What would happen if you got everything you wanted?
No, I’m serious – imagine your most base, secret desire, your weirdest pipe dream, the thoughts that hide in pillowcases and shower drains, and imagine what it would be like to be given that.
Now imagine it in more detail.
Spend a good 10 minutes plotting out the logistics.
No, don’t let go. It’s not stupid. This is important. Really, think it through in detail.
How would people treat you, now that you have this thing? How much would your life change? Would you be able to handle that change? What would your life look like? What would you forget about yourself, about your journey to getting the thing, about who you really are deep down? And, most importantly, what would you desire next?
I am not trying to encourage the practice of visualization preached in The Secret. I am actually very anti-Secret, as the book plays into the fundamental attribution error, a cognitive bias that we need to overcome, and this inspires some real human verbal feces. (In short, it’s fine – delusional, but fine – to believe The Secret works for yourself; never make any assumptions about other people.)
But visualizing what you want is still very important.
This shouldn’t be difficult. We’re wired for desire, encouraged to want things from a very young age – from commercials for breakfast cereal to the sly seductiveness of native advertisements hidden in your favorite book. We are barraged with things to want constantly, told what to want. But it is difficult, isn’t it?
When was the last time you went a full day without seeing one ad? When has been the last time someone’s asked you, “What do you want?” and meant it, without trying to sell you something?
Now, I want you to keep visualizing getting your most secret desire until its most uncomfortable, realistic level.
And I want you to ask yourself: Is this dream version of you happy?
I would argue … maybe not?
I have been working on the same fantasy series for nearly 15 years. Recently while moving from one apartment to another, I came across an old outline of the story I wrote while still in high school. The notes are messy. The characters’ names have changed. But the heart of it is the same: a sad story in which a bored teenage boy manipulates his way into heaven, only to find himself unhappy there, all why treading on divine feminine power.
I particularly like my younger self’s notes at the end:
(If that’s not my brand, I don’t know what is.)
The story plays with meta-narrative, messes with the reader, calls back to the differences between reality and fantasy, and pays with concepts like wishes, memories, subconscious desires and power.
But that’s … a story for another time.
Little did I know, I was retracing the narrative steps of a much more accomplished writer, whose work has been severely misunderstood.
Today, I wanted to write about Michael Ende’s The Neverending Story, and how it relates to so many disparate things: the philosophies of Friedrich Nietzsche, occultism, the woes of late-stage capitalism, hipster minimalism, and even that dumpster fire, Aleister Crowley.
(“Abusive Aleister Crowley and the softest of dragon puppies Falkore are somehow related?” you ask? Yes. We’ll get there.)
THAT “REVOLTING” MOVIE
You probably know about The Neverending Story via the film, because most English-speakers do. You might be interested to note that author Michael Ende called it a “disgusting” film, referring to it as “that revolting movie.” He went on to say, “The makers of the film simply did not understand the book at all. They just wanted to make money.”
And his contempt wasn’t just based in aesthetic choices. He actually filed a lawsuit against the film’s creators, saying,
“My moral and artistic existence is at stake in this film.”
He lost the case.
Knowing what I know now, despite the fact that this “revolting” movie is one of my all-time favorite family films, I agree with him. He should have been angry and was right to sue. I believe he should have won.
Unlike Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, Coraline, or the Harry Potter series, all of which had their authors involved in the process of film-making, this film had nothing to do with the author’s vision, or the author’s intent. It goes beyond petty complaints of an attention-sucking egotistical diva and goes more into destruction of an entire work in the public’s eyes – the whole reason copyright exists in the first place. To me, if copyright didn’t help protect the art in this case, I don’t really see the point of using copyright to protect art at all. There’s the death of the author, and then there’s the people making money off of the author’s books while pissing on his grave and saying they’re watering the flowers.
Why all the rage from Ende? What could possibly be so abhorrent as to warrant a massive lawsuit? Was Ende just being an ungrateful artist?
Let me just say that the film stops in the middle of the book. Its whole narrative, thematically, is nothing like its source material at all. Here is a short summary description of the changes:
TL;DW: After Bastian gets the seed of creation from the Empress at the end of the 1984 movie, Bastian basically turns into an anti-hero after going mad with power from all his desires, wishing himself to be the smartest, strongest, sexiest, most powerful, most influential influencer in that realm of existence. (And who’s to blame him? That’s a mood even adult me can get behind.)
Then he forgets who he really is, even his own name, until he learns to love his damn self, whatever that pesky “self” thing is. He struggles to get out of the hell he created for himself out of a innocent and utopic fantasy. He emerges from his fantasy world strong – not in the physical sense but in the Nietzchean sense – with a strong will and sense of self, and the thing that brings him out of this world is seeing his clinically depressed father’s tears.
