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Having reviewed over 1100 books on this blog, I have now written one myself. Motherdarling is a story about a search for a missing Will which reveals long-hidden family secrets. It is available on Kindle through Amazon. Read it and find out whether this critic can write. I live in Canterbury, England. I lived for more than thirty years in Bedford. Having retired from teaching; I became a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Liminality. I achieved my PhD in 2019. I am now properly retired. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. Follow me on twitter: @daja57

Wednesday, 6 March 2019

"Steppenwolf" by Hermann Hesse

Synopsis

Harry Haller (HH like the author) lives in a room in a boarding house with his books. He believes he is a warring mixture of two personalities: a man and a wolf from the steppes (Steppenwolf). “A wolf of the steppes that had lost its way and strayed into the towns and the life of the herd, a more striking image could not be found for his shy loneliness, his savagery, his restlessness, his homesickness, his homelessness.” Seeing and despairing of the mundanity of everyday life, he is brought to the brink of suicide. Then he discovers a door in a wall. This reminded me strongly of the opening of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. In Steppenwolf, the door is labelled: “Magic Theatre. Entrance not for everybody. ... For madmen only!”. Searching for the entrance to this Magic Theatre he discovers a book about himself.

He meets a girl, Hermine, who reminds him of his childhood friend Herman. She teaches him to dance and enjoy jazz. He meets Pablo, a charming and handsome jazz musician, and he begins an affair with a dancer. Then Pablo offers him drugs and the chance to enter the magic theatre.

Is this a novel of magic realism? Certainly strange things occur which cannot be rationally explained. It has some elements that might be described as Kafkaesque. But it also reminded me of Brechtian drama with its insistence on signposting what was unreal.

Steppenwolf is an exploration of what it means to be an Outsider in the Colin Wilson sense. (Wilson uses Steppenwolf as a key text.) Thus: 
  • He feels alienated from the everyday world:
    • “Wolfishly seen, all human activities became horribly absurd and misplaced, stupid and vain.”
    • “It had been just one of those days which for a long while now had fallen to my lot; the moderately pleasant, the wholly bearable and tolerable, lukewarm days of a discontented middle-aged man”
    • “There is much to be said for contentment and painlessness, for those bearable and submissive days, on which neither pain nor pleasure cry out, on which everything only whispers and tiptoes around.”
    • “The majority of men day by day and hour by hour in their daily lives and affairs ... without really wanting to at all, pay calls and carry on conversations, sit out their hours at desks and on office chairs; and it is all compulsory, mechanical and against the grain ... and indeed it is this never-ceasing machinery that prevents their being, like me, the critics of their own lives and recognising the stupidity and shallowness, the hopeless tragedy and waste of the lives they lead, and the awful ambiguity grinning over it all.”
  • Rather than being a lonely outsider he seeks some sort of mystical union with the universe:
    • “I accepted all things and to all things I gave up my heart.”
    • “All births betoken the parting from the All, the confinement within limitation, the separation from God, the pangs of being born ever anew.”
    • “The intoxication of a general festivity, the mysterious merging of the personality in the mass, the mystic union of joy ... My personality was dissolved in the intoxication of the festitivity like salt in water.”
  • The problem seems to be the idea that one's Self is a single self:
    • “It appears to be an inborn and imperative need of all men to regard the self as a unit. ...in reality, however, every ego, so far from being a unity is in the highest degree a manifold world, a constellated heaven, a chaos of forms, of states and stages, of inheritances and potentialities.”
    • “We demonstrate to anyone whose soul has fallen to pieces that he can rearrange those pieces of a previous self in what order he pleases, and so attain to an endless multiplicity of moves in the game of life.”
    • “I knew that all the hundred thousand pieces of life’s game were in my pocket.”
    • There is an echo of this idea in The Biographer's Tale by A S Byatt

Some great observations:
  • “He was brought up by devoted but severe and very pious parents and teachers in accordance with that doctrine that makes the breaking of the will the corner-stone of education and up-bringing.”
  • “He who makes thought his business, he may go far in it, but he has bartered the solid earth for the water all the same, and one day he will drown.”
  • “Let every reader do as his conscience bids him.”
  • “Jazz was repugnant to me, and yet ten times preferable to all the academic music of the day. For me too, its raw and savage gaiety reached an underworld of Instinct and breathed a simple honest sensuality. ... It was the music of decline.”
  • “What we call ‘bourgeois’ ... is nothing else than the search for a balance. It is the striving after a mean between the countless extremes and opposites that arise in human conduct.”
  • “It is ...in the middle of the road, that's the Bourgeois seeks to walk. he will never surrender himself either to lust or to asceticism. ... The absolute is his abhorrence. He may be ready to serve God, but not by giving up the fleshpots.”
  • “The heroes of the epics of India are not individuals, but whole reels of individualities in a series of incarnations.”
  • “‘Supposing you were too obedient to learn to dance when you were young ... what have you been doing with yourself all these years?’
    • ‘... ‘studied, played music, read books, written books, travelled -’
    • ... ‘You have always done the difficult and complicated things and the simple ones you haven’t even learnt. ... But to do as you do and then say you’ve tested life to the bottom and found nothing in it is going a bit far’.”
  • “Eternity is a mere moment, just long enough for a joke.”
  • “You learned people and artists have, no doubt, all sorts of superior things in your heads; but you’re human beings like the rest of us, and we, too, have our dreams and fancies.”
  • “Life is no poem of heroism with heroic parts to play and so on, but a comfortable room where people are quite content with eating and drinking, coffee and knitting, cards and radio music.”
  • “Time and the world, money and power belong to the small people and the shallow people. To the rest, to the real men belongs nothing. Nothing but death.”
  • “There flared within me a last burst of desire which made me run all over her garden, and I bit once more into the sweet fruit of the tree in paradise.”
  • “War is childishness on a grand scale.”
  • “From her armpit to her breast I saw the play of a delicate shadow. It seemed that it wished to recall something, but what I could not remember.”

A profound and important book. March 2019; 252 pages

Books and plays written by Nobel Laureates that I have reviewed in this blog include:

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