Posted by: Corri van de Stege | October 28, 2007

Steppenwolf

Going for a walk along the riverside in Norwich yesterday inevitably ended up with a quick look in one of the bookshops on the way back to the car.  As if specially arranged for my sake there was a classics section as well as a highly recommended section that hit a number of buttons.  Had I not always wanted to re-read some Herman Hesse, in particular Steppenwolf (and had I not lost my original copy during one of my many moves)?  Was I not looking for another Russian to add to my Russian Reading selection and had I not always wanted to find another Simone the Beauvour that I had not yet read?  So there you go, the full list of books acquired in that session is listed in the Work Room page next to this one.

Herman Hesse – Steppenwolf 

  When I was in my early twenties, a long time ago now mind, I avidly read all of Herman Hesse’s books, and in particular Steppenwolf struck me at the time as exactly mirroring my own confusions about the different demons inside my own head and the bourgeois (read religious) indoctrination that I just could not shake off easily and that somehow or other would forever be part of me.  
   Hesse in the foreword of the Penguin edition that I bought yesterday actually (the 2001 Penguin Classics edition) warns his readers against a too easy identification with the Steppenwolf and that his book is not about despair but about belief.  I don’t think I ever read it as a despairing book however, more of an angry book, a realisation of the near impossibility of ever getting rid of your childhood environment and upbringing, which will leave a stamp that is not easily removed, as well as  very helpfully supporting my inside rage against everything I had just left behind.
   However, re-reading it now the story is clearly much more just that: a story, and not psychoanalysis of a despairing character that is at a loss with itself in a world that he despises.  It is a poetic story, in the magic realism style, of a man called Harry Haller who is handed a little book by a stranger in a dark alley carrying a box which turns out to be a treatise on Harry the Steppenwolf.  This exposition of Harry’s character used to appeal to me at the time, many years ago, and, against Hesse’s advice, I identified closely with the battle of the selves!  It is quite interesting now to recognise the story for what it is.
   Where Harry is different from other people that may also have dual natures, e.g. being a snake and human, being a fox and being human, they are able to have these two different aspects of their character co-exist quite happily and don’t worry about this.  Harry is different in that his two natures don’t go together well, they are at loggerheads with each other ‘When he was a wolf the man in him lay in ambush, ever on the watch to interfere and condemn, while at those times that he was a man the wolf did just the same’.   Also ‘… he was always recognising and affirming with one half of himself, in thought and act, what with the other half he fought against and denied…’ (p.63).  This should not prevent him from being unhappier than anyone else who does not have these opposing tendencies.  However, Harry brings these dual tendencies into his relationships with other people and he therefore puts them off liking him: the one who like him as the refined human being don’t like him as the wolf, whereas those who enjoy his escapades don’t like his love of Mozart and poetry….  Artists tend to be this way, according to the treatise, for ever at war with themselves, but at the same time this gives them their creativity and sets them apart.  Others that fall into this category are people with suicidal tendencies.  Nevertheless, Harry is mistaken if he thinks that he is that simple, he is much more than just two ‘souls in one breast’: humans are much more complicated than that, even a wolf , whose ‘….well-knit beauty of the body hides a being of manifold states and strivings’. 
   I realise that I am simplifying here, Steppenwolf is a very dense and deep-going treatise on a miserable man, a misanthrope, who thoroughly analyses his motives and ultimately shows that such analysis in fact points a way out of it.  Rather than the book being a condemnation of ‘bourgeois’ society which suffocates people, ‘Now it is between the two, in the middle of the road, that the bourgeois seeks to walk’ (p.64), it is really about this searching for an acceptance of what (s)he is.  In addition there are the thoughts on literature and literary theories, on arts and artists.
Nevertheless, my first reading of the book very much saw it as just that rant against everything I was trying to get rid of.  And of course, the book is so much richer than that and is one that you should re-read at least once every five to ten years because it is impossible to absorb it all in one session.
Of course, I do recommend this book, but not as a sleep inducing bedtime reading story…..It still has all the magic it had so many years ago!


Responses

  1. I’ll try and find it here. Thank you, Seachanges.

  2. Jose: it’s definitely worth reading, you’ll enjoy it. x


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