Monday, May 30, 2011

Hermann Hesse: Steppenwolf

Warning: I will discuss significant plot elements and the endings of various works.

It’s been several decades since I last read Hesse’s Steppenwolf, so I was curious as to how well it would hold up and how I would understand it now, a half century later. At the end, I thought it still a very interesting and intriguing work, but my understanding of it now is quite different from what I understood the first time I read it. When I first read it, I saw it as a novel in isolation, something unique. Now, I see that Steppenwolf has its relatives; it does not exist in isolation.
Steppenwolf has essentially a two-part structure. Part One consists of defining Harry Haller’s personality, his conflicts, and his relationship to post-war society in Germany. Haller reveals himself and learns even more from a remarkable “free pamphlet” he is given —Treatise on the Steppenwolf: Not for Everybody.
In the second part, Harry meets the classic prostitute with a heart of gold who makes it her goal to teach Harry how to live and enjoy himself. Her lessons involve sex, drugs, and the fox trot. At the end, in the Magic Theater, Harry embarks on a trip of self-discovery with a rather unique goal—he is to learn to laugh.
Harry Haller can be seen in several different ways. One is that of the respected academic who is torn by conflicting feelings about himself and his relationship to society--a sense of isolation or alienation. Another would be that of a seeker who is searching for enlightenment. Yet, another would be that of a man undergoing a severe depression. One more might be what is called a “mid-life crisis” in pop psychology. The work would support any of these views, but the ending seems to support the second theory—that of the seeker searching for enlightenment, in a Buddhist sense, that is. This would give it ties to another work of his, Siddhartha, about which I posted a short commentary a short time ago.
Harry, though, sees himself as two conflicted beings: the respected academic and the Steppenwolf, the outsider, the free creature who is outside civilization. Frankly, however, Haller comes across, to me anyway, more like an wolf/dog who has run away, but who also clings to the outskirts of human society, fearing to enter, but unable to leave.
While reading it the second time, I was reminded throughout of several works which seemed, to me at least, to share common themes: Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground (1863), Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy ( 1872), and Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice (1911). Steppenwolf was the latest of the four, first published in 1927.
I think Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy serves as a unifier of all three works. Nietzsche’s definition of the Apollonian and Dionysian tendencies in human culture is exemplified by the three main characters: the German Gustave Aschenbach, the respected professor in Mann’s Death in Venice, the Russian underground man in Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground, and Harry Haller..
Nietzsche describes the Apollonian mind as possessing “that measured restraint, that freedom from the wilder emotions, that calm . . .” It is characterized by an intellectual, reasonable, temperate, and controlled life. The Dionysian is characterized as “chaos,” “a terror,” “blissful ecstasy,” or “intoxication,” “complete self-forgetfulness,” or ”union with nature.” It is the unpredictable, the irrational, the “uncivilized.” In other words, it is the two sides of human nature, antithetical but both necessary to art, to society and to culture—control and restraint civilization versus excess and extravagance and nature—the yin and yang of the Taoists.
The Notes from Underground has a structure that is similar to Steppenwolf. The first part consists of an extended passage in which the underground man (UM) reveals himself. He is a civil servant who has come into a small inheritance and has retired. He is an outsider with no friends or relatives. He lives in isolation. He sneers at society, but at the same time longs to join them, to be one of them, just as Harry mocks the bourgeoisie, but always lives among them and gains honor and respect as an academic.
In the second part, the UM forces himself upon some former student acquaintances who are giving a going-away party for one of the students. It is here we see, just as in Steppenwolf, the protagonist in action. The UM insists on attending the party, while mocking himself and eventually the others. He desires to be one with them, but actively works to make this impossible.
