Tuesday, July 14, 2009

On Steppenwolf

"You have no doubt guessed long since that the conquest of time and the escape from reality, or however else it may be that you choose to describe your longing, means simply the wish to be relieved of your so-called personality. That is the prison where you lie. And if you were to enter the theater as you are, you would see everything through the eyes of Harry and the old spectacles of Steppenwolf. You are therefore requested to lay these spectacles aside and to be so kind as to leave your highly esteemed personality here in the cloakroom where you will find it again when you wish."

Hermann Hesse's novel Steppenwolf (published in Germany in 1927 and translated to English in 1929) feels like the older, more mature sequel to Demian, which Hesse had written in 1917 over a two-week period. Demian followed its title character from boyhood to his service on the front in the Great War as a young man. Steppenwolf, by contrast, concerns a cultured, moderately well-to-do former professor in his late forties who, worn down by what he perceives to be an irreparable split in his psyche, has resolved to kill himself. He is stopped only by the attentions of a young woman whose earthy, carefree personality both contradicts and compliments his own, and who eventually leads him down the rabbit hole and into Heaven and Hell.

Harry Haller has long felt divided between a civilized human side and an eccentric, primeval, socially rebellious inclination he identifies as the soul of a displaced wolf come down from the steppes and into the tidy town of bourgeois respectability (hence the German title Steppenwolf). Like Emil Sinclair in Demian, he recognizes the "world of light" (Sinclair's term for it) as a place of orderliness, convention, and comfort where he nevertheless does not belong, but to which he is inexorably drawn. The wolfish side of Harry's nature, however, daily torments him with its yearnings for something more, for some transcendent ideal to strive for beyond the clockwork humdrum of daily life. While aimlessly wandering one night, he sees lights flickering on a crumbling wall near an old church, telling of some sort of Magic Theater that is "for madmen only." He spots a vendor nearby also advertising the theater, but instead of a ticket, receives a little booklet that turns out to be a Treatise on the Steppenwolf which identifies Harry by name and proceeds to describe his inner turmoil with unnerving accuracy. It then goes on to argue that Harry's sense of his soul as a dichotomous entity, its two sides forever at war, is both inaccurate and simplistic. No, the booklet argues, human beings are large, containing multitudes of souls and multitudes of personalities.

In fact, those who are wholly One with themselves, who are seamlessly unified in thought, action, instinct, awareness, and so forth - these are the mad ones, not the stifled artists and creators derided in Hesse's day as "schizomaniac." (Hesse's view, not mine.) Hitler and his single-minded zealots had not yet risen to power in the mid-twenties, but ominous signs are already evident. (Black-and-white thinking is, of course, very much a part of being an extremist or fanatic.) One of Harry's acquaintances, for all his intellectual powers, falls easy prey to the jingoist rantings of a nationalist newspaper. In their attempts to order themselves and their world, the German bourgeois are ironically heralding their world's destruction. "He thinks nothing of the preparations for the next war that are going on all around him," Harry observes of his friend. "He hates Jews and Communists. He is a good, unthinking, happy child, who takes himself too seriously; and, in fact, he is much to be envied." Harry's wolf aspect prevents him from assimilating into this comfortably numb mindset - a morally and ethically superior position from an historical perspective (Harry has actually written articles denouncing this proto-Nazi movement), but still, it is one which currently causes him pain. He is a part of nothing. He is isolated and stagnant and adrift.

Several days later, Harry, now committed to suicide despite his fear of death, meets Hermine, who draws him out of his cerebral comfort zone and into a realm of decadence and sensation, where sex, drugs, and jazz flow freely and dissolute young people rush gaily to their own tragic ends. (Think of the musical Cabaret, or Mel Gordon's Voluptuous Panic: The Erotic World of Weimar Berlin, which inspired Marilyn Manson's album The Golden Age of Grotesque.) Harry soon feels that he too is speeding toward some unknown, decisive fate. At Hermine's urging, he attends a lavish masked ball where, after losing himself to music and celebration, he and Hermine are invited by Pablo, a South American saxophonist, to his Magic Theater in the basement. The result is a kaleidoscope of visions, scenarios, philosophies, and famous dead people. (Many critics in the '60s saw it as drug-induced psychedelia.) Steppenwolf ends rather abruptly, but the story's climax is well-drawn, and I have to admit I actually did not see it coming despite all the foreshadowing.

