Thursday, May 20, 2010

Steppenwolf - Herman Hesse

Oeuvre rule: I have only read one other book by Hesse--Siddhartha--and that was a masterpiece. It was assigned to me my freshman year in college, and it was one of those moments that is able to make one very pleased with the trajectory of their education. The book carries great wisdom and much profundity. It is about one person's journey towards spiritual enlightenment. And so is Steppenwolf. They were published only a few years apart, and one cannot help but wondering what tumult in Hesse's life may have contributed towards the theme in these novels: Siddhartha posits that the most natural path towards enlightenment is asceticism, whereas Steppenwolf--published later--seems to indicate that enlightenment can come courtesy of magic theaters, drugs, sex with loose women, and conversations with Mozart.

I have to be honest and say that I enjoyed Siddhartha more. Perhaps if Steppenwolf were assigned to me it would have been more enjoyable. But it is certainly more "adult" than that previous volume, and as Hesse indicates in his foreword to a later edition, easily misinterpreted by youth that enjoy the more rebellious aspects of its protagonist:

"Of course, I neither can nor intend to tell my readers how they ought to understand my tale. May everyone find in it what strikes a chord in him and is of some use to him! But I would be happy if many of them were to realize that the story of the Steppenwolf pictures a disease and crisis--but not one leading to death and destruction, on the contrary: to healing." (vi)

What is the story about? Harry Haller, who is about fifty years old, who has been married and lived a past life that allowed him to save up income, but who is now alone, seeking a room for rent in an undisclosed city. The entire mood of the novel is quite postmodern, and many of the surreal landscapes may be reflected in more contemporary novelists like Italo Calvino and Haruki Murakami. For being written around the same time as The Great Gatsby, Steppenwolf seems remarkably futuristic, modern, and especially prophetic--perhaps most clearly witnessed in a short scene discussing wireless technology.

Harry is a very depressed person who longs to kill himself right around age fifty. But more to the point--his personality is split in two sides: the wolf and the man. For the first hundred pages of this novel, the duality of the soul is often discussed. Harry goes out to a bar, and then passes by a mysterious entryway to a Magic Theater "for madmen only." Later he finds a vendor in the area, who gives him a pamphlet--"The Treatise on the Steppenwolf."

This novel is broken up into only a few parts:
-the preface (written by another housemate of Harry's, as introduction to Harry's records)
-the opening of Harry's records
-The Treatise on the Steppenwolf
-the encounter of Hermine, and the new way of life
-The Masked Ball/Magic Theater episode

It is not broken up into particularly digestible chapters, and though the book is scarcely more than 200 pages, there are often long, dense passages that make the book seem longer than 300 pages. Some of the material on the division of personalities in the Steppenwolf is quite excellent and thought-provoking:

"We need not be surprised that even so intelligent and educated a man as Harry should take himself for a Steppenwolf and reduce the rich and complex organism of his life to a formula so simple, so rudimentary and primitive. Man is not capable of thought in any high degree, and even the most spiritual and highly cultivated of men habitually sees the world and himself through the lenses of delusive formulas and artless simplifications--and most of all himself. For it appears to be an inborn and imperative need of all men to regard the self as a unit. However often and however grievously this illusion is shattered, it always mends again. The judge who sits over the murderer and looks into his face, and at one moment recognizes all the emotions and potentialities and possibilities of the murderer in his own soul and hear's the murderer's voice as his own, is at the next moment one and indivisible as the judge, and scuttles back into the shell of the cultivated self and does his duty and condemns the murderer to death. And if ever the suspicion of their manifold beings dawns upon men of unusual powers and they break through the illusion of the unity of the personality and perceive that the self is made up of a bundle of selves, they have only to say so and at once the majority puts them under lock and key, calls science to aid, establishes schizomania and protects humanity from the necessity of hearing the cry of truth from the lips of these unfortunate persons. Why then waste words, why utter a thing that every thinking man accepts as self-evident, when the mere utterance of it is a breach of taste? A man, therefore, who gets so far as making the supposed unity of the self two-fold is already almost a genius, in any case a most exceptional and interesting person. In reality, however, every ego, so far from being a unity is in the highest degree a manifold world, a constellated heaven, a chaos of forms, of states and stages, of inheritances and potentialities. It appears to be a necessity as imperative as eating and breathing for everyone to be forced to regard this chaos as a unity and to speak of his ego as though it were a one-fold and clearly detached and fixed phenomenon. Even the best of us shares this delusion." (58-59)

