Book # 684
Steppenwolf is the story of Harry Haller, a man who is miserably struggling to deal with two very different aspects of his personality – one of these he views as a man and the other as a wolf. He finds his ‘man self’ excited by the trappings of the bourgeois lifestyle he more or less leads, but his ‘wolf self’ hates it and finds it ridiculous. He is only really happy in the moments where he can feel completely man, or completely wolf. These moments are few and far between.
Soon Haller meets Hermine, a woman who tells him she is just like him, and spends an unforgettable night in a theatre “for madmen only.” The bulk of the novel is Haller’s experiences in the theatre and their impact on the condition of his dual soul.
I was surprised at how accessible and digestible this novel was, based on what I’ve heard and read about Hesse in general. Though I will admit it did give me a few nights of very intense dreams, especially the night I put the book up and went to sleep in the middle of Harry’s theatre visit.
While I know very little about philosophy, Eastern or Western, and have just a basic understanding of Jung’s work, it’s easy to see their influence here.
The multiplicity of the soul:
“In reality, however, every ego, so far from being a unity is in the highest degree a manifold world, a constellated heaven, a chaos of forms, of states and stages, of inheritances and potentialities.”
Humans as a grand experiment:
Man is “nothing else than the narrow and perilous bridge between nature and spirit. His innermost destiny drives him on to the spirit and to God. His innermost longing draws him back to nature, the mother.”
The unimportance of physical objects:
Experiences are our “life’s possession and all its worth.”
And the fluidity of the soul:
“My personality was dissolved in the intoxication of the festivity like salt in water.”
I was very impressed with Harry as a character. His struggles, while extreme, make a lot of sense and express what I know that I certainly feel occasionally – that life can lack a sense of progress or greater purpose, leaving dissatisfaction and lack of motivation. In the end, and I don’t think this is a spoiler, Hesse’s answer for Harry is this:
Just like the radio spoils and beslimes music “and yet cannot altogether destroy its spirit, just so does life, the so-called reality, deal with the sublime picture-play of the world and make a hurley-burley of it…All life is so, my child, and we must let it be so; and, if we are not asses, laugh at it.”
Easier said than done, and difficult to wrap the mind around, of course. Seeing as how we’re alive, living life and have been as long as we’ve had consciousness, we can’t really get an outside perspective on this the way we can on music. But it is helpful as a reminder to relax and remember that not everything is rational, nor does it need to be.
My favorite part of the book was the surreal, bizarre culminating scene (the last third of the book, really) because I was very intrigued and impressed with how Hesse took the conscious thoughts and actions of Harry and developed a fitting subconscious dream-world that served as both a source of and an outlet for who Harry is and what he believes. It’s an impressive feat of writing.