Sunday, December 14, 2008

Steppenwolf by Herman Hesse: Adolescent Reading, Adult Reading

I reread Steppenwolf as part of a little project to revisit some of the novels that swept me away when I was in high school.

The danger of a project like this is that the stories won’t measure up to my estimations of the time and ruin my beloved memories of yore—Steppenwolf certainly didn’t. That said, it’s interesting to view such books through a different lens and think about why a book like this meant so much to me.

In many ways it’s obvious. Harry, the Steppenwolf, feels different. Not only does he feel different, but he feels superior to his surroundings, and doesn’t understand why he isn’t recognized for his purity and intellect. He’s full of anger, revulsion, self-contempt….and deep thinking and integrity. Sounds exactly like a teenager, or at least me as a teenager. The novel is a natural accompaniment to early ‘80s punk rock.

Harry’s further complicated by the dual self he feels warring within himself. He’s trapped in the middle, drawn to a life of intensity, the life of a wolf who yearns to live unconventionally and in the wild, but he’s unwilling to give up the comfortable and orderly life of the bourgeoisie, even though he holds it in contempt.

A teenager’s life is often similarly fraught with such drama, with the crux of defining oneself against the materialistic or middle-class wishes of parents while struggling to discover one’s true self in all of the wild madness of being a teenager. No matter who you want to be, you’ll likely have to transgress against your parents’ wishes—or more dramatically, what feels like all of society, gosh—to figure it out.

Harry has retreated from the world, cordoning himself off in a room he rents in a bourgeoisie woman’s house (he rhapsodizes about the cleanliness and order of her entryway as a way to show his addiction to a life well provided for). He takes lonely, aimless walks through town, tends to mope, indulges in his intellectualism—which is more pure and uncompromised than a poor well-meaning professor he has an encounter with—and enjoys forays out to listen to music (Mozart, not jazz, God forbid) and drink wine.

He’s living the life of a potential suicide, in short, and dwells on the thought of suicide, even making a pact with himself to kill himself when he’s 50.

Harry’s dilemmas are made all the more compelling for the adolescent mind when a mystical component is introduced. He encounters a person carrying an advertisement for a magic theater who gives him a small book, Treatise on the Steppenwolf. The pamphlet addresses Harry by name and strikes him as describing himself uncannily.

Later Harry enters the magic theater, which holds the keys and transformations of his fate.

One thing that struck me during my adult reading of the book is that for a smart man, Harry is very petulant and self-limiting. He disdains most things that are modern, in particular the phonograph, which mechanizes the beautiful orchestrations of Mozart. The purity of the world seems to be categorically sullied by all things of progress.

I suppose I found this part of him appealing in high school—and maybe I still do, never quite trusting what’s presented as technological advances—interpreting his hatred of progress as a revulsion toward capitalism. It’s that, but something else as well—an inability to adapt that’s not particularly commendable.

Being a kid is all about expecting the world to form itself to your brilliant, superior thoughts. Being an adult is all about adapting, so Harry seems particularly rigid and immature. I'd find him interesting if I met him in life, sympathetic, but a little to sour and self-righteous to want to spend much time with. And that shouldn't condemn me as one of illegitimate sellouts who are such because they aren't him.

He’s also reluctant to dance, as if such enjoyment is base and lowly, although dance and an immersion in other “instinctual” pleasures will deliver him as much as anything in the end. He even starts to like jazz. I suppose I was so entranced by Harry’s spiritual dilemma in high school that I overlooked what a curmudgeon he was.

The more striking thing I overlooked was Hesse’s exploration of individuation—the necessity of thinking of a self not as a single ego or unit, and not even a dual self split between saint and sinner, but as an inherent multitude of possibilities. The best example of this is when Harry laughs at himself in the mirror at the Magic Theatre, and his self cracks into hundreds of pieces.

Hesse wrote this in the mid-20s, so I don’t know if he’d encountered Jung yet, but Jung’s thoughts on self and individuation permeate this novel. In fact, it’s a great book to do a school project of Jungian analysis with.

Hesse felt that readers misunderstood the book, focusing only on the suffering and despair that are depicted in Harry life and missing the possibility of transcendence and healing. My high school self did misunderstand the book, but I was one who was more interested in despair than transcendence.

Hesse is masterful at blurring the lines between the fantasy and realistic elements of the book, which is one reason the story has haunted me over the years. Hermine's death is particularly riveting, especially since it's essentially carried out in a funhouse mirror.

While I wouldn’t say it’s a great book, and I would have certainly been frustrated with it if I’d read it for the first time as an adult, it was the perfect book for an angst ridden teenager like me. I wish I could go back 25 years and read it again and be swept away.

If you want a good summary of the book without reading it, this short movie pretty much captures it.