I’m not sure what I expected from this book. A sort of philosophising trip? It certainly played that part well. The writing was exquisite and perfectly encapsulated Harry’s internal conundrum. I was certainly enraptured by the magic theatre and musicality of this novel.
However, his conflict with his misplacement in civil society pertains to a specific gaze, that of the middle class white male. To some degree, Hesse was aware of this gaze (he was acutely aware of his class, but ignorant of race and sex). His descriptions of Jazz, Negroes (“primitive” and “vacant eyes”), Jews and depictions of women were products of the novel’s unenlightened breadth. The women in this story, specifically Hermine and Maria, were mere objects in this story. There is hardly any other way to describe them. I am aware that my own privileges in life enable me to be able to contextualise the ignorances and to be aware of the problems in the novel, without it deterring me from finding joy in both the novel itself and the pursuant analysis. It is exclusively through my own privileges that I can distinguish between the ignorances and what engaged me. I state this because I don’t want to feign ignorance of the harms of these evils.
I was still able to enjoy the majority of this book despite careful consideration of the fundamental biases that infiltrated the philosophy of this novel. Hesse has a way with words and there were some incredibly insightful and profound moments. I think I would like to read some critiques of this novel to further engage with what Hesse attempted to achieve.
It is precisely books like this that I love to find myself ensnared by. To be able to flex my analytical literary muscles to assess and dissect the good and the nasty. I can acknowledge the prejudice and hope to contextualise it or seek to distinguish it as noise, mere excess from the crux of the novel. But at the same time, I aim to engage with the philosophy. The philosophy that grapples with tenets of existentialism and nihilism. I can play with the ideas this novel churns out and try to piece together whether the novel is self-aware of its own flaws, or if the absence of awareness is what exemplifies the philosophy. Any conclusion, any derivation is the nature of literary criticism, the nature of the individualist experience of literature. It is an experience that I am innately enamoured by and I am glad and grateful that this book has ignited my passion.
To me, this book felt like an indictment of Harry, the eponymous Steppenwolf. The novel attempts to poke fun at the lens which Harry tries to unravel his internal war. His disconnect from society, from the experiences of pleasure or pain, was subtle parody on the intellectual asceticism, which denounces popular culture, for a culture more pure, more eternal and supposedly transcendent of space and time. Harry is his own paradox who perpetuates the things that disgust and separate him from society. The philosophical basis of this book anchored me with interest and I couldn’t help but enjoy this experience. Definitely one that I would love to return to in the future.
This Steppenwolf of ours has always been aware of at least the Faustian two-fold nature within him. He has discovered that the one-fold of the body is not inhabited by a one-fold of the soul, and that at best he is only at the beginning of a long pilgrimage towards this ideal harmony. He would either like to overcome the wolf and become wholly man or to renounce mankind and at last to live wholly a wolf’s life. It may be presumed that he has never carefully watched a real wolf. Had he done so he would have seen, perhaps, that even animals are not undivided in spirit. With them, too, the well-knit beauty of the body hides a being of manifold states and striving. The wolf, too has his abysses. The wolf, too, suffers. No, back to nature is a false track that leads nowhere but to suffering and despair. Harry can never turn back again and become wholly wolf, and could he do so he would find that even the wolf id not of primeval simplicity, but already a creature of manifold complexity. Even the wolf has two, and more than two, souls in his wolf’s breast, and he who desires to be a wolf falls into the same forgetfulness as the man who sings: “If I could be a child once more!” He who sentimentally sings of blessed childhood is thinking of the return to nature and innocence and the origin of things, and has quite forgotten that these blessed children are beset with conflict and complexities and capable of all suffering.
There is, in fact, no way back either to the wolf or to the child. From the very start there is no innocence and no singleness. Every created thing, even the simplest, is already is already guilty, already multiple. It has been thrown into the muddy stream of being and may never more swim back again to its source.
Before all else I learned that these playthings were not mere idle trifles invented by manufacturers and dealers for the purposes of gain. They were, on the contrary, a little or, rather, a big world, authoritative and beautiful, many sided, containing a multiplicity of things all of which had the one and only aim of serving love, refining the senses, giving life to the dead world around us, endowing it in a magical way with new instruments of love, from powder and scent to the dancing show, from ring to cigarette case, from waist-buckle to handbag. This bag was no bag, this purse no purse, flowers no flowers, the fan no fan. All were the plastic material of love, of magic and delight. Each was a messenger, a smuggler, a weapon, a battle cry.
For the first time I understood Goethe’s laughter, the laughter of the immortals. It was a laughter without an object. It was simply light and lucidity. It was that which is left over when a true man has passing through all sufferings, vices, mistakes, passion and misunderstanding of men and got through to eternity and the world of space. And eternity was nothing else than the redemption of time, its return to innocence, so to speak, and its transformation again into space.