WOW. WHAT A DIFFERENT THEME FROM A MOVIE THAT PREACHED TO DREAM YOUR WAY OUT OF PROBLEMS AND CHASE DOWN YOUR BULLY ENEMIES WITH AN IMAGINARY DRAGON.
Not only is the content cut in half, but the theme was also completely, utterly neutered. The Dom’s comparison of “It’s sort of like someone making a Romeo and Juliet movie and stopping at the marriage” is an accurate one. In the end, you have a film that not only doesn’t capture the source material, not only captures a different theme, but captures the complete opposite theme.
The book warns us, the readers, directly through this meta-loop of reading about Bastian, the dangers of escapism, dreaming, wishing, fantasy, and wants – that you can literally lose yourself in desire, and compassion for others is the only thing that can bring us out of that spiral of hedonism which will never be satisfied.
The movie, however, follows the same narrative that a capitalism needs: want, as much as you can, as hard as you can, as often as you can.
Why would they gut it that much?
Well, Hollywood likes to tell us to dream. Disney’s identity is built on the concept of dreaming, even still.
- “A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes” – Cinderella: This most #basic of wanting-stuff-is-good songs.
- “When You Wish Upon a Star” – Pinocchio: This is basically The Secret for kids.
- “I’m Wishing” – Snow White: I’m wanting.
- “Once Upon a Dream” – Sleeping Beauty: I wanted this while it was sleeping and now wowie it’s real.
- “Part of Your World” – The Little Mermaid: The I-want song is now happily more specific, but not really. I just kinda want to get to heaven (or land).
- “Belle Reprise” – Beauty and the Beast: What I have now isn’t good enough and I want something vague and cool to happen to me.
I could go on and on, but you see the theme.
Dream is just another word for want in the Hollywood lexicon. If you think about it this way, content for young children in our capitalist society that’s catchy and pleasant is “Want want wishy want wish want want.”
Think of it this way and it’s … fairly disgusting, isn’t it?
What Hollywood did to The Neverending Story was to cut it up into a lovely, pre-established framework of telling kids to dream big, but they stopped completely short of telling kids what were the consequences of doing so.
That’s not new as a millennial’s experience of media as a kid. If you were growing up in the 80s and 90s, it might be fairly obvious to you, because we were subjugated to the same themes over and over, with very little regard to the severe emotional consequences and eventually lending itself to burnout culture. But the most crushing part of all this is that …
… Ende didn’t. He kept going, in a way that no one had.
The slicing up of this story and the subsequent lawsuit seem to me an obviously inevitability of capitalism’s first dying breaths. Even the less-successful, half-hearted sequel and TV show which fail to tell the second half of the story makes sense to me as a consequence.
(Oh, yeah, and if you’re wondering if the second film hits any of these themes … no.)
So what was the lesson? How are we supposed to deal with our dreams?
“DO WHAT THOU WILT”
A lot of people recognize (… and somewhat ironically buy necklaces of, and tattoo on themselves…) the Auryn, a symbol with twin snakes biting the other’s tails, which Bastian uses to fulfill his every wish.
This symbol in its book form is a reference to the Ouroboros, a Gnostic symbol used in magic that also represented somewhat of a yin-yang symbol as well as the life and death of the universe. It’s an image that’s been repeated in many subcultures and religions – Ende probably picked it up from Jung, who saw it as a mandala of alchemy.
But I don’t want to talk about just the symbol – I want to talk about the inscription written on the Auryn in the book: “Tu, was du wilst.”
That translates into English in the book as, “Do what you wish!”
Or, put another way, “Do what thou wilt.”
This is the basic tenant of Thelema, a religion/philosophy invented by none other than Mr. Crowley.
Who is Aleister Crowley?
Once upon a time, there was a Cambridge-educated trust-fund baby from London who took a break from chess club, mountaineering, and writing pornographic poetry to learn about this hot new thing called Spiritualism. He was into it late and got a little snobby about it.
Then he visited basically any country within English control while treating anyone who was brown like a pack mule or a prostitute. And while he was out and about chilling with artists and mountain climbers who had out-and-out zero respect for him, he learned some stuff about Eastern philosophy, Egyptian religion, and magic (which he later re-dubbed “magick” because … why not?).
While he was in the Middle East, he heard his guardian angel speaking to him and decided to write it all down. (In my opinion, he probably heard about the teachings of Muhammad and thought … hey, if writing stuff and saying it was an angel worked for that guy, why can’t it work for me?) This notes from his guardian angel became The Book of the Law, the basic tenants of Thelema.
