Author Hermann Hesse was a man of inner reflection and turmoil, his own struggles with depression and his pursuit of self knowledge poured into the pages of his books. In the 1927 novel, Steppenwolf, Hesse crafts a character that is disparate from the protagonists of Demian and Siddhartha, two Hesse books I’ve read that follow man’s journey of self discovery—then away from self toward a more spiritual nature. In Steppenwolf Hesse appears to have lost all desire for continued self knowledge and spirituality. His main character, Harry Haller, withdrawals from the society in which he once flourished, disillusioned by the bourgeois status quo of his time. Hesse, through Haller, expresses his disdain for a culture suffering from moral and spiritual bankruptcy. Haller’s struggle to make sense of a world that was no longer making sense, sent him into a depressive state. He became a recluse, holing up in a small room with his books, smokes, and wine. Harry lost his joy and his contentment for life. Ambivalent on living, he makes a promise to commit suicide on his fiftieth birthday as a means to end his already lifeless existence.
There is much to be said for contentment and painlessness, for these bearable and submissive days, on which neither pain nor pleasure is audible, but pass by whispering and on tip-toe. But the worst of it is that it is just this contentment that I can not endure… In desperation I have to escape and throw myself on the road to pleasure, or, if that cannot be, on the road to pain.
Reflecting on his past, a past which saw as much suffering and loneliness as his current life, Haller speaks of a love for the loneliness of that previous time. He absorbed it passionately and used that energy to create his poetry. His vitality, even in suffering, was now extinguished. He is angry with a life that falls between the highs and lows, between the peaks and valleys that made him feel alive.
As half man half wolf, a Steppenwolf, Haller gives himself permission to explore his darker side. It allows him to condemn the world’s music, bars, entertainment, Wars, packed cafe’s, and overcrowded railways. The Steppenwolf becomes his way of separating himself from a world depleted of meaning, and yet cling to an illusory identity that allows him to co-exist. He proudly embraces the duality of his wolfish desires, it frees him to be different, to act different, to not be as distraught by his disconnection with what has become normalcy.
No, I did not regret the past. My regret was for the present day, for all the countless hours and days that I lost in mere passivity and that brought me nothing, not even the shocks of awakening.
I am crazy. I am in truth the Steppenwolf that I often call myself; the beast astray who finds neither home nor joy nor nourishment in a world that is strange and incomprehensible to him.
Harry’s chance meeting with a woman, Hermine, and his experience within a magic theater aid him in reconnecting with his true self and with a world he can control. Hermine’s understanding of Harry creates a genuine connection that sparks a hope of love and happiness within Harry.
You, Harry, have been and artist and a thinker, a man full of joy and faith, always on the track of what is great and eternal, never content with the trivial and petty. But the more life has awakened you and brought you back to yourself, the greater has your need been and the deeper the sufferings and dread and despair that have overtaken you, till you were up to your neck in them. And all that you once knew and loved and revered as beautiful and scared, all the belief you once had in mankind and our high destiny, has been of no avail and has lost its worth and gone to pieces. Your faith found no more air to breathe. And suffocation is a hard death.
Over time, and through Hermine’s lessons, Harry learns the importance of humor, in the sense of embracing the absurdity of our world and not taking things so seriously. One must learn to laugh at that which we have no control.
You have a picture of life within you, a faith, a challenge, and you were ready for deeds and sufferings and sacrifices, and then you became aware by degrees that the world asked no deeds and no sacrifices of you whatever, and that life is no poem of heroism with heroic parts to play and so on, but a comfortable room where people are quite content with eating and drinking, coffee and knitting, cards and wireless. And whoever wants more and has got it in him — the heroic and the beautiful, and the reverence for the great poets or for the saints — is a fool and a Don Quixote.
I struggled writing this review, often blurring Harry’s life with my own. This is what makes a story impactful, however, when the reader feels understood and closes the book with the impression they’ve been reading their own autobiography. Hesse’s books have had a kinship allure, as have the books of Henry Miller. The lesson I take from Steppenwolf, written eighty-seven years ago; take myself less seriously. Learn to laugh at the world I don’t understand, find humor in the meaningless, and embrace more passionately what is uniquely meaningful to me.