In the second part of Steppenwolf, Harry Haller meets Hermine who introduces him to a life of pleasure and sensuality drugs, music—especially dance music, alcohol, and sex—most of which Harry has sneered at in the past. Like the UM, Harry is immersed in society, but can’t really join them. Hermine is necessary to help him break out of his straitjacket, before he can move on.
The UM also meets a prostitute in the second part, but his encounter is quite the opposite of Harry’s. Where Harry is induced to join the pleasure seekers, the UM persuades Liza to escape from the life of a prostitute. However, when Liza appears at his apartment the next day, telling him that she wants to escape, he rejects her and sends her away.
Like Harry Haller, Thomas Mann’s Gustave Aschenbach is a respected academic. Unlike Haller, Aschenbach has dedicated his life to research and writing, with no contrary thoughts. Being a Steppenwolf is something Aschenbach has never considered throughout his life. However, at the beginning of Death in Venice, Aschenbach is tired, overworked, and sleeping badly. He decides to go for a walk, in hopes of reviving himself for another evening of productive work.
During the walk, he sees a traveler bearing a rucksack on his back, and this produces a most surprising emotional response: “the most surprising consciousness of a widening of inward barriers, a kind of vaulting unrest, a youthfully ardent thirst for distant scenes—a feeling so lively and so new, or at least so long ago outgrown and forgotten that he stood there rooted to the spot . . . a longing to travel. . . such suddenness and passion as to resemble a seizure . . .”
He ”imaged the marvels and terrors of the manifold earth. He saw. He beheld a landscape, a tropical marshland, beneath a reeking sky, steaming, monstrous, rank—a kind of primeval wilderness-world of islands, morasses, and alluvial channels. Hairy palm trunks rose near and far out of lush brakes of fern, out of bottoms of crass vegetation, fat, swollen, thick with incredible bloom. There were trees , misshapen as a dream . . .”
Nietzsche would recognize this as a Dionysian seizure, emerging from decades of a controlled life of mental activity. Unlike Haller though, Aschenbach has not led a tormented life of struggle between the two tendencies but had successfully suppressed that aspect of his personality. Now the desire to travel, actually more of an escape from his life of dedication to the intellect, has taken over and he flees to Venice. It is in Venice that he sees the Polish youth Tadzio and forgetting all restraint, becomes obsessed with him. Like Haller, he puts aside his Apollonian measured and controlled existence for the chaos and excesses of the Dionysian.
The three works conclude quite differently and, in fact, cover the possible spectrum of endings. The UM apparently is trapped in his self-induced isolation, with no exit seemingly possible. Aschenbach’s obsession ends in death. Haller really comes to no end in the work for he is now trapped in the Magic Theater.
“I would sample its tortures once more and shudder again at its senselessness. I would traverse not once more, but often the hell of my inner being.
One day I would be a better hand at this game. One day I would learn how to laugh.”
This has the flavor of the Buddhist belief that all are trapped within the endless cycle of birth and death until one becomes enlightened and now free to achieve the ultimate goal of existence—Nirvana. For Harry, the goal is to laugh the laugh of the immortals.
Is it coincidence that Harry Haller’s initials are HH, as are those of the author?
Overall Reaction: a remarkable book, which I now find richer and more thought-provoking than I found it the first time around, when it did not bring to mind the works of Nietzsche, Mann, and Dostoyevsky. No doubt there are other works that other readers can bring to mind while reading Steppenwolf.


  1. I also read this book many years ago-upwards of 40-I am glad it stood up to a second reading for you-

  2. mel u,

    It stood up, but as I mentioned in the post, I saw it quite differently.

  3. I should read this again as well.
    I saw the movie with Max von Sydow years ago on TV. It happens to be set in my home town, where Hesse started to write his book.
    The initials are decidedly not a coincidence. Hesse wrote this book at an absolute low point of his life, was contemplating suicide.

  4. Caroline,

    I saw the film several weeks ago--a decent effort, but it was rather shallow in comparison to the complex novel it was based on.

    I think there's another set of "HH's" in the book. There's a reference in the novel to a poet whose name is Heine. I wonder if that is Heinrich Heine. I just glanced at the Wikipedia entry about Heinrich Heine, and he supposedly was called "Harry" until he was baptized years later and then called Heinrich.