Hermann Hesse's Steppenwolf -- Accepting the Shadow

06/03/2017 03:09 am ET Updated Jun 03, 2017

If a work of art could commit a sin, it would be that of leaving those who encounter it indifferent. And perhaps the royal road to indifference is the possession of answers, answers cut-and-dried, prefabricated answers that spare someone the necessity of knowing even the questions. For to have an answer is to possess certainty, and to possess certainty is to cease growing, and to cease growing is to cease existing.

If art could be said to engage in a love affair, it would be a love affair with questions. And a question must be loved before it will surrender its secret. The degree to which someone can live without certainties or answers need not be an indication of immaturity or indecisiveness, but rather a reflection of adulthood and inner strength.

Steppenwolf is a book with few answers and fewer certainties. It is too honest for that. It is in some respects like a newborn child which looks upon the world for the first time with wondering eyes, intoxicated with the delirium of initial discovery. It is in many respects an invitation to renounce the customary and “commonsensical” manner of looking at life, so as to refashion one’s existence according to one’s most deeply-felt desires. It is in virtually every respect a voice from within which faintly whispers: “Become who you really are!”

Every generation that confronts great literature is apt to see in it an expression of its own problems, needs, and desires. Steppenwolf is in this regard no exception. That American youth in the 1960’s saw in this novel its own repudiation of middle-class values, its rejection of mainline respectability, hypocrisy and sham is natural and justified, for all of this is present, and Hesse meant to put it there.

The mesmeric power that Hesse’s novels and short stories exercised over American youth at that time can be largely explained, after all, by the quiet disdain he bore toward establishment values. Punctuating all his writings is the call to self-realization and selfhood, the necessity of becoming one’s higher self, that more authentic inner person one sensed only too well who was being stifled and languishing under the tyranny of society’s Eleventh Commandment: “Thou shalt not be different!” Everywhere in his works the emphasis lay on the primacy and autonomy of the personal, the subjective, and the interior. Hesse’s writings had become American youth’s Holy Scripture and sacred mythology that explained a generation to itself and rallied it to an exalted and clarified existence of higher aspiration.

Yet, like all mythologies, the danger arises when the myth is taken literally and interpreted as the thing-in-itself, when the symbols used to express a vision of life are not understood as symbols and metaphors pointing beyond themselves, but as the reality itself. Hesse needs to be demythologized if he is not to suffer the fate of becoming for modern readers what he regrettably became for many of the 1960’s – a cliché, a commodity, a fetish, and, ultimately, for some, a bore!

The bucolic simplicity of his poetical plotlines, the self-encapsulation of his heroic strivers after deeper authenticity, and the nostalgic intoxication of a bygone world suffusing his moodscapes should not deceive us into believing that all he has to say can be reduced to the trite and escapist formula of “Turn on! Tune in! Drop out!”

Hesse is an artist, and if an artist can be said to “think” in a piece of creative fiction, it is not in words or concepts, not in closely-reasoned arguments or debate-like tactical maneuvers, but solely in images, metaphors, symbols, and visions. At times, artists themselves don’t know what it is they may want to “say.” Rather, they gropingly feel their way along some vaguely-sensed, newly emerging, inexpressible, at times, even alien dimension or realm of experience for which words do not exist to capture its essence.

And so they resort to symbols and metaphors, which – they hope – will suggest at least some vague silhouette, or faintly approximate in some impoverished way a fraction of what hovers before their mind’s eye. The last thing they expect is that their symbols be taken at face value, as if they literally meant what their symbols seem to be saying. They “construct” these symbols as so many metaphorical prisms, through which is refracted a pale reflection of that radiance of a higher vision their symbols seek to convey.

To fail to understand this about art is to fundamentally mistake the artist’s intention. To fall down in adoration before those images by which artists express their vision is to commit the unpardonable sin against art – the sin of idolatry, idol worship, which takes symbols literally when they are meant to be but faint hints, aromatic fragrances of a beauteous presence which lies far beyond.

This fate has fallen like the curse of Cain upon the brow of this novel. For those readers who have taken Hesse and his novels literally, Steppenwolf has been read as a veiled initiation-rite to free-love, a bacchanalian celebration of drugs, and an open invitation to all forms of license and orgiastic violence, when in fact it is none of these.

As so often happens in life, we first act and only then set about finding excuses, rationales, and pretexts that justify what we have done. Hesse’s novel has been prostituted to serve ends which he never intended, and become trivialized by a fashionable pop-art interpretation that has managed to cake itself upon the surface of this work, which results in a complete misreading of the author’s intention.

