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Der Steppenwolf by Hermann Hesse Tom Send a noteboard - 30/03/2011 03:59:13 AM
I decided to read Der Steppenwolf by Hermann Hesse following a satisfying read of Siddhartha by the same author. I approached the book with hesitation because I had heard varying reports regarding its worth. Hesse himself lamented that it was his most misunderstood book, and in the Third Reich it was banned but at the same time enjoyed a startling level of popularity among Nazis. It was a book that many people from disparate backgrounds enjoyed, and yet many more dismissed it as naïve, childish or primitive. What can one make of such a book? Does it have an audience or a clear message?

The book that I found was a profound masterpiece of literature. The book is written in the form of a memoir of one Harry Haller, who describes himself as a “Steppenwolf”, a man who has a human nature and a wolfish, ferocious hatred of humanity lurking beneath the surface. This very concept has led many into error. Haller is a middle-aged man nearing his fiftieth birthday, at which time he has resolved to kill himself. He is a highly-educated and refined man with a love of classical music and literature, and he has devoted much of his life to an adoration of the high culture of civilization that previous generations had left behind. His “wolfish” nature expresses itself as disgust for the low, petty, bürgerliche (I’m sure that’s translated as “bourgeois”) lives that the people around him lead. His disgust is not, therefore, a form of youthful rebellion or “teen angst”. At the same time, it is not the disgust of an elitist, nor is it the hatred of a person who cannot socialize with people. It is the alienation of someone who cannot come to terms with the world as it is, and prefers to live in a world that is not, and never was. Haller idolizes the past because all that has been transmitted from the past into the present is the best ideas and expressions of previous generations. The past has been sanitized and polished and all of the dross has been removed. Living “in the past” is not a way for him to connect to a real world, but a world of the spirit, a Platonic world of Ideas.

It is possible that Haller clings to the past for yet another reason – Haller is a member of a generation that lived in the orderly society of the Nineteenth Century, where science meant progress, and society was built on faith and a social order that had changed little in Germany for hundreds of years. His generation had to deal with the birth of postmodernism, and Nietzsche in particular, and then see progress mean death as World War I and the tumultuous aftermath of World War I tore that society apart. Spiritually, intellectually, psychologically and physically, Haller’s familiar society was annihilated. He ended up in the Weimar Republic, where nothing was stable or steady. Weimar was a world of hyperinflation, economic crash after economic crash, stifling poverty, rampant prostitution, the jazz culture, the drug culture, rich industrialists and generals plotting a new war to avenge Germany’s defeat in 1918 and trends in art, music and architecture that were avant-garde to say the least.

After reading a book that is handed to him and which is addressed to him personally, Haller makes the conscious decision to enter into this world of the everyday. He meets Hermine, a girl who is a typist by day and something of a prostitute by night. She introduces him to the Foxtrot, jazz, cocaine, casual sex (Hermine is herself an admitted bisexual and very masculine) and the little joys of life, but in exchange she wants Haller to kill her. In a moving passage that follows Haller’s adventures, when he says he is not content with the life she is showing him, Hermine bares her soul and lets Haller see just how miserable she is. She explains how she could have and should have been able to have a better life, but that there is no eternal justice that anyone can count on. It is something of a modern-day version of the Book of Ecclesiastes.

Many who have criticized the book have centered their dissatisfaction on the descriptions of casual sex and drug use, a highly absurd position to take. How can someone understand Haller, or someone from his generation, without realizing just how open and free Weimar Germany was? Not only was Weimar Germany an incredibly progressive society, but it was progressive immediately following a very conservative and highly regimented social order that had a landed aristocracy. It is also, incidentally, interesting to note that in the 1920s, when Hesse wrote Der Steppenwolf, the generals were already planning their next war. Hitler’s rise to power is easy to understand against the backdrop of the psychological shock that entire generations were feeling as they walked around, like Haller, through towns filled with prostitutes, jazz music, invalids from the war begging for money and once-prosperous families selling their valuables in order to survive.

