Steppenwolf on the couch

Illustration by Hermann Ackermann from the Heritage Collection edition

Illustration by Hermann Ackermann from the Heritage Collection edition

With Hermann Hesse’s novel Steppenwolf (1927) still fairly fresh in my mind, I want to share a few thoughts in the form of an “On the couch” post. My idea for these posts is to take a defining moment in a novel, an event which might lead a main character to seek therapy, and then to broaden the discussion to include some reflections on the author and the circumstances in which the novel was written.

Name: Harry Haller (aka Steppenwolf)
Age: 48
Occupation: Writer
Lives in: Germany in the mid-1920s

Harry, the Steppenwolf of the title, is a troubled man. He sees himself as a “wolf of the steppes”, someone with a dual nature that is part human, part wolf-like. He feels as if the wolf in him is too savage and makes him unsuitable for human company while the “human” side lacks energy, purpose and contentment. Not content with either state, it is as if he’s at war with himself.

Descriptions of Harry:

Though not very big, he had the bearing of a big man. He wore a fashionable and comfortable winter overcoat and he was well, though carelessly, dressed, clean-shaven, and his cropped head showed here and there a streak of grey. … Later I found out that his health was poor and that walking tired him. With a peculiar smile — at that time equally unpleasant to me — he contemplated the stairs, the walls, and windows, and the tall cupboards on the staircase. All this seemed to please at the same time to amuse him. Altogether he gave the impression of having come out of an alien world, from another continent perhaps.

At the very first sight of him … I was at once astonished by something curious about him … I suspected that the man was ailing, ailing in the spirit in some way, or in his temperament or character, and I shrank from him with the instinct of the healthy. This shrinking was in the course of time replaced by a sympathy inspired by pity for one who had suffered so long and deeply, and whose loneliness and inward death I witnessed. In the course of time I was more and more conscious, too, that this affliction was not due to any defects of nature, but rather to a profusion of gifts and powers which had not attained to harmony. I saw that Haller was a genius of suffering and that in the meaning of many sayings of Nietzsche he had created within himself with positive genius a boundless and frightful capacity for pain. I saw at the same time that the root of his pessimism was not world-contempt but self-contempt; for however mercilessly he might annihilate institutions and persons in his talk he never spared himself. It was always at himself first and foremost that he aimed the shaft, himself first and foremost whom he hated and despised.

He has recently taken a room in a boarding house and has been spending most of his time thinking, reading, writing, drinking and wandering the streets. On one of his wanderings a man hands him a pamphlet which is a “treatise on the Steppenwolf” and sets out the multifaceted nature of his character. It also tells him that he is one of the ‘suicides” — people who one day know that they will take their own life. For Harry, the day he has chosen for this ending is his 50th birthday. The knowledge that his suffering will come to an end comforts him but he also knows that this is an easy way out.

A chance encounter with a former colleague, a professor with whom he has often discussed Indian mythology, leads to a dinner invitation with the professor and his wife. The dinner is a disaster. The professor unwittingly insults Harry by criticising a column which he has written and Harry in turn insults the professor’s wife by criticising a picture she has of Goethe, which Harry finds thickly sentimental and insulting to Goethe’s true brilliance. At the end of the dinner, Harry is convinced that he’s not fit for polite society and resolves to return to his room and cut his throat. Instead he walks the streets, coming to rest at a dance hall where he meets a young woman, Hermine, who recognises his desperation and effectively takes him under her wing, alternately sympathising with him and mocking him and also providing him with a reason to live.

Here’s part of Harry and Hermine’s initial conversation:

Harry: Well, you see, it was really a small matter … it was a picture representing Goethe, the poet Goethe, you know. But it was not in the least as he really looked. That of course nobody can know exactly … However, some artist of today had painted his portrait as he imagined him to have been and prettified him, and this annoyed me. It made me perfectly sick. I don’t know whether you can understand that.

Hermine: “… And so, Goethe has been dead a hundred years, and you’re very fond of him, and you have a wonderful picture in your head of what he must have looked like, and you have a right to … But the artist who adores Goethe too, and makes a picture of him, has no right to do it, nor the professor either, nor anybody else — because you don’t like it. You find it intolerable. You have to be insulting and leave the house. If you had sense, you would laugh at the artist and the professor – laugh and be done with it. If you were out of your senses you would smash the picture in their faces. But as you’re only a little baby, you run home and want to hang yourself. I’ve understood your story well, Harry. It’s a funny story. You make me laugh. But don’t drink so fast. Burgundy should be sipped. Otherwise you’ll get hot. But you have to be told everything – like a little child!”

The relationship between Harry and Hermine is an interesting one, not least because Hermine reminds Harry of his childhood friend Herman (and thus the author too) but also because she mothers him and treats him like a child. Their relationship never really gets beyond the mother-child or teacher-pupil dynamic but I found Hermine intriguing, especially with regards to power and vulnerability. Unlike Harry, Hermine is more rooted in the everyday world and she introduces him to a lover (Maria) and the saxophonist Pablo, who in turn introduces him to the world of the Magic Theatre. The Magic Theatre allows Harry’s imagination to run wild and he has a series of vivid fantasies which culminate in the ambiguous, violent ending. As a symbol of the power of projections, the Magic Theatre is really excellent.

While not wanting to give away the ending, I found it disappointing. Understandably, Hermine’s life is not considered separately from Harry’s, but she seems to exist only to advance his development. There’s a narcissism about Harry, which makes him preoccupied with his own nature (and fantasies) and seems to hold him back from ‘real’ relationships.

Wikipedia provides some insight into the novel and also Herman Hesse’s life, which seems to reflect much of what his Steppenwolf goes through.

“In 1924 Hermann Hesse remarried wedding singer Ruth Wenger. After several weeks however, he left Basel, only returning near the end of the year. Upon his return he rented a separate apartment, adding to his isolation. After a short trip to Germany with Wenger, Hesse stopped seeing her almost completely. The resulting feeling of isolation and inability to make lasting contact with the outside world, led to increasing despair and thoughts of suicide. Hesse began writing Steppenwolf in Basel, and finished it in Zürich.”

Wenger also apparently spent quite a bit of time in a mental hospital, which makes me want to read up on their relationship. Any pointers here, Litlove (or others)?


5 Responses to Steppenwolf on the couch

  1. doctordi says:

    Intriguing. I’ve not read the novel, but the dual nature of the ‘wolf man’ sounds like rich thematic territory, particularly given the mental health angle, which puts an interesting schizophrenic spin on other werewolf mythology.

  2. Pete says:

    Di – I hadn’t thought of the werewolf but of course you’re right. And Hesse also debunks the dual nature in favour of a multifaceted nature, which also draws from Indian philosophy. Generally, a very interesting read and, having read Siddhartha as well, I would probabyl enjoy The Glass Bead Game as well.

  3. doctordi says:

    Very interesting stuff.

  4. Harriet says:

    Thanks for posting this. I got this book from the bookstore today because it sounds fascinating. I started reading it right away. I love your “on the couch” idea!

  5. Pete says:

    Harriet – Welcome! I’d love to hear what you make of it. I found the SI interesting and I can see why this book became a bit of a cult-novel in the 60s (or was it early 70s). But the relationship between Harry and Hermine was very one-sided.

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