Steppenwolf | Study Guide

Hermann Hesse

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Steppenwolf | Section 1 : "For Madmen Only" | Summary

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Summary

Haller opens his journal, Harry Haller's Records, with a description of his pleasant day, a "tolerable" series of unexciting activities that leave him wondering if he shouldn't "have an accident while shaving." Such days are better than Haller's hellish days of painful gout attacks, headaches, and despair, but a life of quiet contentment bores him. He escapes such days either through pleasure or pain, longing for "strong emotions and sensations" as an antidote to "this toneless, flat, normal and sterile life." At times he wants to destroy things simply to stir things up; on such a night he decides to pay a visit to the Steel Helmet, his usual watering hole. He goes down the stairs of his clean, respectable boarding house—the type of place he always lives, even though he finds it "alien" and bourgeois. While he despises the middle class and its orderly way of life, he is drawn to such homelike places because they remind him of his childhood. He even secretly venerates a spotlessly clean landing and its araucaria plant as "a temple of order." He imagines the tenants of this part of the house as leading the perfect middle-class life: restrained, respectable, dutiful.

He emerges onto the dark, chilly street, missing the joy that once filled him as a young man. "All that was past now," he writes. "The cup was emptied and would never be filled again." Only rarely now does he feel connected to "the living heart of the world." The last time was at a concert, where the music carried him away to "the other world," a holy place of God, love, and acceptance. Such rare moments run through his life like a golden track of the divine, returning to comfort him at odd moments. Around him, people are oblivious to this higher world, concerned only with their jobs, politics, cafés and bars, and popular entertainment. Haller is "a lone wolf, and an uncouth hermit" amid such folks, unable to share their everyday enjoyments. His own ecstatic joys, though rare, far surpass such mundane pleasures. Though perhaps, he concedes, everyone else is right, he is wrong, and he is crazy: perhaps he is "in truth the Steppenwolf that I often call myself."

As he walks, he sees a Gothic arched doorway he has never noticed before in an old stone wall in an out-of-the-way alley. A blinking sign over the door spells out the message, "MAGIC THEATER / ENTRANCE NOT FOR EVERYBODY / FOR MADMEN ONLY!" Intrigued, he tries to open the door but cannot and so continues on. A brief flash of the earlier golden track of music soothes his mind as he walks. No attractions draw him in, whether cinema or variety show; these are for "everybody" but not for him. Still, he has had a "greeting from another world" in the blinking sign, and he has glimpsed the golden track once more, so his usual sadness is lightened a bit. The tavern, his refuge, is quiet and peaceful, full of solitary men like himself, minding their own business and silently nursing glasses of wine. He hears again in his mind the heavenly music "from worlds far above," imagining a thousand beautiful pictures from art, literature, history, and nature. Only he, the Steppenwolf, carries these pictures in his heart; other people carry their own pictures of beauty within.

He walks the streets again, longing for a quiet evening of Handel or Mozart, hidden away in some friend's attic, alive with candles and violins. Alas, he has no such friend now; the years have stripped him of such happiness. And yet, "solitude is independence," and now he has both in spades. His solitude is cold; it is still and vast like space but also wonderful. Nearby some jazz music catches his ear, both attracting and repelling him, for such music has a "raw and savage gaiety" and pulses with uncomplicated sensuality. Compared with "real music" such as that of Mozart, jazz to Haller is inferior, childish, and peppy. He laments how European art and culture is deteriorating with the rise of popular modern entertainment, calling jazz "the music of decline." Passing by an old church, he suddenly wishes again for the Gothic doorway and its intriguing message. A strange peddler appears, bearing a tray of wares and a sign that reads, "ANARCHIST EVENING ENTERTAINMENT / MAGIC THEATER / ENTRANCE NOT FOR EVERYBODY." The man will tell him nothing, but Haller persists until the stranger gives him a small book. The peddler escapes into a doorway, and Haller returns home. There, he reads with a jolt and a "sudden sense of impending fate" the title of the book: Treatise on the Steppenwolf. Not for Everybody.