What are we to make, then, of this lonely, middle-aged gentleman, this wolf-of-the-steppes, as he calls himself, who lives on the borderland of bourgeois society? How are we to piece together the utterly bizarre experiences he undergoes, the twilight characters who flit across his path, the somnambulistic encounters with the Immortals, Goethe and Mozart? How might we divine some semblance of coherence in this hallucinatory nightmare of the Magic Theater?

To bring some clarity into what is happening at a surface-level of this novel, let us briefly consider how the work is structured. First, we have the notebooks or memoirs left behind by a certain Harry Haller. These notebooks are, in turn, prefaced by an editor’s introduction, which seeks to explain the general background of the notebooks, their nature, value, and author. Finally, there is a mysterious third section, “The Treatise on the Steppenwolf,” which is incorporated into the body of Haller’s manuscript. These three components of the novel – the editor’s introduction, the notebooks themselves, and the “Treatise” – represent three different points of view, three separate perspectives, each with its own tone, coloration, agenda, and bias.

The introduction, written by an unnamed editor, reflects what we could call the everyday, middle-class reaction to Haller, a point of view which sees him as an eccentric, disorganized, a somewhat suspicious yet basically sympathetic character. By and large, this is the impression that Haller might make upon the average observer. From this viewpoint, his comings and goings, his lifestyle, interests, and tastes might well appear strange. What we, in turn, must bear in mind, however, is that this editor’s point of view in describing Haller is just that, a point of view, which, in the final analysis, reveals more about the editor than it does about Haller.

Next, we have the notebooks, which illuminate Haller from within. We see Haller as he sees himself. We are therefore enabled to penetrate more deeply into this subterranean phenomenon who calls himself a “Steppenwolf.” We are presented with countless opportunities of evaluating people, circumstances, and events through Haller’s eyes. In fact, reading the notebooks, we come to realize in hindsight that many of the editor’s initial observations were, indeed, shallow and totally devoid of insight into Haller’s character or situation. With our understanding of Haller substantially enriched and given deeper hues through this subjective portrayal of himself, we need again to be cautioned that we have to do here with yet another point of view, which suffers from its own particular limited and fragmentary perspective, as did that of the editor’s introduction.

Finally, we have the “Treatise on the Steppenwolf,” which can be said to embody an ostensibly more profound perspective than the previous two, a more eternal, a more sublime, a more Olympian evaluation of Haller’s state-of-affairs. This point of view, formulated from the lofty heights of the “Immortals,” attempts to situate Haller’s particular destiny along the co-ordinates of the metaphysical.

What conclusions can we draw, then, from this brief structural analysis of the novel? Through the use of multiple perspectives and contrasting viewpoints, each serving to complement and supplement the others, each subtly qualifying, drawing into question, and challenging the others, Hesse seems to be suggesting that truth is a very fugitive being, so elusive, protean and gossamer in nature, that it is immediately rent when forced to clothe only one point of view.

For every viewpoint, taken by itself, may be true, as far as it goes, but false, if it goes no farther. Moreover, every attitude or view of life must suffer from its own inherent blind spot, since each views life through the eyes of self-interest and myopia. Moreover, any theory, philosophy, or party line does scant justice to the infinite riches of truth, which is too vast and mysterious to be caught by our little systems.

These are some of the inferences that brew and ferment below the novel’s surface and can be distilled into the following questions: How can the world as we know it, with all its injustice, corruption, and malice, be reconciled with that higher vision of the Ideal that we want to believe is no less real?

How can we make our peace with what is and with what ought to be?

Do all the noble things in life, all the things that make life worth living – beauty, love, truth, and goodness – are all these real, or perhaps empty chimera of our imagination, comforting illusions, creations of our most cherished hopes?

Why strive to constantly transcend ourselves if it all ends in the grave?

These are some of the questions that Hesse seems to be asking, questions which everyone asks who struggles to be human. To equate this novel, therefore, with free-love, drugs, and dropping out misses the point completely of this searching analysis of the human condition by reducing it to the trite and banal. Such a literal-minded misreading of Steppenwolf permits one to see only the surface action and thoroughly obscures the underlying dynamic at work by focusing on a distracting display of empty pyrotechnics.

Such is the artistry of Hesse’s novels that they reveal only what each of his readers is prepared to receive. Their insights into life are very soft-spoken creatures, not given to flamboyant self-display, but resting self-sufficiently content within themselves, yet are all the more captivating precisely because they are so understated and self-effacing.

