The Steppenwolf is a man who believes that he is torn between two realities: man, and wolf. Hermann Hesse introduces this man, Harry Haller, to demonstrate the battle of human consciousness. Harry represents a dualistic mindset. The man inside of him cares for the finer things in life: philosophy, literature, music, other arts—all processed through the lens of rationality and reflection. The man seeks to attain intellectual enlightenment. This aspect of the human consciousness is often viewed as the road of pain, because the grappling of the human existence and existential meaning is painful. The wolf inside him enjoys what society would consider the “baser” things in life: sex, gluttony, emotional outburst or rage, etc. This is the road to pleasure, and most Western societies deem this the road to sin.
Despised with himself, he drove himself into isolation for many years, and reached middle age. Reason for this is because those of the intellect withdrew from him when they saw the wolf in him. Additionally, those of the passions withdrew from him when they saw the rational man in him (43). In his isolation, he fell into chaos and despair. His soul found no rest nor no joy. What the world offered to him as a solution is the bourgeois, the middle class, contentment, the middle of the road between pleasure and pain. It is this contentment that he held in contempt: “It is just this contentment that I cannot endure. After a short time it fills me with irrepressible hatred and nausea. In desperation I have to escape and throw myself on the road to pleasure, or, if that cannot be, on the road to pain” (27).
Fortunately, Hesse’s depressing narrative does not end there. This novel is a journey of healing and reconciliation within the self. A character in the novel describes Harry’s altercation:
His relation to the bourgeois world would lose its sentimentality both in its love and in its hatred, and his bondage to it would cease to cause him the continual torture of shame.
To attain to this, or, perhaps it may be, to be able at last to dare the leap into the unknown, a Steppenwolf must once have a good look at himself. He must look deeply into the chaos of his own soul and plumb its depths. The riddle of his existence would then be revealed to him at once in all its changelessness, and it would be impossible for him ever after to escape first from the hell of the flesh to the comforts of a sentimental philosophy and then back to the blind orgy of his wolfishness. Man and wolf would then be compelled to recognize one another . . . then they would either explode and separate forever . . . or else they would come to terms in the dawning light of humor. (55-56)
It is in this attempt to reconcile his dualistic nature that he finds healing. In the novel, humor becomes the agent in which the character can look into the horrors of himself, and laugh. He has a run in with a woman named Hermine that brings Harry into this enlightened mindset.
The rest of the novel focuses on Harry taking the steps needed to enjoy life with intentional meaning. Hermine teaches him to still uphold intellectual thought, but also live. He learns to experience life through dancing, sex, and friendship. Through the intentional physical experiences Harry is led to understand that humor is what allows us to live with ourselves.
It is this conflict and journey in which I take an interest. This dualism: man and beast, is something that causes alienation when it is not necessary. These beast qualities are inherently not sinful. The desire for sex, food, and other passions are not connotated as negative until they are in excess. If we are to gaze through the Christian lens, it is when those passions disrupt Shalom (peace with God, the other, the self, and creation) that they earn the connotation of “sin.” This dualistic nature: rationality and passion, is a simplistic mindset of the human condition. Hesse through the character Hermine shows that the human existence is so much more complex, beautiful, and humorous than a serious black and white world in which Harry believes himself to be.
Now this reconciliation between the man and the wolf using humor is compelling yet discouraging. Towards the end of the novel, one of the characters who is trying to help Harry gain enlightenment tells him that they way to achieve humor is through the forfeit of the mind. It requires the abandonment of rationality and reflection. “For Madmen Only” is the coined term for the humored existence.
What it seems to be the point that Hesse is attempting to make is that while reflection and though has its place—what is true existence is intentional, joyous experience. If one is not out in the world living life, then what is there to reflect? What is there to philosophize? The metaphysical is tied to the physical. It is through experiences that we dive into the depths of our true selves, stare into our flaws and strengths, and continue to enjoy our lives in joy and humor.
Thanks to those who took the time to read my scattered thoughts on this puzzling book.
‘Till next time.