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 1900s, 1910s, Books, Hermann Hesse

Do you bear the Mark of Cain? (Demian, Part II: Plot summary)

On its face, Demian might seem like a very simple, lightweight novel, with only eight chapters, less than 150 pages, a very small cast, a rather episodic structure, and a plot that’s mostly about the journey through life and Emil Sinclair’s moral and spiritual development. But despite all of those things, the story truly shines as so much deeper and more profound.

Emil Sinclair’s story begins about 1906, when he’s ten years old. All his life, he’s felt safe, comforted, well-ordered, and secure in his family’s shiny, happy, peaceful, calm, pious, wealthy home. However, this home also contains an entirely different second world, that of the servants, who talk of things like prison, ghosts, alcoholism, murder, robbery, suicide, wife-beating, evil spells, injured horses, arson, and cops. From a young age, he’s been inextricably drawn to this forbidden underworld and has felt his family’s world to be boring and depressing in comparison.

Sinclair’s life begins changing forever when Franz Kromer, a 13-year-old public school student and son of an alcoholic tailor, joins him and two of his friends as they’re exploring the town. To try to impress the others when they’re swapping stories about heroics and pranks, Sinclair makes up a windy about robbing gourmet apples from an orchard.

Kromer makes him swear by God that it really happened, and when Sinclair reaches home, the nightmare begins. It so turns out that this orchard really was robbed, and the owner has offered a reward of two marks to anyone who can name the thief. Since Kromer doesn’t come from money like Sinclair, he’s eager to claim this reward.

Sinclair only has 65 cents, which means he’s entirely in Kromer’s servitude until he can produce the full sum of two marks, always summoned by a sickening whistle. During this period, Sinclair does a lot of stealing, lying, and performing humiliating tasks demanded by Kromer, like hopping on one leg for ten minutes and sticking notes on people’s jackets. His health suffers horribly, and his parents know something very wrong is going on, but he can’t tell them the truth.

While these torments are going on, a new boy comes to school, a few years older than Sinclair, who recently lost his father. Like Sinclair, his family is also well-to-do. Max Demian seems so much older than his years, since he carries himself with such maturity. None of the other boys like him, since he keeps to himself, refuses to fight, and acts more like a man than a schoolboy. The only thing they like about him is “the firm and confident tone he took with the teacher.” He and his mother also never attend church, and rumors about his true religion swirl.

One day when they’re walking home together, Demian tells Sinclair a fascinating alternative interpretation of the Cain and Abel story. Cain wasn’t the villain, he was the forward-thinking hero who was already marked and feared because he was so different from other people.

The situation with Kromer intensifies, and Sinclair begins having horrific recurring nightmares, the worst of which involves him murdering his father. Kromer also demands he bring his older sister, which Sinclair refuses to do. But then, after a personal conversation about the matter with Demian, Kromer mysteriously vanishes, and when he encounters Sinclair a few times afterwards, he flees in terror. Sinclair never finds out just how Demian did this.

A few years later, Demian shows up in Sinclair’s confirmation class, since he wasn’t confirmed at the usual age. In a world without separation of church and state, his mother presumably felt being unconfirmed might cause problems for his future.

In this class, Demian’s seat changes several times, until he ends up next to Sinclair. He also introduces Sinclair to psychic games, like compelling the pastor to not call on them or make other boys do a certain gesture. Even more profoundly, thanks to the earlier Midrash about the Mark of Cain, Demian has caused Sinclair to begin interpreting Biblical stories in a more creative, less literal fashion. In confirmation class, Demian shares a new Midrash, about the unrepentant thief at the Crucifixion having the courage of his convictions, while the story of the weepy, repentant thief is “nothing but a sanctimonious fairytale, treacly and dishonest, insipid and sentimental and obviously didactic.”

During one class, Demian goes into a statue-like trance which Sinclair tries and fails to replicate at home.

The next year, Sinclair starts a boarding school in another city, where he feels like a total outsider and unwanted loser until he begins going to bars and getting drunk regularly. His grades plummet as a result, and his parents are quite displeased. But then he encounters a beautiful, intelligent-looking woman whom he names Beatrice, in homage to Dante, and everything immediately turns around. His grades improve and he regains the respect of his teachers and parents, though his old friends reject him with mockery.

Sinclair begins painting, in the hopes of capturing Beatrice’s face, but all his efforts fail. Finally, he creates an image which eerily calls to him, a face both male and female, ageless, dreamy, strong-willed. He hides it in his drawer so no one sees it and makes fun of him, but when he’s alone, he pins it up over his bed so he can constantly gaze upon it.

It dawns on Sinclair that this is Demian’s face, though the features aren’t quite identical. Later, rain smudges the painting, and when it dries between heavy blotting paper, the mouth becomes exactly like Demian’s.

Sinclair’s next artistic mission is to paint the sparrow hawk on top of the coat of arms over his family’s front door, which Demian was very drawn to. He sends the painting to Demian, and in response finds a cryptic note in the pages of a textbook:

“The bird fights its way out of the egg. The egg is the world. Who would be born must first destroy a world. The bird flies to God. That god’s name is Abraxas.”

