Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Steppenwolf

I speak here from memory, but let me caution you that over the course of my life, I have discovered that many of the things that I once held clearly and preciously in memory did not happen the way I recalled them.  Memory can be a trickster.

Note the similarity of the word Steppen to Stephen. I've read Steppenwolf at least once, in my late teens, perhaps again another time. When I was a sophomore in college, I saw the German film of the same name, the year it was released (1974). It adheres precisely to the novel.  The film is a work of art in its own right, and it had the same impact on me as the book.

I had a desire to re-read the novel, and yesterday I borrowed a copy from my local library. The beginning has a note from the author, Herman Hesse, stating that the overwhelming majority of people who read the book grossly misunderstood it. Hesse says that he wrote the book at age fifty, with all of the experiences and anxieties that a man of fifty is capable. Hesse says that the young people who loved the book did so for reasons he hadn't foreseen. He says that the older generation of readers had correctly understood the angst of Harry Haller but missed the overall meaning of the book, which Hesse says is about faith and healing. 

Near the beginning of the story, Harry Haller expresses an inner conflict between his loner, aggressive, wolf-like nature and his humanity. I recall that when I read the book forty years ago, I found this conflict disturbing and not something I wanted to contemplate. I recall that that is how Harry Haller reacted to his conflict as well.

At one point, Harry was invited to a dinner party. There had been talk in the newspapers about the possibility of going to war. In response, Harry had just published an article in a newspaper that was anti-war. At the dinner party, the friend who had invited Harry brought up the article in conversation, but he had not realized that Harry wrote it. The friend sharply criticized the article and the author (Harry). This caused Harry a great deal of emotional pain. I identify strongly with the fact that Harry had taken a principled stand on something that was against the common mentality and that he had to suffer personal criticism as a result.

Harry's initial encounter with the nightclub known as, The Magic Theater was enchanting. But just as with Harry, the activities in the theater soon caused me fear and anxiety. That is how I recall it anyway. I am not sure that I fully understood what went on in the theater, I am not sure that Harry did either. 

Steppenwolf is set Switzerland but in an area that bordered Germany and which was completely Weimar in culture. Historians describe the nightlife culture of Weimar as morally depraved. In the novel,the prostitutes, drug use, and theater are Hesse's artistic representations of the popular nightlife culture of Weimar. From the viewpoint of having last read the novel as much as forty years ago, I suspect that the effect of The Magic Theater was to force Harry to confront many of the issues within himself that he needed to confront. Perhaps my subconscious motivation in re-reading the book now is the same.

Perhaps with this reading I will understand the novel the way Hesse intended it.  Would anyone else like to visit The Magic Theater with me?


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