Clarence, having seen the lights on, comes over to see (again, his obsession with spying) and finds them all in robes and pajamas. Rumor spreads, Harry’s boss upbraids him for lowering the reputation of the firm, and Harry angrily confronts Tacey. Once it’s all explained, he sheepishly backs down, but is still suspicious.
The second trial is set up when Tacey dances with Belvedere — like Krishna and Gopis or milk maids (“You dance divinely. . . . Yes, I do”) — at a hotel restaurant, and again Clarence is there to spy and gossip.
This scene is really the pivot of the film. Once more, as in the photo of Belvedere and Clarence in Part 1, we see them opposed, embodying opposite philosophies of life — Belvedere dancing with Tacey, oblivious to the crowd, Clarence on the other side of the room, wheeling his decrepit mother around, intently staring with hypocritical disgust.
Once more, Clarence spreads the rumor, Harry is upbraided by his boss, and this time his irrational response produces an ironic result — it’s his wife who is driven out, leaving him at home with Belvedere!
But worse is yet to come; Belvedere has not been only meditating in his room; he’s written an expose of the whole suburban community.
The resulting book is a bestselling scandal, of the Peyton Place type, and the entire community is outraged at its exposure — again, the motif of concern for others’ opinion. That alone — apart from the revelation of his own philandering — makes Harry’s boss feel justified in firing Harry for harboring Belvedere, as well as firing Harry’s best friend for standing up for him.
Harry has now hit rock bottom; wifeless, jobless, his reputation in the community in ruins, he returns home to find a film crew in his living room, interviewing Belvedere (who is also taking over the direction, having “done it many times before”).
Now, at the film’s climax, Belvedere demonstrates his mastery of the situation, producing a better order out of the chaos he has created. Harry’s boss and others, including Clarence, arrive to announce they plan to sue Belvedere for millions in damages. Belvedere announces he couldn’t be happier, as the suit will only bring more publicity; and also provide a lucrative first case for the new law firm Harry and his friend will set up on their own.
At this point we note that Harry’s boss, who issues “royal decrees” to Harry, is named Hammond — once more, Haman has been hoist by his own petard.
And Belvedere also reveals that he’s not the one they should sue anyway. He’s gathered his information . . . from Clarence! The others turn on Clarence and chase him out.
The resolution of the Clarence subplot lets us revisit the use of Clarence as a foil for Belvedere.
When Belvedere reveals that his writing left no sound to give him away, due to his use of a quill pen — the Adept acts without leaving a trace — we recall that Clarence has throughout the film been using a feather to gather pollen throughout the neighborhood and thereby gather his gossip as well. The chiastic parallel is driven home when, in what Quinn Martin would call the epilogue, we learn that Mr. Hammond has given Clarence a black eye; earlier, Harry had foolishly tried to strike Belvedere, who nimbly stepped aside to allow Harry’s fist to hit the door frame. Karma!
Clarence lives in a house on top of a hill, the Psycho house we mentioned earlier, where he dotes on his aged mother, who spies out the window and uses Clarence to gather more information on the neighbors, as he aggressively thrusts himself into people’s lives through various pretexts, such as gathering pollen.
Belvedere lives in a room atop a house, where others dote on him, and bring information to him, only approaching others when invited, as by Tacey’s ad. As Plotinus has told us, Belvedere’s contemplation is superior, since, though unmoving, it is creative: he sits, listens, and produces a book, a sociological study of the new suburban lifestyle.
This works both as a cinematic device — once more making Belvedere seem nicer than he otherwise would — as well as delivering a spiritual message. As we’ve seen before — in The Untouchables, Mad Men, Advise and Consent — and will see again, in upcoming work on A Dandy in Aspic and the apocalyptic cinema of Coleman Francis — one of the chief signs of the Enlightened One is the ability to “pass the buck”: escaping Karma, the consequences of action, by offloading it to another character. If Belvedere had been snooping around it would lower our opinion of him; instead, he has merely skillfully used Clarence’s nosy nature for his own advantage, and in the process exposed and neutralized him (which, like Harry and the baby’s cereal hurling, none of his victims has had the gumption to do).