Steppenwolf, though grounded in the cultural context of interwar Germany, is also the product of Hesse's own fascination with Eastern mysticism. That's a topic I know absolutely nothing about, so I can't really comment there, but having read Demian, I feel that Steppenwolf definitely builds upon Hesse's earlier ideas of the self as a synthesis of opposing forces. In Demian this is expressed, in part, as the gradual discovery of Abraxas, a Greek god often identified (most notably in Carl Jung's "The Seven Sermons to the Dead") as a union of opposites such as male/female, guilt/innocence, and so on. Steppenwolf, goes further, however, actually disparaging the idea of the human soul as dual-natured and positing that it is instead so many-sided as to be beyond conscious comprehension. Says Treatise on the Steppenwolf:
For there is not a single human being, not even the primitive Negro, not even the idiot, who is so conveniently simple that his being can be explained as the sum of two or three principal elements; and to explain a man as complex as Harry by the artless division into wolf and man is a hopelessly childish attempt. Harry consists of a hundred or a thousand selves, not two. His life oscillates, as everyone's does, not merely between two poles, such as the body and the spirit, the saint and the sinner, but between thousand and thousands.
Harry's acquaintance with Hermine demonstrates that conciliation between the "man" and the "wolf" (as he perceives within himself) is certainly possible (for example, Pablo's ruminations on the art and instinct of jazz), but it takes his trip to the Magic Theater to truly encounter the brilliantly-colored and clashing reality of the individual psyche and all its myriad manifestations.

Whereas Demian was pretty much a straightforward exploration of psychology and individuality, with obvious Jung and Nietzsche influences, Steppenwolf is more subtle and more radical. Its frank depictions of drug use and deviant sexuality were doubtlessly shocking in its own day (regardless of what Voluptous Panic says about the moral state of Weimar Germany - I'm pretty sure that wasn't everyone), but reading it in the twenty-first century, I was more struck by the juxtaposition of Asian philosophy (mostly Buddhist, and probably some Hindu) and the fantastic and hallucinatory. No wonder this book resonated so well in the sixties - were it not for the language (obviously an older style) and my knowledge of Hesse's biography, I would have assumed that that was when Steppenwolf had been written. For instance, the ecstatic "high" of the masked ball:
It was all a fairy tale. Everything had a new dimension, a deeper meaning. There was one girl of great beauty but looking tragic and unhappy. Herman [Hermine dressed as a boy] danced with her and drew her out. . . and she told me afterwards that she had made a conquest of her not as a man but as a woman, with the spell of Lesbos. For my part, the whole evening reverberated everywhere with the sound of dancing, and the whole intoxicated crowd of masks, became by degrees a wild dream of paradise. Flower upon flower wooed me with its scent. I toyed with fruit after fruit. Serpents looked at me from green and leafy shadows with mesmeric eyes. Lotus blossoms luxuriated over black bogs. Enchanted birds sang allurement from the trees. Yet all was progress to one longed-for goal, the summons of a new yearning for one and one only.
What makes Hesse succeed, in my opinion, is precisely this ability to combine art and intellect, as well as vivid pictures and beautiful prose with erudite pondering on complex topics. Demian was, as I stated in my post on it, a novel of ideas in which the characters, though well-drawn, function primarily as vehicles for Hesse to espouse his thoughts on Jung and Nietzsche. That (characters as Hesse's mouthpieces) is present in Steppenwolf as well, but it is also counter-balanced by striking, flowing prose and a suspenseful, forward-moving plot (what is the Magic Theater and why is it "for madmen only"? what will happen at the ball? who will die?). I wouldn't say it's Hesse's masterwork (I haven't read Siddhartha, Journey to the East, or The Glass Bead Game yet, and I believe they are more acclaimed), but it is a worthy novel of a Nobel laureate. I enjoyed reading it and found it wonderfully provocative.

(And there is a LOT more to it, but to discuss every theme and idea Hesse expounded upon would take ten pages.)


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