By Hermann Hesse.
San Francisco: Rinehart Press, 1963
218 pages
From the German original of 1929. Joseph Mileck and Horst Frenz did a revised translation from the Basil Creighton 1929 translation.

Comments by Bob Corbett
December 2001

In this strange tale of Harry Haller three different times he is confronted by weird events which are beyond coincidence and into the occult. The first occurs very early in the novel when Harry is walking down the street and a strange man thrusts a pamphlet into is hand. He gets home and discovers it is Treatise On The Steppenwolf. This is so amazing since Steppenwolf is his own self-chosen name, referring to his tendency to live outside the world of human bourgeois society, living more life a lone wolf of the steppes of Asia.

I come to these notes on the novel having had an experience nearly as strange as Harry's even if a bit less mysterious. The novel Steppenwolf seems itself a treatise on the life of Bob Corbett. Unlike Harry, who seemed to see his life as one unit whole, I see my own as at least four different lives each emerging out of the other. I've written about that earlier and posted it in these pages. In this sense I'm a bit ahead of Harry.

What follows is certainly not a "review" of Steppenwolf, and nothing like the "comments" I've written on other works. It is the story of a journey in reading Hesse's novel by someone who just happened to be 100% ready for this book, perhaps one of the most prepared readers Hesse has ever had. It will be so very different from my other comments on books since rather than worry about spoiling the book for others by revealing key plot elements, I am throwing that worry to the wind. These comments are meant only for those who have already read the book, or who are unlikely to ever read it, or who may read it but really don't care if they know key twists in the plot. My comments are about Harry's journey and mine in the bargain.

Harry Haller is a 48 year old loner. Divorced but in a vague relationship with a distant girl friend, Harry is some sort of author and scholar, but we never really learn of what. He lives in a pair of rooms in a middle class home in a German city in the late 1920s.

What we do know about Harry is his view of himself as the Steppenwolf. Harry sees the world as divided into two basic classes of person: the ordinary citizen and himself and a handful like him, the steppenwolves of the world. These are people who embrace the meaninglessness of life, who then create a world of meaning in the pursuit of knowledge, art and a certain view of perfection -- the disciplined pursuit of the limited worthy things. On the other hand, Harry is quite honest to his own contradictions. He always takes rooms in a pleasant bourgeois home and has a great nostalgia for the comforts and ease of bourgeois living with which he grew up. However, he is convinced he can really take it or leave it, and in some sense leaves it since he does provide such a life for himself, but lives quietly amidst it, while at the same time being aloof and scornful of the very life he enjoys so much.

These early days of the story are hard days for Harry. He no longer has his keen sense of the value of what he is doing, and combined with his own developed sense that he and those like him are people who know that death is to be chosen when the time is ripe, Harry is flirting seriously with suicide.

As mentioned above, his first experience with his occult messages come when he is given the Treatise On The Steppenwolf by the stranger on the street. It is clearly personally about himself. However, he learns in this treatise that he isn't really the steppenwolf he paints himself to be. Not only are his bourgeois tendencies unmasked to him, but much more powerfully, it is revealed to him that he isn't even the contradiction of two forces, the steppenwolf and bourgeois culture, but he is thousands of personages, flitting back and forth in a jumble that boggles the mind. This doesn't deny that he may exhibit some relatively uniform characteristics at any given time and for some extended times, but rather that at any second some momentary impulse make overtake him and offer him an alternative to his typical self, an impulse which his view of himself as the steppenwolf is likely to make him reject.

Harry arrives at a frustration with life and living and decides it is time to commit suicide and end his pain and suffering. He goes out wandering on his last day. In the process he comes across a funeral and follows it, just to test the experience. Much to his surprise he sees the man he believes gave him the treatise on the street and he races to catch him. Then he is unsure and asks him but the fellow says he has no idea what he could be talking about. However, in passing the fellow mentions that he sounds like someone who's perhaps been at The Black Eagle. The name seems not to register on Harry.

After the funeral he wanders the streets for hours, planning his suicide and death, dreading it and looking forward to it by turns. He prepares to return to his room and do the deed with a razor, but decides to allow a last meal and drink. He's deep into an unfamiliar part of town and turns to the first place he encounters, which, of course is The Black Eagle, the second of Harry's strange encounters.

The Black Eagle is a jazz club, dance hall and bar. He gets a drink and meets a very strange woman, Hermine, who knows all there is about Harry, about his life, his steppenwolf character, the treatise and tells him he needs her and that rather than killing himself he should turn him self over to her and obey her every command. He agrees and is not even surprised when she tells him that ultimately the last command she will give is that he kill her.

Harry's life now completely changes. He learns there is much more to life than the very limited sphere of "higher" things which steppenwolf had advocated and that he needs to learn to embrace the thousands of parts of his personality. More specifically Hermine guides him to learn to dance the foxtrot and Boston (a new dance for this reader, born too late) and even to learn to let himself loose for love which is not tied to relationship. He embraces a beautiful young woman, Maria, who has many other lovers than Harry, some who pay for her services which Harry does not. Harry meets Pablo, a strange young handsome sax player who leads the jazz band. Pablo turns out to be the man who will lead Harry into mind-altering substances and push him strongly on the road to building alternatives to his normal life, especially the view that there is at all a "reality" to embrace, rather there are many possible realities, each approaching something, but never escaping the self.

