Thoughts On Steppenwolf

Death on a Pale Horse, J.M.W. Turner

Sometimes we find different insights in the same things at different points in our lives. Here I am reading Hermann Hesse’s Steppenwolf for the second time (Picador; translated by Basil Creighton; revised by Joseph Mileck and Horst Frenz), and immediately it resonates on a level so much deeper than before. The first time I read it I was twenty-five. I’m forty now. The last fifteen years have been an ever-escalating hell for me, in ways I could not have anticipated and which I am still unfit to completely describe. There are many people of my generation who I knew personally who have fallen to ruin and/or death. Good people, well-meaning people, essential, honest and honorable people who, for whatever reason, simply couldn’t get an appropriate grasp on their own lives. Here, in Hesse’s words, written almost a century ago, I think I understand what it is about my generation that has led to so much pointless tragedy:

Every age, every culture, every custom and tradition has its own character, its own weakness and its own strength, its beauties and ugliness; accepts certain sufferings as matters of course, puts up patiently with certain evils. Human life is reduced to real suffering, to hell, only when two ages, two cultures and religions overlap. A man of the Classical Age who had to live in medieval times would suffocate miserably just as a savage does in the midst of our civilization. Now there are times when a whole generation is caught in this way between two ages, two modes of life, with the consequence that it loses all power to understand itself and has no standard, no security, no simple acquiescence. Naturally, every one does not feel this equally.

I think this concept is echoed later in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World through the character of John the Savage. A man out of place and time torn between conflicting cultural perceptions but belonging to neither. Ridiculed and scorned whence he came, he flees to find solace in solitude, only to become a curiosity and spectacle for the culture to which he went. Alone, unloved, unlovable, but unable to escape through any other means but the noose.

All of Hesse’s work is what one might call autobiographical fiction. There is no question that Hesse was himself Harry Haller, the Steppenwolf, and in this way, Steppenwolf is metafiction, as it is Hesse writing about Haller writing a fictional account of himself. Brilliant on so many levels, and still so relevant after almost a century:

There is much to be said for contentment and painlessness, for these bearable and submissive days, on which neither pain nor pleasure is audible, but pass by whispering and on tip-toe. But the worst of it is that it is just this contentment that I cannot endure. After a short time it fills me with irrepressible hatred and nausea. In desperation I have to escape and throw myself on the road to pleasure, or, if that cannot be, on the road to pain. When I have neither pleasure nor pain and have been breathing awhile the lukewarm insipid air of these so-called good and tolerable days, I feel so bad in my childish soul that I smash my moldering lyre of thanksgiving in the face of the slumbering god of contentment and would rather feel the very devil burn in me than this warmth of a well-heated room. A wild longing for strong emotions and sensations seethes in me, a rage against this toneless, flat, normal and sterile life. I have a mad impulse to smash something, a warehouse, perhaps, or a cathedral, or myself, to commit outrages, to pull off the wigs of a few revered idols, to provide a few rebellious schoolboys with the longed-for ticket to Hamburg, or to stand one or two representatives of the established order on their heads. For what I always hated and detested and cursed above all things was this contentment, this healthiness and comfort, this carefully preserved optimism of the middle classes, this fat and prosperous brood of mediocrity.

This was the sort of passage I did not comprehend at twenty-five, yet the import of it is all too clear to me now. (Translation: I am fucking old and I hate what my culture has become.) He goes on to describe how he sometimes finds again that spark of divinity he once so easily attained in his youth, only to lose it again as quickly:

Ah, but it is hard to find this track of the divine in the midst of this life we lead, in this besotted humdrum age of spiritual blindness, with its architecture, its business, its politics, its men! How could I fail to be a lone wolf, and an uncouth hermit, as I did not share one of its aims nor understand one of its pleasures?

He has to ask himself, is it the culture or am I just the crazy one? I would say it is both, that we had missed our opportunity to dissociate and conform because we wandered too far and away down the path of that divinity while everyone else marched ahead with the banal procession of the age:

How foolish to wear oneself out in vain longing for warmth! Solitude is independence. It had been my wish and with the years I had attained it. It was cold. Oh, cold enough! But it was also still, wonderfully still and vast like the cold stillness of space in which the stars revolve.

Unlike Harry’s neighbor at the lodging house, who writes a short introduction to Harry’s manuscript, I know the past which Harry Haller, or, rather, Hermann Hesse, had to endure. I know that he too was a cast-off remnant, an arbitrary victim of Briffault’s law,1 by age fifty, at the histrionic behest of two women. He was fortunate in his time to be able to maintain so much of his autonomy in the wake of divorce with children. In modern times, this would not be even remotely possible, as I know all too well, and, unlike Hesse, my third marriage was ruined by the fallout from my first two. I may have to forever remain the Steppenwolf, but only time will tell.

