Hesse – Steppenwolf

28 Sep

Steppenwolf by Herman Hesse (1927)

Der Steppenhipster

Our protagonist, Henry Haller, is introduced in a brief preface by Haller’s landlord’s nephew.  The preface is largely expository and not all that interesting.  This novel takes a good 100 pages before it really drags the reader in; that’s when I start finding more and more notes and dog-eared pages.  Haller is plagued with a “sickness of the times.”  At the end of the preface, the nephew tells us that the story is “an attempt to present the sickness itself in its actual manifestation.  [It] means, literally, a journey through hell, a sometimes fearful, sometimes courageous journey through the class of a world whose souls dwell in darkness, a journey undertaken with the determination to go through hell from one end to the other, to give battle to chaos, and to suffer torture to the full.”  I learned from Hesse’s 1961 forward to the novel that he believed readers largely misinterpreted the story as one of suffering and not healing and personal growth.  Haller is not “a man of despairing, but a man of believing.”  If that is the case, Hesse probably should have created a Henry Haller that was a little less of a pretentious putz.

Early on, Haller discovers the Treatise on the Steppenwolf which he finds to be a treatise of his own struggle with the “bourgeois” and his primitive self: the wolf of the steppes.  The concept is really unbeatable: the inherent dichotomy of human nature.  I too have felt at times like a wolf of the steppes (though I am fairly certain that my spirit animal is a snow fox wearing a bowtie).  Everyone does their best to keep it together and remain a member of the society that they are a product of, but every once in a while want to devolve to their id and start raging and biting into live animals.  Right?

Though Hesse’s treatment of the concept is thought-provoking, it is longwinded and not terribly exciting.  It’s as if Mein Kampf were written by a by a verbose, middle-aged hipster.  He whines because the society he lives in prefers to dance to jazz music instead of listening to Mozart at home.   He insults his professor friend for having a gaudy portrait of Goethe.  You just want to slap the guy.

More than anything else, this book makes me more aware of when I’m being an elitist prick.  Though I can be entirely cynical of my peers, I no longer judge people (completely) if all they listen to is Dave Matthews, or if they like dancing to Lady Gaga at bars.  That being said, I’m 26.  Haller, you’re 50 and you’re just realizing this now??  “Nobody can portray Goethe the way that he ought to be….I’m going to go home and cut myself.”

The book begins to get more interesting when Haller, near suicide, meets Hermine at a dance hall.  He actually doesn’t learn her name until they next meet.  She asks him what he thinks her name would be and because she looks like his boyhood friend, Herman, he guesses Hermine.  This, among other things, leads me to believe that Hermine is really a product of Haller’s imagination.  She acts as a character foil and a literary device for Haller’s attempted growth as a person.  I couldn’t get past the whole falling in love with a girl who looks like your best friend.  I’ve met female bizzarros of my male friends, but I’ve never been attracted to them.  Weird.  Also, any girl that tells you on your first date that she is going to make you fall in love with her, but in the end you have to kill her, do not go on a second date no matter how cute she is.

Hermine takes Haller under her bourgeois wing and teaches him how to dance starting with the fox trot, then the Boston.  If they had a few more weeks together before the big dance, he might have even learned the Macarena.  She also introduces him to sex (the lovely, young Maria), drugs and Pablo the 1920’s beatnick.  I want a Hermine!  All of this is preparing Haller and the reader for The Masked Ball where things really pick up.

When Haller arrives at The Masked Ball, he seems to have forgotten everything that Hermine has taught him in the past weeks.  He is being a total Debbie Downer and refuses to dance.  In fact he even goes to grab his coat from the coat-check to leave the party, but is encouraged to stick around after reading a note from a stranger telling him to meet Hermine in Hell.  Oh, and Hell is the bar in the basement.

Hermine is down in Hell all right, but Haller doesn’t recognize her immediately because she’s dressed in drag.  Again, weird.  Once he recognizes her, he is totally charged with a new energy and the two of them drink and join the dance party.  Hermine is kind of like a spiritual Four Loko for Henry.  When the night is over and all of the guests have gone home, Haller is informed that he is now ready for The Magic Theater emceed by none other than Pablo.

The Magic Theater almost reads like magical realism.  It seems as if Haller is dosed by Pablo before entering which may explain things.  Haller is afforded a spiritual journey through a number of labeled rooms.  In one room, he follows an old friend through an apocalyptic future war.  In another room, he relives all his past loves.  The most hysterical of all is Mozart’s tour of hell where all of the bad musicians and artists are doomed to wander a dark desert followed by their fans.  I wonder how long the line behind Staind would be?

The final room is Haller’s ultimate spiritual test…which he fails.  He enters to find Pablo and Hermine enwrapped post-coitus.  He stabs Hermine in the chest.  As Hermine’s cold body is carried away, Pablo shatters the dream sequence and tells Haller that he has failed the test and is to be executed.  Hermine’s murder again points to the concept of her not actually existing.  Instead of being executed, Haller is brought before a judge, convicted of being a moron, and is sentenced to being laughed at by a jury of his peers…amazing.

The lesson is important: lighten up and start laughing.  I suppose Hesse, regarding Haller as a “man of believing,” thinks his protagonist is going to give it another go.  Haller says in the final paragraph: “One day I would be a better hand at the game.  One day I would learn how to laugh.  Pablo was waiting for me, and Mozart too.”  Hesse might be optimistic, but I’m not.  You can’t teach an old wolf new tricks.

I would recommend this book as it does have its merits and can be very darkly funny at times (regardless of intention), but there are a number of other titles that I would recommend before Steppenwolf.

Rating: ***

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