Having recently posted a “filk” of a song by Steppenwolf, I thought I ought to finally get around to reading the Hermann Hesse novel that the band’s name cites.
First I looked the work up on Wikipedia, and found that it
reflects a profound crisis in Hesse’s spiritual world during the 1920s while memorably portraying the protagonist’s split between his humanity and his wolf-like aggression and homelessness.
Both of my e-published short stories have touched on this human duality, so I was immediately interested.
I found it available as an ebook but given the Wikipedia description I decided to hold off on buying it until I had read the free sample. Unfortunately I didn’t get far.
In the preface, Hesse’s protagonist meets the man, Harry Haller, who is the “Steppenwolf,” when the latter takes a room at his aunt’s house. He invites Haller to a lecture by “a celebrated historian, philosopher, and critic, a man of European fame,” who instantly disappoints Haller merely by flattering the audience. Hesse’s protagonist somehow manages to read an entire, eloquent critique of early 20th-century Western civilization in Haller’s fleeting expression. I couldn’t help but imagine the “Steppenwolf” having an identical disappointment upon reading the paragraph.
I’ll say this about the theme as described by Wikipedia’s editoriat, since I doubt I’d ever get through the novel itself.
As the story begins, the hero [Haller] is beset by reflections on his being ill-suited for the world of everyday, regular people, specifically for frivolous bourgeois society. In his aimless wanderings about the city he encounters a person carrying an advertisement for a magic theatre who gives him a small book, Treatise on the Steppenwolf. This treatise, cited in full in the novel’s text as Harry reads it, addresses Harry by name and strikes him as describing himself uncannily. It is a discourse on a man who believes himself to be of two natures: one high, the spiritual nature of man; the other is low and animalistic, a “wolf of the steppes”. This man is entangled in an irresolvable struggle, never content with either nature because he cannot see beyond this self-made concept.
One of the things about cowboy fiction that distinguishes it from most other genres is that it often places the characters in a wild situation where whatever civilized sensibilities upon which they might have built their self-image will be challenged, with life-or-death stakes. This is not to say that cowboy stories were the first to do this; James Fenimore Cooper’s Natty Bumppo tales, of which only the last actually takes place in what we now think of as cowboy country (though several decades early), may be the first American examples.
The usual outcome of a cowboy story is that the good guy, who champions the moral code of the civilized but resorts to lethal necessity in extremis, wins out over those who have shed not only the trappings but the ethos of civilization. The latter have resolved the duality issue by going all-wolf; the former, by recognizing and to some extent domesticating his inner wolf in service to his humanity.
The theme is that people need both facets of their humanity to survive in a world of blood and dirt. Civilization is no better served by those who keep their monster irretrievably caged even in case of need, than by those who feed their inner angel to it and let it rampage uncontrolled.
Update, a few hours later: I’ve resumed reading the sample, still in the preface. Hesse has his prefatory protagonist and the Steppenwolf speak of being caught between two ages.
To me, the time between ages is itself an age. Having been born when I was, I’ve been through at least a couple of these; they’re easier to get used to than Herr Hesse might have believed.
That droll hippie observation about “…there you are” could be just as apt about when.
I have long believed, though, that very little of German philosophical writing has aged — or exported — well. This isn’t doing much to challenge that opinion.
So why has so much German philosophy gained such wide currency? It’s not always easy to see the holes in inapt criticism when one does not yet know oneself. Today especially, inapt criticism has found fertile ground in recent generations deprived of a complete background in their own history.
Obviously though, this is by no means new.
‘Nother update: Turns out the preface is the most readable part of the novel.