Steppenwolf, by Hermann Hesse
This is a strange book. I’m glad that I chose to read it. Compared to the past group of books, which were about God’s comfort and Buddhism enlightenment, this book focused more on the pessimistic aspects of life. The tone of this book is in stark contrast to “Anxious for Nothing” and “You and Me forever.” Where these books celebrated life and encouraged us to be joyful, “Steppenwolf” opens with a dark, despairing, isolating depiction of life.
First, my notes on the preface. The author of the preface is Steppenwolf’s roommate. For a short period of time, the narrator and Steppenwolf lived in the same house. During this time, the narrator observed a very strange man. He describes the appearance and behaviors of Steppenwolf. The objective of the preface is to paint a picture of Steppenwolf’s character. In the proceeding chapter, we will actually read a manuscript written by Steppenwolf after he leaves the narrator’s life. Steppenwolf, whose true name was Harry Haller, was an emotional and “intellectual” man. He walked with a limp and seemed to be in poor health. He spent most of his time drinking wine, reading books, and thinking. The narrator describes one particular scenario where he found Steppenwolf sitting in the middle of the stairs in a complete trance, completely oblivious to his surroundings. Steppenwolf followed no regular seep schedule, no regular eating schedule, and he had an aura of intellectual superiority. But it was not an arrogant superiority; it was a pitiful type of intellectual supremacy. He felt bad that other people did not understand. He pitied the ignorance of other people; he was genuinely sad for them. It will be interesting to get a glimpse into this man’s mind. Why was he pessimistic about life? What did he learn? What can I learn? What does the name “Steppenwolf” mean?
I was able to answer one of my questions immediately. What is a “Steppenwolf?” Harry begins by telling us about the bitterness of life. He is a miserable old man. He spends many pages telling us about his foul mood and pessimistic outlooks on life. It’s a very miserable text, but well written. I think that we can all relate to Harry at times. Life is not always joyful or pleasant. Sometimes, it is harsh and unfair. Sometimes we feel isolated from everybody, alone in a big world, where nobody understands. We all feel miserable sometimes. Hence, we can all relate to Harry.
In Harry’s first tale, he wanders the streets and alleys until he comes across a sign that reads,
ENTRANCE NOT FOR EVERYBODY
FOR MADMEN ONLY!
He is intrigued but not able to find the entrance to the Magical Theater. Later in the evening, Harry spots a boy carrying a sign that says,
ENTRANCE NOT FOR EVERYBODY
Harry asks the boy about this Magical Theater, but he is unable to get an adequate response from the boy. Harry’s hope was that the theater would offer the type of music and dancing that suited him best. While walking down the alley, he passed several clubs where the normal people were dancing and drinking. The smells and sounds of these popularized venues repulsed him. He could smell the human sweat and the booze, and he could hear the detestable club music filled which was filled with vitality. The effervescence repulsed him. He hated it. His hope was that the Magic Theater would offer something different. Disappointed, he turns towards home, back to his books by Novalis and Dostoyevsky, and back to his music by Mozart and Goethe. On his trek home, he catches his eye on a pamphlet title, “Treatise on the Steppenwolf.” It is in this treatise that we learn the definition of “Steppenwolf.”
Steppenwolf refers to a type of person that has a split personality: (1) man and (2) wolf. These two beings are always in conflict with one another. In reality, every person is made of thousands of personalities. The Steppenwolf is different. He is an independent creature. He looks down upon the bourgeois people. He feels separated from them. He is alone and joyless. He despises the bourgeois people. These people live halfway between total commitment to God and total commitment to the flesh. They seek to obtain happiness by accepting slices from both sides of the pie. The bourgeois person desires only safety and comfort. Steppenwolf is so isolated that he often considers suicide. Our Steppenwolf tells a tale, where he attempted suicide once with drugs, but he failed. But he firmly decides that at age 50, he will kill himself. This is his decision. We never learn if Steppenwolf reaches 50 and commits suicide, because this is not the novel’s path.