The “Treatise on the Steppenwolf” that Harry is given by the weary man who emerges from the alley, is too long to quote here, but it so perfectly describes my current (and general life) situation in every detail. Especially poignant is the description of the dual nature, the beast and the man, one constantly foiling the others’ highest aspirations, each proffering a different appeal to different individuals with whom I engage in relationships, so that no one ever seems to be able to love the whole me, which is all I really want. Is that why Hesse could not be happily married until later in life? Did his solitude and old age finally kill the beast in him so that his third wife could love him merely as a man, or did he finally find someone who could love and appreciate both?

These are not things I was prepared to understand about myself at twenty-five—or, for that matter, even at forty. I will be forty-one in two days, and this all dawns on me, a fresh, bright sun that pains my wearied eyes after a long, dark night; and there was no way I could have come to this understanding if Lisa, my third wife, were still here. That is the worst tragedy, for I truly loved her, but the beast in me drove her away, as the conditions in which I found myself when we met were, unknown to us both, irreconcilable to the possibility of a long-term relationship.

I can say now, loved. In the past tense. For knowing now as I do that this is the nature of my own folly, I no longer feel fit to love her, or anyone, for that matter. There is still yet too much beast in me and she deserves better. Therefore, I do as Odin did with his eye, and sacrifice my heart for a wisdom which I hope will one day allow me succor and solace:

A man cannot live intensely except at the cost of the self.

The bourgeois is consequently by nature a creature of weak impulses, anxious, fearful of giving himself away and easy to rule. Therefore, he has substituted majority for power, law for force, and the polling booth for responsibility.

But he goes on to make the very salient case that the bourgeoisie prospers on account of the Steppenwolf. Or, to put it another way, the herd prospers as a result of the domestication of the predator through the codification of society, by bringing the beast into their home and training it, if not to completely obey, at the very least to not attack, to not prey on them. The man which coincides with the beast in such as Harry—and myself—is the result of our upbringing by people who were, though mediocre, also kind, and we retain enough of a sentimental attachment to them to not wish them or their like harm, even if we ultimately find their weak wills and anxious lives detestably beneath us.

Yet we are the risk takers, the great sufferers who are willing to transfer that beastly instinct to the realm of the intellect and to create new values, without which the society itself would be so stagnant and vulnerable that it would not be able to form or function at all. We are the ones that do the hard work, the dirty work, the critical work.

As Hesse definitely was: an objector to nationalism and someone who helped people defect from Nazi Germany, but still capable of remaining beyond the temptation to propaganda. I have struggled thus far, struggled so much with the idea of whether or not it is worth it to put myself on the line anymore for this world, for this society of weak-willed, small-minded people with their comfortable lives, as I myself must be forever alienated from that comfort, regardless of the choice I make.

Yet I remember my mother and my Grammeez, who both passed away; and, of course, now, the bitterest loss which came at the circumstance of my own nature, Lisa, who departed still living. (There are many others, but that’s to name a few.) I am not of them, but I have certainly benefited from their kindness. Yet were I to be of them, if such as myself did not exist… they would not have the luxury of being kind, for there would be only predator and prey. I have come to accept that they are incapable of assimilating this truth. To them it will always be a mystery, and any attempt to reveal it to them only hurts and frightens them.

So, I must set and keep myself apart.

Speaking of the manner in which the “beast/man” duality is really an oversimplification of a personality which is multitudinous beyond comprehension:

The “man” of this concordat, like every other bourgeois ideal, is a compromise, a timid and artlessly sly experiment, with the aim of cheating both the angry primal mother Nature and the troublesome primal father Spirit of their pressing claims, and of living in a temperate zone between the two of them. For this reason the bourgeois burns today as heretics and hangs as criminals those to whom he erects monuments tomorrow.

The wolf, too, suffers. No, back to nature is a false track that leads nowhere but to suffering and despair.

The treatise ends, in other words, making the point that the Steppenwolf is not so noble a creature as he likes to believe himself to be, but a suffering fool who takes refuge in the man when he is too unnerved to face the complex consequences of the wolf; but he does this on a journey to something immortal. Whether or not he will get there is perhaps a matter of fortune and fate beyond his ultimate control. Alas, fools rush in where angels fear to tread.

After reading the treatise, Harry remembers “a self-portrait in doggerel verse” he had written, wherein he analogizes the sad life he lives to that of a wolf who wanders in the deep snow bereft of a meal—even of a hare, let alone a roe.2 I love these lines, which I believe the metal band Moonspell references in the song Crystal Gazing from the album The Antidote:

Is everything to be denied
That could make life a little bright?