What is Thelema?
You see, Crowley had grown up in a puritanical cult where you were only allowed the bible, had no toys, and everything that came naturally to him – like enjoying nice food, bisexuality, or really sexuality in general – led him to be actively abused. He was also possibly a little autistic, and a little reactionary, and, in my non-professional opinion, a little bit borderline.
His logical response was to say “fuck the system” by writing up a religion in which sin is a myth, everything is an illusion, and basically do whatever you want. It’s kind of why punk rockers love him so much.
But it’s also kind of a sloppy system made up by someone who was abused by his mom in a philosophy that, boiled down to its essence, is basically, “Let me do what I want, mooooooom!”
Crowley, the man, was simply reclaiming a lost childhood. Thelema, the religion, is hedonism with a new anti-Christian face. Rooted in rejecting Christianity, pursuing pleasure and avoiding pain, Thelema wished to bring on a new era.
“Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law.
Love is the law, under will.”
Yeah, so, anyways … he died a heroin addict.
That’s kinda what happens when you build a religion on only pursing pleasure and avoiding pain.
By the way, this is my reaction to reading every single biography about Aleister Crowley:
(I’m piling heaps and heaps of disrespect onto this guy, but Crowley is a complicated figure in British history. He also was fond of asthmatics and kind to women who were being mistreated by their families for their sexuality and a pretty normal father. He was … a dude. It’s important to humanize this person. But humanizing trash doesn’t make his philosophy good or sensible.)
Crowley’s Thelema and satanist teachings didn’t exactly take the world by storm, at all, though panicked conspiracy theorists would claim otherwise.
And luckily, newer versions of his religion tend to empathize personal responsibility. (I mean, Jesus … I should hope so.) But a religion based on pursing pleasure, avoiding pain, extreme individualism, encouraging double-think and alternate realities, and largely ignoring the needs of others is …
… the ideal doctrine for a privileged upper class.
Doing What You Want Under Capitalism
What’s a better message for a capitalistic society is to want, keep wanting, to know what you want, and to get what you want, fuck the consequences?
For the people in power who aren’t pursing needs but can pursue quite literally whatever they want, this isn’t to different from a doctrine you would claim organically. Besides the rituals and the dogma, what is the real difference between Thelema and the capitalist Disney ideal to dream big that we push onto children? I understand the aesthetics of the differences – singing an “I want” song as a princess is different that a Satanic cult – but what are the philosophic differences?
Because it seems to me, Crowley didn’t originate an idea, but was a symptom of a society with too much power held in one place. His philosophy wasn’t new and it wasn’t unique; it was an echo of more intelligent philosophic discussions before, during, and after his era. Crowley was a symptom, not a cause. Crowley’s ideas have gravitated to people, typically very privileged people, because his simplistic ideas affirm a growing sense that they already have: that it’s good to pursue what you want and to get it, and to not have guilt in the process.
In modern American capitalism, the doctrine of “do what thou wilt” is not only encouraged, but it may even be considered healthy! Knowing what you really want, your “true will,” even despite being told what to want over and over since birth, despite not being born with any real consumer-oriented desires, despite being crushed by the weight of so many options, can be or at least seem like an admirable quality. But it breeds this odd over-confidence not unlike what would find among the con artists of Silicon Valley.
Yes, Crowley was a trust-fund, wealth-stealing conman who funded his paradise heroin den in Sicily. Is he that different than Elizabeth Holmes, who created the completely fraud health tech company Theranos? Is the Abbey of Thelema any different than Billy MacFarland’s Fyre Festival? I don’t know. I can’t honestly say.
Capitalism is at a weird turning point. We’ll either continue to breed sociopath-like super-wealth that will make Crowley seem like Big Bird, and continue to praise our shutting off our natural empathetic responses as an admirable skill, or we will have to grow up as a culture and take responsibility for our “true will,” to respond to others’ suffering, to raise up other cultures and countries that are struggling to meet the basic human needs of their populations. In other words: will we put will over love or love over will?
Anywho, let’s get back to Bastian.
A TURNING POINT: MOONCHILD!
Now I know I’ve already introduced enough concepts for a pearl-clutching Christian to want to strip The Neverending Story from every Midwestern library, but let’s keep these things in mind: A. the story does not stop there, B. Ende shows us, in detail, the consequences of getting what we want, and C: the Auryn is an artifact with consequence, pulling Bastian’s memories and self-identity with every wish, and so the book seems to be a criticism of Crowleyan thought and capitalistic tendencies rather than any type of support of them.
At least after the film ends and the second half of the book begins, anyway.
