Posted in 1920s, Books, Hermann Hesse, Religion

Happy 100th birthday, Siddhartha!

Like so many of Hermann Hesse’s other novels, Siddhartha too is quite short, but it’s anything but rushed, underdeveloped, and simplistic. Hesse was an absolute master at honing in on major, big-picture events and transforming them into profound episodes that feel much longer, and pulling the reader right into the story as though s/he’s personally experiencing it right alongside the protagonist. His novels wouldn’t feel the same if he fleshed out all the events between the episodes he chose to focus on. The books would be far longer, but they wouldn’t have the same impact.

Siddhartha was written over two major periods from December 1919–May 1922, and various newspapers published some of the chapters from August 1920–July 1922. The complete novel was published in October 1922.

In Ancient Nepal’s Kingdom of Kapilavastu, a much-belovèd, spiritually-inclined young man named Siddhartha longs to leave home to forge his own path to enlightenment, try to figure out the mysteries of the Universe, and learn as much as he can about all things spiritual and religious. Towards this end, he begs his father to let him join the samanas (ascetic sages) in the woods.

Siddhartha’s father, a Brahmin, feels it beneath himself to speak angry and violent words, but he’s nevertheless extremely indignant to hear this request. However, Siddhartha won’t be deterred that easily, and remains standing in the same place through the entire rest of the day and all of the night.

Finally, Siddhartha’s father realizes his mind is made up and that he’s already mentally gone. He gives his blessing for Siddhartha to leave with his best friend Govinda.

Siddhartha is like a sponge, soaking up all the wisdom from the samanas, and learning how to live with barely any possessions and no money. But as much as he’s spiritually grown, Siddhartha still feels he’s missing out on other important lessons, and wonders if perhaps no one will reach Nirvana, since they’re just going around in a circle instead of ascending upwards.

One day, the illustrious Buddha comes through town, and Siddhartha and Govinda eagerly, reverently go to meet him. Govinda is so inspired by Buddha’s teachings, he decides to become one of Buddha’s monks.

Govinda doesn’t want to lose his oldest and dearest friend, and begs Siddhartha to join him in becoming a Buddhist. Nothing he says or does convinces Siddhartha to change his mind, but right after Govinda leaves to become a novice monk, Siddhartha encounters Buddha in the garden.

Siddhartha showers Buddha with loving, respectful words, highly praising his Four Noble Truths, Noble Eightfold Path, Middle Way, and other key philosophical teachings. With the utmost respect, Siddhartha says he’s afraid if he becomes a monk, Buddha’s teachings and his love for Buddha will become his ego and a new idol to worship. He’s also determined to find his own unique path to enlightenment.

Siddhartha wanders alone through the forest for awhile, and begins a new chapter of his life when he takes a ferry across the river into a town which very much appeals to him. In this town, he meets a beautiful courtesan named Kamala, who promises to teach him the art of pleasure once he smells sweet, shaves, cuts his hair, wears nice clothes and shoes, and has money.

Siddhartha eagerly obeys these commands, and soon reinvents himself as a very successful merchant under the tutelage of Kamaswami. For many years, Siddhartha lives in Kamaswami’s mansion and becomes his second-in-command in the business. Though Siddhartha isn’t a naturally-inclined businessman, and he cares less about things like rice, wool, or even money, he has a lucky touch, is eager to learn all he can, and cares about his customers and clients on a personal level.

Siddhartha also becomes Kamala’s lover, and learns all about sensuality, love, and pleasure from her.

After twenty years, Siddhartha tires of this superficial city life and hectic rat race, and decides to return to the forest. He contemplates suicide by the river, but is pulled back to the desire to live by the holy sound of Om. Siddhartha then falls into deep sleep which powerfully reinvigorates him.

When he awakens, he finds Govinda, who doesn’t recognize him after so many years, and with such a changed appearance. Govinda is overjoyed when his old friend reveals himself, even if they can’t be together for very long.

Siddhartha decides to spend the rest of his life by the river, which he loves and adopts as a teacher. His prayers come true when he meets the same old ferryman, Vasudeva, who joyously welcomes his friend.

Through constant communion with the all-knowing, soul-penetrating river, and all the experiences he’s had throughout his life and continues to have after coming to the river, Siddhartha finally reaches his own personal enlightenment.

Posted in 1920s, Books, Hermann Hesse

The wolf that lurks within (Steppenwolf, Part III: Behind the scenes, reception, legacy)

Hermann Hesse began writing Steppenwolf in Basel in 1925, during a period of deep despair and personal crisis. He had separated from his second wife, Ruth Wegner, almost as soon as they married in 1924. Not only did they spend very little time living together, the marriage reportedly was also unconsummated. Hesse struggled with depression and feelings of isolation throughout his life, and this episode plunged him into deeper and deeper despair which culminated in suicidal thoughts.

