Words do not express thoughts very well. They always become a little different immediately after they are expressed, a little distorted, a little foolish. And yet it also pleases me and seems right that what is of value and wisdom to one man seems nonsense to another.

And yet he is a master with words, with meaning, a prize winner and a novelist and thinker praised by novelists and thinkers, and loved by milions.  He could not have known how fascinating subsequent generations of readers would find his words.

That seems to be the way of things. Everyone takes, everyone gives. Life is like that.

Hesse was in his forties when Steppenwolf was first published, and a recognized literary figure after having previously published a volume of poetry and following it, a number of lyrical novels belonging to German Romanticism. It was 1927, Hesse had worked for the Red Cross during World War 1 and was greatly influenced by his visit to India in 1911. So this novel came from the pen of a middle aged poet who had been denounced by the country of his birth, an intellectual seeking to understand the place of man on earth. He went on to develop his philosophy, and further demonstrates his humanity in the novels Narzisss and Goldmund (1930) and The Glass Bead Game (1943). The body of these works have been understood to be a major contribution to philosophic literature, attempting to contemplate a vision of universality, an ability to combine cultural ideals with a search for personal perfection and social responsibility, Reading Steppenwolf today has gripped me, it’s poetry and its endeavour seem as fresh and as pertinent to this generation as it must have done when he wrote it. His preface to my text was written by Hesse himself in 1961 and clarifies that he felt misunderstood by many of his critics who saw it as an apology for suicides, as a deeply pessimistic book. In fact I finished it believing the final message to many of his readers would have been ‘lighten up’ in the lingo of today. It is a playful novel, illustrating the vanity and narcissism of man, simultaneously drawing on the heroism and strength of us all in simply living with the absurdity of life. In his words ‘ this book, no doubt, tells of griefs and needs; still it is not a book of a man despairing, but of a man believing.’ Hesse uses a technique of three perspectives, introducing the protagonist Harry Haller through the eyes of a third-party, the nephew of his landlady, and thus an observer. He then tells the story using Harry himself as the storyteller, and cleverly imposing a third ‘immortal’ narrator by inserting ‘The Treatise of Steppenwolf’. The story itself rattles along at a pace, engaging the reader on a trip reminiscent of a childs first merry-go-round. Discombobulating. I urge you to try it yourself just for the lyricism of writing, but notwithstanding the wisdom that he cleverly imparts without ever preaching. It demonstrates how much the West can learn from the mysticism of the East, how much we lose in the attempt to find ourselves through the culturally accepted routes of career achievement. In some ways it does link us back to a different age, but not one so different from our own that we cannot see ourselves in it. As the landlady’s nephew remarks at the end of his introduction to Harry Haller’s Records,

“ He said to me once when we were talking of the so-called horrors of the Middle ages: ‘These horrors were really non-existent. A man of the middle ages would detest the whole mode of our present day life as something far more horrible and cruel, far more barbarous. Every age, every culture,every custom and tradition has its own character, its own weakness and its own strength, its beauties and cruelties: it accepts certain sufferings as matters of course, puts up patiently with certain evils. Human life is reduced to real suffering, to hell,only when two ages, two cultures and religions overlap. … Now there are times when a whole generation is caught in this way between two ages, between two modes of life and thus loses the feeling for itself, for the self-evident, for all morals, for being safe and innocent. ‘ …”

From the mouth (or pen) of Harry himself;

“ Ah,it is hard to find this track of the divine in the midst of this life we lead, in this besotted humdrum age of spiritual blindness, with its architecture, its business, its politics, its men!”

From ‘The Treatise on the Steppenwolf’

“…to call suicides only those who actually destroy themselves is false…..the ‘suicide’ need not necessarily live in a peculiarly close relationship to death. What is peculiar to the suicide is that his ego, rightly or wrongly is felt to be extremely dangerous,dubious, and doomed germ of nature; that he is always in his own eyes exposed to an extraordinary risk, as though he stood with the slightest foothold on the peak of a crag whence a slight push from without or an instant’s weakness from within suffices to precipitate him into the void.’… For us they are suicides nonetheless; for they see death and not life as the releaser. They are ready to cast themselves away in surrender, to be extinguished and to go back to the beginning….”

“Man is an onion made up of a hundred integuments, a texture made up of many threads. …the human merry-go-round sees many changes: the illusion that cost India the efforts of thousands of years to unmask is the same illusion that the West has laboured just as hard to maintain and strengthen.”

These are tasters to encourage you to the main meal, it is worthy of any readers time in my mind. I want to go back and read it again, which is always the sign of a genius book. Of course I am somewhat of a Romantic and definitely a ‘suicide’ by Hesse’s definition, never understanding how death can be considered a threatening proposition, but more of a time to surrender. That doesn’t mean I look forward to it, but that it is an inevitable process, as life is. I spend quite a lot of time thinking in the abstract about the non-being of death , and the only fear I have of it is dealing with the deaths of people I love, or people I love dealing with mine. Life certainly holds more grief for me, learning to handle it in a manner which I can be at peace with, learning to accept tribulations and tragedies life holds for so many millions, understanding how important it is for individuals to hold a position on a myriad of things. Learning to belong to a community, and not in a bubble. Lots of learning still to do, lots of responsibility to come to terms with. Lots to do. In the meantime I make my escape and read books. Hmmm, somewhat of a problem there. I never said I was perfect. Which takes me back to Herman Hesse, I have to end my thoughts on this book with the congratulatory applause of the idolatrous, he has written what I want to read without subjecting me to a lecture or a sermon. Thankyou Hermann.

books, culture, Thoughts


  1. Great post, and thank you for reminding me of Hesse’s work. My old english teacher first brought him to my attention when he praised ‘The Glass Bead Game’ above most other works he’d read – and he’d read a fair few. I then studied German at uni and tried reading Hesse in the original, untranslated version – for an 18 year old with other distractions, it was a little too ambitious…

    I think I shall go back now and look at a translation, and try and get to the heart of this fascinating writer.
    Thanks again! 🙂


  2. Thank you for reminding me of an early love, long forgotten. I think I shall go and read ‘Steppenwolf’ again. It will be interesting to see if 30 odd years of living this absurdity called life have changed my appreciation and understanding of it.


  3. Pingback: moving in time

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