Steppenwolf

“Most people have no desire to swim until they are able to.” Isn’t that a laugh? Of course they don’t want to swim! After all, they were born to live on dry land, not in water. Nor, of course, do they want to think. They weren’t made to think, but to live! It’s true, and anyone who makes thinking his priority may well go far as a thinker, but when all’s said and done he has just mistaken water for dry land, and one of these days he’ll drown.

Hermann Hesse, Steppenwolf

Last weekend I finished re-reading Steppenwolf (Hesse). I read this book when I was 17, following a suggestion from my parents. Reading it as an adult, I wonder what they might have seen in me to recommend this book at such a young age. Then again, the book was already at home, so they might have just seen in me some of their own behavioural patterns. Who knows. In any case, they nailed it, because I loved the book. However, I don’t think I understood it as well as I do now. Understand is not the right word, it’s more the feeling that, as with Demian, the novel was about me.

Solitude is independence. For years I had wished for it, and now it was mine. My solitude was cold, there was no denying that, but it was also serene, wonderfully serene and vast like the cold serene space in which the stars revolve. […] But, having achieved his freedom, Harry suddenly realized when experiencing it to the full that it was a living death. […] No longer his desire and goal, solitude and independence were a fate he was condemned to. He had made his magic wish and there was no going back on it.

Hermann Hesse, Steppenwolf

Hermann Hesse said that he was worried not so much about the detractors of his book, but about its followers, some of which were quite young. I agree with Hesse that young people may not fully grasp the general feeling of this book. He himself identified with the main character, Harry Haller, a middle aged man who has a profound midlife crisis. Harry has been searching for answers, for meaning all his life. And now, at almost 50, he has given up. All that is left for him is to die. One night in a bar, he meets a young lady, a sort of fairy godmother (or maybe a she-devil), who will show him how wrong he is. She will show him the outer world and teach him how to enjoy it, which he does, to his own astonishment. Accompanied by her and by one of her friends, who plays sort of a Mephistopheles role, Harry enters a magic theatre in which he learns that he is not just one person, but is made of multiple Harrys, each of whom must fulfil their aim in life. In the theatre he faces a final trial, which he fails. He realises he is now to be condemned to death for his crime and welcomes the sentence. Instead, he is condemned to life. And he is given some homework, starting with the so difficult task of learning to laugh.

Harry the thinker is a hundred years old, but Harry the dancer is barely half a day old as yet. He is the one we now need to foster, and all his tiny little brothers who are just as small, stupid and ungrown-up as he is.

Hermann Hesse, Steppenwolf

This is how Harry enters the second half of his life. I don’t remember my birth, although it sounds painful enough. However, I do remember how I turned the page to enter the second half of my life and I remember quite distinctively how painful this was. I remember thinking I had been reborn. This is quite pretentious, but the general feeling was a little like that, like a new beginning, with the difference that I was not as clueless as when I came into this world.

And who, above the ruins of his life, was striving to locate some elusive meaning? Who was enduring a seemingly senseless, seemingly mad existence, yet still, at this last insanely chaotic stage, secretly hoping to find revealed truth and divine presence?

Hermann Hesse, Steppenwolf

The book reminded me of Faust, another man who is buried in books, looking for answers, hidden in his inner world, incapable of “enjoying life” or at least enjoying the outer world. Mephistopheles guides him in a tour of life, showing him all that he is missing, as well as a tour of the unconscious. Faust pays for this experience with his soul. Harry pays with his mind (“Only mad people admitted. You pay at the door with your mind”). They leave themselves outside and enter a “new” world. A world that has always been there, a world that they had despised, with its petty and shallow amusements, a world that everyone seems capable of enjoying, except for them, a world they cannot understand, a foreign world in which they are aliens. With the help of their guide, however, they suddenly see all the colours, they smell all the scents, they touch, taste, let themselves go. To their utter surprise, they find themselves being… happy? Even if it is only for a short period of time, they see what it is to enjoy the outer world. They unlearn and are re-educated.

I remember that many years ago, decades ago, I once told a friend that I wanted to take a vacation of myself, to get rid of my personality for a little while. It felt so heavy and the air was so thick, that I just wanted to enjoy something light and fresh air. I didn’t know how to do this, though. There a scene in the book that illustrates this beautifully. As the novel approaches its climax, Harry goes to a grand ball, where he dances with one partner after another for hours. At some point he realises that, despite his initial resistance, he has just let go of his own ego conscience and has dissolved himself in the collective unconscious (Jung). For a short while he has taken a vacation of his own personality and has allowed himself to fuse with the mob. A sort of bigger body that acquires a personality of its own, in which each individual is but a cell at its service. This fact, how an individual can change its personality when it is part of a crowd, has always fascinated me. We see it in concerts, in some demonstrations, sometimes in a collective dance. A sort of brief trance during which the individual is not him/herself, but just a cell of a bigger body. A true vacation from one’s own personality to become part of something greater over which we have no control and therefore no responsibility (I think this part is key to the “vacation” feeling).

Ah well, I was thinking to myself meanwhile, whatever might happen to me, for once in my life I too have been happy, beaming, liberated from my self, a brother of Pablo, a child.

Hermann Hesse, Steppenwolf

In summary, a truly great book, which people who are almost buried under the weight of the unbearable lightness of being (Kundera) or people who just entered the second half of life may like. There is light at the end of the tunnel, although not quite the light we expected.

You know, of course, where this other world lies hidden, know that the world you are seeking is that of your own soul, and that the different reality you are longing for is only to be found deep in your own self.

Hermann Hesse, Steppenwolf