Born to Be Eternal: Hermann Hesse’s Steppenwolf

At the dawn of the twentieth century, new technologies seemed to burst into existence like morning glories opening to the sun. The airplane and automobile shrank the globe while telephone and radio connected its inhabitants in unforeseen ways. Along with these innovations, fresh perspectives in the arts seemed to ripen on every intellectual tree and aesthetic field. Some adapted quickly to this new creation, while others experienced what Alvin Toffler describes as “future shock.” This is the dilemma of Harry Haller, the protagonist of Hermann Hesse’s 1927 novel Steppenwolf.

Haller’s angst at the brave new world of cinema, jazz, and electronic communication is heightened by his rapidly approaching 50th birthday. A noted scholar of Eastern Philosophy and a devotee of poetry and music, Herr Haller finds no place for himself in the landscape of the twentieth century. Instead, he sees himself as “a wolf of the steppes that had lost its way and strayed into the towns and the life of the herd.” Shy of human contact and full of the wild animal urge to lash out at the sterility of modern life, he alternates between animosity and despair.

Yet for all his rage and “wolfishness,” he still cherishes the hope that there is something eternal in the human person, an elan vital which will lift him out of the wasteland and allow him to join those “immortals” of history that he reverences. In a critical passage, while attending a concert, he finds that “after two or three notes the door was opened of a sudden to the other world. I sped through heaven and saw God at work. I dropped all my defenses and was afraid of nothing in the world. I accepted all things and, to all things, gave up my heart. It did not last very long, but it returned to me in a dream, and since through all the barren days, I caught a glimpse of it now and then. Sometimes for a minute or two, I saw it clearly, threading my life like a divine and golden track. … But, ah, it is hard to find this track of the divine in the midst of this life we lead, in this besotted humdrum age of spiritual blindness, with its architecture, its business, its politics, and its men!”

Hesse’s work resists easy categorization. He began by writing realistic novels of ideas. But already, with the stories in Strange News from Another Star, published in 1919, he was moving away from those conventions. After the first World War, his work tended toward dreamlike narratives and explorations of the world of myth. With his 1922 retelling of the life of Gautama Buddha, Hesse had found his voice. Siddhartha‘s deceptively simple style and fairy-tale atmosphere drew Western readers to Eastern philosophy in a way few prior texts had.

Steppenwolf, published five years later, gives the nod to objectivity by framing the tale as merely the diary of Harry Haller. We glimpse its protagonist first through the introduction provided by the thoroughly conventional nephew of his landlady. But things are not long in turning curious, and echoes of Jung and magical realism quickly offer a counterpoint to the naturalism of its opening.

As Haller marches with desultory strides through his native city, he glimpses a door into a churchyard with a jittering neon sign over it. The fitful letters spell out a cryptic message, “Magic Theater: Not for everyone. For madmen only!” Later, when he passes by this same spot, he notes that the door has vanished. However, his curiosity piqued, Haller cannot rest until he finds out more. He accosts a street vendor who seems to have a little knowledge of this theater and receives, in turn, a small book. He is taken aback when it turns out to contain a psychological analysis of his own character.

Later, while wrestling with suicidal thoughts, he meets a mysterious woman named Hermine, who appears to be the female personification of his childhood friend Hermann. Hermine takes Haller in hand teaches him to dance the foxtrot and other modern steps. Gradually she draws this aging scholar into a world of jazz nightclubs and introduces him to its habitues. Eventually, he meets her friend Pablo, a radiant saxophonist of few words who turns out to be the keeper of the Magic Theater he has been seeking.

In the final section of the novel, Haller enters this theater and, guided by Pablo, confronts his deepest fears and most cherished fantasies. Some reflect the protagonist’s preoccupation with the rapid progress of technology. For instance in one episode, Haller becomes a partisan in a war against all machines. In other “rooms” of the theater, he learns to play chess with the various components of his personality or returns to his youth and his first love.

Like Hesse’s early books, Steppenwolf is a novel of ideas, but the ideas are concretized and embodied through fantastic dream images. As with Jung’s collection of essays published a few years later, it offers a glimpse of modern man in search of a soul.

One central theme that Hesse returns to repeatedly is the idea that there is something timeless in the human condition. He frequently speaks of the immortals of art and literature, “living their life in timeless space, enraptured, refashioned, and immersed in a crystalline eternity like ether, and the cool starry brightness and radiant serenity of the world outside the earth.” While musing on this theme, he reflects that in certain pieces of poetry or music, “there was a feeling of time frozen into space, and above it, there quivered a neverending and superhuman serenity, an eternal, divine laughter…And suddenly, I heard this fathomless laughter around me. I heard the immortals laughing. I sat entranced.”

Like any worthwhile text, Steppenwolf leads us to a host of fascinating avenues of exploration. After nearly a century, its rants against technology strike us as dated and a product of their time. And hindsight allows us to see Haller’s anger against his culture in the context of the rising nationalism that was to bloom in the horrors of the Third Reich, the Second World War, and the Holocaust.

But the Steppenwolf’s mental adventures present us with other more universal questions. For example, Are we a single person, or do we perhaps have multiple selves? Is time merely an illusion? Does the intellectual life lead us toward reality or away from it?

But perhaps what makes Steppenwolf genuinely notable is the way in which Hesse continually invites his readers to see their own lives threaded with that divine and golden track that Haller glimpses. For there is something in us that cries out that we are more than we are, that forces us to look up from our daily round. We cannot prove it, but often we know intuitively that something immortal lies within our hearts. Like the Steppenwolf, we are born to be eternal.

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Born to be Eternal: Copyright Jonathan Golding 2021. All rights reserved.

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