“Steppenwolf” is a poetical self-portrait of a man who felt himself to be half-human and half-wolf. This Faust-like and magical story is evidence of Hesse’s searching philosophy and extraordinary sense of humanity as he tells of the humanization of a middle-aged misanthrope. Yet, as the back of my copy says, this novel can also be seen as a plea for rigorous self-examination and an indictment of the intellectual hypocrisy of the period. As Hesse himself remarked, “Of all my books Steppenwolf is the one that was more often and more violently misunderstood than any other.”
Keep in mind Hesse’s discontentment and let’s start with a little plot overview: Harry Haller is a reclusive intellectual for whom life holds no joy. He struggles to reconcile the wild primeval wolf and the rational man within himself without surrendering to the bourgeois values he despises. His life changes dramatically when he meets a woman who is his opposite, the carefree and elusive Hermine. The tale of the Steppenwolf culminates in the surreal Magic Theater—For Madmen Only! And there the story comes to an end, a hallucinatory multi-layered climax, as Hermine introduces Harry to the Magic Theatre, which becomes an existential funhouse mirror through which Harry comes face to face with his predicament. Face to face with death. Face to face with the nature of the Steppenwolf.
Now: as you’ve already read in the first paragraph, Hesse believed the novel to be seriously misunderstood. Critic’s riled against the depravity and solemnity in it, where passages on drug-taking and sex where perceived as crude and unnecessary. However, clearly the novel was written in a very different vain. Take the introductory quote, which is taken from the Treatise. Critics fell into the same trap as the Steppenwolf; they disregarded the infinite depth of the character’s, indeed the novel’s, soul.
It is easy to see why the ideas contained in Herman Hesse’s novels had such an impact on Counter-Cultural Psychedelia (CCP.) Timothy Leary wrote of Hesse: “Few writers have chronicled with such dispassionate lucidity and fearless honesty the progress of the soul through states of life.” Indeed Leary saw the chronology of Hesse’s work as a meta-journey in themselves. But what is it in Steppenwolf that CCP owes so much to?
What was misunderstood by critics but grasped by Leary was the potentiality of the protagonist Harry Haller; who in this respect represented a version of the “inner dialogue” that goes on within each and every one of us. We limit ourselves to a course self-definition, a duality in the case of Steppenwolf, when the potential of our being is instead limitless. For CCP this was the literary device of the psychedelic experience. It was the unveiling of our potential experience of existence that was, for Leary, so in tune with not only psychedelic drug use, but counter-culture mentality. Breaking free of the chains that is society’s pre-determined structure; it’s facade dualities. The self-chaining individual for Hesse was the self-chaining society for Leary and both expound the necessity for limitless growth in the individual.
On the back of my copy of Steppenwolf, the blurb says it is a “plea for rigorous self-examination and an indictment of intellectual hypocrisy.” With Hesse being one of the literary fathers of CCP it comes as no surprise that these two observations are so easily transferred into socio-political psychedelic philosophy. Where an affirmation of the individual is so often linked to the obliteration of intellectual and social dogma.
Steppenwolf is considered to be a semi-autobiographical work, reflecting the psychological problems Hesse was experiencing at the time of writing. It certainly seems plausible that it is no coincidence they share the initials HH. Also, Steppenwolf is a story told from 3 different perspectives; the reports of a relative of Haller’s landlady, a strange book given to Haller and Haller’s own diaries. The whole story speaks to our duality, that part of us we call “human” and the part the novel describes as “wolf,” or the shadow side we try to hide. But, as the book suggests, we are more than these two limitations. This novel shows more than the importance of finding an equilibrium between the two parts of us, that is the “human” and the “shadow” within. This is a chance to enter and to get lost in a bizarre environment where you may find that other dimension of yourself. This is another opportunity to accept that the world we see isn’t the only reality. That blurring line between what we think we know and what we sense gets less clear. And that is the good news.
I’m not going to give anything away here – not that there are many “spoilers” to concoct out of this novel. Hesse injects a whirl of thoughts and feelings, sometimes painful and possibly autobiographic, from the necessary tragedy of Romanticism to the bewildering transcendence of Eastern mysticism. While the climax may be highly conceptual and perhaps too ambiguous for some, I must say that I ate this book as if it were my last dinner: reverently. To make it short: I found this book quite hard to read, very heavy in places but beautiful in others. It is well worth persevering as the ending is extremely good. Whilst I wouldn’t go so far as some, who claim that the book changed their life, it is is nevertheless a rewarding and important piece of modern literature.
Book-quote: “We have to play what is actually in demand, and we have to play it as well and as beautifully and as expressively as ever we can.” (Steppenwolf, Hermann Hesse)
You can find an extended plot overview here.
And – for no particular reason at all – this book goes perfectly with this song.