By Dr. Lucio F. Teoxon Jr.
Hermann Hesse rose to popularity as a writer among university students way back in the sixties and even up to the present in the US, Japan, India, etc. when his major works got translated into English from the original German. He was one of the early European fictionists who had a great interest in Oriental culture and lore. His writings showed the unmistakable influence of Eastern ideas. His novels indicate this: Siddharta, Demian, Narcissus and Goldmund, Magister Ludi or The Glass Bead Game. They all dramatize the fundamental conflict in which the battlefield is the human heart—flesh and spirit, body and soul, or the worldly versus the otherwordly pursuits. He shares with Dostoevsky the same knack for the introspective probing into the inner as well as the outer constitution of man. As the internal evidence of Hesse’s novels indicate, there is no doubt about his literary indebtedness to the Russian master. It might even be said that his Steppenwolf is a direct progeny of the Underground Man.
Very much like his fictional predecessor, Harry Haller, the Steppenwolf (or the wolf-man), withdraws from society which he abhors for what he perceives to be its mediocre culture and shallow bourgeois values. The whole structure of the novel and its complications purposefully and artistically depict the process whereby Harry finally understands and arrives at a knowledge of himself. Thus, the action of the novel moves inwardly, not linearly in a horizontal fashion. We are let a glimpse into his psyche and there behold what so troubles his spirit as he dreams and hallucinates his way into himself.
The truth about Harry’s case is that he is neither a saint nor a renegade. He stands midway between the extremes of asceticism and debauchery. So much so that given the auspicious initiation, he may yet ascend to the heights reached by immortals like Goethe or Mozart who had transcended the dichotomies of mundane existence in a sort of elevated universe where all of life is affirmed with the eternal Yes. However, these immortals are marked off as eminent for having been already shorn of the sense of the self, having lived out all its thousand habiliments.
Harry has to start with the necessary first steps upon the path to enlightenment. Because of his classicist temperament as an artist, he has despised popular culture or anything that smacks of the vulgar and the worldly. He has thus shunned contact with mass culture and lives in isolation from the stream of ordinary humanity to avoid the contamination of philistinism. He prefers his self-absorbed preoccupation with contemplation and communion with the Muses. This is the height of his elitist eccentricity.
Such an activity has led him farther away from ordinary life and in the process develops psycho mania. He feels a sense of extreme estrangement to the point of toying with the idea of suicide. In fact he made a vow to himself to cut his life on reaching the age of fifty as a way of ending his ennui that eats away at his will to live. What Harry in fact needs is a return to nature and rediscover the lost fragments of his personality long submerged in the thick layers of his past. He really should go back to the elemental passions which he scoffs at and undergo the bath of the senses in order to achieve a harmonious balance between the intellect which he overvalues and the strong passions which he blocks from running high.
Human beings are at once a creature of intellect and a creature of the emotions. Reconciling these warring aspects of his nature makes up the core in the process of Harry’s education. He further needs to come to the realization that man is more than just a creature of counterpositions. He towers above them. He must of necessity renounce the conventional idea of the fragmentation of life into such polarities as flesh and spirit, body and soul, etc. and know that man is actually a multivalent, multifaceted entity consisting not just of one or two or three but a thousand selves.
In other words, Harry must play the game of life by becoming everyman and yet nobody in particular.
But first, the multiplicity of the self should be recognized, accepted, and lived through—the sex life included to make him feel human enough and not some kind of abstraction as Dostoevsky’s Underground Man has so emphatically warned against. Obviously, the process of integration which consists of the piecing together of the splintered little selves and coming to terms with them must be done by going into life in all its expressions and dimensions. Before any man can face death as Harry intended to do, he must accept life to begin with and live it fully well. This is best facilitated by man’s innate sense of humor or the ability to laugh, and laugh at oneself and one’s follies. Then only may it be possible for the individual to grow into what Abraham Maslow called a fully self-actualized human being whose consciousness becomes pure, unqualified and all-embracing.
The root of Harry’s trouble is that he takes himself too seriously. He has forgotten the cleansing power of laughter. It is an affliction, a nasty form of self-deception to disdainfully think that one is superior to other people by reason of his elevated tastes, cultural literacy or even his individual achievements. As long as he sneers at what he considers to be the vulgarities of the man in the street, a snob like Harry is bound to remain alienated from ordinary reality and a question unto himself.
Carl Jung holds that the divorce of the intellectual from the emotional side of life leads to psychic disorder. The most unfeeling criminals are those intellectuals who skulk in their underground holes like spiders. Remember Raskolnikov who committed the perfect crime? So, man’s cerebrations must be balanced by his feelings so that to think is to feel, and to feel is to think. To live in harmony with himself and those around him, the pedant must let the intellectual colossus that he professes to be come to terms with the cloven emotional freak into which he has degenerated.