He goes on to explain how his life was a succession of soul-shattering cataclysms, after which he would piece himself together into something better, into some greater gain. Yet each cataclysm is worse than the last, or, more likely, as he ages, each successive travail is more perilous because he is less fit to handle it. He doesn’t make that clear:

In truth, I had little cause to wish to continue in that way which led on into ever thinner air, like the smoke in Nietzsche’s harvest song.

Again, here I am, looking across a hundred years into a mirror. This experience may very well best encapsulate what Nietzsche meant by “the eternal recurrence”, which I already came to understand on one level, but the sheer weight of suffering I as of yet have been too ignorant to comprehend; and how could anyone comprehend such an invisible suffering? People must indeed experience it daily who we would never suspect. It is a completely isolated, subjective experience. It cannot be shared.

Nor should it be. I think we all have it. The dissociative ones are those who take it out on others in an attempt to escape it; but it is still there inside, a hungry wolf patiently waiting in the deep snow to eat them, be they hare, roe or man, and the attempt to project it onto others merely exacerbates the problem rather than leading to any sort of solution. I wonder also if the attempt to escape it through the modern use of pharmaceuticals is misguided. It has been my observation that those who take this recourse end up exacerbating it as well, when they grow immune to the drug or they cannot get the drug. Are we not merely loading a spring, building up pressure, applying bubble gum and duct tape to a crumbling dam?

It is hard for me to say, as I refuse to take any such recourse. I can say that my suffering is far more extreme than anyone—even myself—could ever have guessed. I was shocked at the depth of anguish I experienced immediately in the wake of Lisa’s departure, and now, four months past, I have only just begun to feel it recede. I cannot really say if it is aging into a weaker state or that each successive experience is more painful for some other reason I cannot identify.

Only six years ago my mother died of cancer in the same year as my two youngest children were kept from me for eight months due to my second wife filing a false domestic violence charge. I would never have suspected anything would hurt as much as that. Lisa is a generous, kind woman. She was not happy with our life together, and took the recourse available to her. She has been as accommodating as anyone could possibly be during our separation, yet—this pain of 2019, from a subjective standpoint, has been far greater than the absolute disaster that was 2013, and I frankly do not understand it at all.

Perhaps a better analogy to explain this phenomenon would be: each successive travail adds more weight, and rather than the soul being repeatedly shattered and put back together, it is being steadily crushed. The experience we have of some gain in the aftermath of these disasters is due to our becoming strong enough to bear the extra weight; but, of course, there is a limit, and eventually we will simply be crushed. Camus would like to imagine Sisyphus happy, but what if his rock grew in size every time he started the cycle anew?

Harry goes on to the subject of suicide. He knows this process of loss and gain so intimately now, he can predict the way it will end, the way it will resolve itself, but questions whether it is worth undergoing yet again:

Wasn’t it simpler and better to prevent the repetition of so many sufferings and to quit the stage? Certainly, it was simpler and better. Whatever the truth of all that was said in the little book on the Steppenwolf about “suicides”, no one could forbid me the satisfaction of invoking the aid of coal gas or a razor or revolver, and so sparing myself this repetition of a process whose bitter agony I had had to drink often enough, surely, and to the dregs. No, in all conscience, there was no power in the world that could prevail with me to go through the mortal terror of another encounter with myself, to face another reorganization, a new incarnation, when at the end of the road there was no peace or quiet—but forever destroying the self, in order to renew the self. Let suicide be as stupid, cowardly, shabby as you please, call it an infamous and ignominious escape; still, any escape, even the most ignominious, from this treadmill of suffering was the only thing to wish for. No stage was left for the noble and heroic heart. Nothing was left but the simple choice between a slight and swift pang and an unthinkable, a devouring and endless suffering. I had played Don Quixote often enough in my difficult, crazed life, had put honor before comfort, and heroism before reason. There was an end of it!

Of course, we know Hesse doesn’t go on to kill himself, and the introducing narrator surmises that Harry Haller does not do so either; but the sentiment is more than understandable to anyone who has suffered as such. I spent three years in a movement dedicated to fathers who were alienated from their children, many of whom were suicidal and had no one else in the world to talk to who could understand other than those of us who had been through what they were going through. I always told them: the world is a better place with you in it. I still believe that this is true. If we have suffered for the love of others, we are an asset to the culture or society in which this has occurred; but does this alleviate our pain?

I can only speak for myself when I say: No. Not at all. Not in the least fucking bit. I just keep walking to the bottom of the hill to find a bigger, heavier rock, and a hungry wolf biting chunks out of my ass to get it moving to the task at hand. I sincerely hope this is because of some defect in myself, and that others are spared the horror.