There is a turning point in the book where Bastian and the Empress are caught in an infinity loop, living lives up until that moment over and over – which is likely based on Nietzsche’s concept of eternal recurrence – until Bastian does the right (the Ubermnesch) thing and calls out her new name.
Her new name, as a friend likes to dub, “MERHNWECHERALLLRD!” in the original version, because none of us nine-year-olds knew what he was saying in that moment. In the era of VHS, the name was hidden in thunder and swelling music. It wasn’t until one bought the DVD, threw up subtitles, and watched with a keen eye that one realized what he was saying: “Moonchild!”
And most modern viewers would say, “huh, weird name,” un-pause the movie, and leave it at that.
Moonchild was also the name of a novel written by Aleister Crowley. It was a masturbatory, ego-driven re-telling of his battle within the cult of the Golden Dawn where he demonized his rivals like W.B. Yeats. It’s also not very good.
The “moonchild” he speaks of is an other-worldly being conceived under magical means. Supposedly, this was based on black magic used during conception to capture the perfect soul. (Forgive me for not immersing myself Crowley’s self-important prose.)
Why did Ende chose the name Moonchild? I don’t know. I’m barely scratching the surface of the symbolic references here. Perhaps Bastian is the son of the perfect being, as Moonchild was the name of his mother. Perhaps Bastian as a character is a combination of an imperfect and perfect being.
Moonchild and The Neverending Story don’t have much in common, but I think the painting of a calm, good, God-like figure as female is perhaps the key takeaway.
Both Crowley and Ende paint a benevolent universal force of good as a feminine energy, contrary to Crowley’s male-God upbringing. This is a re-framing of the blame-everything-on-Eve tendencies to see women as less divine than men. The scene where Bastian is handed the seed of creation happens in a garden that calls back to the Garden of Eden. That Eve/Adam narrative is completely flipped on its head.
Crowley was by no means respectful of women, likely only flipping the godhead’s gender to stir up religious dissent, but in The Neverending Story, the Childlike Empress Moonchild is a benevolent force and ultimately a flipped representation of an older male God.
Then, when Bastian abuses his power, when he decides to fight God, when Bastian makes the final bid to take over the Ivory Tower, which is rife with sexual imagery as the flower-shape of the castle closes to him, he is forcing his male, dominating presence on a female, divine force. We see how men oppress women, oppress the natural, oppress anyone who protects them from their desires. In the end you have a slightly more feminist story.
Bastian spends a lot of time trying to figure out what it is he really wants. He attempt to be the smartest, the strongest, and etc., but nothing really makes him feel happy, or good. We follow him on numerous adventures in his slow decent towards becoming a real jerk.
When the world is literally not enough, Bastian goes to attack Moonchild, or the personification of the perfect being. He wants to be in charge of this universe, or really, his own subconscious mind, but he simply isn’t. But he is simply a man railing against God (in this case, a female God). For all his wished-for strength, he is very weak.
You’re likely not a 10-year-old boy, but the attitude of pursuing one’s desires until they point where you know that they can’t possibly make you happy anymore isn’t unique to living in Fantastica. If you were given everything you wanted, would you just want more?
When will enough be enough?
“There are only two tragedies in life: one is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it.”
People learning to do what they want without guilt, shame, and constriction may sound like a positive thing to a 70s hippie, but Kantian ethics and life experience tell us otherwise. And so does Ende.
The Auryn takes away Bastian’s memories. Essentially, Bastian loses himself, piece by piece, in the pursuit of his desires. It destroys him, slowly. It takes his heroics and turns him into a real monster.
The pursuit of getting what he wants literally destroys him from the inside out.
“He no longer wanted to be the greatest, strongest or cleverest. He had left all that far behind. He longed to be loved just as he was, good or bad, handsome or ugly, clever or stupid, with all his faults – or possibly because of them.
But what was he actually?
He no longer knew. So much have been given to him in Fantastica, and now, among all these gifts and powers, he could no longer find himself.”
– Michael Ende, The Neverending Story
Eventually Bastian completely loses himself and burns out on the practice of pursing his desires. (Millennial burnout for Bastian Balthazar Bux was pretty serious.)
I joke, but I also don’t.
We have had more opportunity than anyone to find and learn what we want, and to try to get it, but basic needs like health, sanity, free time, and space are constantly out of reach. We are a want-based culture, not a need-based one, and it can be extremely disorienting.
We were told to dream big only to be constantly trapped in the hampster wheel of desire, all while not having basic needs met. It’s no surprise that many of us can feel like Bastian, trapped in Fantastica, ruling the world while having no control over it or our subconscious.
In a world that’s focused on pursuing pleasure and avoiding pain, it can be very easy to make mistakes.
