Cover of the original German edition
|Original title||Der Steppenwolf|
|Publisher||S. Fischer Verlag (Ger)|
"Treatise on the Steppenwolf"
The "Treatise on the Steppenwolf" is a booklet given to Harry Haller and which he finds describes him. It is a literary mirror and, from the outset, describes what Harry had not learned, namely "to find contentment in himself and his own life." The cause of his discontent was the perceived dualistic nature of a human and a wolf within Harry. The treatise describes, as earmarks of his life, a threefold manifestation of his discontent: one, isolation from others, two, suicidal tendencies, and three, relation to the bourgeois. Harry isolates himself from others socially and professionally, frequently resists the temptation to take his life, and experiences feelings of benevolence and malevolence for bourgeois notions. The booklet predicts Harry may come to terms with his state in the dawning light of humor.
That novel Steppenwolf is always trying to tell you something, though you do not know what. Steppenwolf drinks wine, and he confesses that it is because he finds himself beneath the ‘dark and humid’ constellation of Aquarius. He makes statements such as ‘most men will not swim before they are able to,’ which the narrator of the introduction considers very witty, although there are a baffling amount of interpretations available. This goes on throughout the book, and sometimes it’s just not a satisfying philosophical attitude. Then you suspect that all it amounts to are mystical statements that may sound meaningful, but actually hold no meaning at all. Who is right, you or the book?
The body of Steppenwolf is composed of the records of Harry Haller —partly diseased, partly beautiful and thoughtful fantasies. Haller is presented as having a sickness of the soul, which is the neurosis of an entire generation, so for all his isolated suicidal, alcoholic anti-social weak and worthless activity, he is a symptom of the times, a commentary on what the used to call ‘bourgeois society’.
Bourgeois. I’m reminded of Holden Caulfield; ‘even my goddamn fountain pen was bourgeois.’ What does it mean? For a start it is one of the most used terms in Karl Marx. What class must the proletariat suppress? Naturally, the exploiting class, the bourgeoisie. What is 19th and 20th Century society best described as? It is petty-bourgeois utopia, inseparable from the modern idea of state. The Communist Manifesto gives a general summary of history, which compels us to regard the state as the organ of class rule and leads us to the inevitable conclusion that the proletariat cannot overthrow the bourgeoisie without first winning political power. But I wonder if the term bourgeois has any firm meaning today?
Whatever he is, Harry Haller’s Records are an actual manifestation of the sickness the bourgeois revolution has brought upon the world, and in that sense are valid. We still have that sickness, a bloated feeling of that one cannot abdicate from. Instead, one can be crushed by it, and suffer all sorts of knee-weakening existential thoughts.The feeling of Steppenwolf having dated persists. An indolent man who lived a near celibate life in the 1920s and 1930s, drinking alcohol, reading and sitting staring on public benches was making a searing comment about the false nature of Bourgeois life. Today, it’s almost a part of growing up.
Never forget though that Harry Haller is 50, Hesse was 50 when he wrote Steppenwolf, which is supposed to be a book of middle-age, although it generally falls into the hands of people half that age. Haller’s appeal is in his imaginative powers — he is an imaginative man whom if he had any talent, may have been an artist, writer or musician.
He said to me once when we were talking of the so-called horrors of the Middle Ages: These horrors were really nonexistent. A man of the Middle Ages would detest the whole mode of our present-day life as something far more than horrible, far more than barbarous. 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 civilisation. 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, everyone does not feel this equally strongly. A nature such as Nietzsche's had to suffer our present ills more than a generation in advance. What he had to go through alone and misunderstood, thousands suffer today. I often had to think of these words while reading the records.
- Harry Haller – the protagonist, a middle-aged man
- Pablo – a saxophonist
- Hermine – a young woman Haller meets at a dance
- Maria – Hermine's friend