Nietzsche in particular casts a long shadow over Hesse. Hesse’s Siddhartha evokes Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, and Nietzsche is mentioned by name in Der Steppenwolf. This is because not only has Nietzsche helped Haller feel as though he is living in a society that he has been alienated from, but it has also given him a means to avoid rationalizing this sense of alienation. Haller specifically describes this alienated part of himself as an animal because it is irrational, and he revels in this irrationality in a way that Nietzsche made possible. Haller muses that German society is about speaking without saying a word, with an emotional and irrational connection made through music. One could envision reading these thoughts, word for word, in Nietzsche’s writings. This irrationality is also a saving power, the saving power of humor, which makes the misery and injustice of life bearable. Hesse, in the book that Haller reads, posits that those who are neither bürgerliche nor tragic types can find solace in humor: “ihnen steht ein drittes Reich offen, eine imaginäre, aber souveräne Welt: der Humor” (to them stands open a “third Reich” [sic], an imaginary, but sovereign world: humor). I found it interesting that the term ein drittes Reich was used, though I’m not sure if Hesse was trying to make a reference to history or only saying, essentially, “a third type”. Regardless of what he meant with the phrase, the overall idea regarding humor is one that returns time and again later on throughout the book.

Some, perhaps even almost all, of the book may be nothing more than the result of the narrator’s personal delusions. The book that Haller reads, addressed to Haller himself, is obviously a delusion. Other parts of Haller’s story involve dreams, which shows a potential Freudian or, more likely, Jungian influence – Hesse knew Jung personally. Still other parts could be made up, embellished or the result of hallucinations. It doesn’t matter for the story, however, what is or isn’t true. The plot is purely incidental to the psychological state of Harry Haller. The entire book is a quest for identity, and so the world around Haller becomes little more than a mirror. In some instances, this is evident through the presence of actual mirrors in the story.

Der Steppenwolf, then, is ultimately a book that addresses many ideas at once. It is about the search for meaning in life and the fear of death. It shows the indecision of an intellectual who wants to believe in higher principles but sees that hedonism and pleasure have a sort of value as well, if for no other reason than they keep a person from taking himself too seriously. It expresses the difficulties that a “pre-postmodern” man has in a postmodern society, but ultimately this aspect of the book addresses how people find it increasingly difficult to understand the society they live in as time goes on. Finally, it provides consolation to the reader (of a sort).

While it may not be a book for everyone, Der Steppenwolf certainly has an audience. I recommend the book very highly, and I think that anyone who begins the book with a proper sense of the background and influences that have contributed to it will find it a very satisfying read. I recommend that it not be read in haste, but as all good books should be read, deliberately and with much reflection.
Political correctness is the pettiest form of casuistry.

ἡ δὲ κἀκ τριῶν τρυπημάτων ἐργαζομένη ἐνεκάλει τῇ φύσει, δυσφορουμένη, ὅτι δὴ μὴ καὶ τοὺς τιτθοὺς αὐτῇ εὐρύτερον ἢ νῦν εἰσι τρυπώη, ὅπως καὶ ἄλλην ἐνταῦθα μίξιν ἐπιτεχνᾶσθαι δυνατὴ εἴη. – Procopius

Ummaka qinnassa nīk!

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Der Steppenwolf by Hermann Hesse - 30/03/2011 03:59:13 AM 6211 Views
I've kept this book through all my moves. - 30/03/2011 02:52:19 PM 785 Views
I loved this when I read it. (In English, alas.) - 30/03/2011 11:01:57 PM 845 Views
How good is your German now? - 31/03/2011 12:18:28 AM 913 Views
Okay, might read that as well after Kafka, or before. - 01/04/2011 10:53:09 PM 864 Views
Re: Okay, might read that as well after Kafka, or before. - 04/04/2011 09:45:44 PM 774 Views
Just repeating that name won't have any effect, you know. - 04/04/2011 10:09:38 PM 722 Views
Dammit - 04/04/2011 10:13:36 PM 737 Views
"Damit" hat nur ein Buchstabe "m". *NM* - 08/04/2011 05:27:45 PM 369 Views
*NM* - 08/04/2011 05:30:14 PM 335 Views
Does it do justice to Nietzsche? - 04/04/2011 09:44:48 PM 836 Views
I believe it does. - 08/04/2011 04:41:16 PM 788 Views
Re: I believe it does. - 08/04/2011 04:46:22 PM 898 Views

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