No one told him, and no one told us, these basic truths of happiness:
- Happiness takes self-awareness, self-kindness, and understanding of our own subconscious.
- Happiness takes lowering expectations, not raising output to reach high expectations.
- Happiness is a state of mind that can be reached no matter if you have what you want, so long as some basic needs are met.
- Happiness takes practice.
We find that many people are wholesale rejecting the concept of consumerism and attempting to practice more responsible capitalism. Wanting to take responsibility for our actions and reject the system is why hipsters are so obsessive about the sources of their products. Despite having hundreds of choices for clothes, many millennial shoppers will thrift shop, buy records, eat at restaurants with grass-fed, free-range chickens.
We make fun of them for it, but this is likely a positive shift. Hedonism on its own isn’t sexy; hedonism with responsibility, Nihilism memes, cultural responsibility, grass-fed chickens, thrifted overalls, calling people by their preferred pronouns, disapproving colonialism, helping the most amount of people, being a patron (or Patreon) of the arts, paying your taxes, driving a fuel-efficient car, not supporting oppressive corporations or systems, that’s sexy.
It’s not because millennial are suddenly better people than baby boomers and gen Xers; it’s a survival tactic, because if we don’t practice self-reliance, kindness, and responsibility, we will be crushed under the weight of the pursuit of our desires.
But it’s possible that responsible consumerism isn’t enough. It’s possible that we’re stuck here in Fantastica, like Bastian. How can we get out?
It’s so ironic that the generation who really needed the full version of The Neverending Story never got it.
HEDONISM AS SELF-DISCOVERY
Ende understood that getting what we want can be a terrifying thing. In a land where the subconscious fills in the landscape, Bastian’s lonely walk through the world is one of existential dread.
“You wish for something, you’ve wanted it for years, and you’re sure you want it, as long as you know you can’t have it. But if all at once it looks as though your wish might come true, you suddenly find yourself wishing you had never wished for any such thing.”
– Michael Ende, The Neverending Story
He is lost in a way that many modern people are. In America, depression is on the rise, mistrust is on the rise. We are living in an era where many of us are pursuing what we want in life and losing ourselves, like Bastian.
But then? He gets a little bit more specific with his wishes.
The last few chapters of the book are an incredible journey, because he’s making the journey from what he thinks he wants to what he really wants.
First he unconsciously wishes for community, coming across a town of Borg-like people. Then, he realizes he wants friendship. Then, his memories. Then, a mother’s love. What he’s doing is working downwards rather than upwards on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, which makes complete sense because Ende himself was a humanist. So much of Fantastica provides the upper, self-actualization portions of the pyramid, but it’s useless because Bastian doesn’t have his most basic needs met yet. Jumping up the scale is useless and exhausting. (Why have an iPhone if you have a broken foot and no way to pay for health insurance?)
In the end, he realizes that he needs something that’s at the absolute bottom of the Hierarchy of Needs, something simple and physiological: water. He needs the Water of Life.
The ultimate lesson of The Neverending Story is to learn how to be aware of, and a master of, your own subconscious, to get to know your true self (rather than your true “will”) and to learn how to be happy by fulfilling the most basic needs first.
So, repression and avoidance of pursuing one’s desires isn’t the answer, to Ende, and neither is Crowley’s endless pursuit of pleasure and rejection of pain. In the end, learning to be conscious of what one truly wants via the path of hedonism is the path to take, and the thing that pulls it all together is empathy.
Bastian went through some horrible things, but he leaves Fantastica stronger than ever, confident he can climb down the school’s window, now having learned his own strength of character.
To end, and to others, the answer to Crowley’s bad example of hedonism is not repression and rule-setting, but more hedonism. We must dig even deeper to bury through our daily wants to figure out what it is we really need. That’s how you find happiness. But it’s quite a harrowing journey.
So I hope you now know a little bit more about The Neverending Story, and how it’s a much more complicated and fascinating work than meets the eye. I hope we can all appreciate the deeper meaning of the original text, and take Ende at his word in that the story has much more to offer us than a great 80s riff. (Which I hope is stuck in your head right now.)
I’d like to talk more about Crowley, escapism, and my fantasy story…
…but that’s a story for another time.
Micheal Ende studied anthroposophy and had no children. He was married to a Japanese wife, and loved all things Japanese, especially Kabuki. He was a humanist, and it bleeds forward into his work. His father was a surrealist and banned by the Nazi party, his studio later ending up engulfed in flames. He lived through, and resisted, the Nazis.
“There were thousands and thousands of forms of joy in the world, but that all were essentially one and the same, namely, the joy of being able to love.”
- Michael Ende