In that very lecture, the teacher discusses Abraxas, “a deity whose symbolic task is to unite the Divine and the Satanic.”

The winter before graduation, Sinclair is entranced by beautiful organ music from a small church, music that sounds like a prayer and with a great deal of personal expressiveness. He eventually tracks down the organist at a bar, and it turns out this fellow also knows about Abraxas.

Sinclair and Pistorius become fast friends, and spend much time together at Pistorius’s house, mostly lying on their stomachs and staring into the fireplace as the embers, smoke, and flames form pictures, shapes, and letters. However, Sinclair later feels himself growing apart from Pistorius. While Sinclair wants to find his own unique path to wisdom and enlightenment, Pistorius looks entirely to the past and other people’s ideas.

During Sinclair’s first semester at university, he finally encounters Demian again, after not seeing him since a brief meeting during Sinclair’s drunk phase. Demian and his mother Eva, whom Sinclair discovers in shock is the true face he painted and the woman in the recurring sexual dreams he’s had for years, have gathered a group of people who bear the Mark of Cain like they do. For the first time in his life, Sinclair feels like he belongs somewhere and is encouraged to find his own unique destiny and truth.

And then World War One breaks out, and nothing or no one will ever be the same again.

Posted in 1910s, Books, Hermann Hesse

Do you bear the Mark of Cain? (Demian, Part I: My personal relationship with the novel)

Published in 1919 under the pseudonym Emil Sinclair (the name of the narrator), Demian was Hermann Hesse’s long-awaited breakthrough novel. He felt compelled to publish it under a pen name because he was at such a moment of personal crisis, and also wanted a fresh slate after his five previous books hadn’t done as well as he wanted.

I cannot say enough about how very much this special book changed and influenced my entire life. It drew my attention in the summer of 1994, perhaps because of the cover. Many of my father’s old books were kept in my closet, and since my parents never believed in screening my books and forbidding me from reading certain things (except an adult book about the Shoah my mother found me reading at age eight), I had free rein to dive in immediately.

Though I always read about four grade levels up and have never been a slow or reluctant reader, I nevertheless didn’t finish reading it until February 1995. All these years later, I couldn’t begin to tell you what my reading schedule was or why I took about seven months to read a book with only eight chapters and less than 150 pages. Perhaps I just wanted to savour this special grownup book, the very first adult book I read on my own instead of for a school assignment, and the indescribably otherworldly mood it wrapped me in.

Many nights I read Demian in bed after my lights were supposed to be out, which increased the feeling of being right there with Emil Sinclair as he has all these esoteric, spiritual, supernatural experiences. I wouldn’t go so far as to describe it like astral projection, but I did truly feel myself transported into the pages of this novel in a very eerie, indescribable, suprarational way.

Almost as if to make up for my longago slow reading, I reread the book in a single day when I was twenty-four.

Demian is one of those books where every time is like the first time all over again, and a book that speaks to you in new and different ways on the journey through life. Different details pop out; symbolism and literary references resonate more clearly; bits you overlooked now shine very prominently; personal experiences you’ve had since the last time make you relate even more strongly to those aspects of Sinclair’s life.

At fourteen and fifteen, Demian opened my mind to another dimension, with things like Abraxas (a half-good, half-evil deity) and the Midrash about the Mark of Cain being the mark of a nonconformist unafraid to go against the crowd. At twenty-four, the Mark of Cain theme shone even more prominently and personally. At forty-two, I understood how closely it parallels Hesse’s own life and immediately connected to prominent symbolism and cultural references, such as how Sinclair names his ideal of unrequited love Beatrice.

At forty-two, I also appreciated the details of the Mark of Cain Midrash and the concept of Abraxas in greater depth. Abraxas isn’t just a god who’s half-good, half-evil; he’s “a deity whose symbolic task is to unite the Divine and the Satanic.” This very much reminds me of the Jewish teaching that without the yetzer hara (evil inclination), no one would ever marry, have children, build a house, or go into business. It’s just a matter of channelling it in the right direction and having the proper motivation.

Likewise, the Mark of Cain was already there before he killed Abel, and may not even have been a physical mark. People were afraid of him either because he looked different or carried himself differently, a proud black sheep in a world of white sheep, one in a million instead of one of a million. Cain challenged their uncomplicated, conformist beliefs, and they started a story that he and his descendants were dangerous, sinister, immoral.

Also at forty-two, the constant references to Sinclair’s awakening sexual feelings, his recurring sexual dream involving a woman whom he eventually meets and discovers is Demian’s mother, and his frustration at having no outlet for these perfectly natural feelings were impossible to miss or brush aside as a minor plot point. Believe it or not, when I reread the book at twenty-four, I was still 100% virgin myself and believed I would be so until I found a husband. That only changed when I was twenty-eight. I wasn’t asexual; I just had no opportunities to experience sexual desire, and thus didn’t think I was missing anything.

And so many other interpretations, references, symbols, and details that didn’t pop out earlier, like how Demian isn’t just Sinclair’s dear friend, but his guiding daemon, and the very realistic depiction of childhood bullying and what draws certain types of children to be bullies.

I need to stop putting so many years between my rereading of this wonderful book! For over 100 years, it’s spoken so very deeply to so many people around the world.