Hesse wrote in his journal, “I’m giving up everything, my life […] I’m an aging man. To react to your world in any other way than by dying or by the Steppenwolf would be a betrayal of all that is sacred.”

Reportedly, the wolf signet on the house façade painted by Burckhard Mangold at Spalenberg 22 in Basel inspired Hesse’s title. Most of the novel was written in Basel’s Hotel Krafft, though it was completed in Zürich.

Copyright EinDao

To try to overcome his personal demons, Hesse resumed psychotherapy with Josef Lang, a disciple of Carl Jung, as he was writing Steppenwolf. Anyone who knows anything about Jungian philosophy will easily see its strong influence in the book, particularly the Magic Theatre in the final section.

Jung’s theories and practices heavily drew from dream analysis, the collective unconsciousness, metaphysics, the paranormal, mythology, astrology, gnosticism, anima and animus (i.e., the unconscious feminine side of a man and the unconscious masculine side of a woman), archetypes, repressed aspects of our personalities, spirituality, art and dance therapy, and the persona (i.e., a consciously-created identity or personality influenced by the collective psyche via life experience, socialization, and acculturation). After Steppenwolf was published, Jung also got into alchemy.

Another big influence on Hesse’s story was jazz music, which he became a fan of in 1926. The character of Pablo was based on Sidney Bechet, a saxophonist and clarinetist then touring Switzerland.

Steppenwolf first appeared in the esteemed German literary journal Neue Rundschau in November 1926, and “Treatise on the Steppenwolf” was published as a preprint teaser in May 1927. Hesse’s publisher, Samuel Fischer Verlag, published the entire thing in book format in June 1927.

The first English translation appeared in 1929, and the first paperback edition came out in 1963.

Hesse wrote a spin-off short story in 1928, “Harry, the Steppenwolf,” about a wolf named Harry who’s kept in captivity in a zoo and entertains visitors by destroying images of German cultural icons like Mozart and Goethe.

Steppenwolf became the dozenth book in the German-language Manesse Library of World Literature series in 1946, which started in 1944. Most of the volumes in this series get the royal treatment as gold-leafed hardcovers with luxurious paper, binding threads, gilded covers, and attached ribbon bookmarks. Each book has an afterword by a contemporary writer, literary scholar, or literary critic.

Steppenwolf was added to the Suhrkamp Library series in 1969, a series created by German publisher Peter Suhrkamp as “a lovers’ library for an elite readership,” with a focus on 20th century literature. The first six volumes selected were edited by Hr. Suhrkamp himself, and the very first book of the series was Hesse’s Journey to the East. Over the years, many of Hesse’s other works have been added to this series.

A second edition of Steppenwolf in the Suhrkamp Library came out in 1985, illustrated with fifteen watercolours by Gunter Böhmer.

In 1978, Steppenwolf was included in the ZEIT Library of 100 Books, a collection of important, classic world literature chosen by a six-member jury and meant to interest people in reading. Only one book by each author on the list was allowed. A book edition of the essays about these books, originally published in the weekly German newspaper Die Zeit, came out in 1980.

This list and the accompanying essays were so successful, a list of 100 great nonfiction books was created in 1984. In 2002 and 2003, a list of 50 German-language works for children came out.

In the preface to the 1961 edition, Hesse wrote that this book was “more often and more violently misunderstood” than anything else he’d ever written. Most readers seemed to focus on the depression, despair, and suffering instead of Harry’s spiritual and psychological healing and determination to improve his life and start doing things differently.

Many of Hesse’s friends and longtime readers thought Steppenwolf celebrated so-called immorality because of its depiction of drug use and non-marital sex, a criticism which continued for many decades. By modern standards, those things are so tame! It’s not like there are any graphic sex scenes or detailed descriptions of using drugs and getting high.

Guess what, neo-Puritans: Real life ain’t a G-rated Disney movie where everything is glitter, daisies, kittens, rainbows, and puppies.

In 1974, the book was adapted to the silver screen, starring Max von Sydow as Harry, Dominique Sanda as Hermine, Pierre Clémenti as Pablo, and Carla Romanelli as Maria. It was in pre-production for seven years due to negotiations with the Hesse family over film rights and the complicated planning that went into making “the first Jungian film.”

Before von Sydow was cast, Timothy Leary, Jack Lemmon, and Walter Matthau were proposed.