Hesse is an author who places great demands on readers who approach his work seriously. He expects that nothing be taken at face value, that no one point of view be fully adopted, that no single character be completely believed or identified with. Everything must be read and evaluated in relation to everything else, everything judged not only within its own proper context, but also in light of what follows and of what has preceded. One must give ear to the subtly-nuanced discordances which arise between character, scene, and dialogue. At times, his artistic intention is revealed not by what a character says, but by what is left unsaid. At times, his intention is conveyed by the contradictions that arise within and among the various characters.

And Harry Haller is a man of contradictions, strident contradictions, contradictions that cut into his soul so deeply that he is driven to the edge of existence in his agonizing attempt to resolve them.

What are we to make of his relentless struggle to reconcile the dual aspects of his nature -- the human versus the wolf, the refined gentleman of civilized urbanity and the primitive beast bent on destruction? This split within his nature is emphasized several times throughout the novel. At times, it is the wolf that gains the upper hand; at times, it is his humanity that prevails.

It is at this point that we must write a cautionary note in capital letters. We should not deceive ourselves into thinking that the treatment given this theme of human-versus-wolf is as stale and predictable as we might initially think. All appearances to the contrary, we are not dealing here with a mere rehashing of the traditional warfare of Faust’s “two souls dwelling within one breast”-motif, immortalized by Paul in Romans 7:19: “For the good that I would do, I do not; but the evil which I would not, that I do.”

Needless to say, this is the human dilemma that has been treated, dissected, and analyzed with critical acumen for two millennia, and it is precisely for this reason that we may be prone to see in Hesse’s handling of this motif simply another variation on this age-old question.

However, if we look more closely at what he is saying, we see something far different taking shape before our eyes. The seemingly over-simplistic wolf-vs.-human metaphor stands for something more complex and nuanced than the platitudinous “two souls” in inner conflict, something uncommonly more labyrinthine than a piece of homespun wisdom about human beings as creatures dangling helplessly between the vault of heaven and the abyss of hell.

Within the context of this novel, this wolf/human metaphor represents nothing less than the Unconscious, that side of human nature which, for thousands of years, lay undiscovered. But, if it had been merely undiscovered, things might have been relatively calm and quiet.

But, for millennia, Hesse is suggesting, this Unconscious had been denied, suppressed, repressed, explained away, so that what we have in Steppenwolf, what we have in Harry Haller, what Europe had witnessed in the First World War, and re-witnessed again in the Second, was the volcanic eruption of this Unconscious in all its fury, wreaking vengeance on humankind for its lack of awareness that it did, indeed, exist and had to be recognized and dealt with in an honest and forthright way.

This novel seems to be suggesting that human beings are not the two-dimensional creatures they have for centuries taken themselves to be, but beings containing within themselves a mysterious inner life, an unconscious level of existence which must be recognized, faced up to, and accepted. The acceptance of this other self, one’s shadow, involves a revolutionary advance in one’s self-understanding. This relationship with one’s dark side permits a person to recognize one’s solidarity with the entire human species. The integration of the Unconscious into one’s conscious existence directs one’s personality into new paths of emotional, intellectual, and psychological health, growth, and maturity.

Through the metaphor of Haller’s wolf-like existence, Hesse is diagnosing the soul of modern man, the disillusionment and inner dislocation of the 20th century, the era of T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland, wherein the traditional beliefs and values that had sustained and nourished Western civilization for two-and-a-half millennia had revealed themselves to many as hollow and bankrupt. The belief in the essential goodness of human nature; the conviction that there was a preordained, divinely-sanctioned scheme of existence; the certainty that goodness, beauty, and truth were Immutable Absolutes, all of this lay shattered for many as a result of Darwin, Marx, Nietzsche, Freud, Einstein, and the cataclysmic events of the First World War.

Numerous were the attempts at reconstructing what were seen as broken values upon a solid basis—a return to right reason and the classical tradition, a resounding reaffirmation of religious beliefs, and humanitarian involvement were the panaceas prescribed by the cultural and moral physicians of the day.

But Hesse saw in these solutions not the remedy, but intensifications of the problem. He, more than many, saw that it was impossible to think one’s way out of this breakdown of values, since it was the very organ of thought that had become diseased.

In his eyes, a return to organized religion was also self-deluding, for it was the very ability to believe that in the modern era had become decayed.

He saw social involvement as escapist, because the resolution of the crisis was thereby not achieved, but simply postponed. In short, he saw in all these proffered solutions, not the remedies for a speedy recovery, but advanced stages of the sickness itself.

