Saturday, 30 May 2009


"Steppenwolf" by Herman Hesse: A Review
Hesse's novel "Steppenwolf" is a clearly written but perplexing tale. What to make of it? Obviously, any criticism will be limited by one's own perception of the novel, and by how one has read and understood it. Nevertheless, I will try to present a view of "Steppenwolf" which, I hope, does some justice to the main strands of the book.
On the surface, the story is about a middle-aged misanthrope; it is a record, or memoir, of his drifting through life until he comes across a door marked "Magic Theatre - entrance not for everybody." He determines to investigate, and what follows is almost a parable of modern times, of the mediocrity of life in general, and the path to greatness which has to be sought.
In part, "Steppenwolf" is an acutely perceptive diagnosis of the dilemma of a creative person, one torn between two worlds, spirit and nature, reason and imagination, and man's outward appearance and the hidden person - the "wolf" that is within. In the book, Hesse dramatises a dualism between nature and spirit, a chasm to be crossed, where man is "the narrow and perilous bridge between nature and spirit." And in Hesse's world, spirit cannot perfect nature: spirit and nature are enemies, between whom there can be no compromise, unless it be the shallow life of the middle classes.
But Hesse will not allow this compromise to be seen as satisfactory; he speaks of it with loathing: "what I always hated and detested and cursed above all things was this contentment, this healthiness and comfort, this carefully preserved optimism of the middle classes, this fat and prosperous brood of mediocrity." He
sees them content with their comforts, but finds that it is "this contentment that I cannot endure."
The creative spirit is bound by its baser nature. That is the dilemma: what of the solution? The only escape for the creative spirit, Hesse sees, is to follow the wisdom of the East, in the ideals of the Buddha, and give up "the fiction of an ego." Only then can the spirit roam free, for "a man cannot live intensely except at cost of self." This is the truth, which only those who are enlightened can perceive; the remainder of humanity, as pictured by Hesse, is lost in mediocrity.
But this remainder is not apathetic; it takes active steps to silence those who have found truth: it "calls science to aid, establishes schizomania, and protects humanity from the necessity of hearing the cry of truth from the lips of these unfortunate people." And this majority also buries the past, so that all that has gone before is sterilised for mass consumption; the result being that "our whole civilisation was a cemetery where Jesus Christ and Socrates, Mozart and Haydn, Dante and Goethe, were but the indecipherable names on mouldering stones."
It is against this majority that Hesse makes his protagonist battle, seeking to find a past unity with enlightenment that is now lost; until it is found, the seeker remains a schizophrenia Steppenwolf, torn between the high realms of the spirit, and the mundanity of nature.
I sympathise with Hesse's portrayal of a creative individual, unsatisfied with the demands of the everyday, longing to rise above this on the wings of a soaring imagination. He also makes a good case when he shows, by a myriad strands, how the desire of masses for mediocrity seeks to stifle such an individual. It is also an extremely well-written book, in the tradition of realism in which we find Thomas Mann and Camus. Lastly, it is provocative, in a manner unlike many novels of today.

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