As the crescendo of Harry's journey occurs he has become an adept dancer, an accomplished and successful lover and a man open to a much wider world of reality than before. But one more brush with the occult is needed; no, this is not a "brush," this is a plunge and total immersion, even if drug induced. Harry attends the annual masked ball. He doesn't dress in costume, but is tuxedoed, dressed appropriately, but hesitant and unsure. He comes very late, and being prepared to leave early he checks his coat, but keeps his claim check in his pocket, fingering it constantly as he wants to leave, not finding Hermine, Marie or Pablo present. When he goes to leave he is astonished to discover his coat check is gone and he looks frantically for it, displaying publicly his distraught situation. A strange man comes up, tells him not to worry and give him his own ticket. But it isn't a coat check ticket at all, it is a ticket to the Magic Theater, if he dares. Harry dares.

There he finds Hermine, dressed in costume as a boy and Pablo playing away on his sax. Eventually the three end up in another part of the Magic Theater and Pablo gives them some strong drugs. In a drug-induced magic, Harry is allowed to enter various rooms in which reality is what he makes it to be, including one in which every woman he meets loves him. He reviews all the women of his life whom he met and was attracted to and each becomes his devoted lover. Eventually we return to his last love, Hermine, whom Harry finds naked in the arms of Pablo and he immediately kills her.

The last scene is fantastic and provides one of the novel's most memorable images. Harry meets Mozart, the master whose music he has extolled the entire novel. At one part Mozart puts a record of Handel on the gramophone and Harry has a fit. How could he possibly listen to this bastardized tinny sound of Handel's profound music; it is blasphemy. Mozart laughs at him at tells him that music on the gramophone is to real music the way Harry's life is to reality; a distortion that gets something right. What Harry must do is two things: he must learn to accept the world as it is given to him and he must learn to laugh at the distortions. Harry chooses, in fear and trembling, knowing it will be painful and that he will often fail to embrace this comic sense of accepting a meaningless reality, to go on and hope that someday he will learn to laugh at the distortions while appreciating the significant essence of the underlying reality which we can never fully achieve.

Thus is the journey of Harry Haller. But what is this to Bob Corbett? There certainly are few parallels in the actual life I lead. I've never really lived alone, and while I flirt with the dualistic life like Harry, both in dichotomizing the world into those tending toward authenticity and somehow demeaning those who do not, and following Harry in my surreptitious (to myself) enjoyment of bourgeois comfort, I nonetheless have had a very different path in arriving at my current world of 62. There is little that matches in the actual facts of our lives.

It is in the inner life, not in the plot; it is in the revelations Harry is exposed to and to which Hesse exposes me where Harry's life screams out at me to heed and pay attention, no less powerful than Pablo and Mozart's call to Harry.

Early on in discussion of early 20th century technologies of radio and telephone and such, Harry has come to declare that space has been conquered. However, Pablo offers Harry a similar escape from time itself. "You had no doubt guessed long since that the conquest of time and the escape from reality, however else it may be that you choose to describe your longing, means simply the wish to be relieved of your so-called personality. That is the prison where you lie."

When Harry was later undergoing the imaginary world in which every woman he had ever desired all of a sudden desired him, the price was that this was not really Harry himself whom they desired. It was an unreal Harry whom he doesn't even describe or address who attracts these women in such a way. But the Harry of the real world is a Harry who has a personality, one which Harry chooses and to which he is responsible. It is this Harry that he must learn to accept, recognizing it is simply an arbitrary choice and meaningless one, but his own and himself. Like the early radio's version of Handel, it will be tinny and distorted. Harry must both accept the reality he is and learn to laugh at the distortions from ideality. As Sartre claims, when we choose we choose for the whole world since our acts change the reality around us. To live in reality is to live in the burden of those acts we have chosen and yet to accept that responsibility at the same time. We try to do what we think best and, again, as Hesse's Mozart says of the gramophone, we often get a tinny music back; it retains the essence of the spiritual wonder of the music, but we must be able to laugh at the distorted tinniness. It's the only reality we have.

Hesse challenges me to face myself more honestly, recognize the distortions in my reality created by my own inexpert understanding and the uncontrollable factors of the world. He challenges me not to take myself so seriously and to learn to even laugh at the tinniness I often call suffering and frustration. When I learn to laugh I somehow come into a closer reality to the world in which I actually live, making that life much more possible with positive energy even in a world that ultimately doesn't matter. It is a living with meaninglessness in joy, embracing the situation of my humanness while making the very best of it.

Like Harry I can only try. Harry ends the book with wise counsel:

"I understood it all. I understood Pablo. I understood Mozart, and somewhere behind me I heard his ghastly laughter. I knew that all the hundred thousands pieces of life's game were in my pocket. A glimpse of its meaning had stirred my reason and I was determined to begin the game afresh. I would sample its tortures once more and shudder again at its senselessness. I would traverse not once more, but often, the hell of my inner being.

"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."

My closing remark may seem like I'm already backing away from the power of Hesse which I claim above. Not so, yet I am left with one nagging doubt about a fundamental assumption Hesse seems to make. He flirts all the way through the text with an eastern view of how to deal with life which is to escape FEELING and come to merge somehow with the one. I can't help wonder about this one aspect of his vision. Is Harry's world one that won't matter to him, at which he can laugh simply because he trains himself no longer to FEEL his suffering or his joy? Is Bob Corbett reeling from the power of Hesse's powerful portrait of Harry Haller's journey from Steppenwolf to…..??? simply because of the power of the moment? And what is it to fill in those question marks? Is this a world without passion and feeling of one's one uniqueness? While deeply moved by this book, there are still things to work out. Deeply moved and tempted. Yet I'm not fully converted to the Gospel According To Harry Haller.

Bob Corbett

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