In the epilogue, Harry and Tacey, back together, announce that they will be adding another child to the mix. Apparently, although they have benefited from Belvedere’s teaching, they have chosen to return to the householder‘s path. Though devoted to their children and each other, their love, and child raising abilities, can only have benefited from their brief stay among the devotees of Belvedere/Krishna. Belvedere may be disappointed but, as always, not nonplussed: he is also an obstetrician! A perfect metaphor for his Socratic, or midwife’s, role. And no need to ever leave the gaze of Krishna again!
Writing on How to Live 24 Hours a Day, Arnold Bennett counsels that, when out for one of Belvedere’s evening walks,
Forget the goal; think only of the surrounding country; and after a period, perhaps when you least expect it, you will suddenly find yourself in a lovely town on a hill.
Perhaps the name of that town would be . . . Hummingbird Hill?
If I seem to be overburdening this little screwball comedy, this jeu d’esprit, with too heavy a load of “significance,” we would do well to recall that the motion picture, especially the popular movie, is the modern descendent or analogue of ancient public rituals and esoteric rites; thus, as Camille Paglia says of poetry, “the sacred remains latent within.” This is precisely what makes it, along with the popular music concert, the dominant form of public art in our time.
And we should also recall René Guénon’s notion that Traditional wisdom has been encoded into folk art and traditions, safely, unknowingly, preserved and transmitted to later generations, who can recover it from the most unlikely sources, if they have eyes to see and ears to hear. We would do well to gratefully extract such lessons whenever we find them. Conversely, the decline of the Belvedere image, from “divine” to “jerkass,” can serve as an index for the decline of modern culture in the Kali Yuga.
1. Trevor Lynch has criticized The Hobbit as “just one damn thing after another.” I hope to show that Sitting Pretty exhibits a tightly structured whole that develops a coherent spiritual lesson.
2. In the suburban utopia proclaimed by pipe-smoking Sub-Genius prophet J. R. “Bob” Dobbs, endless amounts of Holy Slack replace work, and the motto is “Every child and dog a slave.”
3. “The story of yoga in America” is told in Stephanie Syman’s The Subtle Body (New York: FSG, 2010) but more relevant to our movie is Robert Love’s The Great Oom: The Improbable Birth of Yoga in America (New York: Viking, 2010) whose subject, Pierre Bernard (of Iowa) was, despite constant harassment by cops and tabloids (whence the sobriquet “The Great Oom”), still operating at the time of the film and would have been the most immediate image “yoga” would call to mind.
4. “The most important of all perceptions is the continual perception of cause and effect—in other words, the perception of the continuous development of the universe …. When one has thoroughly got imbued into one’s head the leading truth that nothing happens without a cause, one grows not only large-minded, but large-hearted.” — Arnold Bennett, How to Live on 24 Hours a Day.
5. Due to the American habit of identifying people with their professions, Belvedere, by doing all, is, like Krishna, all. “What haven’t you been?” Tacey asks, in wonderment. Or rather, like Krishna, he is the best in all things, the essence of them.
All right, Arjuna, I will tell you
a few of my manifestations,
the most glorious ones; for infinite
are the forms in which I appear.
I am the Self, Arjuna,
seated in the heart of all beings; [and so on, for many verses]
These are just a small number
of my infinite manifestations;
were I to tell you more,
there would be no end to the telling.
Whatever in this world is excellent
and glows with intelligence or beauty –
be sure that it has its source
in a fragment of my divine splendor.
But what need is there for all
these details? Just know that I am,
and that I support the whole
universe with a single fragment of myself. — Bhagavad Gita, 10.17-10.40
6. In this he presents a contrast with the real American Psycho, Patrick Bateman. (For which, see Gregory Hood’s “American Psycho”) The latter, despite his yoga and “rigorous exercise routine” (Belvedere is content with an evening walk) works a boring job he doesn’t need, because he “wants to fit in.” Bateman is all about fitting in and above all being seen to fit in. The emphasis on “being seen” links him to Clarence, thus another Psycho connection. While today’s audiences likely think Belvedere is a sadist and Clarence merely “camp,” they likely nod their head when Bateman, the true sadist, mouths his list of approved Liberal causes and upbraids his colleagues for anti-Semitism, appealing to the same “community standards” enforced by Clarence‘s gossiping.
