Off the Shelf - "Steppenwolf"

By Marcus Pan

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SteppenwolfThis is another paperback that I pulled out of the stash given to me by a cousin by marriage when he handed me a case or two of pulp-fiction paperbacks. I was looking for something small and easy to breeze through after the trouble I had with the Cornelius Quartet(*), but at least I can say that I'm quite more comfortable with Moorcock's anthology of Jeremiah the cyberpunk hero after a short but straightforward discussion with BlueZ who originally suggested, and then loaned me, the aforementioned science fiction classic. But we've already discussed the Cornelius Quartet. This is about Steppenwolf…which, by the way, has nothing to do with Rock 'n Roll or the band with the same name.

Hermann Hesse was a forerunner of European fiction of the 1920s. One of his more well known novels was Demian, which I've also not read. Steppenwolf, however, was said to be the most "violently misunderstood" of all of Hesse's work and is therefore probably the most known (this quote by the author himself). He wrote this book when he was in his 50s in age, and strangely enough the book nonetheless fell into the hands of much younger readers and therefore grew totally alternate views and lucid ideas for itself that even Hesse himself would have never thought of.

Hesse was a writer that studied in the works of Dotstoevsky and Nietzsche and his writing shows these influences. Additionally, he was one of the first to also utilize the teachings of the father of psychology - Sigmund Freud. His creation of Steppenwolf is a lonely narrative about a man who finds himself alone and alienated in a world that he does not consider his own. "Caught between times," so to speak, Harry Haller, aka the Steppenwolf, is a man of philosophy, theology, art and culture who through life learns that the world around him is anything but. While the novel is said to have been a "savage indictment of bourgeois society" (New York Times), I consider that to be a misinterpretation. While Haller shunned and even ardently expressed distaste against bourgeois society as a whole, he also was a man who, while looking outside-in, constantly wished to be a part of same. Not so much an indictment, as a longing for…

I would not suggest Steppenwolf to anyone who is even remotely depressed. It is a terribly bleak and dark novel to read. It is said that ignorance is bliss, and Haller's studies of bourgeois society around him shows us that this is ultimately true - how can a human being long for something more when he is such a part of something so mundane and has yet to realize that there is anything further? But Harry is not your average intellectual elitist. He is one of the few that finds himself, on a suicidal night, drawn to a woman named Hermine who not only shows him that such mundanities can be fun if one is willing to make himself, at least temporarily, a part of it. Harry Haller, the Steppenwolf, is a man who has never learned to laugh. Or to dance. And Hermine teaches him both, starting with the latter, and successfully knocks down his wall of superiority and ultimate seriousness so that he can in the end revel in triviality.

The final moments of the book concerns Harry's nightly outing to the Masked Ball. An extravagant, elegant and lust-filled evening of music, dance, drugs and more. Lost within the confines of this night, Haller finally releases himself, at the behest of Hermine, to the surroundings and finds himself not only having the time of his life but the time of his soul. The last portion of the novel finds Haller partaking of some of friend Pablo's "cigarettes" and strange draughts, which leads him on the ultimate trip through a soul-searching vision. In the Magic Theatre he tries many doors that lead him to discoveries about the world - as well as himself - at the end of which he realizes many things, none of which I will go into here because it would lead to a multiple-page treatise on human frailty, theology, philosophy, the power of music and much more besides. Suffice to say that one of Harry's final discoveries is that "all humor is gallow's humor" and if one doesn't learn to laugh at same, what's the use of everything after?

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(*) Reviewed in the Off The Shelf column in Legends #130.

"Steppenwolf" by Hermann Hesse
Published by Bantam Books by arrangement with Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc.
Copyright © 1927 by S. Fischer Verlag AG, Berlin
ISBN: 0805012478

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