Steppenwolf by Hermann Hesse

steppenwolf_penguinHermann 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:

MAGIC THEATRE
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.

Bantam books edition, 1969

Bantam books edition, 1969

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.

steppenwolf_penguin2Of 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.’

Hermann Hesse, image from The Dutch National Archives, via Wikipedia.

Hermann Hesse, image from The Dutch National Archives, via Wikipedia.

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…’

Max von Sydow in Steppenwolf

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.

Conan the Hero

I recently read L Sprague de Camp’s seminal anthology, Swords & Sorcery, published in 1963, which was perhaps the first mass-market book to define the genre. De Camp followed it with a number of similar volumes, but the first contains fiction by Poul Anderson, Robert E Howard, Lord Dunsany, Henry Kuttner, Fritz Leiber, H P Lovecraft, C L Moore and Clark Ashton Smith. I love Fritz Leiber’s tales of Fafhrd & the Gray Mouser, and I love Clark Ashton Smith‘s decadent-fatalistic fantasies too, but the story that struck me as the most purely sword & sorcerous, and which most made it clear why its sword-swinging protagonist deserved to be the hero of his own tale, was Robert E Howard’s “Shadows in the Moonlight”. Whereas Leiber’s tales are carried along as much by their playful wit and comic undermining of the heroism of their twin leads, and Smith’s by an archaic word-magic and a deep sense of the cosmic un-heroicism of all human beings, Howard’s writing leaves you in no doubt that Conan is meant to be read as a hero, not an ironic comment on one. And this, to me, seems very much what sword & sorcery, at its purest, should be about. It is hero-fiction.

Much has been made of Howard’s invention of Conan — though perhaps “discovery” is a better word, because in Howard’s own words:

“I know that for months I had been absolutely barren of ideas, completely unable to work up anything sellable. Then the man Conan seemed suddenly to grow up in my mind without much labor on my part and immediately a stream of stories flowed off my pen — or rather off my typewriter — almost without effort…” [Letter to Clark Ashton Smith, Dec 1933]

As Anthony Storr points out, in his book The Dynamics of Creation, a period of apparent creative sterility can be the necessary precursor to a sudden burst of major creation, as a lot of work is being done unconsciously all the while, and although the actual details of Howard’s creation of Conan (his first Conan story was in fact a rewrite of a previously-rejected King Kull story, and many of the subsequent tales went through several drafts, rather than simply “flowing” into being) it certainly seems that the feeling, at least, that Howard is describing was true: in a way, Conan arrived like the solution to a creative problem Howard had been chewing over for some time, and the fact that his first tale was a rewrite of a story initially featuring a different character even seems to back this up. Where King Kull failed, Conan succeeded, and continued to do so. It is as though Conan simply encapsulated that much more of what Howard wanted to say.

So what was the creative problem Conan was designed to solve?

Every author has, in their imagination, an image of the world as it appears to them, and those that create heroic characters can be seen as doing so as a means of finding the perfect person to exist in that world, and to meet its various challenges. (Colin Wilson, in The Craft of the Novel, puts forward the idea that all novels can be seen as thought experiments in how to live, and shows how, for instance, George Bernard Shaw only truly found himself as a writer when he discovered a type of hero who embodied his worldview.) In a way, then, the hero and the world the writer creates can be seen as answering each other.

Take the first Conan story, “The Sword on the Phoenix”. Howard begins by providing us with a villain who is in many ways similar to his hero. Ascalante is plotting to remove Conan from the throne of Aquilonia, and though this may seem a villainous thing to do, we learn that Conan himself has only recently removed the previous king by violent means, so it can’t be mere intent that separates our hero from his opposite — Conan’s Hyperborea is a savage world, and getting to the top by murder is an entirely valid thing to do. Having learned of Ascalante’s plans, we shift to a scene with Conan, which parallels the scene with Ascalante in several ways. Ascalante, for instance, is introduced in the presence of the closest thing he has to a confidante (an enslaved sorcerer, the Numidian Thoth-amon); Conan, meanwhile, is introduced in the company of his closest friend, Prospero. Another minor parallel is how the talk, in both scenes, touches briefly on poets (one particular poet, Rinaldo, is involved in the plot to kill Conan). Ascalante is dismissive of the breed:

“Poets always hate those in power. To them perfection is always just behind the last corner, or beyond the next. They escape the present in dreams of the past and future.”

Conan has more respect for them:

“A great poet is greater than any king. His songs are mightier than my sceptre; for he has near ripped the heart from my breast when he chose to sing for me. I shall die and be forgotten, but Rinaldo’s songs will live forever.”

There are other similarities. Both Conan and Ascalante have small cadres of bodyguards who abandon them at a key point, and both have to face the same final trial alone. But of course the main point is that both are vying (one to gain, the other to retain) the kingship of Aquilonia — and, in a sense, Howard’s entire story-world.

