A review of Steppenwolf by Rob Mason
Steppenwolf; by Hermann Hesse is about one man's spiritual journey towards self-knowledge. Nearly 90 years on, its message to readers retains a religious intensity: we must explore ourselves and keep doing so. If we don't, then our lives become living deaths.
In writing Steppenwolf, Hesse drew on his own spiritual crisis. After leaving his wife in the mid-1920s, Hesse lived an isolated life in Basel, reaching suicidal depths of despair. This might explain Harry's painfully accurate descriptions of depression, which have perhaps been matched since only by William Styron's Darkness Visible.
Short extract from "Steppenwolf:
"There is still one last fiction, one fundamental delusion that needs to be laid to rest before we bring our study to a close. All ‘explanations’ all psychological analysis, all attempts at understanding are reliant upon theories, myths, falsehoods for support. And where possible no respectable author ought to round off his portrayal without exposing such falsehoods. If I say ‘above’ or ‘below’ it is in itself an assertion that calls for explanation because an above and below only exist as objects of abstract thought. The world itself is ignorant of any above or below.
Thus, to come straight to the point, “Steppenwolf” is a fiction too. If Harry feels himself to be a hybrid of wolf and human being, thinks he consists of two hostile and conflicting entities, that is merely a simplification, a myth. Harry is nothing of the kind. If when attempting to consider and interpret him as an actual hybrid, as a “Steppenwolf” we appeared to adopt the tale he himself tells and believes in, we were resorting to deceit in the hope of making ourselves more easily understood. What now follows is an attempt to put things straight.
The division into wolf and human being, body and mind or spirit by means of which Harry tries to make his destiny more comprehensible to himself, is s very crude simplification. It does violence to reality in favour of a plausible but false explanation of the contradictions that this human being discovers in himself and which seem to him to be the source of his not inconsiderable suffering. Harry finds a ‘human being’ in himself, that is to say a world of ideas, feelings, culture, domesticated and sublimated nature. Besides this he also finds a ‘wolf’, that is to say, a dark world of instincts, savagery, cruelty, nature un-sublimated and raw. Yet despite this ostensibly clear division of his being into two mutually hostile spheres he has time and again experienced happy moments when the wolf and the human being got on well together for a while. Were Harry to attempt at every single moment of his life, in everything he did and felt, to determine the part played by the human being and that played by the wolf, he would immediately be in a fix. All his fine theory of the wolf would go to pieces, for there are absolutely no human beings who are so pleasantly simple that their characters can be explained as the sum of only two or three principal elements. And to attempt to explain someone as subtly complex as Harry, of all people, by naively splitting him into wolf and human being is too childish for words. Harry is not made up of two characters, but hundreds, of thousands. His life, like that of every human being, does not occillate between two poles only – say between the body and the mind or spirit, between the saint and the profligate – but between thousands, between innumerable polar opposites."