By contrast, Belvedere resembles Rory Gilmore, as conceived by Gilmore Girls creator, Amy Sherman Palladino:
What to me had not been done was a girl who wasn’t fucking around at 14. A girl who was not interested in boys, not because of an aversion to boys, but who was academically goal-oriented and really that’s what made her tick. And a girl who was very comfortable in her skin. Didn’t need to be popular, wasn’t popular, but didn’t care. — “The Best of Friends” by Susan LaTempa, here.
All of which could account for The Gilmore Girls having a Belvedere level of (un)popularity when it was programmed against American Idol.
7. The relationship between Belvedere and the boys reminds one of how the young Fritz Peters saw Gurdieff who served as much as his father figure as his guru: “strong, honest, direct, uncomplicated — an entirely ’non-nonsense’ individual.” See Peters, Boyhood with Gurdjieff (London: Victor Gollanz, 1964; Fairfax, Cal.: Arête Communications, 2006).
8. The twee pretentiousness of which has lasted to our own day, best exemplified by the named by Salinger-fan parents Zooey Dechannel.
9. Alan Watts, In My Own Way (New York: Pantheon, 1972), p. 3.
10. “The verses 47-51 of the second chapter of the Bhagavad-Gita constitute indeed a capsule version of the entire Karma Yoga of the Gita. These five verses may be translated as follows:
Your right is only to do (your prescribed) work; never for the results or rewards thereof. Nor should you have them as your motive. Neither should you be interested in not doing the work. (#47):
Do your actions, being yourself established in yoga, rid of all attachment and being equanimous to success or failure. Equanimity is said to be yoga. (#48)
Such performance of work is what is known as buddhi-yoga. (Result-motivated and desireful) action is far inferior to this. Take refuge in the equanimous mode (of doing work). Those who are motivated by results are, alas, a miserable lot! (#49).
One who is harmonised in buddhi-yoga (through equanimity) transcends both good actions and evil actions. Therefore strive for (such a) yoga. Yoga is skill in action. (#50)
‘Such wise persons who are harmonised in buddhi-yoga having renounced all results and rewards are released from the bondage of birth (and death) and they reach the sorrowless final state’. (#51). – “Gems from the Ocean of Hindu Thought.”
11. Transcending action oriented to results, as well as mere inaction (“I’ve never been an idler”), this Yoga also partakes of both the male characteristic of impassivity as well as the feminine method of conquering by giving way, thus uniquely appropriate to Webb’s style of masculinity; see Baron Evola’s “The Serpentine Way” in his Introduction to Magic, where the Baron’s disdain for “brute muscularity” may surprise his contemporary enthusiasts, as his ideal seems closer to Webb, or at least Bogart, than the likes of Mussolini or Ernst Rohm.
12. Brian Hines, Return to the One: Plotinus’ Guide to God-Realization (Bloomington and Salem: Unlimited Publishing, 2004). For Pater, see the “Conclusion” to his Studies in the History of the Renaissance (1873). In the same work, his equally infamous “Not the fruit of experience, but experience itself, is the end” is a kind of Decadent, aestheticized version of Krishna’s Karma-yoga; the missing element of dharma, defining the correct action, is what makes Pater’s version “quite poisonous” to George Eliot. The definitive work on Plotinus’s doctrine of contemplation is also quite accessible to the layman: Nature, Contemplation, and the One by John N. Deck (Burdett, N.Y.: Larson Publications, 1991).
13. Another TV hit from Hollywood ueber-Judaic Chuck Lorre, promoting the anti-White messages that intelligence is socially isolating (so don’t be smart) but if you are smart, then feel free to mock Christians and Middle Americans in general; the usual heads he wins, tails you lose strategy of the culture-distorter.
14. The case of Franklin Jones of Long Island who became Da Free John of San Francisco and after many other whimsical name changes ultimately Adi Da of Fiji, is especially relevant and interesting; see most recently Adi Da Samraj: Realized or/and Deluded? by William Patrick Patterson (Arete Communications, 2012).
