Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Steppenwolf by Hermann Hesse

The doors of the mind blown open
Harry Haller envisions himself as having a dual personality. One half of his nature, the human side, longs for social interaction and a comfortable bourgeois existence. The other half, his animal side, which he refers to as the Steppenwolf, craves solitude and the fulfillment of its savage desires. Unable to reconcile these two halves of his nature, the aging Haller finds himself depressed and filled with revulsion for his pointless, insignificant life. He sets his mind on suicide until he chances upon a sympathetic woman, Hermine, who rescues him from his self-imposed isolation, introduces him to a new social circle, and teaches him to enjoy life again. Though that brief description may sound like the beginning of a romance novel, Haller’s mysterious savior does not so much resemble a love interest as she does a Virgil guiding Dante through Hell.

Hermann Hesse is known for introducing ideas from Eastern philosophy and religion to the minds of Western readers. Though the Oriental imagery is not as overt here as in some of his other novels, there is still a prominent undercurrent of Buddhist and Hindu thought. Haller serves as an example of how one’s view of the self or of his own “personality” is merely a construct of self-crafted illusions. In reality the soul is as multifaceted as the world at large, and this restrictive self-definition only serves to hinder him from attaining peace and fulfillment. The true self can only be discovered by breaking through this psychological obstacle, negating the illusory self, and opening oneself up to the myriad possibilities of life. In Steppenwolf, Hesse expresses this largely Eastern concept through the language of European intellectualism. It reads more like a psychoanalytical treatise than a Buddhist sermon.

The novel liberally departs from realism, as dreams and hallucinations intermingle with the concrete events of Haller’s life, their boundaries often obscured. Rather than a stream-of-consciousness narrative, this novel might be described as stream-of-subconsciousness. On his strange journey of self-discovery Haller encounters Goethe and Mozart, and explores the Magic Theatre where parallel visions of his existence intersect. These hallucinatory departures can get pretty bizarre, at times resembling the sort of pretentious Euro-surrealist film clips that Saturday Night Live used to lampoon in their “Sprockets” sketches. In Hesse‘s skillful hands, however, these disjointed scenes unite to form a vivid encapsulation of the paranoia, disappointment, and disgust felt by many a liberal intellectual as Europe was recovering from one horrible world war, only to embark on another in the not too distant future.

Steppenwolf is much more than just a snapshot of the mind set of its time, however. Though first published in 1927, much of what this novel teaches about human nature is timeless. The opposition between the solitary individual and his social obligations to mankind is an eternal conflict, one that has only been compounded by the dehumanization of modern society. Hesse understands this conflict with precise clarity and expresses it with a fearless originality that enlightens and amazes. When I first read this book as a young, angst-ridden bohemian, it truly struck a chord with me. Rereading Steppenwolf now as a full-fledged member of the bourgeoisie, approaching middle age, I find the lessons learned are different but no less profound.

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