Sunday, 10 August 2008

"Steppenwolf" by Hermann Hesse

I venture on a review of Steppenwolf with some trepidation, firstly because it has a reputation as one of the most complex (and, its author believed, one of the most widely misunderstood) European novels and secondly because I have read relatively few of Hesse’s other works, although I have read The Glass Bead Game, which was instrumental in him being awarded the Nobel prize for literature in 1946, and I have also read Peter Camenzind, albeit about twenty years ago. Also, in Steppenwolf more so than in many novels there are biographical elements, ranging from echoes to direct references, and so a significant knowledge of Hesse’s life is helpful, but I have been unable to find a full biography in the English language and sadly my German is not up to reading anything longer than the text of Winterreise.

It sounds trite to say that Steppenwolf operates on different levels, yet say it I must, for disentangling these different levels, both of narrative and of argument, is important. The book, as quickly becomes evident once we move into the main body of it, is about the nature of personality, intellect and spirituality and here we must introduce our first biographical note. Hesse experienced severe mental problems as a boy, at one stage attempting suicide and being institutionalised. Though he seems to have made a recovery, incidentally by working as an apprentice bookseller, he later became deeply interested in psychology not least because his wife, Maria, herself suffered increasingly severe mental illness, to the extent that their marriage broke up and Hesse himself suffered a relapse. It was then that he underwent psycho-analysis with a student of Jung and also met and came to know Jung himself. Jung’s theories became, and remained, a major influence on his writing.

The book begins with a sort of prologue by the son of a landlady describing one of her lodgers, an odd but harmless loner, the Steppenwolf (wolf of the steppes) of the title, whose real name is Harry Haller. The lodger leaves the son a book on his departure and the novel then takes the form first of an introduction to the book written by Haller, and then the book itself which, it transpires, has been given to Haller by a mysterious man advertising a Magic Theatre which is “not for everybody”. To his surprise, he find that it is entitled “Treatise on the Steppenwolf. Not for everybody.”

We learn from the second part of the book that Haller feels a duality of personality. There is the man, who craves the comfort of a bourgeois existence, and the wolf, who threatens to predominate and must constantly be held in check, who despises the petty pleasures of the world, and the stilted civility of a middle class household. This duality surely mirrors Jung’s division of the self into the conscious and the unconscious, one manifestation of which represents the primitive man (the wolf / unconscious mind), who is driven by strong instincts, and the modern man (the man / conscious mind) who has learned to control those instincts in the interests of social inter-action, but who has also lost something in the process. As Jung says in Man and his symbols:

“I am not denying that great gains have resulted from the evolution of civilised society. But these gains have been made at the price of enormous losses, whose extent we have scarcely begun to estimate.”

The third part of the book increasingly makes clear that Haller’s obsession with this duality is both irrelevant and rather laughable. Rather than being composed of two separate factors, his mind and personality are in fact a complex assembly of a large number, later visualised as a mirror breaking into many shards of glass. Could he but come to recognise and accept this, he would be happy but, as the ending makes clear, he cannot, and that is his real tragedy.

Perhaps one reason why this aspect of the novel was not well understood was that until fairly recently the mind-set of western readers would have been formed entirely by the European Judaeo-Christian tradition, which sees morality as a binary struggle between good and evil, and which states its moral rules in the form of religious dogma. The influence of the more subtle Buddhist tradition only began to make itself felt with the hippy generation, too late for Hesse himself who died in 1962. Again, there is an important biographical point here. In 1911 he went on a long solitary trip to the Far East, partly, one suspects, to escape from his increasingly unstable wife, and there imbibed Asian religions such as Buddhism, as is evident for example in Siddhartha, which was published about ten years later.

Haller the man/wolf finds everyday experience shallow and depressing, craving either pain or pleasure simply as a means of experiencing real existence.

“There is much to be said for these bearable and submissive days on which neither pain nor pleasure cry out … but it is just this sort of contentment that I cannot endure … in desperation, I have to escape into other regions … A wild longing for strong emotions and sensations seethes in me, a rage against this toneless, flat, normal an sterile life. I have a mad impulse to smash something … to seduce a little girl …”

He also finds the ability of modern man to find pleasure in the petty and the trivial almost unbearable, and this increases his sense of isolation.

