Hermann Hesse’ Thematic Trilogy: Steppenwolf


S.C. Barrus, S. Cody Barrus, Away and AwayThis article is part of a series.  Be sure to read part 1 on Siddhartha.

Steppenwolf

A cover of the book Steppenwolf

There is much to be said for contentment and painlessness, for these bearable and submissive days, on which neither pain nor pleasure cry out, on which everything only whispers and tiptoes around. 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 loathing and nausea. Then, in desperation, I have to escape into other regions, if possible on the road to pleasure, or, if that cannot be, on the road to pain.” -Hermann Hesse, Steppenwolf

Where Siddhartha follows the journey of a young man who walks many walks of life, and ends up with enlightenment, Steppenwolf follows an old man who “…stood entirely outside of the world of convention, since he had neither family life nor social ambitions…”, who feels trapped at the end of his journey with no enlightenment to speak of, only pain and dreary suffering, physical and psychological.

He has lived the life of a wandering intellectual in search for something, meaning perhaps, however meaning can only be found in the small moments while listening to classical music, or while reading poetry and high literature. And yet, even with these moments, life feels meaningless. “Where in this town or in the whole world is the man whose death would be a loss to me?” thinks the Steppenwolf, “And where is the man to whom my death would mean anything?”

Hermann Hesse

Hermann Hesse who claimed that Steppenwolf was not understood properly by most of its readers.

Utterly alone, and contemplating suicide, the Steppenwolf meets a young lady, Hermannie who recognizes the pain within the old man, for she has felt it too, but has dealt with it in her own way. She tells him, “Either a man goes and hangs himself…or else he goes on living and then he has only to bother about how to live. Simple enough.”

“Oh,” cries the Steppenwolf, “if only it were so simple. I’ve bothered myself with life, God knows, and little use has it been to me. To hang oneself is hard, perhaps…But to live is far, far harder.”

When she asks him to dance, one of her many modes of escape from her own suffering, he replies, “…but I can dance no shimmy, nor waltz, nor polka, nor any of the rest them. I’ve never danced in my life…”

“So you can’t dance?” she responds, “Not at all? Not even a one-step? And yet you talk of the trouble you’ve taken to live? You hold a fib there, my boy…How can you say that you’ve taken any trouble to live when you won’t even dance?”

The majority of his life the Steppenwolf has spent searching for something to live for, scouring the intellects and the artists, the philosophers and the composers, and through it all he cannot find any sense of happiness, and nothing worth living for. But he has not embraced the full spectrum of life, has never even learned to dance, he has merely clung to one aspect of life claiming it to be all that is worth living for without trying the rest.

Where in Siddhartha we found a man convinced that no way would lead him to enlightenment, in Steppenwolf we find a man utterly convinced that there is only one way, and it has failed him.

As the book progresses, the Steppenwolf is led on a series of adventures and musing which expose him to the other side of life. Where he once found only the greats of classical music to be worth any merit at all, he now becomes friends with swing dance musicians, learns to dance and attends masquerades. He loses himself in another world, and this world adds balance to his existence.

Perhaps this is what Hesse wishes to expose, the fallacy of clinging to one aspect of life. It did not work for Siddhartha, it was not until Siddhartha was able to gather life as a whole, a flowing river, that he was able to reach enlightenment. The Steppenwolf clings to his books and high art, but it is not a complete existence, and his soul knows this. It is not until he embraces all aspects of living that he can find contentment.

Steppenwolf

A picture by RedOX3000

But who is Hermannie? Her name reminds the Steppenwolf of a boy he once knew named Hermann, the name of the author. In the end, the Steppenwolf must kill Hermannie (a fact we learn early on in the novel, so no spoiler here), and therefore must kill his childhood friend Hermann. What is to be gained from this as a reader? Siddhartha loses himself amongst the voices in the river, perhaps the Steppenwolf, representing an aspect of Hesse himself, must lose his own self as well in order to gain fulfillment. Is this the goal Hesse would have us strive for? To embrace all aspects of life until we lose our selves within it, within the music of the river, within the epitome of humanity?

Or is this thinking flawed? After all, his next novel, Narcissus and Goldmund abandons this logic completely. Instead, the world is broken into artists and intellects, among others. An artists journey through life is very different than a man who lives for logic or science. Yet is one less valid than the other, or must each strive for an existence that weds the two somehow. For it is easy to write about a man walking all paths on the road to enlightenment in fiction, especially written allegorically, and it is easy to tell the tale of the man who weds these two worlds in fiction and subsequently loses himself. But in reality, are people built for a singular purpose, or are they meant to walk all roads? And is it true that the focus on a singular purpose may be more benificial/enlightening than the spreading of ones talents over the spectrum of human existence?

Be sure to check back next week for the final part of this series when we talk about Hesse’ greatest novel, Narcissus and Goldmond.

Farewell from S.C.B.