Sunday, December 5, 2010

Book Review - Steppenwolf by Hermann Hesse


Herman Hesse’s novel Steppenwolf is more than just a simple story within a story of a man and his travels read by a young man who discovers his manuscript. It tells of a man coming to grips with his humanity and that of the Beast Within while also understanding that the two sides have many layers. The Man is a purveyor of knowledge, arts and culture. He is the one that lives under the sun, a creature of the day. However, the Steppenwolf, or Wolf of the Steppes, is a savage of the night who takes said knowledge from the man and pushes the envelope in pursuing the extremes. The wolf understands the true ways of the world and is made stronger by it. He is not afraid to live while the man is not afraid to die. Therein lies the paradox of the Steppenwolf, or Harry Haller as he is so named in the novel. He seeks for a release of his pain so gained from his increasing knowledge of the world and realizes that he cannot do it. He cannot kill himself for the wolf will not allow him to commit such an act of cowardice. It is when he is at his most desperate to die that he meets a young woman named Hermine. She represents everything that he is with an extra component – she does not fear what she has gained in life. Rather than dwell upon the pessimistic, she revels in the good Life has to offer her. From this initial meeting the two become closer than friends and lovers as Hermine shows Harry a better way to handle his knowledge of Life; she teaches him how to dance the fox trot, carry on a passionate affair with a woman and seek pleasure in its many forms. However, the Steppenwolf learns his greatest lesson after a masquerade ball when his new musician friend Pablo invites him to spend some time in his Magic Theater – For Madmen Only. The Magic Theater shows him his life in various ways, reveals hidden fears and secrets and situations that cause him to take action, resulting in the unveiling of the greatest lesson learned for the Steppenwolf. The unexpected ending was quite a surprise for me; I had to read it three times just to make sure I fully understood what had happened to him. Cruel clarity was the end but the price was high.
At times, I felt as though this novel within a novel had actually occurred; the pain felt by the Steppenwolf felt too real to be simply imagined. The questions he poses regarding Life I have had from time to time; when one begins to see the world for what it truly is, that knowledge comes at a heavy price. When one discovers such knowledge, do they wish to return to their world of before? Or, do they realize that once they make their choice, they can never go back? Once again, I found myself asking those questions and applying them to my own life; I had recently undergone several major changes in my life and I felt, and still feel, quite vulnerable and relieved at the same time. One of the changes was my interest and study of Taoism, the Watercourse Way. With Taoism, I learned to accept the moment for what it was and to not look back at the past nor dread the unknown future. I was to simply live and enjoy the present. However, with my new knowledge I used to wonder if perhaps it would be better to simply forget and meld back within the folds of the masses rather than stand out as an individual and live this new life. As a friend once told me, dying is easy. It’s living that is hard. I couldn’t have agreed with him more, for in my and the Steppenwolf’s life, dying from one life to be reborn into a new one is one of the hardest things to do. However, as he and I both learned, once you take that step, it does get easier, especially if the chains of the past are no longer wrapped around the body, ready to drag it down. With my own life changes, I too became a Steppenwolf and embraced my many sides while acknowledging that the process would be hard and full of dismay and fear. The new life would also be filled with joy, clarity and understanding. For that, like Harry in the end, I was willing to pay the price and was glad to do so.

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