Harry rereads the treatise multiple times the following day and comes to this conclusion:

All that was written there of Steppenwolves and suicides was very good, no doubt, and very clever. It might do for the species, the type; but it was too wide a mesh to catch my own individual soul, my unique and unexampled destiny.

And so too with myself. Viewing Hesse’s work across a century is much like viewing a mirror; but at the same time, there are many liberties which Hesse had at that time—as a man, specifically as a man—to which I am not privy today. Not to say that either of our travails are greater than the other, only different, distinctly complex. This is true for all of us, and one of the greatest disservices the modern age has done to progress in the alleviation of human suffering is to generalize it along the lines of social identity, as my own predicament so easily demonstrates to those who are unfortunate enough to be able to comprehend.

Harry goes for a walk and happens upon a funeral, where he remarks upon the fact that the priests and funeral functionaries are opportunistically reliant on the polite but insincere digression of the attendants, who cannot hide from their faces their displeasure with the whole thing, despite what their mechanical play-through of the tradition might indicate. In a despair, he goes to the library and runs into an old acquaintance who invites him to dinner. He accepts the invitation, but secretly hates himself for the fake pleasantries he greedily soaks up to quell his despair, knowing as he does that he cares not one whit for this other man. The beast and the man are here again at quarrel: the beast enjoying the attention as all domesticated beasts do, the man resenting the beast for dragging him into the charade:

Just as I dress and go out to visit the professor and exchange a few more or less insincere compliments with him, without really wanting to at all, so it is with the majority of men day by day and hour by hour in their daily lives and affairs. Without really wanting to at all, they pay calls and carry on conversations, sit out their hours at desks and on office chairs; and it is all compulsory, mechanical and against the grain, and it could be done or left undone just as well by machines; and indeed it is this never-ceasing machinery that prevents their being, like me, the critics of their own lives and recognizing the stupidity and shallowness, the hopeless tragedy and waste of the lives they lead, and the awful ambiguity grinning over it all. And they are right, right a thousand times to live as they do, playing their games and pursuing their business, instead of resisting the dreary machine and staring into the void as I do, who have left the track. Let no one think that I blame other men, though now and then in these pages I scorn and deride them, or that I accuse them of the responsibility of my personal misery. But now that I have come so far, and standing as I do on the extreme verge of life where the ground falls away before me into bottomless darkness, I should do wrong and I should lie if I pretended to myself or to others that that machine still revolved for me and that I was still obedient to the eternal child’s play of that charming world.

At twenty-five, I was still very much on this track, a part and a party to the upkeep of this machine. I can vaguely recall my impression of these passages as understandable from my limited perspective but ultimately too nihilistic and morose for my liking. Of course, in my youth I was gleefully smitten with Hesse’s savage indictment of the herd, but I had yet no understanding of how alien I really was, even at the time, because my estrangement was still yet incomplete. I still had familial love from those who bestowed it upon me out of duty, as I do now with my own children. I had still something of reciprocal value to offer women I met, and was still naïve to the unconscious biological machinations that would inevitably nullify any such relationship into which I might enter. I was still gullible enough at that time to believe that a woman might actually love me for who I was, both beast and man, and at the time didn’t even realize this dichotomy in myself, thinking it rather a unity beyond which I need not aspire rather than a duality from which I must choose, conforming to one or another for the sake of whatever woman I might wish to keep.

I was in the process of divorcing my first wife at the time I initially read Steppenwolf, and even though I was already beginning to understand how rigged the divorce system was against me as a father, I felt liberated, escaping as I was from an unsatisfying sexual relationship into a world full of sexual possibilities, which, I must admit, I indulged to the fullest depth and height possible in the ensuing years. On that one point I consider myself lucky not to have come away with much worse consequences, especially as regards venereal disease and unwanted pregnancy.

Nevertheless, I am not so sure it was an even trade, and sometimes wonder if I should not at the least have hung around longer with my first wife and tried to work things out. It’s hard to imagine now how different my life would have been, if it would have been better or worse, but at the time it was hard to imagine still being with this same woman at age thirty-five, having never experienced those aforementioned heights and depths. This is the seed of the scorn the man has for the wolf, is it not? My animal instinct indulged to the hilt caused me all sorts of trouble, but in the reverse would it have been the wolf eating the man alive from the inside on account of this lack of sexual experience?3 It does not seem to me that there was a good choice, only a choice between two equally perilous and ultimately damaging paths; but, again, I can never really know. I can only have lived the one life, and therefore am left with no point of comparison.

