I did not identify with Harry Haller, the ‘Steppenwolf’, as many readers do, especially those who read this book much younger than I. Instead, I was inclined to roll my eyes at his struggles, wherein he decries how hard it is to be intelligent and love Mozart in a world where people are generally not intelligent and love jazz (Hesse makes sure to toss in some overt racism while describing jazz). Of especial annoyance was when Harry goes on at length about how much he detests the bourgeois but repeatedly takes advantage of the comfort bourgeois life provides for him. My thoughts around then were: What a fucking baby. These thoughts morphed to incredulity when he surmises that the only reason the bourgeois class survives, given that they are so damn stupid, is people like HIM, wolves among the sheep. My god.
This is the first third of Steppenwolf — how tortured a soul is Harry Haller, so much better than everyone else, and life among the bourgeois class is just so hard, might as well kill yourself as aesthetics demand. I wanted to mail him David Foster Wallace’s essay on mindfulness. But, eventually, I did warm to Harry a bit. Gained a little empathy. The truth is that he was a German who lived through World War 1, while protesting it as wrong the whole way through. Now, it’s the late 20s and he sees WW2 coming and his countrypeople very rapidly falling in line with the nationalistic garbage that will launch it. There is a chilling line where Hesse writes of ‘the holocaust to come’, years before it occurs. This makes the Steppenwolf’s mindset and belief that he is unique among fools more understandable at least.
The middle third is where he looks to beautiful women to save him from himself. Yawn.
The final third is kind of awesome. Harry attends a costume party and descends into hell, which is the basement, and ends up tumbling through the doorways of his own mind, which includes an apocalyptic future of man vs. machine where he and a previously unmentioned childhood bud shoot up evil cars. And a doorway marked “love”, where he re-meets every woman he failed to seduce in his life and bangs them. My god.
There’s a slew of philosophy sprinkled throughout the novel. Some of it is interesting to read and I did like this paragraph, spoken by Harry’s gothic pixie dreamgirl, Hermine:
“No, it isn’t fame. It is what I call eternity. The pious call it the kingdom of God. I say to myself: all we who ask too much and have a dimension too many could not contrive to live at all if there were not another air to breathe outside the air of this world, if there were not eternity at the back of time; and this is the kingdom of truth. The music of Mozart belongs there and the poetry of your great poets. The saints, too, belong there who have worked wonders and suffered martyrdom and given a great example to men. But the image of every true act, the strength of every true feeling, belongs to eternity just as much, even though no one knows it or sees it or records it or hands it down to posterity. In eternity there is no posterity.”
I don’t believe that literally, but metaphorically it makes for a pleasing and comforting image. Mostly though, the musings here were familiar. The duality of Steppenwolf and the further realization that Harry is made of many more than two personalities? Eh. That a single person is made up of many personalities is not revelatory, it is both obvious and banal.
Hesse is a talented enough writer that I didn’t hate reading this. There are some legitimately good bits. But I was glad when I was done.