But you can see within this passage alone one of my few complaints about the book: it tends to get repetitive when discussing a particular concept for more than a page or two. And there are many intriguing concepts that Hesse contemplates, but the division of the soul into hundreds, or thousands of different personalities is perhaps the essential point of the novel.

Harry goes to visit a professor friend of his who has a picture of Goethe. Goethe is an old man in the portrait, but very luxuriously pictured--not at all Harry's concept of the noble poet. This leads to a row, and then a bar visit, where Harry meets Hermine. She immediately seems to understand him, and signals a new phase in his life.

There is a curious scene where Hermine asks Harry to guess her name. He knows that he recognizes something in her face from his own past, and he comes to the same realization as Hans Castorp in The Magic Mountain about Clavdia, the object of his affections. In Clavdia, Hans sees Hippe and in Hermine, Harry sees Herman--both friends from their youth of the same sex. This is a vaguely peculiar coincidence, as The Magic Mountain and Steppenwolf are contemporaneous, as Hesse is two years younger than Mann, as both went on to win the Nobel. It does seem that Hesse may have borrowed this particular trope, but one cannot claim that it fails to comply with the theme of "personality division." Later, when Hermine dresses as a boy for the Masked Ball, or is often described as "boyish," it seems to beg more questions of homosexual "potentialities" than any other portion--but no direct link or answer is proposed. See here for previous example:

Later Hermine introduces Harry to her friend Pablo, a saxophonist that offers him funny cigarettes, rejuvenating powder, and a threesome with him and Hermine. As soon as the book shifts into this phase, it becomes wild and crazy. You forget you are reading something written in the twenties. The Masked Ball is transformed into the Magic Theater, and Pablo becomes the Host that offers its delights to Harry.

The Magic Theater sequence is the climax of the novel and its most creative moment. The kinds of experience one could have in the Magic Theater are only possible via two avenues: dreams, or hallucinations prompted by psychedelics. Harry is offered a strange cigarette upon entrance, and later enters an array of doors leading into different worlds. The first is a world of anarchy, demolition derby, and ideological Marxist murder. Another is a series of living memories of every single woman he has ever loved. Another is a chess game that will teach him how to "build up his personality."

The novel ends in the Magic Theater with Harry talking to Mozart, trying to come to some kind of epiphany about what he has experienced. His journey is a happy one, for the most part, despite a gruesome scene or two, and it seems quite clear that Harry's dilemma is solved by "healing" and not "death and destruction."

I would recommend Steppenwolf for anyone feeling particularly depressed or hopeless, and though I found it to be profound on several levels, had a difficult time "getting into it" or moving quickly through it--except for the last thirty pages.

There is one more personal quality I share with this novel, and it is a short story I wrote in December 2007, prompted by a dream. The story ended up being about a "secret museum" devoted to suicide. There are different attractions inside the museum that lead its audience into some kind of deeper understanding of their personality, or station in life. A friend recommended Steppenwolf and mentioned that it reminded him of that story. And indeed, upon reading it, I was seized with many wonderful feelings of deja vu, leading me to reflect upon the boundaries of the imagination, and the similarities of imaginations. It also made me feel better about that short story. Obviously it does not have the same scope as this novel, but to have written something so eerily similar without any kind of foreknowledge makes me feel like I must have been doing something right. The wait for publication beats on...

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