Tuesday, May 22, 2012
Review of Steppenwolf by Hermann Hesse
Herman Hesse begins this novel with a preface in which he assures his readers that the intent of this book was not to wallow in despair at life’s dead-ends and interminable suffering, but to celebrate hope in meaning that underlies the material world, time, and the senses. It follows that this book is not a helpless surrender to a yearning for life to end, but rather an honest exploration of the limits of the torments of melancholia, boredom and modern existential angst; and I would say it applies in particular to aging intellectuals in the 20th century. “This book, no doubt, tells of griefs and needs; still it is not a book of a man despairing, but of a man believing.” The road from doubt to hope appears circuitous at times as Hesse’s protagonist experiences it, but it arrives somewhere after all, with some progress made towards an acceptance of the multi-faceted self, a humorous approval of one’s circumstances, and an acknowledgment of one’s need for others.
The story begins with a man, Harry, who is beginning to feel old in body, mind and spirit. He increasingly grows to view himself as alien to a world of narrow scheming and simple joys, and he becomes severely depressed and burdened with his existence. Even more than bodily pain he suffers from the conviction that he has sucked life dry of anything it might offer to him, and now he wanders on the earth curiously observing the happiness and idiosyncrasies of those around him. His zest for life is long gone. He has lived his life with an aim to understand, and finds that knowledge alone does not fill one with joy. His quest for freedom from dependence on others leaves him with nothing when he has finally attained it, and having no need for others, “the world in an uncanny fashion left him in peace...for the air of lonely men surrounded him.” And being alone, breathing only his own stale breath and agonizing over the utter futility of life, he begins to seriously consider suicide, and meditates on it often.
Then, entering a bar right before his plan to discreetly exit his life, he meets a spontaneous and witty girl who seems to know his intentions and is able to disarm him. She becomes his provoker, lover, master, and…god. He feels strangely compelled to do anything she tells him, and she persuades him she knows his type and what will fix him. And fix him she does. She first teaches him to dance and to love jazz music, which opens up a new world of sensation for him. She introduces him to a friend, Pablo, who is a proficient jazz musician (apparently a fetish for Hesse, who reveres jazz as the free spirit of the modern age) and a dealer in herbs and spice and…narcotics. Yum. Pablo eventually offers him an hallucinogen, and through this Harry experiences transformative visions in which he sees his soul splintered into a thousand profound reflections in a hall of mirrors and doors. He explores his thoughts in the form of dream and phantasmagoria—what Pablo calls his ‘Magic Theatre.’ This was my second favorite part of the book, next to the “Treatise” (which I’ll describe shortly), because it was colorful and bizarre stories within the story; and frankly, each mini-story was more interesting than the work as a whole.
Harry battles the emptiness and existential hole left in modern man with the sudden invalidation of traditions and religions. He, like many moderns, has been deflated in the realization that 20th century man is an artifact, a key which doesn’t open any doors. Humanity that no longer needs its long-evolved skills to survive is derelict on a blank sea, free to choose his direction, but unsure if there’ll ever be another place to land. As a result of, and partly a response to, the loss of classic cultural mores, the ethics of Hesse’s characters are fairly ambiguous…accept that physical violence is strongly protested in a couple scenes. The protagonists are both wastrels and erudites, prostitutes and professors; they all learn from each other, dance with each other, and knock each other up. The story themes sweat into a swirling orgy of self-discovery, belief, pleasure, music, drugs, education, dancing and sex. Hesse tries to make sense of our cravings, trying a little too hard, in my opinion, to salvage all pleasure as essentially good. However confused, Hesse’s real goal for his characters slowly manifested itself and remained consistent, which was put straightforward in his better known work, Siddhartha, “[People] no longer seemed alien to him as they once had. He did not understand or share their thoughts and views, but he shared with them life’s urges and desires…he now felt as if these ordinary people were his brothers.” That’s the moral I think: the brotherhood of all man. Happiness and harmony. Pleasure and sex. He seems wholly unconcerned about the categories of right/wrong, good/bad, keeping away from a judgmental attitude towards others which spoils one’s chances of intercourse. ‘Make love not war’, and in this way his characters find salvation by indulging in each other. I understand what he is trying to say about carnal pleasure sometimes being an appropriate response to austere anti-materialism and religious fanaticism, but his solution is too seamless. His hedonism comes across as too pure and harmless a poison, misrepresenting the dazzling allure of sexual ravishment and ignoring the addictive risks of boundless sensual pleasure.
