For Madmen Only

Hermann Hesse (1907) by Ernst Würtenberger

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:


And then, after vainly trying to open the door, the Steppenwolf sees reflected on the road surface the words


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

30 thoughts on “For Madmen Only

  1. I’ve read others by Hesse but not this. It also reminds me of certain themes and motifs in Robertson Davies, who has his own carnival of grotesques (but with a very different mood, it seems). Thanks for the very interesting exploration!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. There are so many of these novels with similar themes, Lory, convincing me we have a kind of morbid fascination with the otherworldliness of travelling shows, carnivals, circuses, burlesque and the like: we saw it in Bradbury’s Something Wicked, it’s there in Carter’s The Magic Toyshop (I’m reading another Carter just now), The Circus of Dr Lao, Davies’ World of Wonders of course, and so on.

      Writing this review was my way of trying to explain this novel’s weirdness to myself, and if it helped you and others then so much the better!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Love your review, Chris! It’s very passionate and incredibly insightful, plus it sheds a light on the ever-present question of why Harry and Hermione were never an item 😉

    I must admit I started reading Steppenwolf back in highschool but put it down then and resolved to come back to it once I’m closer to the author’s age at the time of writing 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Don’t delay, read it today!

      Seriously, I think that it’s possible to get a lot out of this at any age, Ola, but only after one has got at least a bit of life experience under one’s belt (this would have been completely mystifying to me as a teenager, even if I recognised a fellow sufferer).

      Something I didn’t really touch on was of Hesse really being an ‘alien’, for I believe that by the time he wrote this he’d moved to Switzerland to escape the growing excesses of German jingoism. Anyone who’s moved away from a childhood home or country will understand to some extent the disorientation that the Steppenwolf felt, adding to his identification of being a wolf in sheep’s clothing. I do know that after nearly a decade of growing up in Hong Kong I found living in the UK like existence on a different planet.

      I know that Jo Rowling has reportedly said she now regrets not allowing Harry and Hermione to get together, but I think she made the right call at the time.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. You’ve definitely rekindled my interest in this book, Chris! I have similar experiences, first in the US and then back in Poland, and now in NZ, so I’m curious if I could relate to Hesse.

        As for Rowling, I must admit I’m not a fan of her retconning efforts in Potterverse. That said, I wasn’t and still ain’t sold on Ron-Hermione pairing, but I’m not sure Harry with Hermione would be a good choice either 😉

        Liked by 1 person

  3. I feel like I just listened into an adult conversation. It reminded me of some childhood memories of sneaking into the local mental hospital and not wanting to know what was behind the portals of the corridor. Mother was a nurse there and I had heard things not to ever be understood, for the madmen that walked freely of the place seemed to be the staff! Oh and thanks, I picked up an unfamiliar word: envoi

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m grateful you appreciated this. Knowing a bit of Hesse’s biographical background I suspect that a spell in an asylum as a teenager must have had a profound effect on his maturing personality, and perhaps the Magic Theatre reflected some of that experience. I wonder how your own experiences sneaking, as you put it, into that hospital impacted on your adult life choices?

      Yes, envoi is a great cover-all term, part postscript, part parting-shot, even a bit of “oh, by the way”. Something to send you on your way to further ruminations!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. The place was called St Crispin. As a child I recall the huge gates, then as a teen they were taken down. A murder in the local lych gate of one patient of another. Of being chased by a man acting like a zombie, while being given a “backy” meaning I was on the back of the bike and my friend was doing all the peddling on the front. I recall the smells. The staircases. The drugged up people. Lots of things, including the bluebell woods that lifted my spirits, but also frightened me, for who knows who lurked in it…

        Liked by 1 person

      2. envoi, for some gentle souls St Crispin was their home. One such woman would come and visit our home, have a cuppa, try to get the budgie to say my name and brought me little presents from the hospital shop. Her clothes smelt of carbolic. She had learning difficulties and wasn’t ill at all. I think she could have had a much better life if she had been given the chance, but was institutionalised from an early age.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. It’s really awful how people, as you say, were institutionalised at an early age, unable to live a life to their full potential, and with continual cuts to social services it feels as if we’re still failing a whole new population, albeit in a different way. ☹️

          Liked by 1 person

  4. I’ve picked up, then put down, this novel so many times… and now you post a review that tells me I’ve been missing something special.

    I like your Harry and Hermione parallel. Though I’ve only read one and half of those novels, it does sound like there are some remarkable coincidences.

    Congratulations on completing your 20 books.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. To be honest, Cath, in years gone by I’d’ve done much the same, and at one point there was so much self-pity (deliberately so, for effect and contrast) that I nearly gave up, or at least temporarily put it aside — glad now I didn’t!