15. Speaking of chivalry, we seem to be in a version of the tale of Gawain and the Green Knight in which the roles are reversed; in our version, it is the courteous knight who tests his host with his behavior toward his host’s wife (in the winter scene — Gawain takes place at New Year’s — Belvedere, like Gawain, receives a gift of clothing from his fair lady) which the host fails, but is ultimately forgiven and chastened by the lesson.
16. Although the Christian mystic tends to engage in rather masochistic forms of worship – perhaps this is why “The metapolitics of the contemporary West center more on ethnic masochism even than egalitarianism” — and various Protestant sects have demonized dancing altogether, in the Gnostic Acts of John Jesus engages his disciples in the same kind of round-dancing as Krishna and the Gopis. In the Orthodox tradition, the Prayer of the Heart, aka the Jesus or “Centering” Prayer, may correspond to Me-mindedness.
17. One is perhaps reminded of Frank O’Hara’s poem “A Mexican Guitar,” which Camille Paglia reads as the gay poet’s celebration of studio B-movies, like Webb’s, in a later age of supposedly “realistic” method acting. As they dance the poet is impervious to the charms of his female friend, which are only displayed for onlookers — nuns, schoolboys, and Boston puritans — with “lavish envy.” And say, isn’t Tacey played by Maureen O’Hara? See her Break Blow Burn (New York: Pantheon, 2005), pp. 177-82.
18. As someone who has recently published a book, I find the time compression here to be breathtaking; like the “Pilot” story arc on Seinfeld, we seem to go from publication to national bestseller to newsreel subject in about 3 days.
19. On the “hang higher than Haman” trope, see my “Mad Men Jumps the Gefilte Fish: Part Three, continued.”
20. There is also a secretary who provides information about Mr. Hammond’s skirt chasing in the office, but Belvedere does not reveal her, no doubt from chivalry; we only see her in the set up to the dance scene, so she may as well treat her as a stand in for Clarence anyway.
21. Belvedere will neither actively spy nor allow others to spy on him. Twice Tacey and Harry attempt to sneak into his room or peep through the window, and both times they are foiled by Belvedere. In the latter case, there may be some hint of the Garden of Eden or World Tree; Harry climbs up a tree but falls when Belvedere spots him from the ground. Spying on him is an unsanctioned use of Belvedere’s providential incarnation, unlike the gazing upon his freely given form known in the Hindu tradition as satsang.
The King’s snooping suggests a relation of some kind to a very different work. Two years before Sitting Pretty, Hermann Hesse received the Nobel Prize. In his 1927 novel Steppenwolf, another intellectual outsider with interests in Yoga and Krishna takes rooms in an archetypally bourgeois house. However, in Hesse’s book it’s the outsider who is named Harry (Haller), and like our Harry, he’s the one who needs an education in lifemanship. (Our Harry lives on Hummingbird Hill, H.H., which connects him to Harry Haller, just as Harry Haller suggests Hermann Hesse) The framing story includes the ingenuous account of what the landlady’s nephew – one might compare them to the nosy Appleton and his dear Mother — discovers about Harry by surreptitiously entering his room, but when our Harry and Tacey try they find that Belvedere has anticipated them and changed the lock. There’s also a book, or pamphlet, within the book, in which an abstract voice gives an objective, almost cosmic, perspective on Harry’s angst-ridden life; in the movie, Belvedere writes a thinly veiled account of the goings-on at Hummingbird Hill. The main part of the novel, alliteratively titled Harry Haller’s Records (Belvedere’s bestseller, Hummingbird Hill?), involves Harry’s attempt to come to terms with the vulgarity of modern life through a course in jazz dancing (Spengler’s “death march of civilization”) and opium under the guidance of a stern woman who reminds him of male friend of his childhood; in the movie, the stern and effeminate Belvedere undertakes the instruction of Harry by, among other things, dancing with his wife, and teaches the whole neighborhood a lesson about bourgeois vulgarity as well. In the end, Harry is still failing, he even tries to kill his girlfriend out of jealousy, but seems optimistic – Beckett’s “fail again, fail better” – while in the movie Harry is successful in marriage and career and even expecting another child, though still under Belvedere’s watchful eye.
22. Break, Burn, Blow, p. xiv.
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