Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Herman Hesse, "Steppenwolf

– Translated from German by Basil Creighton. Revised by Walter Sorrel. Penguin Books 2011, 254 p. ISBN  978-0-241-95152-1

Read from January 31st to March 24th 2017

My rating: 

In a note of the 1961 edition of Steppenwolf, Herman Hesse, feeling that his novel was wrongly or at least insufficiently perceived by some readers, suggests a reading key that would cover not only “Steppenwolf’s world of suffering”, but also that “positive, serene, superpersonal and timeless world of faith” represented by art and its “immortal” creators. Simply put, he encourages us to always keep in mind, while reading, the dichotomy between the material and spiritual world, dichotomy familiar to those who had already read Damien or Siddhartha.

This reading key will be elaborated by the first narrative voice in a Preface that not only makes a first portrait of the main character, Harry Haller, but also presents some of the themes of the book, such as the insignificant but suffocating bourgeois life, the call of eternity through art, the suicide solution and so on.

The Preface, written by what many a critic named the Editor, introduces also a well-known structural motive: the found manuscript (which, as we’ll see, encloses a second one). This first narrator, the nephew of Harry’s landlady, was left a copybook with a short note that gave him permission to do with it whatever he wanted to. His decision to publish it is sustained by his belief that it is a document of the time, that Harry Haller’s journey through hell is not a solitary one but represents the struggle of a generation,

“…for Haller’s sickness of the soul, as I now know, is not the eccentricity of a single individual, but the sickness of the times themselves, the neurosis of that generation to which Haller belongs, a sickness, it seems, that by no means attacks the weak and worthless only but rather those who are strongest in spirit and richest in gifts.”

And what time and what generation! Let’s don’t forget that Steppenwolf was written when, although the spectre of the first war was still haunting the world, the mankind was inexorably heading towards the second. A trouble and bewildered period that, despite the confusion of values, did not hesitate to accuse the author, when the novel was published, in 1927, of infringing upon public morality because of all free-sex and drogue-use scenes. The autobiographical quality was also accusatorily pointed out, for Herman Hesse was going at the time through a second divorce that imbalanced him for a while, determining him to throw himself in a frenetic nightlife in Zürich. No wonder then that Steppenwolf, together with his other works was banned in Nazi Germany.

Indeed, his outspoken pacifist ideas are illustrated in a symbolic scene in the novel in which Harry, encountering one evening a professor with whom he used to like to talk, is invited to his house. There, two incidents highlight the differences between him and the pillars of the society of his time: one regarding the spiritual world – a Goethe portrait that the hero finds insupportably false, the other regarding the material world – an article the professor agrees with that condemns a certain writer who “had been making fun of Kaiser and expressing the view that his own country was no less responsible for the outbreak of war than the enemy nations.” The social unskilled Steppenwolf puts his foot in his mouth twice, once by criticizing the portrait and thus inadvertently offending the professor’s wife who was its author, and second by disclosing to the already outraged host that he was the unpatriotic writer:

“…this disagreeable evening had much more significance for me than for the indignant professor. For him, it was a disillusionment and a petty outrage. For me, it was a final failure and flight. It was my leave-taking from the respectable, moral and learned world, and a complete triumph for the Steppenwolf. I was sent flying and beaten from the field, bankrupt in my own eyes, dismissed without a shred of credit or a ray of humour to comfort me. I had taken leave of the world in which I had once found a home, the world of convention and culture, in the manner of a man with a weak stomach who has given up pork.”

One of those nights in which the hero was feeling more and isolated and alien among people, a “madman” who did not care to understand modern music, modern behaviour and modern beliefs, while wandering the streets after drinking in a bar, is handed a booklet (the found manuscript motive, again), called “Treatise of the Steppenwolf” whose content is included in its entirety in the main manuscript. The treatise explains to Harry that although he is aware of his double essence - wolf and man, he oversimplifies this knowledge, for only a body is singular, never a soul and the idea that the ego is a manifold entity is an illusion perpetuated by literature. With the Original Sin the singleness was lost, this is why everything that is created is guilty and only the increate is pure. Given that, you can never go back, you can only go on and accept life as it is:

“When Faust, in a line immortalized among schoolmasters and greeted with a shudder of astonishment by the Philistine, says: ‘Two souls, alas, dwell in my breast!’ he has forgotten Mephisto and a whole crowd of other souls that he has in his breast likewise. The Steppenwolf, too, believes that he bears two souls (wolf and man) in his breast and even so finds his breast disagreeably craped because of them. The breast and body are indeed one, but the souls that dwell in it are not two, nor five, but countless in number. Man is an onion mad up of hundred integuments, a texture made up of many threads.”

The treatise ends with the warning that suicide is not a solution, only a “longer and wearier and harder road to human life”, warn that Harry disregards while preparing to take his own life. He has no family (his wife left him long ago) and no one to be missed by, except maybe his lover Erica, whom he sees rarely and with whom he almost always quarrel. It seems to him that the whole civilization is nothing that an enormous cemetery where the names of the great men like “Jesus Christ and Socrates, Mozart and Haydn, Dante and Goethe” are better known than what they stood for.

The night he decided was his last on Earth he encounters Hermine, and through her Pablo, both keen to reveal to him the way of embracing life without being swallowed by it. The romantic motive of the double, like that of the found manuscript, gains thus in complexity: not only has Harry a dual form, animal and man, he has also a feminine double, Hermine, and a more skilled alter ego, the master puppeteer Pablo.

It’s Hermine who, like an orphic priestess, initiates Harry in the mystery of life through physical love and physical music, teaching him all about sex and dance. In one of the most powerful dialogues of the book, she explains to him that this initiation is necessary to understand what separates him from the material world and what puts him in the spiritual one, among the immortals:

“’It has always been so and always will be. Time and the world, money and power belong to the small people and to the shallow people. To the rest, to the real men belongs nothing. Nothing but death.’
‘Nothing else?’
‘Yes, eternity.’
‘You mean a name, a fame with posterity?’
‘No, Steppenwolf, not fame. Has that any value? And do you think that all true and real men have been famous and known to posterity?’
‘No, of course not.’
‘Then it isn’t fame. Fame exists in that sense only for education, it is a matter for the schoolmasters. No, it isn’t fame. It is what I call eternity. The pious call it the kingdom of god.’

Last but not least, it’s Pablo who shows to Harry the artificial and ludic character of life, by inviting him to be an actor in his theatre, and shattering his personality into a million pieces he encourages to reorganize as he likes it, while leaving behind both the Harry-in-the-mirror, who only waited for death, and the Harry-in-front-of-the-mirror, the “dead-weary pilgrim” who had carried his knowledge and the world knowledge like Sisyphus his rock. And it is Pablo who sanctions the confusion he made between illusion and reality and his lack of the sense of humour by bringing him in front of a tribunal that condemns him to be banned twelve hours from the theatre and to be laughed out of court. A provisional sentence in the ephemeral world, followed by a definitive one, the condemnation to eternal life.

The new-gained wisdom makes Harry end  his manuscript in a note of hope that the Homeric laughter will one day help him escape the fate of being caught between the two worlds:

“One day I would be a better hand at the game. One day I would learn how to laugh. Pablo was waiting for me, and Mozart too.”


Although I did not like Steppenwolf as much as Damien, or Siddhartha or The Glass Beads Game (I must absolutely re-read this last one), the narrative mesmerized me all the same with that ineffable quality of its style: a serene melancholy, a non aggressive erudition that puts Herman Hesse, definitely, among the “immortals”.

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