The episode that Harry has at dinner with the professor and his wife is a perfect analogy to many such that I have had in recent years—just replace the subject of the burgeoning support for a second world war in Germany at that time with the burgeoning support for mindless partisan politics in modern-day America and it is almost the same fruitless attempt to engage again and again, to the point that I now not only have very few friends but want even less.

It does make one want to end one’s own life, to watch people become so helplessly conditioned by their own gregarious instinct and need to conform, and to be able to do absolutely nothing about it; but it brings home the difference between Harry and the bourgeois, between myself and the modern herd. I resist the conditioning almost as a matter of course to the same extent and degree that the herd gives into it. Both in dissent and conformity we are subject to our own personal conditioning, arbitrary as it may be, and this goes far to invalidate Nietzsche’s concept of the “immoralist”: such an one cannot exist, because the choice is between dissociation or association and there is no in between. Once one decides to uphold the truth they cannot effectively do so by deceiving others, for they will inevitably fall prey themselves to the lie they promulgate. Cognitive dissonance can only be overcome by accepting or denying the truth, and accepting it means speaking it and acting it out in everything we do. This is either the curse or the blessing, depending on how one is oriented, of the human animal and the emergent property known as consciousness.

After acting like an ass, Harry goes on from the professor’s house in agony, avoiding going back to his lodgings for fear that he will indeed take his own life immediately upon arrival. Here is the other dichotomy: that he longs for death and fears it at the same time. This is one aspect I do not share with Hesse. I long for but do not fear death. I do, however, fear the negative effect such an act would have on my own children, and on that account alone I have managed to stay my hand. Nevertheless, I have many—most!—nights finally, restlessly drifted off to slumber hoping that I will not awaken, only to be disappointed, but also relieved (again on account of the children) that I see the light of another day. I have begun finally, after four months of Lisa’s absence, to see this internal struggle recede, but it still comes and goes.

Harry ends up in a club having a conversation with a strange woman, who scolds him as if he were a petulant child and tells him what to do. A situation to which he is receptive, almost masochistically so. So long has it been since anyone has told him what to do, he is relieved to be taken in hand, to surrender to anything the responsibility of the independence which has come to weigh so heavily upon him. This is an exemplification, in my opinion, of the link between man and beast, and the key to domestication itself. A cold comfort, but a comfort nonetheless.

The woman leaves him to go dancing—which Harry does not do—and she bids him to nap there at the table. He has a dream that he is a young newspaper reporter interviewing the famous poet Goethe, who has reached old age. He takes Goethe to account for promulgating a philosophy of optimism which is entirely at odds with reality. Goethe’s response—the last line of it, at the least—is one of the most relatable passages in literature:

You take the old Goethe much too seriously, my young friend. You should not take old people who are already dead too seriously. It does them injustice. We immortals do not like things to be taken seriously. We like joking. Seriousness, young man, is an accident of time. It consists, I don’t mind telling you in confidence, in putting too high a value on time. I, too, once put too high a value on time. For that reason I wished to be a hundred years old. In eternity, however, there is no time, you see. Eternity is a mere moment, just long enough for a joke.

I know little of Goethe’s work beyond the degree to which his name is dropped by other German authors, which is to say, hundreds of times in my own reading. Nevertheless, I can see that for which Hesse’s imaginary young reporter is criticizing the imaginary Goethe is the same criticism we could level at Mark Twain for the difference between the works published during his lifetime and those he only allowed to be published after his death—the morose, atheistic rantings of a bitter old man. Here, Hesse—who obviously had no qualms about publishing any and all of his thoughts on everything during his lifetime—intimates that what probably makes personages like Goethe and Twain “immortal” to the herd and to the ages is exactly this discretion they exercised in what they presented. Nietzsche—who also had no such qualms—describes the ancient Grecian attitude toward comedy as similar in The Birth Of Tragedy.

I think we see in people like Nietzsche and Hesse the change Hesse describes at the beginning of this book, between ages. Here is a romantic longing on Hesse’s part to become one of these immortals. In my opinion, he most certainly is. Not according to this old formula of discretion, but rather to a new formula of blunt, raw vulnerability, and at the cost of his very soul. Yes, no matter what degree of tact we exercise, or to what degree we succeed in imposing ourselves on our cultures, we artists and philosophers give our souls willingly to the age, and die lonelier deaths on that account than a canary in a coal mine; and this, I believe, is the punchline to Goethe’s eternal joke.4

The young lady who went off to dance while Harry sleeps awakens him again only to toy with his emotions a little before she takes leave with another man. All this is perfectly natural, but still revolting to me—as it likely was to Hesse, though he was always too nice to say so. I doubt the worldly-wise nature of the woman and her dialogue with Harry is something that Hesse ever experienced in real life, and his general depiction of women in all his books is a case where I think he idealizes reality. As far as himself, as far as society, religion, and every other possible subject under the sun, Hesse had no trouble casting a scathing and appropriately critical eye thereupon; but with regard to women he was always ironically demure, to the point that I would even go so far as to say, as much as I love him, and as amusing as it may sometimes be, that it cheapened his work and weakened his point. Of course, had he not done so, he too should still to this day be erroneously labeled a misogynist like Nietzsche, for being too blunt about his experiences with and observations about women.