There is a key difference between the two, the thing that makes Conan the hero and Ascalante the villain. Conan is a king, but is coming to realise that it’s not really what he wants. He made an excellent liberator, and slayer-of-kings, but now he’s on the throne, he feels hemmed in by responsibility. He’s not interested in exercising power for the sake of it, but wants to follow his own path, be his own man. Being a king seemed a good way of doing that at the time, but now it limits him. Ascalante, on the other hand, longs for power, and we can be sure he’ll enjoy tyrannising his fellow men as much as he can once he gets it. Ascalante is endlessly duplicitous, plotting to betray even his closest cohorts, while Conan is simply as you find him. If Conan doesn’t like you, he may lop off your head, but he won’t plot against you. And the reason for this difference is that Ascalante is civilised — is sick with the decadence of living at a remove from the pure, savage violence of the world in which the barbarian Conan was raised. Conan is a creature of instinct, appetites and action; Ascalante is a man of plots and plans, vengeance and resentment, greed and need.

This is a theme that runs throughout Howard’s tales. Civilisation, which provides comfort and security, separates men from true contact with the reality of life, and so breeds decadence, corruption, treachery, sorcery and perversity. Conan is a barbarian but is not uncouth — he may be brutal, but he is honest. He is intelligent, and cultured enough to enjoy a good poet, and to want to make an accurate map of the world as he knows it (which is what he’s doing at the start of “The Phoenix on the Sword”), but he’s in direct contact with his instincts, and acts on them without doubt or reserve. His over-civilised enemies, on the other hand, brood and stew their instincts, twisting them into treacherous plots and plans, and perverse desires.

But creating two similar but crucially different characters isn’t enough. In heroic fiction, one character has to prove himself superior, not simply be more admirable. Howard doesn’t do the obvious thing (let them fight it out and have Conan prove himself the better man through sheer physical superiority) but instead has both Conan and Ascalante face a sort of ultimate test of their worth in his world. Hyperborea is a savage place, where often the sword is the decisive factor, but rather like the contemporaneous world of Hard-Boiled Detective fiction, it’s also a world beset by a bleak, Godless view of human life — a grim place of struggle and darkness, where at the ultimate its heroes may have to face the dread, cosmic void of utter meaninglessness. So, both Conan and Ascalante face a being from the “Outside” — a semi-Lovecraftian creature which represents the ultimate awful nature of inhuman reality. (In appearance it’s a giant, mummified baboon-demon, thus combining animal savagery and the supernatural spookiness of un-death.) Before it, the over-civilised Ascalante freezes in horror, but Conan connects with a “frenzied fury akin to madness”, a burst of inner vitality that saves him from his rival’s fate, and proves him to be the true hero of Robert E Howard’s world — a hero fit not just to face savage swords and evil sorcerers, but the bleak truths of the 20th century’s psychological ills, too.

Howard makes Conan credible through an intense belief in the truths represented by the character. Life to him is savage and brutal at heart, so a savage is the best sort to thrive in it, though the only philosophical stance one can take in the face of such a world is Conan’s grim fatalism. Conan is the hero because he and his world are perfectly matched. His knowledge of his world is gained partly through a hard-earned, wide-travelled experience, and partly through an innate understanding of its savagery — Conan regards himself and the wild beasts of Hyperborea as little different, so can think his way into defeating the dragon in “Red Nails”, for instance, by knowing how it will act, and using that knowledge against it. (For me, the most powerful image in all the Conan stories is the one that strikes the greatest contrast with Hyperborea’s savagery —  the ugly alien creature trapped in “The Tower of the Elephant”, a piteous thing longing, above all, for the release of death, because it is so alone. It is, oddly for something so alien, the essence of raw human feeling, totally unsuited to Howard’s violent world, but nevertheless an essential part of it.)

“The Phoenix on the Sword” was published in 1932, only two years after another writer addressed the clash between the individual (the hero) and the repressive nature of modern life — Sigmund Freud, in his Civilisation and Its Discontents. Freud concluded that, in the face of civilisation’s repressive forces, humankind could only lapse into neurosis (which could only be treated by psychoanalysis); Robert E Howard had a different solution — connection with the adventurous savage within, and redemption through sword & sorcery.

In which I mingle with rock stars and academics…

Towards the end of 2009, I was invited to contribute an essay to a festschrift for Colin Wilson‘s 80th birthday in June of this year. Originally to be published by editor Colin Stanley’s Pauper’s Press, the project was taken on by O Books, and is to be published in May this year. I was invited because of my David Lindsay site, The Violet Apple, and so of course my essay was about Wilson’s writings on David Lindsay, and the enormous influence he’s had on the fact that Lindsay is still in print today.

Within the pages of Around the Outsider, I mingle with academics, writers, and several musicians, including the onetime bass player from Blondie, Gary Lachman, whose books (including A Secret History of Consciousness, and The Dedalus Book of the 1960s — which I used in researching my Lindsay essay) seem to me to be continuing very much in the spirit of Wilson himself; and also David Power, who has published a book on David Lindsay, David Lindsay’s Vision (which has an introduction by Colin Wilson).

There’s more about Around the Outsider at Colin Wilson World, and Colin Wilson Online, and it can now be pre-ordered through Amazon.