Over the decades, many songs have referenced or been inspired by Steppenwolf, and there have been many literary references as well. The American–Canadian rock band Steppenwolf and the Danish rock band Steppeulvene, both formed in 1967, also took their names from the novel.

In 1967, the Magic Theatre Company of San Francisco was founded, and the Steppenwolf Theatre Company was founded in Chicago in 1974.

And of course, the title of this blog and my old Angelfire website, Welcome to My Magick Theatre, also comes from the book.

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.”

Posted in 1920s, Books, Hermann Hesse

The wolf that lurks within (Steppenwolf, Part I: General overview)

An unnamed narrator has found the writings of a former boarder in his aunt’s house, where he also lives. He then goes on to describe how several years ago, this man named Harry Haller, who was almost fifty, came to stay with them and took the furnished bedroom and sitting room in the attic. Harry stayed for nine or ten months and brought many books with him. Though their bedrooms were right next door and they often met on the stairs, it took awhile for them to become properly acquainted on account of Harry’s reclusiveness.

After the opening section narrated by this unnamed young man, we get to Harry’s records, with the title “For Madmen Only.” (This book has no chapters, and very few section breaks.)

A few years away from his 50th birthday, Harry Haller’s life isn’t exactly going the way he hoped it would. His wife Erika divorced him some years back; he’s suffering with gout; he feels totally disconnected from bourgeois society despite his emotional attachment to surface things like happy families and well-maintained homes with araucaria flowers; he has no long-term career or even job; and he’s overwhelmed with depression and suicidal thoughts.

Harry’s life changes when he goes out for a glass of wine at the Steel Helmet on a rainy night and instead discovers a previously unnoticed doorway with a Gothic arch in the middle of an old stone wall he loves. Even more surprisingly, there’s an electric sign on the door, blinking the message:


After Harry has a drink at the tavern, he goes back to the old stone wall in the hopes of seeing that tempting, mysterious sign again. However, the door, archway, and sign have vanished.

Harry encounters a man carrying a signboard on a pole, and in front of him an open tray held up by straps. When Harry asks him to stop so he can read the sign, it bears the message:


Harry asks him what, where, and when this Magic Theatre is, and the stranger reiterates that it’s not for everybody. However, he does give Harry a booklet on cheap paper, the type found at fairs, and vanishes before Harry can pay him.

When Harry gets home, he discovers this is no ordinary carnival poppycock, but a serious treatise that describes his own life, competing wolf and human natures, and gloomy future outlook perfectly. He doesn’t just see himself in this in an abstract way; it actually uses his own name.

Treatise on the Steppenwolf. Not for everybody.

Harry agrees with the eerie booklet that he ought to kill himself, though he doesn’t want to wait till his 50th birthday as it prescribes. There are still two years to go, and he’s awash in despair, disconnection from everything and everyone he used to love, and the aches and pains of middle-age. He makes a date with his razor for the near future.

A day after Harry tries again to find the mysterious door and sign, he runs across a professor whom he used to be good friends with. The professor invites him over for dinner, and Harry agrees against his own reservations.

Harry is set off by a ridiculous framed engraving of his idol Goethe, styled as a conceited old man with a blank expression. The evening gets worse when the professor lambasts a recent antiwar editorial in the newspaper, which, unbeknownst to his host, was written by Harry himself. Finally, Harry snaps and rips into the ridiculous picture of Goethe, and storms out of the house, visions of the razor dancing through his head.

Harry ends up in a tavern called the Black Eagle, where he meets a woman who takes him to task for not knowing how to dance and being so melodramatic. Though she’s giving him quite the tongue-lashing, Harry nevertheless dreads her leaving, since then he’ll have to go home and kill himself.

While she’s dancing with someone else, Harry falls asleep and has a surrealistic dream about Goethe, who also takes him to task for being so serious.

Since Harry is still terrified of going home and facing the razor, his anonymous new friend arranges for him to lodge upstairs overnight. Before he falls asleep again, he realizes he has something to live for after all, and his hopeless starts fading.

The next time he meets this woman, he guesses her name is Hermine, since she seems so much like the female version of his old friend Hermann. Over the ensuing months, Hermine teaches him to dance, introduces him to jazz music, takes him to buy a gramophone, and has many deep conversations with him.

During this time, Harry also becomes friends with a jazz musician named Pablo and lovers with a beautiful young woman named Maria. All three of his new friends are instrumental in his restoration to normalcy and hope.

And then comes the grand finale of Harry’s initiation into this new life, a masked ball followed by the Magic Theatre. Which rooms will he choose to go into, and what sorts of lessons and esoteric experiences will he have there? And will he pass this test?

