Fugue state

Steppenwolf is two parts opera, one part philosophy and one part dreamstate, all of it laced with cocaine and limned in neon – oh, and balanced on the four hands of Vishnu. It’s a bit of a trip.


Steppenwolf · Hermann Hesse · 1927
Basil Creighton translation · Picador, 2015 · 218 pages, paperback

Harry Haller barely makes out the invitation carefully etched into the church door: Magic Theater. Entrance not for everybody. For Madmen only! He’d love to go inside! His mind is filled with torments, with a dissonance that clashes more violently as he tries to wend through it and sort out exactly who he is and what he thinks. Poor Harry, he turns up only despair and the pathetic simplification of the Steppenwolf: Man and Beast. It’s a Faustian dichotomy of his soul that gives him no peace. Though he’s yet to learn it, Harry wants nothing more than to rend his soul from his body and mind, and briefly – oh, very briefly because he’s so in fear of it – he thinks of suicide.

And all of this (but particularly death) is with an aim at immortality. True to Hermann Hesse’s own dabbling in Eastern mythology, his Steppenwolf Harry Haller, in thirsting for immortality, is actually scavenging for reincarnation. And true to classic German literature, Steppenwolf the novel is heavy on philosophy. But this is no treatise (despite the inclusion of one given to Harry by a man clearly from this elusive Magic Theater).

Harry Haller tries the reader’s patience until he meets Hermine. He’s an arrogant narcissist with all the maturity of a hipster intellectual. Woe is me. Harry is living too much inside his head, caught up in a midlife crisis that’s more spiritual than material. It’s all very unoriginal, but it’s clear this is Hesse’s intention. We know because Hermine laughs at him.

Hermine is of course Herman(n Hesse), Harry Haller’s youthful self made manifest. Hermine awakens him to life and this is Hesse’s point, which he hones through many abstractions to a very fine point by novel’s end.

Hesse wrote Steppenwolf in 1927, and the book has the sentiment of many inter-war novels. Its themes of introspection, of man versus machine, of black-and-white ideals at war with the polychrome of honest feeling run through the length of his novel.  It asks us to fess up to our own guilt – no, not the modern fessing up that reflexes into weak apology and self-abasement, but the industrious kind that hopes to accomplish something.

Harry cannot accept that a man may love Mozart and jazz equally or that a fox trot has as much merit as a symphony or that dancing is a restorative or that sex and booze are not necessarily the degradation of the mind – the human – through the triumph of the body – the primal, the beast.

Harry is a writer. He’s written a few books and has published essays that have a fairly un-German (or rather, un-Weimar) bent to them. He’s become unpopular with old friends who adhere to the state line and who had expected him to do the same. A portrait of Goethe offends him because he shared Faust’s philosophy of man’s human-beast duality of soul until he saw that it couldn’t suffice because more than a Steppenwolf, the soul is fractured in infinite.

Hermine, who is a conduit for bringing Harry back to the world more than she is a physical entity, teaches Harry the fox trot and introduces him to Maria, a beautiful harlot who in turn teaches him the myriad steps of the dance between the sheets. He meets through Hermine the saxophonist Pablo, who reminds Harry that Mozart is immortal only because of the radio and that a musician who plays his full heart – yes, even if it’s jazz – is every bit the Immortal that Mozart is. Mozart, made real to Harry behind one of the Magic Theater’s many doors, picks up the same line and says this about radio:

It takes hold of some music played where you please, without distinction, stupid and coarse, lamentably distorted, to boot, and chucks it into space to land where it has no business to be; and yet after all this it cannot destroy the original spirit of the music.

(NB: 1920s radio is no 21st century hi-fi).

Distortions, disguises, the hermaphrodite costume Hermine wears to the Masked Ball – none of it can destroy to the last particle what lies underneath. The essence – all of the good, all of the bad – always remains, and the Magic Theater lifts its dusty curtains on it.

What is the Magic Theater? Open the doors and find out: it’s a more thorough explanation of man than the Steppenwolf. Behind one of these doors sits a man who teaches Harry chess, the game of infinite combinations, each of them played with a confident uncertainty and each of them yielding by turns a check or passage to a final goal: to win the game. It’s good to know if you screw up bad you’ve got thousands of chances to make it right.

The circularity of the Magic Theater is exhaustive. Introspection is tiresome. It’s an uncomfortable effort that must be performed again and again for us to receive from it any benefit. Most clear is that Harry learns that his own personality is something he had created over the years and that had bound him hand and foot to a certain way of life that was now growing tiresome. He had never danced. He had never chosen to try his ear for jazz because, surely, it could never be Mozart.

But then he met Hermine.

Whether Harry found Hermine in reality or at the bottom of his beer stein hardly matters. Superficially, Steppenwolf shows a man who, on the edge of fearsome death, is saved by whores and liquor, a kind of self-effacement by orgy that lasts only til the gray morning and leaves the dancing room empty but for limpid streamers and half-drunk glasses (somehow more inappropriate than the empty ones).

Harry knows what Hermine’s one request will be, even before she asks: he knows that he is to kill her but only after he’s come to love her. As a reflection of his own self and, more than this, as a teacher to him for how to live outside of reputation, of personality, of expectations, Hermine is a figure for Harry’s reincarnation. Harry learns while inside the Magic Theater that his personality and all that he’s built himself up to be with labels and a duality of selves, the Steppenwolf,  is child’s play.

This is, indeed, Harry’s primary gripe, the ordering of the human soul for which our meager language is inadequate. Hence, labels. Hence, having the burden of living up to the expectations these labels engender.

When Harry is booted from the Magic Theater for failing “to live by gallows humor” it is because he has killed Hermine. Oh, he did love her; he learned so much! But now Harry’s killed that part of himself that commanded him to live differently than he had and to try – just try – to free himself from himself.

But that’s the thing about self-reflection. You can’t stop such a thing after jumping the first hurdle. You’ll have need for it again, in your most dissatisfactory moments when, as for Harry, the razor calls and you’re caught in limbo with a great loathing for life and a great dread of death.

It sounds so depressing, but Hesse is clear as Steppenwolf pushes on that such fugues are temporary and can be eased by making the very difficult changes that, even as we fail in our first attempts, still give the merest taste of the promised fruit, much as a smoker begins to feel what life might be like without his cigarettes or the anorexic who, in the midst of hating every mouthful, finds surprise in the first bite that brings no guilt.

We’re sure to fail and fail once more.

But Hesse leaves his dear old Harry Haller with a pocketful of chess pieces. So…shall we play again?

Steppenwolf · Hermann Hesse · 1927
Basil Creighton translation · Picador, 2015 · 218 pages, paperback

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