Steppenwolf by Hermann Hesse
“Imagine a garden with a hundred kinds of trees, a thousand kinds of flowers, a hundred kinds of fruit and vegetables. Suppose, then, that the gardener of this garden knew no other distinction than between edible and inedible, nine-tenths of this garden would be useless to him. He would pull up the most enchanting flowers and hew down the noblest trees and even regard them with a loathing and envious eye. This is what the Steppenwolf does with a thousand flowers of his soul” – Excerpt from Steppenwolf
This review will examine not only the detail and philosophical angle of Steppenwolf, but will also try to illuminate why Hesse was revered as a literary father to Timothy Leary’s Counter-Cultural Psychedelia.
Hermann Hesse’s Steppenwolf is presented in the form of a manuscript left by protagonist, Harry Haller, in a house in which he lodged for a short time. The nephew of the landlady, who finds it after Haller has gone, begins with a cursory introduction by way of his impressions of the strange lodger. Then Haller’s first-person narrative, entitled ‘Harry Haller’s records (for madmen only)’ is presented.
The book is a self-portrait of a person who felt himself to be half-man, half-wolf, Steppenwolf, or wolf of the steppes. It is the story of Haller’s inner dialogue, between wolf and man, a journey of self-examination led by various encounters and incidents. Hesse explores the depth of possibility in the individual with poetic language and keen literary devices; one such example would be the ‘Treatise on the Steppenwolf’. The treatise comes to Haller and is a literary reflection, an objective take on himself – a stark contrast against the subjective delivery in the rest of the novel. The two halves of the protagonist are described as distinct and unique facets of his soul. The man who desires bourgeois comforts, learned company and respectability against the wolf; the return to the primitive and savage – the antithesis and indictment of middle-class social mediocrity. Therein the duality, a trap, in which the Steppenwolf perceives himself in being.
Hesse believed the novel to be seriously misunderstood. Critic’s riled against the depravity and solemnity in it, where passages on drug-taking and sex where perceived as crude and unnecessary. However, clearly the novel was written in a very different vain. Take the introductory quote, which is taken from the Treatise. Critics fell into the same trap as the Steppenwolf; they disregarded the infinite depth of the character’s, indeed the novel’s, soul.
It is easy to see why the ideas contained in Herman Hesse’s novels had such an impact on Counter-Cultural Psychedelia (CCP.) Timothy Leary wrote of Hesse: “Few writers have chronicled with such dispassionate lucidity and fearless honesty the progress of the soul through states of life.” Indeed Leary saw the chronology of Hesse’s work as a meta-journey in themselves. But what is it in Steppenwolf that CCP owes so much to?
What was misunderstood by critics but grasped by Leary was the potentiality of the protagonist Harry Haller; who in this respect represented a version of the ‘inner dialogue’ that goes on within each and every one of us. We limit ourselves to a course self-definition, a duality in the case of Steppenwolf, when the potential of our being is instead limitless.
For CCP this was the literary device of the psychedelic experience. It was the unveiling of our potential experience of existence that was, for Leary, so in tune with not only psychedelic drug use, but counter-culture mentality. Breaking free of the chains that is society’s pre-determined structure; it’s facade dualities. The self-chaining individual for Hesse was the self-chaining society for Leary and both expound the necessity for limitless growth in the individual.
On the back of my copy of Steppenwolf, the blurb says it is a ‘plea for rigorous self-examination and an indictment of intellectual hypocrisy.’ With Hesse being one of the literary fathers of CCP it comes as no surprise that these two observations are so easily transferred into socio-political psychedelic philosophy. Where an affirmation of the individual is so often linked to the obliteration of intellectual and social dogma.