A book for the young?
Re-reading Hermann Hesse’s 1927 book Steppenwolf, which I last read I surmise in my twenties, has been an interesting experience. It has been impossible, on this re-read, to separate it both from the time and place of its writing and its popular reprintings. It was originally published in Germany, between the wars, when an aggrieved sense of injustice and a looking for someone to blame was beginning to become fuel for a later conflict. It was republished, hitting the zeitgeist of a later generation of anti-establishmentarians, who found it chimed with their own criticisms of the establishment, early in the 1960s. The book, with revisions, quickly became a classic of the counter-culture, reprinted every couple of years during the 60s and 70s
A wild longing for strong emotions and sensations seethes in me, a rage against this toneless, flat, normal and sterile life.
It was/is certainly a book to speak strongly to anyone who questions/rages against the status quo, to the person who burns to understand the ‘why are we here’ existential questions. So, clearly, it is a book which will appeal on that level to the thoughtful, probably introspective late teens and twenties reader. The central character, Harry Haller, styled the Steppenwolf, wolf of the steppes, a man in his 50s, is almost an archetype of the tortured romantic loner artist, forever both railing against the common man and woman who settle for conformity and materialistic bourgeois values, whilst at the same time having a kind of envy at their ability to be satisfied with so spiritually little. The Steppenwolf lives torn between the extremes of two seemingly oppositional desires – one a kind of surrender to moments of deep spiritual joy where a sense of connectivity and meaning arises – often through music, art, poetry, philosophical thinking, the other, a surrender to ‘wolfishness’ something instinctual, authentic, savage and bitter. The ‘higher man’ and the free, wild animal nature are constantly at war with each other.
Steppenwolf was initially described by the New York Times as ‘a savage indictment of bourgeois society’ , but this did not accord with Hesse’s own reasons for writing, or what he had intended. In a foreword/author’s note to the 1960s and subsequent printings, Hesse is writing the account of a spiritual journey, the need for a balancing and accepting of oppositions. Less a savage indictment, more a sense that one of the challenges of being creatures who are not only conscious, but self-conscious, means we are all holding oppositions, our natures divided against themselves in many ways – far more than just the instinctive animal and the spirit which yearns for the ineffable, but many other oppositions. The ‘search for meaning’ is part of humanity’s challenge, wound, and healing
There is no reality except the one contained within us. That is why so many people live such an unreal life. They take the images outside of them for reality and never allow the world within to assert itself.
The book is, for sure, as rich (in fact probably more so) a source for reflection and thoughtfulness as I thought it was in my youth. But I’m no longer sure it is a wonderful novel. In some ways, it is a book about philosophy and metaphysics and Hesse has wrapped this in the coat of fiction, and the fit between fiction and ‘what is this book about’ do not really marry very well, at least in the earlier sections of the book. Most of the book consists of lots of thinking about thinking and thinking about feeling, and describing the thoughts.
Various layering devices – a book (or at least a tract) within the book ‘Treatise on the Steppenwolf’ and the framing device of having an outside narrator, the nephew of Harry Haller’s landlady, discovering Steppenwolf’s journal. Haller, he tells us early, has disappeared. Haller has a bitter, despairing, depressive, highly intellectual and over-analytical nature. Suicide was much in his thoughts. The landlady’s nephew introduces his own impressions of Haller, and presents the journal (which includes the treatise) to support his belief and hope that whatever the reason for Haller’s disappearance, suicide is not the reason.
It is the opening frame, and particularly the ‘Treatise’ that seem particularly heavy on philosophical, metaphysical debate, laying out ideas that our nature is not just a simple, single opposition, but that there are the potential of dozens and hundreds of other unexplored possibilities to each of us, our nature splits and splits again, with a limitless potential, a kind of wholeness in the possibilities.
For me, on this re-read, the literary aspects only really began to take hold (the fiction becoming more than the ideas Hesse was wishing to explore) after Haller meets a young woman who is captivating and curiously familiar. Hermine represents other curious possibilities. She is woman, but also somewhat androgyne, and Haller realises she is a feminised version of a boy who was his closest friend, Herman. Hermine/Herman introduces Haller to a different world, not one yearning for refinement and spiritual union through high art and philosophy – Goethe, Mozart, but a world of frantic pleasure seekers, dancers, drinkers, jazz club denizens and intense sexual encounters, unconfined by the strictures of which gender should encounter which. Hermine is a kind of other side of the coin soul mate to the serious Haller. In some ways, she shares his sense of despair. Her lessons are that the search for spirit takes many forms. There is a common thread to this endeavour
The book explores, without condemnation, a fluidity about sexuality and sexual desire, allows women to express their sensuality and seek to satisfy this, and in fact celebrates this intense seeking of pleasure. There are also scenes of hallucinogenic drug taking.
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… 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.
Though Haller is filled with despair – particularly about what he sees as the inevitability of another war, and constantly debates suicide with himself, the overall search of the book is an attempt to find connection and meaning, an acknowledgement that human nature is not dualistic but has an unlimited potential
This mistaken and unhappy notion that a man is an enduring unity is known to you. It is also known to you than man consists of a multitude of souls, of numerous selves
It also seems to be a working out, a working through, perhaps, of personal ideas, personal healing. Hesse at the time of writing was his central character’s age; like Haller, he was deeply pessimistic about what he could see coming – another world war. Like Haller, he published articles which were critical about the growing aggression and desire to find someone to blame. Like Haller Hesse was called a traitor.
This re reading has been interesting. Reading it in my youth I suspect I inhabited it more viscerally and was closer to feeling its angry despair. This reading left me with a cooler response; I felt it – or I had fallen between the stools of a treatise on metaphysics, psychology and philosophy, and a novel.
I re-read this for Kaggsy’s Hesse week (kaggsysbookishramblings) challenge – which ended yesterday, so I am late with my post. I had finished my read, but the writing of the post has been challenging, in part because of this sense of some disappointment, that a remembered reading of huge and satisfying intensity has not been quite so powerful as remembered