This is all the more validated when Harry goes on to describe his awaiting a future meeting to which this young lady agreed. He states that she has woven the Steppenwolf into a web, and whether or not she kept her word would determine whether or not he might live or die—and he still so feared death; but he has no doubt that she will keep her word! Again, this is a facile idealization, one of the few in his works. The young lady has no reason to keep her word other than to in some way or another gain something from the old man; and not friendship. Yet here is this sad and sorry old man pining for nothing more than the affections of a young girl who will randomly dance the night away with anyone who cares to pay her tab. So, it is and has ever been, I suppose, but I do not envy Hesse his banal romanticizing, though given the times and his inability to see the even darker future of man’s lot on the horizon, I can forgive him.

Hermine is her name. Harry doesn’t learn this until their dinner. He has agreed to obey her in everything she asks. She will make him fall in love with her and the last thing she will ask him to do is kill her. I think in Hesse’s mind there is some significance to this sequence of events having to do with a misplaced idea he has about women and their role in the lives of men, in life in general, as a symbol of divine experience. I wish it were so endearingly complex and meaningful, but this is one aspect of life I feel I understood, even at twenty-five, better than Hesse understood in his forties. There was much of this glorification of the feminine in post enlightenment works by sensitive souls such as Hesse, and I’m not so sure it has been any more beneficial to Western civilization than the overemphasis on masculinity was in some of the ancient Norse and Homeric epics. Really, we can probably trace this emphasis on the divine feminine farther back than the enlightenment and maybe even find the root of it in Dante’s comedies, in the figure of Beatrice, but it really balloons into its most absurdly fantastic forms here, in the idealizations of otherwise sensible men like Hesse.

Why is it detrimental? Because it sets us up for the fall in a similar way as that ultra-masculine depiction of the hero by emphasizing superficial traits at the expense of the deeper and more fundamentally territorial reasons for why these traits exhibit themselves; but that’s a subject for a separate essay.

A discussion between Hermine and Harry about the already rising jingoism at the time this book was written—in the aftermath of the first World War—echo many modern criticisms that could be made about the U.S.A.; but whereas in 1920s Germany it was another European conflict for which people clamored, and so soon in the aftermath of the first, here today it is another Civil War that people really want, as no one has quite reconciled the wounds of the first with the dreams of egalitarianism the negation of which inflamed it into existence. We are over two centuries removed, yet the vitriol that coursed through the veins of the country then still does now, the only distinction being that now everyone is supposed by social convention to hate or love equally and no one is bid to practice the egalitarian ideal that we preach, which is necessarily the actualization of neutrality. It is the media and the politicians that perpetuate this, because it is the cornerstone of their industry. Without it, they would likely be obsolete. This is the legacy of our constitutional republic degrading into a mere capitalist democracy, and I often wonder if it might not serve as a cautionary tale about the role of democracy in government.

Not only does Hermine goad Harry into learning to dance, she also goads him into sleeping with a strange girl. This is all indicative of naïve wish phantasms on Hesse’s part,5 and a precursor to men’s complicity in modern hookup culture, which has only turned out to be a sad and destructive paradigm for men, women and society at large, as I can all too well attest. At twenty-five, I found all this quite endearing, embarking as I was on my aforementioned sexual adventures, but, looking back, I can see how profligately I ruined my own life as a result. If I knew then what I know now, I might not be such a train wreck after all, but we threw out the baby with the bathwater as far as traditional values go, or, more to the point, we kept the dirty bathwater (the baseless metaphysics—religion still thrives, though in a more secular way) and threw out the baby (the practical applications of fidelity and loyalty with regard to protecting and preserving our mental and physical health). I am as much a product of this absurd inversion as anyone else, so have no right to judge others on that account. 

As the story goes on, so do the romantic delusions. A discussion with a jazz musician about music which, though relevant, is ultimately a rehashed version of the “eye of the beholder” axiom, along with a cornucopia of drug use which today we all know will have rapidly poor results for everyone involved. Lovemaking with Maria, this beautiful young woman who admits to having sex with countless other men on a regular basis, nonetheless leads to meditative reflection rather than gonorrhea or syphilis. What’s even more dubious, however, is the dedication with which these young 1920s party people randomly lavish this old misanthrope. The unreality of this series of events is in fact eluded to by Hesse in the introductory narrative of the neighbor, who only describes the young lady that must have been represented by Maria coming once to the hotel and seeing Harry with her only once in town; but no dancing lessons, no lovemaking, no anything but poor Harry coming back forlorn with his usual bottle of Italian wine to drink himself to sleep. Sounds much closer to reality, doesn’t it?

