Steppenwolf by Herman Hesse, translator: Basil Creighton, org. published in 1927, Holt Paperbacks.
“In reality, however, every ego, so far from being a unity is in the highest degree a manifold world, a constellated heaven, a chaos of forms, of states and stages, of inheritances and potentialities.“
A novel that could easily be preachy and pretentious, but elegantly sidesteps either of those and becomes profound and complex instead. I’m not surprised it’s been read wrong by so many people, it’s easy to stop at the depressive tone and atmosphere, and not think to look deeper.
The pessimism of Harry Haller, our steppenwolf, seems to spring from a lack of introspection – not, that’s not right, a lack of a better sort of introspection. Haller looked within himself and saw the man and the wolf. The man belonging to society, having been brought up by the bourgeois and incapable of breaking away from that type of life completely; and the wolf, insisting on being wild, inappropriate, on being angry and resentful, longing for nature. But there is not a duality to man, we are more than two halves (unless for those who consider us a single whole being, they may also be right, perhaps this is the ultimate achievement), we contain multitudes.
You know the Walt Whitman quote: “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes”. This is the lesson for Haller, one he attempts to learn from a young woman who shows him the joys of dancing, drinking, sex, love, and everything he deemed too frivolous and shallow. Our multitudes can and should co-exist; it’s the only way to make life the least bit bearable.
The ending is ambiguous, to say for certain whether Haller ends up living a happier life than before? Who’s to say? All that’s left is the possibility, the hope that there may be more to life than we know. Even at our darkest, our most suicidal, the idea that we’ve seen, felt and experienced everything life has to give us, that we’ve somehow figured it out and can end it, because there’s nothing left? Steppenwolf shows us that is never the case. There’s always something new to find, a sliver of hope on the horizon.
It may be worth holding on for.
“Only within yourself exists that other reality for which you long.“