Hermann Hesse: For Mad People Only
“Man is never happy,” wrote Arthur Schopenhauer “but spends his whole life in striving after something which he thinks will make him so”. This could not be more true of Harry Haller, the protagonist of Hermann Hesse’s Steppenwolf. Haller is a reclusive middle-aged German intellectual – an aesthete and a connoisseur of Goethe, Mozart, Dante and Socrates – undergoing a spiritual crisis fuelled by contempt for bourgeois respectability and new world order; a crisis which began after his wife suffered a mental breakdown and turned him out of their home, and in which “love and trust”, he recalls, “had suddenly turned into hatred and mortal combat…that had been the begging of my progressive isolation.” Originally published in 1927, Steppenwolf has recently been newly translated and reissued by Penguin Classics. It is said to be loosely based on Hesse’s own personal crisis of 1924-6, which commenced with the separation from his second wife of just few months, Ruth Wenger, and prompted a deep self-loathing, periodic seclusion and a suicidal predisposition. Steppenwolf is, therefore, largely viewed as an abstract transliteration of Hesse’s own traumatic experiences during this particular time. Not only that, the book’s protagonist reads like a nimbly fictionalised doppelganger of the writer, sharing similar childhood memories and upbringing; similar political views, beliefs, resolutions; and similar travails and psychological prostrations.
Set in a nameless German city in the Weimar Republic, Steppenwolf chronicles Haller’s “solitary, loveless, hectic, utterly disordered life,” his days as a man on the periphery of society and plenary reclusion. His narrative is a panorama of hallucinations, reveries and occasional confrontations with the innominate city’s bohemian denizens. Haller exhibits masochistic tendencies, derives pleasure from suffering and often contemplates suicide. “Contentment doesn’t agree with me”, he says. “After a short spell, finding it insufferably detestable and sickening, I have to seek refuge in other climes, possibly resorting to sensual pleasures, but if necessary even opting for the path of pain.” On the other hand, he also experiences sporadic upturns of mood, namely when listening to music, reading, or partaking in other intellectual pursuits. Yet for the most part, Haller longs to do daringly foolish things, such as “tear the wigs from the heads of a few revered idols, stand the fares of some rebellious schoolboys desperate to visit Hamburg, seduce a little girl, or twist the neck of the odd representative of the bourgeois powers that be”. He is a man at odds with himself, “partly human, partly wolfish”, conflicted about the physical and the spiritual, the cerebral and the sensual, the conscious and the subconscious sides of life – an entity of irreconcilable dichotomies.
For a time, however, Haller attempts to find solace in human contact after meeting the mysterious Hermione (a girl like “life itself, forever fickle as the moment, never predictable in advance”), the “good looking, young, cheerful, very good in bed and not always available” Maria, and the dubious jazz musician by the name of Pablo. He tries to immerse himself in the city’s nightlife, and its many tawdry integuments, but is unable to overcome his need for isolation, his aversion to the commonplace or his internal disharmony. It is not until the last stage of the book and the Magic Theater episode that Haller is able to reconcile his duality or gain real knowledge of his “true self”. The preternatural realm of the Theater, reached by means of subtropical chemicals, is a cartography of Haller’s own mind which he explores at will, meeting his idols and hyperbolic versions of the characters whom he encountered during his nocturnal adventures. This brings him closer to understanding himself and his plight, which emancipates him from his tormented existence and the approach of madness.
Madness is a running theme in Steppenwolf, as the narrator at the start of the book forewarns the reader it is intended “For Mad People Only”. This slogan later reappears to Haller in an epiphany, and as an exordium to his exploits at the Magic Theater. Time and again the idea surfaces, as when Haller, contemplating humanity while speaking to Hermione, whom he believes to be a kindred spirit, says: “The image of humankind , once a lofty ideal, is currently turning, into a cliché. Perhaps mad people like us will be the ones to restore its nobility.” And while Haller may have little luck with humanity, he succeeds in restoring a sense of inner equilibrium in himself, which may or may not facilitate him becoming one with the world. Hesse once explained the meaning of Steppenwolf by saying he intended to show that one must be content with oneself and self-aware and thus bestow, by establishing an inner peace, harmony onto a world afflicted with moral aberration and discord. And in that Hesse succeeds, by writing exceptionally earnestly and with an extraordinary clarity about the quest for the meaning of life, and the difficulties in finding it. Shortly after Steppenwolf was published Hesse was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature (1946) “for his inspired writings which, while growing in boldness and penetration, exemplify the classical humanitarian ideals and high qualities of style.”
These qualities continued to evolve until the end of his life in 1962. Born in Calw in the Black Forest on 2nd July 1877 to parents of a mixed Baltic, German and French Swiss heritage, Hesse spent most of his formative years in boarding schools in Wuerttemberg and in the theological seminary of the monastery at Maulbronn. “I was a good learner”, he recalled later: “good at Latin though only fair at Greek, but I was not a very manageable boy, and it was only with difficulty that I fitted into the framework of a pietist education that aimed at subduing and breaking the individual personality.” In truth, Hesse never did fit in and Steppenwolf is a testament to that: a towering and artistic – if stinging – excoriation of European culture and values, lamenting its lack of spiritual and humanist dimensions; an intriguing and controversial book for “For Mad People Only”; a book, in other words, for most of us.