The fifth in a series of 13 book reviews from my pre-blogging years.
STEPPENWOLF by Hermann Hesse (1927)
The Steppenwolf of the title is Henry Holler, a tired intellectual living a solitary life in an attic flat in a cosy bourgeois home. He is 50 years old and weary of life to the point of contemplating suicide. The nephew of his landlady observes that “the root of his pessimism was not world contempt but self contempt”.
Holler thinks of himself as a kind of Jekyll & Hyde figure with the wolf in him representing the pleasures of the flesh. Despite his book learning he finds no enjoyment in the spiritual life and finds himself “outside all social circles, beloved by none”.
In this desperate state he meets Hermine who is a member of a Magic Theatre advertised as being ‘For Madmen Only’. She teaches Holler to laugh, dance and enjoy sex without guilt.
Above all, she despises his patronizing attitude to those he regards as uneducated: “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”.
Through Pablo, who plays in the theatre company’s band, Holler learns that music is not something to be felt with the heart not something to analyse or philosophise over.
The moral of Hesse’s novel can be summed up by the criticism of what he calls the “never-ceasing machinery” of everyday life which can prevent people from being “the critics of their own lives and from recognizing the stupidity and shallowness, the hopeless tragedy and waste of the lives they lead”.
What he advocates as an alternative is to “learn what is to be taken seriously and laugh at the rest”.
I second that emotion.