Posted in 1920s, Books, Hermann Hesse

The wolf that lurks within (Steppenwolf, Part II: My personal relationship with the novel)

Hermann Hesse’s Steppenwolf, published in 1927, is one of the books that most changed my life. It was among my father’s old books stored in my room, and I took it into my own collection (with permission) when I fell in love with Hesse when I was fourteen. However, I didn’t get around to reading it until December of 1999, shortly before I turned twenty.

I obviously didn’t have a huge amount of life experience at that age, and my cognitive development was still about six years away from full maturity. Thus, there were aspects of the book that flew over my head or which I misinterpreted or didn’t think were that important.

However, I still connected to Harry’s basic struggles and character arc, and saw myself in him. I had enough self-awareness to recognise how overly serious I could be, preferring my intellectual, interior life of the mind over social life with peers and taking part in current pop culture. I also never learnt how to two-person dance, and even before I knew who Buster Keaton was, I was channeling his spirit by deliberately rarely smiling or laughing.

I also absolutely loved the Magic Theatre and all the trippy, surrealistic, mystical, esoteric, paranormal things happening there.

Rereading Steppenwolf at age 42 was an even deeper and more personal experience. I’m now much closer to Harry’s age, and I’ve gone through a lot more of life and more finely honed my views. E.g., at nineteen, I also agreed with Harry’s disgust for bourgeois conformity and society, but it was more of an abstract, political idea, not something I really got on a personal level.

I’ve always felt much more comfortable in the proletarian and lower-middle-class world. Those people are humbler and more authentic, and don’t live their lives by cookie-cutter checklists of mindless conformity, doing things only because they’re expected, and keeping up with the Joneses in their little suburban housing developments with freaking open concept houses promoted by HGTV.

Although I do, like Harry, also like certain surface aspects of bourgeois society, like their comfortable homes, ability to afford nice things to decorate the house, and tendency towards high culture thanks to widespread university education. I just don’t like all the classism, snobbery, and pretensions that go along with it.

Harry’s depression over being almost fifty and still feeling like he hasn’t accomplished nearly as much as he hoped to with his life also hit home much more strongly at 42. At nineteen, you’re so full of idealistic expectations and assumptions for your happy future, and then you find yourself not being in the same position as most of your peers, like finding a partner, marrying, and having kids by a certain age, locking in a long-term career, buying a great house, achieving success in your field.

I also suffer from cyclical depression, though unlike Harry and his creator, at least I haven’t had any suicidal thoughts or plans since I was fourteen.

Harry loves classical music and has no familiarity with modern jazz until Hermine forcibly introduces him to it. I love classic rock and pop, and also enjoy classical music, while not having any interest in anything modern. Harry isn’t the type of person who goes to clubs, and he has no idea how to dance. Likewise, I’ve always preferred to stay in reading, writing, doing homework, studying, and watching serious films instead of going to places like clubs and bars, and I only know how to do solo dancing and line dances. Social life with my peers never held any appeal for me.

When I first read the novel at nineteen, I was 100% virgin and had never even gone on a date (by choice). Thus, the scenes of Harry in bed with Maria, his feelings about his failed marriage with Erika, and the other sexual and romantic content didn’t really speak to me with any personal connection.

At 42, after having had a physical relationship with my now-ex Sergey, I could relate to Harry’s romantic disappointments and understand what some of the phrasing in the sex scenes referred to. (None of them are graphic or detailed. They’re more of the left to the imagination type, but the language is very evocative both emotionally and sexually.)

Then as now, I adored the Magic Theatre section at the end, though again, it was more of an abstract “This is awesome!” feeling at nineteen, and a general love of esoterica, mysticism, and the paranormal. At 42, I’d done so much more reading on those subjects, and also understood the deeper intentions of the specific rooms Hesse chose for Harry to enter and the experiences he has inside.

E.g., the room where cars and humans hunt one another and kill for sport is a statement on the increasingly impersonal, violent, machine-centric nature of society, not just a shockingly violent image of a future world. The room where Harry plays chess with pieces of glass representing the 100,000 aspects of his personality is about trying to put oneself back together after being so broken, and making sense of our numerous selves. The room where he revisits his past with all the girls and women he ever loved is a poignant longing for long-lost loves and imagining how we should’ve done things instead.

And even though Harry fails the Magic Theatre, he’s nevertheless determined to continue healing and doing things differently going forward. There’s always a next time, and when he goes into the theatre again, “Pablo would be waiting for me, and Mozart too.”

Author:

Writer of historical fiction sagas and series, with elements of women's fiction, romance, and Bildungsroman. Born in the wrong generation on several fronts.

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