Yet all these delusions are really a fantasy he employs to couch his real heart’s desire: to suffer meaningfully, to not only live, but die for a reason. He talks with Hermine about how all this partying and lovemaking indeed makes him happy, but it is not sufficient, not what he really longs for, and he says:

My happiness fills me with content and I can bear it for a long while yet. But sometimes when happiness leaves a moment’s leisure to look about me and long for things, the longing I have is not to keep this happiness forever, but to suffer once again, only more beautifully and less meanly than before. I long for the sufferings that make me ready and willing to die.

By way of reply to this Hermine goes into a long soliloquy about the vapid nature of society, how she understands his disdain for the bourgeois, how both of them had in their noble hearts and intelligent minds dreamed of being heroes or saints like in the grand tales they learned in school, only to find that this world wants no heroes or saints and the establishment only props up such stories to goad the gifted on to benefit the herd, much as was described earlier by the Steppenwolf himself, the domestication for the sake of protection from the exceptional, a ploy by the establishment to keep the machine revolving for the sake of profiteering off the broken bodies of well-intentioned men and women. This, she says, is the reason for their mutual despair, and, of course, he agrees, because she is so very tragically correct.

She and Harry in subsequent thought processes then go on to describe the true nature of immortality and eternity, that this is the place where the artistic masters, the heroes, and the saints go on to laugh and be exalted, and here, frankly, Hesse loses me, because I think he’s beginning to finally give in to dissociation and conform to the nonsensical, metaphysical beliefs of his youth, as so many noble intellectuals do when they move into old age. I don’t blame them, really, I sympathize. When we realize that for all our talent, for all our gifts, for all our exceptional nature, we are just ashes and dust like all the rest of these dumb, rutting animals that will never aspire to, let alone attain, the level of ecstasy we worked so hard to endure, and by extension, humanity as a species is doomed for the most part to fall far short of the potential which we know it could achieve, we are left to resolve a level of cognitive dissonance which will always be greater even than that aforementioned ecstasy.

This is The Fall. I know that Hesse means to indicate that the art of masters like Goethe and Mozart, the lives of the saints and the deeds of the heroes are records left for later such exceptions to access so these ecstasies can ever be experienced, and built upon and increased, but I am afraid it is all ultimately and must always be and must always have been nothing more than a road to our private, personal hell, and we are only saved from it by finally giving in to dissociation, as Hesse so obviously begins to do here. A greater deed it would be, I think, if we endured even this hell and left a record of a method for short-circuiting this human penchant for dissociation so maybe, just maybe, human beings could stop being dumb, rutting animals and truly become individuals; yet the pleasure of the Art is not for us, but for the audience. Hell is our lot, and we had best learn to be comfortable there if we are to bear the pangs of consciousness.

After this is a costumed ball and the final traverse through the magic theater, to which Haller alludes a glimpse earlier in his story. This sequence is all a frenetic, psychedelic farce, and, I admit, I laughed quite a bit as I read it. It was well done, and befitting an immortal.

However, some remarks on Hesse’s conclusions:

First, the idea that our personalities are as malleable as pieces arranged on a game board. This idea appealed to me immensely at twenty-five, and had already occurred to me before I read Hesse’s book. I take it as an indication of Hesse’s arrested development that he does not come to fully explore this idea until his forties, and though he indicates through the character of Pablo in Steppenwolf a belief in the possible veracity of this concept, my reading of his letters, essays and subsequent novels leads me to believe that he did not ultimately accept it, and the seed of this realization is even there at the end of Steppenwolf when Pablo politely chastises Harry for making a mess of the magic theater.

Closer to the truth is the core personality as unique and arbitrarily predetermined, like a snowflake or fingerprint. It may be that through scientific methods—psychological, pharmaceutical, surgical, genetic engineering—we could one day find a way to manufacture persons and personalities as we do other goods,6 but this again draws me back to a comparison with Huxley’s Brave New World and a serious concern about whether or not such a process would stagnate evolution and, inevitably, survival.7 It’s an open question, for sure, and both Hesse and Huxley, in their respective spiritual and technological visions, seem to believe that this would constitute a sort of progress, but it was also obvious that these notions discomfited them as much as they do me. 