“I cannot remain for long in either theatre or movie. I can scarcely read a paper, seldom a modern book. I cannot understand what pleasures and joys they are that drive people to the overcrowded railways and hotels, into the packed caf├ęs, with the suffocating and obtrusive music … I cannot understand nor share these joys, though they are within my reach, for which thousands of others strive.”

He encounters apparent rescue from this soulless daily round of existence in the shape of a girl who befriends him in a bar. At first he does not know her name. When he finally asks her, she turns the question round by asking him what he thinks her name might be. All at once the name of a childhood friend, Hermann, comes to mind. She agrees at once that this is indeed her name, but Hermann is of course a man’s name (not to mention Hesse’s own), so Haller now ventures Hermine, its female equivalent, and again she agrees, though suggesting playfully that perhaps she is a boy dressed in girl’s clothing. This sexual ambivalence is echoed later in the novel when she appears to Haller at a masked ball dressed as a man. Again, the book is functioning on different levels. Is Hermann / Hermine a figment of Haller’s imagination? Has his self invented her as an escape mechanism into the world of the everyday and the mundane, hence her teaching him to dance and to enjoy popular music?

There is yet another layer of duality here, in the distinction between the group and the individual. Haller feels isolated from society (the group) not because he does not understand it, but because he does, and feels his own superiority to it. His inability to enjoy the group’s pleasures he interprets as springing from a need to enjoy more spiritual or cultural matters, symbolised in the book by the simple beauty of Mozart’s music. Is Hermine suggesting that in order to arrive at such a view he first needs to become part of the group, and learn to share its experiences before he can properly judge them? Certainly the idea of learning how to synchronise the conscious and unconscious minds is an important part of Jung’s writings.

Hermine finds Haller a lover (her name, Maria, is an obvious auto-biographical reference) with whom he finds genuine passion and pleasure. Hermine insists that this is all part of a ploy on her part to make Haller fall in love with her. Chillingly, she also predicts that he will end up by killing her. Dancing lessons lead to a masked ball, which in turn moves dreamlike into the Magic Theatre. One view of what happens here is that Haller is presented with different possible versions of his self, or at least different possible actions and outcomes, one of the images being that already referred to of the shattered mirror. Is Haller being offered the chance to embrace the multiplicity and complexity of his personality in order to escape from the crippling duality which he suffers?

Certainly Hesse himself seemed to suggesting this, for in 1961 he wrote that the book had been badly misunderstood. It was not a book about pain and suffering, he said, but about “transcendence and healing”; if one was following a Judaeo-Christian agenda, one might almost add “redemption” to the list. If so, then Haller fails the test, because in the final dream-like sequence in the Magic Theatre he ends up killing Hermine with a knife. The keeper of the Theatre expresses his disappointment, picking up the body of Hermine who has now miraculously shrunk to a small doll-like figure. Both agree that Haller has at least learnt something from the experience and that he will do better next time.

If we interpret the book as a dialogue between Haller’s conscious and unconscious minds, then the Magic Theatre sequences represent his dreams. Jung believed that dreams were communications from the unconscious mind and that we could use them to work out the true nature of our self. This process was important:

“For the sake of mental stability … the conscious and the unconscious must be integrally connected … if they are split apart or “dissociated” then psychological disturbance follows. In this respect, dream symbols are the essential message carriers from the instinctive to the rational parts of the human mind.”

All of which goes to prove my starting premise that this is surely one of the most complex novels ever written, functioning on a number of different levels and capable of many different lines of analysis and interpretation. To dismiss it, as Jack Kerouac did, as “stupid and senseless” is manifestly absurd. It is one of the most intellectual and thought-provoking of books, one which both demands and repays re-reading and mature reflection. It deals with the deepest of human conundrums: the nature of the self, the search for self-knowledge, and the understanding of the human condition which can then result. Kerouac, as a student of Buddhism himself, should have realised that.

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