Here, I will jump to the ending. The story culminates in Harry’s adventures in the Magic Theater. The Magic Theater is an imaginary world created by Pablo’s drugs. I don’t know what kind of drug? But it sounds genuinely interesting. I would actually like to try Pablo’s drug and explore the Magic Theater for myself. Anyway, in this Magic Theater, Harry sees many doors, each labeled with unique signs. First, he enters the door that reads, Joy Hunting: Great Hunt in Automobile. Behind this door, we experience a movie-like adventure. There are cars, guns, destruction, and death. It’s a world where automobiles have assumed control, and all the people are fending for their lives. It’s a desperate game of kill or be killed. Harry grabs a gun, his friend grabs a gun, and they begin killing other people in order to survive. People die and cars explode. This section of Harry’s adventure is full of action and very strange. It was a drastically different setting from the rest of the book and somewhat unsettling.
After the automobile world, Harry opens others doors. They include, Guidance in the building up of the personality. Success guaranteed, Marvelous taming of the Steppenwolf, All girls are yours, and finally How one kills for love. Behind each door, we explore a part of Harry’s psyche. And in the last moments of the Magical Theater, Harry kills Hermine. He stabs her in the heart with a dagger. With this action, he mixes the imaginary Magic Theater with reality. He kills Hermine in both the Magic Theater and in reality. For this action, Pablo declares that Harry has broken the rules of the game, and he must be punished. Punishment is that Harry is literally laughed out of the Theater and forced to live life again. Since Harry desires death and punishment for his sins, his actual punishment is to live. While alive, he must try again to play the game of life, and he must play with a sense of humor. In the Magic Theater, Harry lost his sense of humor and consequently broke Pablo’s only rule. Life is merely a game, and to play the game well, one must maintain a sense of humor. Take another turn, Harry Haller.
Harry’s path to the Magic Theater is interesting to explore. At the beginning of the novel, Harry is a “Steppenwolf.” He has two internal conflicting personalities: (1) the civilized man and (2) the bestial wolf. From the pamphlet, “The Treatise of the Steppenwolf,” we understand what it means to be a “Steppenwolf.”
For his entire life, the Steppenwolf, Harry Haller, is miserable. However, this changes when he meets a woman. Doesn’t everything change when a man meets a woman? Doesn’t every good story have a woman in it? In this story, Harry meets Hermine at a bar. She immediately begins to talk with him and give him orders. Harry is pleased with her interest, conversation, and commands. He finds that he is drawn into the conversation and attracted to this woman. He does not want her to leave the bar. After their drink together, Harry arranges to meet Hermine again. This was the first time in his life that Harry experienced pleasant feelings. He felt alive and happy. From this moment onwards, he spends a significant amount of time with Hermine, is introduced to her friend, Maria, and he also spends a great deal of time with Maria. He explores the arts of pleasure and love with both women. He learns to enjoy life and enjoy the love of a woman. For the first time in his life, he knows what it means to look forward to something. He is eager to spend time with Hermine and Maria. He is eager to submit to their black magic. Part of his time spent with Hermine is learning to dance. So, Harry learns to dance, and it is Hermine’s intention that he attends a masked ball with her. Although Harry is reluctant, he agrees to attend the party.
The party begins in a depressing manner. Steppenwolf quickly slips into his old habits of anti-dance, anti-social, and anti-fun. He is frustrated with himself, as he feels the wolf winning the internal battle. Eventually, he concedes to the wolf and decides to leave the party, accepting that he is simply not meant for these types of activities. After reaching the decision to abandon the party, Harry receives a note from Hermine, requesting that he meets her in “hell.” Eager, giddy, and with renewed energy, Harry seeks out his love. And then the party takes an entirely different course. Harry is filled with vitality, he dances, he drinks, he indulges in the sweet aromas of sweat and perfume and bodies, he indulges in dances with many beautiful girls, and he enjoys himself immensely. When the party ends, he is saddened, desiring for the evening to never end. He is in high spirits, feeling full of life and joy, like he never experienced before. And here is where Pablo introduces Harry to the Magic Theater. Only when Harry is filled with joy and good-humor, Pablo permits him to enter the Magic Theater.
So, what is the point of this book? What is the author trying to say? Why is it such a highly regarded, albeit strange, story? The answer is simple: laughter. To combat the darkness of life, laugh. Laughter brightens the world and offers peace. We all have an internal wolf of the Steppes that we must combat. This is the dragon that we must slay. To slay the dragon, maintain a sense of humor.