      There were a couple of Potter boys more or less contemporary with Rowling when she was at a primary school at Bristol, but neither was called Harry. Seeing that Harry Haller and Harry Potter have a similar musical ring to them I wouldn’t be surprised if the sound of one hadn’t suggested the other. I rather hope it did! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thanks, Chris, you’ve made me even more determined to read Hesse, now. Apart from anything else, I like a challenge, especially when I’ve had a hint that it will be worthwhile. I feel I’ll have an advantage now that I’ve been given some hints about how and what the writing is doing. This is rather like picking up a second hand copy with some good notes scribbled in the margins!

        I like your Harry Potter reasoning.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. I personally require navigational aids when confronted with a new novel. Much fiction comprises a clear story arc, tragic or comic (in the broadest sense) with beginning, middle and end. (You’ll be familiar with this, of course, I fear I’m metaphorically trying to teach my grandmother to suck eggs!)

          But Steppenwolf confounds expectations — a couple of false starts, it seems, a sudden lurch from the mundane to magic realism, and resolution that doesn’t quite resolve with either a happy or sad ending — you get the picture. Once all that is realised then it’s easier to focus on what’s being said.

          With my musician’s hat on I see it as “through-composed”, defying attempts to identify the equivalent of a binary or ternary structure, theme and variation, or sonata form.

          Liked by 1 person

            1. Through composition tends to be associated with classical music, but pop examples usually cited usually include The Beatles’ Happiness is a Warm Gun and Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody. While there is some internal repetition essentially both pieces consist of one distinctive sections after another.

              Liked by 1 person

  5. piotrek

    Very interesting analysis of one of my favourite books. I actually felt a connection with Harry when I was in high school. Well, I used to hear I seem to be an old man in young man’s skin since mid-primary school 😉 Unsurprisingly, Wilson’s “Outsider” also influenced me much, or so I thought but now I realised I don’t remember much, one more book to re-read…
    “Steppenwolf” is well worth reading, and out of three or four Hesse’s novels this one made the biggest impression on me. I quite liked “The Glass Bead Game”, but it was very long and complicated, and I probably wasn’t ready then.

    I have to admit I did not think of the “Steppenwolf” as a possible inspiration for Rowling, that’s an intriguing thought, I like it! More than Rowling’s afterthought that perhaps they should have ended together. Some readers care about such things way too much…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I still have my copy of Wilson’s The Outsider from way back when, Piotrek; I think I only dipped into it as there were huge chunks about writers I’d never even heard of which I know I skipped. I’d previously read some H P Lovecraft (including his short story ‘The Outsider’) and Wilson’s The Occult and was trying to understand where Wilson had started. Plus I was definitely myself feeling an outsider, perhaps like you! I shall have to read it from cover to cover now. And I’ve got a brand new copy of The Glass Bead Game to replace my lost old falling-apart Penguin edition, have to fit that in my rereading schedule now.

      I do fancy the Steppenwolf as a literary ancestor of The Boy Who Lived, but I don’t expect JK to necessarily admit to that. Just imagine, if an ‘expert’ exorcist thinks Avada Kedavra and Crucio are genuine curses what will benighted school principals make of the drug abuse, fornication and homosexuality in Steppenwolf? They’ll need to mumble ten thousand Pater Nosters while sitting in a holy water stoop self-flagellating to protect themselves from gross moral contamination.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. piotrek

        Oh yes, adding drugs and free love to magic might have made Potter banned in half the world 😀

        I still do feel an outsider, but nowhere near as strongly as I did back then… both Hesse and Wilson were just perfect books for such a special teenager 😉

        Liked by 1 person

        1. There’s a childhood stage which most of us go through when we become self-aware, when we realise we as individuals are not the centre of the world, that society is not there just to service to our wants and needs. It’s then that we’re most likely to have that inkling of being an outsider, and for some of us that alienation (of being a-lien, ‘not-of-that-place’, like Camus’ l’Étranger) never quite leaves us. Well, me, in particular!

          Drugs and free love at Hogwarts? Maybe that’s what the term ‘Potterhead’ really refers to?! 😁

          Liked by 1 person

          1. piotrek

            Well put 🙂

            I… have spent a while in the world of Potter fanfiction. There is plenty of both to be found there. There are stories I will never be able to erase from memory. Even if I want to 😉

            Liked by 1 person

            1. Ah, fanfiction, not a world I’m drawn to though I understand its appeal! Do you think modern retellings of Shakespeare and the like count as fanfiction? Now there’s a genre that does appeal. 🙂

              Liked by 1 person

            2. piotrek

              Well, as far as i’m concerned, the difference between Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and Potter fanfiction is in the former’s author to monetize his work, as the IP is in public domain…

              Liked by 1 person

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