Steppenwolf by Hermann Hesse – Reviewed by Guy Portman
Published in 1927, Steppenwolf is a complex and influential book that achieved cult status in the 1960s when it was embraced by the counter-culture as a reaction against the modern world. The psychological impact of this highly original and thought provoking work continues to resonate even to this day.
The book’s central character is a reclusive intellectual by the name of Harry Haller. Harry, who is in the midst of a prolonged and severe mid-life crisis, not only despises his bourgeois existence, but is also afflicted by physical ailments including gout, in addition to suffering from a mental illness that has tarnished his very soul. So incapable is Harry of embracing all that life has to offer that he is continually deliberating on the potential benefits of suicide.
Ever obsessed with his condition, the introverted academic has surmised that his character is made up of two separate and non-reconcilable parts, one of which is human and the other wolf. Harry believes that the human elements of his psyche consist of the aesthetic and intellectual attributes, whilst the wolf, which he names Steppenwolf is responsible for the uncontrollable part of his nature; his impulses, instincts and urges. This conclusion causes Harry great distress and contributes to his overwhelming sense of self-loathing and increasing disdain for life.
One night after a solitary visit to a drinking establishment, Harry comes across a lengthy pamphlet that refutes his theory as being oversimplified, stating that in reality an individual is made up of a multiplicity of souls, a concept incidentally embraced by Nietzsche. In typical fashion Harry deliberates upon the pamphlet’s theory before rejecting its contents. The course of Harry’s life is set for change however when shortly thereafter he meets the mysterious Hermione, who introduces him to dancing. A belated sexual education through a girl named Maria follows, before events culminate in a masked ball and a trip to a magic theatre, where sequentially Harry is confronted with his various selves. These selves connect with his memories from childhood, sexual inhibitions and even his reaction against a modern world in a scene where he finds himself shooting at cars.
Steppenwolf is essentially an autobiographical account of the examination of the development of a character. It has been argued that the author wrote this narrative for self-therapeutic purposes, in order to rid his soul of the negativity that had blighted it and that one of the book’s characters, a non-judgmental and liberal musician by the name of Pablo is in essence a psychotherapist. Certainly there is an existential philosophical aspect to the book, both in the manner in which Haller probes his psyche and the role of ‘the immortals’, the author Goethe and Haller’s own hero Mozart, whom he meets in one of the sequences at the magic theatre, when a relaxed, benign and accepting Mozart is soaring contentedly through the sky, Haller clutching to his hair; surely symbolic of freedom in a timeless reality, a world that has transcended our own.
The book has been compared to a sonata, not only because it consists of three distinct parts, but also because the prose is flowing, rhythmic and poetic, giving Steppenwolf an almost magical quality. Though there are many aspects of this diverse, profound and intellectual book that can be deliberated upon, it is above all the fact that people have been able to identify with the main character’s self-hatred and inability to accept life that is the reason for Steppenwolf’s lasting legacy.