Thursday, June 8, 2017

Steppenwolf by Herman Hesse

I am committing an injustice by penning only a few modest words about Hesse’s masterpiece. I think there are enough essays and thesis papers and even blog book reports that you can indulge yourself elsewhere. My purpose here is to look back at my first reading of the book, and understand it at a visceral level. It was no accident that I carried this book around in my rucksack with George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London, Knut Hamsun’s Hunger, Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, The Razor’s Edge by Somerset Maugham, and A Happy Death by Albert Camus. There were other books, the ones I call my essentials, like A Hill of Dreams by Arthur Machen and Beam Ends by Errol Flynn, but Hesse was pre-eminent among my rucksack companions. Harry Haller’s tale is one of exploration, redemption, and enthusiasm. His agonies are handled systematically. The Bantam 1969 paperback is the translation by Basil Creighton. Hesse was a poet, painter and philosopher, and his command of ideas is akin to that of an orchestra conductor, waving and directing the tremolo into a syncopated whole, brimming with melody. Hesse loved music. My analogy is intentional. The Creighton translation is my preferred text. The language is ripe with themes, overflowing with images and philosophies. In his 1961 introduction to the novel, Hesse says that the book “is not a book of a man despairing, but of a man believing.” Harry Haller’s entry into “The Magic Theatre” and “For Madmen Only” struck a chord with the 1960s counter-culture youth who embraced the book. I am a child of the 60s, and I believe Haller’s suffering was seen as analogous for the turbulent era of “The Nam,” rock and roll, sex, drugs and a general refusal to participate in the global colonialism espoused by a corrupt political leadership. The wolf of the “steppes,” or the beast that is within all of us, is easily recognized in our political system today, as it was in the 60s. Hesse could not have foreseen that perception when he wrote the book, but having survived the Nazis, he would understand it. Reading Steppenwolf requires dedication, a love of language, a willingness to understand alternate philosophies, and perhaps a belief in the goodness of your own soul. Also recommended: Siddhartha, Demian and Magister Ludi by Herman Hesse.

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