Perhaps the single most important part of the book, an excerpt of which I read in an anthology of existentialist literature, and reading which inspired me to read this book, is the chapter titled, “Treatise On the Steppenwolf.” This short essay, which in the story was a document handed to Harry by a mysterious character, describes the divided soul of man as a carnal-spiritual struggle that is only held together by the utmost struggle and effort to subdue the wolf, and wake the man—a tension alluded to by Hesse as often erroneously resolved by feeding chocolate to the wolf, and blood to the man.
This tension between the animal-god poles, or natures, warring within the human breast, is often confused to be a tension between two selves. Hesse writes that “it appears to be an innate need of every person to regard the self as a unit”, but this complicates the problem of the ego more than resolves it, and “however often and however grievously this illusion [of ontic duality] is shattered, it always mends again.” Our self is a “manifold world, a constellated heaven” with thousands of facets, a “chaos of forms, stages and states; of inheritances and potentialities.” Later in the book, Harry, the protagonist, is taught how to organize these facets, these selves, into different combinations that might better meet the demands of his daily experiences which are as diverse and convoluted as his own inner world. The image of a chessboard with a myriad possible pieces to play a myriad possibly ways is given to him in a vision of how to better utilize the endless options inherent in being. This ‘schitzophrenic’ multiplication of one’s personas to create a fuller repertoire of faces to handle different situations that may arise is considered by Hesse to be ‘genius’, and not sociopathic. The difference between a healthy throng of standby-selves, and an unhealthy battering of personas trying to push to the front, may be the conscious choice and control over the manifest actors—a leading director of the many actors.
Some of this book was dull, and bohemian, and way overcooked. The parts I liked, I really liked; while the other 90% devolved into tale-chasing and an attempt to value all opposites of being. It is true, as Hesse infers that we too often prefer to treat our infinitely complex world and our view of it with a black-and-white objectivism, and we need to acknowledge the overlap between contrasts (grays) and the interrelatedness of all things. He isn’t interested in dismissing paradoxes by translating them into a plain contrast of right and wrong, as this kills the real subtle and finely nuanced nature of being.
But spend too much time in vagueness and even the concept of vagueness grows vague. Huh? It is true that man is not so easily categorized, pinned, and labeled as we sometimes like to think; but neither is man an amorphous ‘becoming’ with no definable progress or outline to differentiate him from his world and the unconscious chaos from which he has risen. Man is infinitely complex in his constitution and evolution, but he is also a phenomenon, an appearance, a form. His challenge is fitting and proper: “[To live] you will have to multiply many times your two-fold being and complicate your complexities still further. Instead of narrowing your world and simplifying your soul, you will at last take the whole world into your soul, cost what it may, before you are through and come to rest.” But his story illustrates a man whose concept of self was fractured to hell with no discernible center for concrete thoughts or directed action. Jung was right when he said that consciousness implies direction, and therefore exclusion. We are complex beings whose goal is to harmonize and simplify that complexity into discrete actions, and centered and continuous consciousness. Swinging too far to either extreme risks on one hand the loss of identity, and on the other hand the loss of expansion. Hesse may have expanded so far he popped.
The ending in which Harry wakes up from the drug-induced hallucination in which he kills his lover and discovers that he has a lot to learn, is a bit too sudden a stop with no follow-through, but I was just glad to get out of Hesse’s fun house. A little longer and I would have started contemplating suicide myselves [sic].