Hermann Hesse says in his 1961 Author’s Note to Steppenwolf (the book itself was first published in 1927), that this is the book of his that is ‘more often and more violently misunderstood than any other’, whose readers ‘perceived only half of what I intended’. And it’s easy to see why. A novel about the passage through the extremes of personal darkness to a renewed interest in life, it does the darkness so well, you can be inclined to think that’s all it’s about.
On a first reading, the thing that lingers most in the memory is the opening sections, where we’re introduced to Harry Haller, the middle-aged ‘Steppenwolf’ dragging himself through a weary, self-conflicted and exhausted life. A highly-cultured writer of independent means, he lives a transient existence, settling in boarding houses for a few months at a time, reading, walking, drinking, and wallowing in a constantly alternating self-disgust and a disgust with the modern world he lives in. Harry, we’re told, is ‘a genius of suffering’, seeing himself at times as a refined, poetic, cultured man, at others, a wild, dark-souled ‘wolf of the Steppes that had lost its way and strayed into the towns…’, constantly tearing at himself with his own too-sharp teeth:
‘For example, if Harry, as man, had a beautiful thought, felt a fine and noble emotion, or performed a so-called good act, then the wolf bared his teeth at him and laughed and showed him with bitter scorn how laughable this whole noble show was in the eyes of a beast…’
But then a little magic starts to seep into Harry’s life. Walking down a darkened street one night, he sees a door where there had not been one before, and above it a flickering neon sign:
ENTRANCE NOT FOR EVERYBODY
FOR MADMEN ONLY!
Something in his weary soul stirs, but the door is locked, and when he returns to try it again, it has disappeared entirely. He finds a man with a sign-board apparently advertising the event (now an ‘ANARCHIST EVENING ENTERTAINMENT’), but in response to his queries, all he gets is a pamphlet. Entitled ‘TREATISE ON THE STEPPENWOLF’, this pamphlet lays bare Harry’s deepest recesses, itemising his beliefs, his poses and psychological defences, while lightly mocking them as the self-delusions of a man who only thinks he’s drunk life to the dregs.
Up to this point, Harry seems the archetypal Outsider (as Colin Wilson defined the type): a sort of unfulfilled genius unable to accept bourgeois life, or perhaps any human life, growling behind the bars of some societal cage he’s seeking to escape or destroy, whatever the cost. This is the version of Steppenwolf that appears in the song that brought me to the book in the first place, Robert Calvert’s brooding incantation on Hawkwind’s 1976 album, Astounding Sounds, Amazing Music: ‘a wolf-man who despises the strivings of common men’, ‘half in love with dark and despair’. (Hawkwind’s “Steppenwolf” is, along with Queen’s “Fairy Feller’s Masterstroke” and Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit“, one of the few works inspired by a novel that equal it in power, in my opinion.)
But after this evocation of a dark, self-devouring and suicidal soul at utter odds with the world he lives in, there comes salvation, though it’s not an easy one. After deciding to end his life, but unwilling to actually go back to his lodgings and face the task, Harry lingers in a late-night tavern, where he’s taken in hand by someone who seems his exact opposite, Hermine, a young woman of the hedonistic flapper generation. She gets Harry to eat a little, and drink a little, then makes him promise to do whatever she tells him to do, as a cure for his desperation. And what is her key commandment? Harry Haller, the ageing set-in-his-ways Steppenwolf, has to learn to dance — and not just dance, but dance to a form of music he despises, the jazz-dances of the age: the fox-trot, the Boston, and the Tango.
Of course, this is just a symbol for the real process Harry and his Steppenwolf alter-ego must undergo. Harry and the Steppenwolf fight because they despise each other, but they are one person. The only way to find peace is for Harry to overcome his disgust at the Steppenwolf’s more earthy appetites for drink, for women, for anger, for destruction, for life. He has to learn to be whole, however ‘uncultured’ or ‘unrefined’ that whole is. For Harry is a man with ‘a profusion of gifts and powers which had not achieved harmony’, ‘always recognising and affirming with one half of himself, in thought and act, what, with the other half he fought against and denied’, suffering ‘the unendurable tension between inability to live and inability to die’. But, as Hermine says:
‘You have always done the difficult and complicated things and the simple ones you haven’t even learned.’