Posted in Hermann Hesse

Hermann Hesse Month, Part IX (What Hermann Hesse means to me)

In loving memory of Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachëv, 2 March 1931–30 August 2022, one of my heroes. May his beautiful, courageous memory be for an eternal blessing.

Since 9 August 2022 is the 60th Jahrzeit (death anniversary) of my second-favourite writer, Hermann Hesse, I’ve been spotlighting him this month. Let’s wrap up the celebration with a paean to what he means to me.

Like it says in the first line and chorus of Pete Townshend’s song “Now and Then” on Psychoderelict, “Now and then you see a soul and you fall in love/You can’t do a thing about it.” That was exactly my experience with discovering Hermann Hesse back in July of ’94, and it increased with each new novel or story I read.

Some of my favourite writers are also my heroes, like Aleksandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn and Bertolt Brecht. Others are literary idols, like Aleksandr Isayevich and Dante. But Hermann Hesse is one of those writers who’s always felt like a dear personal friend as well.

The more I learn about Hesse’s personal life, the more deeply connected to him I feel. Our lives don’t follow the same specific path, but there are so many commonalities among our journeys through life:

Searching for our own religious truth. Though he was given a religion and raised in it from birth, while I was tasked with choosing my own religion when I was eighteen, we each began our spiritual search in adolescence. His parents’ Christianity didn’t personally speak to him, so he explored other paths. I reclaimed my Jewish birthright as soon as I was eighteen, after longing for it from a young age and being spiritual long before I was religious. Along the way, I researched many world religions, a passion which remains to this day.

Being very advanced academically but not always so attuned to the fine art of making friends. When you have such a one-tracked interior life of the mind and are intellectually precocious, you inevitably feel alienated from your peers, and have a hard time figuring out how to form relationships with them.

Feeling keenly different from the crowd and gradually growing to embrace this instead of trying to conform. In sixth grade, I tried and failed to fit in with the other girls in my class, but they knew as well as I did deep down that I was much different than they were. I’d rather be one in a million than one of a million. I proudly wear my Mark of Cain.

Loving the wisdom of the East. Ever since the unit on the Indian subcontinent in my Global Studies class my freshwoman year of high school, I’ve drunk deeply from this wellspring of wisdom just as Hesse did. The religions I feel closest to after my own are Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, and Jainism, and I incorporate many non-conflicting beliefs and practices from these faiths into my spiritual life.

Enjoying drawing and painting. Most people obviously know Hesse first and best as a brilliant writer, but he also did hundreds of paintings. He began seriously painting at age 40, and initially did it as art therapy. As time went by, he developed a true passion. Art isn’t my primary calling either, but I truly enjoy it, and I focus on my strengths and interests (geometric and abstract art, very colourful animals like parrots and tropical fish).

Having no love lost for dull cookie-cutter bourgeois society. I’ve genuinely never seen the appeal of that kind of lifestyle, nor have I aspired to it. I’m quite happy with a down-to-earth proletarian or lower-middle-class life, though I admit my intellectualism and many of my tastes are much more in line with higher classes of society. If I achieve that income level, I’d never combine it with pretentiousness, mindless conformity, and keeping up with the Joneses.

Struggling with depression. I’ve had cyclical depression for much of my life.

Struggling with our inner wolf. We all have primal urges from the id and reptilian brain, even when our highest self, the superego, compels us to behave and think in a more refined, controlled manner.

Chronic headaches. They were triggered by the stressful, depressing experience I endured my junior year of high school, and never went away after the trigger was removed. I don’t want to know how many naproxen sodium and other pills I’ve taken over the last 25+ years. At least I only get a migraine about once every 4-5 years, sometimes longer. My last migraine was January 2016, which means I’m overdue.

Poor eyesight. Hesse was released from military service in 1900 because of his bad lazy eye, a condition which not only continued throughout his life, but worsened as he got older. I began wearing glasses in first grade (quite a humiliation for me for years), and finally switched to contacts at age seventeen. I now wear scleral contacts, which are nothing short of miraculous. Without them, I have very fuzzy vision in my right eye.

Pacifism. I’m not anti-military, and I do feel some wars, like WWII and the Six-Day War, are morally justified. However, I personally couldn’t put myself in a position where I might take a life. I don’t even kill insects when I can help it, but rather set them free outside. Ahimsa is extremely important to me. If I were a man and I were drafted despite being a conscientious objector, I’d demand alternative service or a noncombatant position.

Hermann Hesse is truly one of my kindred spirits, whom I’ve found I have more and more in common with as I learn more about him. Reading his books, stories, and essays feels like being with an old friend.