Analysis

The very first paragraph of Haller's records ends with the suggestion of suicide, leaving little doubt as to the protagonist's depressive state of mind. Haller wallows in his depression, embracing it, for these "strong emotions" are better to him than living in an emotional void. In his mind his dreary condition is fixed and there is no escape. The joyful cup of his youth is emptied now, never to be filled again; his fate is sealed. He is old and decrepit, and there is nothing left for him in life anymore. He perpetuates his own misery in the alter ego he chooses for himself, "the Steppenwolf." Despite the unpleasant or even vicious aspects of this persona, Haller clings to it tenaciously. He says it is so, and thus it is so. He doesn't seem to grasp it is his own choice to call himself a Steppenwolf; this persona is not imposed upon him by anyone else.

Haller feels alienated from the middle-class world around him, to which he once happily belonged. Now, bourgeois is an insult on his lips. He sees the bourgeoisie as leading empty, meaningless lives with little original thought and even less interest in the sublime. The bourgeois world is one of instant gratification and mindless consumption of entertainment, of putting on a respectable front for others and attending to one's "duty." Haller, a supreme intellectual, has thought himself right out of the bourgeois box, and now he couldn't get back in again even if he wanted to—which he generally doesn't. His nostalgia for his childhood and for places like the thoroughly bourgeois boarding house, however, hints he does perhaps wish he could return to this simpler life at times.

Haller frequently refers to some "other world" that is divine and also eludes him. He catches tantalizing glimpses of this sublime world, this divine state of consciousness through music in particular. The thousand pictures in his mind, though, suggest such a transcendent state can also be reached through other means, such as the love of nature. Haller refers to this elevated state of consciousness as a "golden track" that weaves through his life; it is the only thing that gives him any joy now. Haller so disdains the everyday pleasures other people enjoy he is completely unable to partake in them. These amusements are for "everybody," and he is not a part of "everybody." When the sign appears for a Magic Theater that is not for everybody, it is no surprise Haller is intrigued. In all of this there is a whiff of ego; Haller sees himself as above mundane pursuits. While he never implies he is "better" than others (and in fact, he often loathes himself), he does seem to believe people should focus on the sublime, not the mundane. Thus he cannot lower himself to enjoy the jazz that sensuously attracts him (even as it repels him intellectually). Jazz feels too modern to him, too in touch with the current attitudes he dislikes. It is too wild, too sweet, too lusty, too unpredictable for his taste, and he chooses to dislike it even though he secretly finds it catchy.

The line between reality and fantasy begins to blur quickly in Haller's records. The first strange thing Haller notices is the door he has never seen before. This comes immediately after he has been following the golden track; his mind is on the sublime, and the message appears. The electrified sign is oddly out of place on the old stone wall. It is in an isolated spot, late at night, where only Haller will likely see it. It is as if the message is for Haller alone, and it certainly catches his attention. The word madman attracts him, and he then calls himself one, just as he had earlier surmised perhaps he is crazy. Haller second-guesses himself, wondering if he has seen the door before but just overlooked it. Instinctively, though, he calls the message a "greeting from another world," and it is ... but it is a world he is not yet ready to enter, for all his longing. Haller does possess the one trait that will gain him entrance to this world, though: desire. He wants to belong to that sublime world; he wants to find the Magic Theater. It is when he focuses on these things that opportunities come to him. Just before he meets the peddler, Haller thinks again of the blinking sign, and boom, the stranger appears bearing virtually the same message. Divine bliss won't come easily to the casual seeker—it's not for everybody. The true devotee must be proactive seeking the path and must be willing to take risks; following the same path will never lead to new worlds. Thus does Haller press the stranger for more information, even though the man seems uninterested in answering his queries. Haller is passionate about this quest, and his desire opens the door of opportunity.

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