(Or, as he’s later told: ‘You are willing to die, you coward, but not to live.’)
Steppenwolf is based on Hesse’s own spiritual crisis of the 1920s. Just like his hero, Hesse spoke out against the growing fascistic elements in his post-war homeland, and was both reviled and exiled by the German elite of the day. Hesse applied to C G Jung for help, and some of what happens to Harry can be read in Jungian terms. Hermine is his anima, an imaginative embodiment of all he aspires to, all he needs in order to grow and live. As she herself says:
‘Doesn’t your learning reveal to you that the reason why I please you and mean so much to you is because I am a kind of looking-glass for you, because there’s something in me that answers you and understands you.’
But also she’s his Jungian shadow, the symbol for all he has repressed, despised or disowned: ‘Why, you’re my opposite,’ he tells her. ‘You have all that I lack.’
If this is so, then the final section of the book, when Harry finally gains entrance to the Magic Theatre, could be Jung’s idea of ‘Active Imagination’, a sort of self-healing through indulging in vivid waking daydreams and fantasies. For Harry, the Magic Theatre is a corridor with an infinite number of doors, each of which leads to a whole new world, a whole new existence, but always one that seeks to explore some unfulfilled aspect of himself. In one, his loathing for modernity is allowed free range in a war between men and machines, where he perches in a tree and takes potshots at passing automobiles; in another, he’s taught to break his personality into a thousand fragments and play with them like chess pieces; in another, he sees, acted out, the utter degradation of his inner wolf by his civilised man-self — then its equally degrading reversal… Only through living every aspect of himself to its fullest potential, through giving every despised and belittled and forgotten and dismissed part its full value, can Harry achieve unity and new life. As Pablo, dance-band saxophonist and proprietor of this Magic Theatre, tells him:
‘You have often been sorely weary of your life. You were striving, were you not, for escape? You have a longing to forsake this world and its reality and to penetrate to a reality more native to you, to a world beyond time. Now I invite you to do so. You know, of course, where this other world lies hidden. It is the world of your own soul that you seek. Only within yourself exists that other reality for which you long. I can give you nothing that has not already its being within yourself. I can throw open to you no picture-gallery but your own soul…’
Steppenwolf is about a man breaking free of a lifetime self-locked in inner conflict. Harry Haller achieves this by stepping out of reality itself — or, at least, reality as he has come, through disenchanted, weary and cynical eyes, to see it — to something that is magical, dangerous, but also healing and re-humanising. And behind it he glimpses another reality — a world of the Immortals, those greats such as Mozart and Goethe whom Harry venerates, but a world which, he’s at first distressed to learn, is infused not with seriousness and poetry and lofty ideals, but with an all-encompassing, all-accepting laughter. Laughter and fantasy, then, are the cure for Hesse’s Steppenwolf:
‘…the laughter of the immortals. It was a laughter without an object. It was simply light and lucidity. It was that which is left over when a true man has passed through all the sufferings, vices, mistakes, passions and misunderstandings of men and got through to eternity…’
Steppenwolf was filmed in 1974, with Max von Sydow in the lead — a perfect piece of casting. It remains faithful to the book, though perhaps too faithful for anyone who hasn’t read it to understand what’s going on at the end, I can’t help feeling. But it has some inspired moments — visualising the ‘Treatise on the Steppenwolf’ as a sort of Terry Gilliam-esque animation, for instance, really works. But the then-cutting edge video effects that dominate the Magic Theatre sequences now seem so dated as to make the whole thing feel like a bad 80s pop video wed to a 70s euro-arthouse film, all driven by a 60s sensibility. (Plus some truly awful dubbing.) For madmen only, perhaps.