Hermann Hesse: Steppenwolf
(Der Steppenwolf 1927, author’s note 1961)
Translated by Basil Creighton (1929), revised by Walter Sorell (1963)
Penguin Modern Classics 1963
What is Steppenwolf about? The author’s own note, written in the year before he died, made clear that this novel is essentially about the author himself and the existential crisis he had in the years approaching his fiftieth birthday. Steppenwolf‘s magic realism holds a mirror up to a man not too different from the one we see in a portrait by Ernst Würtenberger, painted when the author was thirty: the pacifist intellectual, his hair cut en brosse, wearing a haunted look:
I am in truth the Steppenwolf … who finds neither home nor joy nor nourishment in a world that is strange and incomprehensible to him.
The subject of this novel suffers from gout, depression and pains of the head and body; he feels alienated from the bourgeois world around him but can’t quite abandon it; he believes he has nothing to live for, and contemplates suicide with a razor. Is there anything more depressing to read about than a depressive’s mental state?
And yet Der Steppenwolf turns out to be more than this, to go beyond a reiteration of deep depression, and it all begins with a half-glimpsed neon sign over an ancient door:
ENTRANCE NOT FOR EVERYBODY
And then, after vainly trying to open the door, the Steppenwolf sees reflected on the road surface the words
FOR MADMEN ONLY!
Is he mad enough to be admitted? Apparently not just yet, for he has to make a further journey through “the labyrinth of Chaos” before he can partake in the Anarchist Evening Entertainment later promised him.
A first time read is initially confusing. After the author’s 1961 note comes a Preface, which turns out to be a brief portrait of the Steppenwolf by his landlady’s nephew. This leads to the body of the novel, headed Harry Haller’s Records, the first section of which is called ‘For Madmen Only’. After little more than a dozen or so pages we’re abruptly introduced to ‘Treatise on the Steppenwolf’ — apparently “a clever study by an unknown hand” — which segues almost seamlessly into “a self-portrait in doggerel verse”. And we’re only a third of the way through the novel.
This illusion of multiple authorship (Hermann Hesse, anonymous nephew, Harry Haller, unnamed treatise-writer) is, I think, deliberately staged to disorientate and mystify the reader. The narrative continues to do this, going from neat lodgings to dingy bars, from alienating streets to dance halls, from a disagreeable dinner party to the Magic Theatre, from sexual encounters to hallucinogenic experiences and revelations.
Harry Haller — no coincidence his initials are the same as the author’s — sees himself as a lone wolf of the Russian steppes. The treatise informs him that
There are a good many people of the same kind as Harry. Particularly many artists are of his kind. These persons all have two souls, two beings within them. […] Their life consists of a perpetual tide, unhappy and torn with pain, terrible and meaningless.
And yet the treatise also tells him that this duality he imagines — a kind of Jekyll and Hyde personality, I guess — is “a mythological simplification”, for he is not in reality a were-wolf but one with many ‘souls’. Despite fighting against this suggestion Harry has to find that this is indeed true when he is almost forced to live life to the full.
So it is that he, lover of the works of Goethe and Mozart, has to learn to appreciate jazz and dance music, and, moreover, to dance. He has to forget past disastrous relationships and forge new ones with females such as the woman he knows as Hermine (the feminine form of Herman and, in Jungian terms, Harry’s anima), plus the seductive Maria and a dance band saxophonist called Pablo (a kind of Jungian Trickster).
The problem the treatise identifies is that Harry is from a bourgeois background, where one is expected to maintain one’s identity, to seek balance in all things, to value comfort and convenience. Against that he also has intellectual leanings towards asceticism, piety and the spiritual while fearing any propensity towards lust, profligacy and other basic instincts. His nature also draws him to self-annihilation as either a martyr or a suicide, over which he continually procrastinates.
Harry’s journey through the maze of his new life seems to be initiated by the effervescent Hermine, who shakes the Steppenwolf out of his malaise and poor self-esteem by encouraging him to actively participate in dancing, stimulating talk and love-making.
But he remains intrigued by the notion of the Magic Theatre which is “not for everybody”. When, after a masked ball, he eventually is introduced to it he discovers it consists of a horseshoe shaped corridor lined with doors leading to pretty cabinets of pictures. He interacts with moving tableaux involving a board game with tiny human pieces, the terrorist destruction of motor carriages, a tame wolf sideshow, a mirror showing Harry at different stages in the past half century and a performance of Mozart’s Don Giovanni — all representing the different aspects of his soul, no longer torn between two extremes.
The late Colin Wilson in the third chapter of his classic study The Outsider judged this novel as “one of the most penetrating and exhaustive studies of the Outsider ever written.” Harry definitely feels an outsider, alienated from smug bourgeoisie who support war preparations, and from lovers of decadent modern American music, from modernity in general. Yet, as Wilson observes, without him and others like him the bourgeois would not exist: “The vitality of the ordinary members of society is dependent on its Outsiders.”
Any description of Harry as a “misanthrope” is not quite right, for his self-loathing comes from not fitting into the society he mostly despises and not from others of his kind like Hermine, Maria and Pablo. It’s possible now to diagnose Harry as on the autistic spectrum, but then he would have been regarded as schizophrenic for his violent mood swings, verging on instability, as he tries to come to terms with who he is and want he wants and what he needs.
Reading the magic realist scenarios — with their violence, drug-taking and bisexual overtones — as the novel accelerates towards its conclusion one is very tempted to agree that the Magic Theatre is truly “For Madmen Only”; and if much of the novel is semi-autobiographical (as it seems to be) then the author must in reality have been going through a personal crisis. But compared to the bland self-righteousness and insistence on conformity that Hesse’s middle-class contemporaries were insisting on maybe it was better to be ‘mad’ by their standards than to be straitjacketed by their narrow societal norms. It may still be so.
And now an envoi. Am I the only reader to be reminded of another Harry with another Hermione (Hermine is a German form of the name), associated with a portal in a blank wall, a magic mirror, the notion of a soul split into many parts, a wolfman, and a chess game consisting of animated pieces? Was a certain children’s author imbibing themes from a classic she may have read and then unconsciously repurposing them for her own magic theatre?
Steppenwolf is my final read for 20 Books of Summer and another one ticked off in my list for Classics Club
I shall be going for some spooky titles over the next couple of months, as if for Readers Imbibing Peril, but I shan’t be officially joining in as I shall be preparing for Witch Week 2019 at the end of October