Thursday, September 01, 2011

Steppenwolf by Hermann Hesse


In the first thirty or so pages of Steppenwolf the narrative is presented from three different viewpoints: those of the Steppenwolf himself, the nephew of the woman with whom he lodges and an anonymous psychoanalytical treatise outlining details of the Steppenwolf’s condition. This narrative fragmentation serves as an introduction to the novel’s primary preoccupations: the divided self, human consciousness and its travails, the possibility (or impossibility) of reaching an accommodation between the individual and society; and, finally, the desirability (or otherwise) of suicide as a means of closure.

The introduction, penned by the unnamed nephew, sets the scene by depicting Harry Haller, the Steppenwolf, as an oddity, an outsider who makes no attempt to assimilate himself into polite society. The narrator is simultaneously attracted and repulsed by Haller, but certainly he appears not to understand him. This brief narratorial intervention, not subsequently repeated, serves to establish an objective view of Haller as an outsider before we are taken into his thoughts. More than this, though, when we are first privileged into the thoughts of Haller himself, the preceding, alternative, view creates an ambiguity in the reader which essentially mirrors the confusion in Haller’s own head caused by his schizophrenic division of himself into Haller, man of reason, and the Steppenwolf, manifestation of the savagery within us all.

Thus, we have quickly established the novel’s central premise, the man of society wholly alienated from it and wrestling with the animalistic spirit within him. In the early scenes of the novel we follow Haller as he flows discontentedly through a world from which he feels apart. Then, inexplicably, he is drawn to a sign advertising the Magic Theatre, “not for everyone”, “for madmen only”. Haller is immediately intrigued. It is now that he is given a copy of the treatise which appears to describe him and his condition perfectly. Steppenwolves, it suggests, “have two souls, two beings within them. There is God and the devil in them; the mother’s blood and the father’s; the capacity for happiness and the capacity for suffering; and in just such a state of enmity and entanglement were the wolf and man in Harry.” He is in need of loneliness and independence, it concludes. He seeks to renounce either the man in him or the wolf, one or the other.

The next night, against his better judgement, Haller attends dinner with an old friend, a professor, and disgraces himself through his conduct. It is his “leave-taking from the respectable, moral and learned world, and a complete triumph for the Steppenwolf.” This represents the nadir of Haller’s alienation because, unable to face the prospect of going back to his lodgings (and the prospect, therein, of suicide), he stops at an inn and is immediately engaged in conversation by an enigmatic woman. There is an instant connection between them, which comes as a considerable surprise to the reader, given the depths of isolation from polite society in which Haller has so far been portrayed. Clearly, this woman is going to have a significant impact on Haller, and on the progress of the novel.

So it turns out. She is called (or perhaps isn’t, it is Haller who suggest it to be her name) Hermine. On their second meeting she sets out her conditions: he will obey her without question; he will fall in love with her; he will kill her. The Steppenwolf, finally given a reason to exist, or at least to defer suicide, accepts these conditions. The novel’s progress is established. Haller, a man who detests modernity and its corrupt, baleful ways, who hates jazz and demi-mondaine fripperies, is drawn by this irresistible woman into the very society he abjures. He learns to dance. He even dances in public. He is introduced to a beautiful girl, Maria, with whom he begins an affair. With Hermine’s close friend, Pablo the saxophonist, he experiments with alcohol and drugs. Henry Haller begins to discover himself. The Steppenwolf, that divided element of existential despair within him, begins to dissipate.

The novel builds to a climax at a masked ball, for which Hermine has coached Haller in a number of dance steps. The novel now enters a wholly fantastic episode, in which Hermine appears in the guise of an old, male friend of Haller’s, then as a black Pierrette with white painted face. Finally, Haller is introduced to the Magic Theatre itself, in which the divisions of his soul are fully revealed. As he moves towards self-realisation, towards a dance with the immortals, his experiences in the Magic Theatre – essentially a series of hallucinations – reinforce the message established throughout the novel, that consciousness is not premised on a single self, that there is, in fact, no such thing as a single self, nor even a binary divided self but, rather, each of us is composed of hundreds, thousands of selves, each independent, each assuming ascendancy or regressing into silence as appropriate, each growing and developing over the course of our lives.

Steppenwolf, then, is a fictionalised account of the Jungian psychoanalytical concept of individuation, whereby an alienated individual may finally attain some accommodation with himself through confronting the archetypes which manipulate his conscious and, particularly, subconscious processes. In Haller’s attempts at self-knowledge there is, in fact, something optimistic, even transcendent, but it depends on how one approaches the text. This, I suspect, is why the novel’s fortunes have ebbed and flowed to such an extent over the years: the novel is focused strongly on the individual and his or her role in society; this role has changed a number of times since the First World War and still evolves constantly. Although Haller does, indeed, manage to reconcile the conflicting aspects of his personality, it is still not sufficient to wreak the necessary change in him. Something remains lacking, as it does for others of Hesse’s characters. Joseph Knecht, in The Glass Bead Game, ultimately fails to embrace existence outside the rarefied intellectual atmosphere of Castalia. Emil Sinclair, in Demian, does manage to free himself from the shackles of the bourgeoisie, but that novel’s ambivalent ending, in which Emile effectively melds with the self of his mentor, Demian, is not, at least for this individualist critic, wholly optimistic or satisfactory. And, in Steppenwolf, Harry Haller still cannot, quite, piece together the fragments of his psyche into something recognisable and worthwhile. Thus, any optimism which exists in Steppenwolf must be tempered by a strong degree – one which runs through most of Hesse’s work – of doubt.

Hesse’s professed aim in Steppenwolf, although he complained that this was neglected in critical analyses of the novel, was to offer a humanistic rebuttal of suicide as a means of escape and, instead, to reinforce the possibility of redemption. He insisted that "the story of the Steppenwolf, though it describes an illness and a crisis, does not describe one that leads to death and decline but rather the opposite – to recovery." Given that the novel is significantly autobiographical – for Harry Haller read Herman Hesse – one might certainly hope for such an optimistic outlook, but it is not difficult to see how the novel has been so differently interpreted over the years. Haller’s expedition through the Magic Theatre appears to resolve far from satisfactorily. In each of the rooms he enters he is set tests which he fails – spectacularly, fatally so in the final instance – and any self-revelation which ensues appears to be contingent at best. The game must begin again, he concludes, but while that may be feasible for the immortals who circle around Haller (and, throughout his life, around Hesse himself) this is not an option that time and fate and fatality offers us poor bloody infantry of humanity.

And so, at the novel’s conclusion, the reader is left in a curious limbo. Hesse has undoubtedly opened up the prospect of redemption for his troubled character, but we have no way of knowing whether Haller will ultimately be able to reach it. Which, perhaps, in the troubled times in which Hesse wrote the novel – Weimar Germany in the late 1920s – is as much as could be hoped. And how much things have changed in the intervening eighty-plus years would open an interesting debate.

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