Second, the final conversation Harry has with Mozart. Mozart brings a radio and sets it up. He plays Handel through it and Harry asks him why he should want to afflict the both of them by playing this beautiful music through this inadequate instrument. Mozart’s reply:

Please, no pathos, my friend! Anyway, did you observe the ritardando?8 An inspiration, eh? Yes, and now you tolerant man, let the sense of this ritardando touch you. Do you hear the basses? They stride like gods. And let this inspiration of old Handel penetrate your restless heart and give it peace. Just listen, you poor creature, listen without either pathos or mockery, while far away behind the veil of this hopelessly idiotic and ridiculous apparatus the form of this divine music passes by. Pay attention and you will learn something. Observe how this crazy funnel apparently does the most stupid, the most useless and the most damnable thing in the world. 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; it can only demonstrate its own senseless mechanism, its inane meddling and marring. Listen, then, you poor thing. Listen well. You have need of it. And now you hear not only a Handel who, disfigured by radio, is, all the same, in this most ghastly of disguises still divine; you hear as well and you observe, most worthy sir, a most admirable symbol of all life. When you listen to radio you are a witness of the everlasting war between idea and appearance, between time and eternity, between the human and the divine. Exactly, my dear sir, as the radio for ten minutes together projects the most lovely music without regard into the most impossible places, into respectable drawing rooms and attics and into the midst of chattering, guzzling, yawning and sleeping listeners, and exactly as it strips the music of its sensuous beauty, spoils and scratches and be-slimes it and yet cannot altogether destroy its spirit, just so does life, the so-called reality, deal with the sublime picture-play of the world and make a hurley-burley of it. It makes its unappetizing tone—slime of the most magic orchestral music. Everywhere it obtrudes its mechanism, its activity, its dreary exigencies and vanity between the ideal and the real, between orchestra and ear. All life is so, my child, and we must let it be so; and, if we are not asses, laugh at it.

We can now extend and update this analogy to the modern day. Recorded music has become almost pristine, so pristine in its reproduction of the real thing that the digital machine can produce tones and melodies more exact than the human one ever could. Yet the music we often choose to produce with this miracle of modern technology doesn’t reach, or even aspire, to a small fraction of the genius of a Handel or Mozart, and for no other reason than that the majority of people do not want to hear it.

They do not want artists. They do not want heroes. They do not want saints. They want what all joy wants, as Nietzsche, through the voice of Zarathustra, intimates—itself, evermore of itself. Nor do they care, will they ever care, about the suffering of those who make it possible for them to forever delude themselves into believing that this act of endless mutual regurgitation is progress, despite their further delusion that they are empathetic and kind. They are as incapable of empathy as they are of understanding. This is why Jesus ends up on the cross rather than the throne. “Forgive them,” he said, “for they know not what they do.” The proffered illusion that Jesus ascends to the throne in some immortal realm after being so brutally sacrificed is a further comfort to the herd itself, and here we see Hesse finally giving into the bourgeois aspect of the man and acquiescing to this comfort for the sake of his own sanity, which is understandable.

I have come to suspect there is no such thing as divinity, and that the belief therein is itself merely the act of dissociation necessary to avoid this dawning, soul-crushing horror: not that life is meaningless, but that one is doomed to be imprisoned within whatever construct of meaning society creates, and suffer in direct proportion to the degree to which one resists or dissents. The meaning changes with the age and its values, and few, if any, are those who can swim indefinitely against, let alone quell, the tide of other people’s belief.

Perhaps I am wrong to think the day will never come when this paradigm too will shift, and we will each in our own right be able to actualize our true and most noble selves. I certainly hope so; but as of now, the abyss between hope and expectation is far too deep and wide for me to traverse.

  1. Scoff if you like at this allusion. I would have scoffed not very many years ago, but have found through a myriad of experiences that Briffault was, for the most part, correct. Even if I happened upon an exception, I would only think it the one to prove the rule, and be eternally grateful and pleasantly surprised at my unexpected good fortune.
  2. A type of European deer.
  3. As would seem to be the case with Harry Haller/Hermann Hesse.
  4. I am going to seem to go on later in this essay to contradict everything I just said, as Hesse himself seems to do throughout the book to which this essay is dedicated. I will leave it to the reader to work out his or her own cognitive dissonance.
  5. This wish phantasm about sexual promiscuity, which probably betrays Hesse’s lack of experience with sex, reaches its zenith later in Narcissus and Goldmund, in which Goldmund wanders through the countryside of medieval Germany randomly sleeping with all manner of women, including other mens’ wives, and somehow manages to avoid both venereal disease and conflict with other men.
  6. We already do to an extent.
  7. Silly as it seems, an allusion to Gandalf’s talk with Frodo about pity in The Lord Of The Rings might also apply.
  8. In music, this is a gradual decrease in speed.