Hesse poured modern man’s tragic predicament into the agonizing struggles of Harry Haller. He viewed Haller’s journey through the dark night of the soul as Everyman’s descent into the Hades of his inner self. But whereas Hesse’s contemporaries considered the tumultuous upheavals of the times as the sickness, he saw them as the cure. Far from desiring to impede the further progress of this “illness,” he sought to promote its development and to encourage its growth, for the simple reason that this process of disintegration was curative and healing of itself.

Tragic art arose among the Greeks as a response to the deep suffering they felt at facing the emptiness of the universe. We can understand the dramas of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, says Nietzsche, perhaps only as their means of finding comfort in the depths of their own despair. Thus, where there had been only a frightening nothingness threatening their very reason and sanity, new meaning and hope were invented and given beautiful expression in their passionate affirmation and celebration of life. As he says at the end of his Birth of Tragedy: “How much this people must have suffered to become so beautiful.”

The beauty of the novel Steppenwolf is seen it its heroic struggle with the gods of the Underworld within one’s soul. Modern man, personified by Harry Haller, must learn to recognize his shadow, his dark side, and accept it as his brother, integrate and assimilate it into himself.

The characters of Pablo, Hermine, Maria, as well as the Magic Theater are all means that Hesse employs to bring this message home to Harry. He must forsake his one-sidedness, abandon his sterile seclusion from the simple pleasures of everyday life, and forego his over-identification with the world of the Immortals. “Er muss lachen lernen” (“He must learn to laugh”) at the inner divisions within himself, and at the disparity between the world of the Ideal and the Real, for both are essential to the human condition.

But, again, we risk falling into the pit of cliché, this time that of “learning to laugh” at oneself. The popular meaning of the expression is all-too-familiar – not taking oneself too seriously, developing a sense of humor, seeing the bright side of things. But this is decidedly not Hesse’s meaning at all, but rather – appreciate the ironies of existence, savor them, learn to relish them, cultivate the ability to seek them out, for they are the very stuff and texture of life. See the world as it is, with all its absurdities, stupidities, and foibles as so many sarcastic comments upon the world of the Ideal.

“Learning to laugh” is an invitation to become a connoisseur, a connoisseur of life’s absurdities. Haller must learn not to take himself, others, or even life itself too seriously, for in the final analysis everything is a game, even the way we choose to view it. For one can play all sorts of games with life – make a duty of it, a prison, a testing ground, a vale of tears, or a glorious opportunity for something joyous and beautiful.

On the other hand, Haller must not even take the realm of the Immortals, the realm of the Ideal, seriously, either. Even Mozart and Goethe must be kept at a distance. He must not succumb to anything. Not that what the Immortals represent, the world of the Ideal and high aspiration, are bad things in themselves, but that the mere act of succumbing breeds inner pestilence. Every form of addiction is bad, whether it be alcohol, morphine, or the Ideal itself!

Such was Haller’s addiction, the addiction to the Ideal. His development had been completed early in life. There was no further unfolding, no acceptance of new outlooks, no ongoing enrichment of his nature. Life had wilted in his hands. Animated solely by the Ideal, he could tolerate no admixture of the Real, had lost his way, and thereby sinned against life. He had offended the gods, and his destiny became one of atonement for hubris, his overweening pride and self-glorification.

The Greeks understood this first law of life only too well. The flight of Icarus toward the sun portrays this basic truth in the symbolical language of myth. Attempting nothing less than flying higher and higher into the face of the sun with wings fastened by wax, Icarus plunges irretrievably to his destruction. Man is but mortal and must not transgress human limits, for to do so is to court extinction.

Life demands both the Ideal and the Real, both the ethereal Don Quixote and the earthbound practicality of Sancho Panza. It will tolerate no exemption, for life needs polarities, with the resulting energy between these two poles. One who refuses to bathe in the warm current of the Real is left stranded on the shore, the non-participant doomed to solitude, isolation, and wasting away. Haller’s claim that he be allowed to serve only art and not deal with the mundane aspects of human existence, to walk only with the Immortals and not with his fellow man, constitutes an intolerable presumption.

For none but the gods, none but the Immortals, are so privileged as to live thus apart in unchallenged inviolability and apartness from life. What can man expect, but that life will exact a fearsome vengeance upon him who disdains the ever-vivifying water of the Real. Harry Haller must learn to live, he must learn to feel, to laugh, and befriend his shadow.

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