Tuesday, January 05, 2010

What does it mean to be Human?

notes on Der Steppenwolf

Our task as human beings is this:
Within our own unique personal lives
To move one step further along the path
From animal to human being.
- Hermann Hesse, in “Thou Shalt Not Kill”

A work like Steppenwolf is iconic in its artistic significance. Being so makes it more difficult to discuss the book as I would other "good" reads. A novel of ideas, one that challenges my own conception of the world, it raises more questions than it answers. It draws upon the ideas of other thinkers, notable Goethe and Nietzsche and Jung, and presents those ideas in new ways - challenging even those with which the author may agree. This is what Hermann Hesse set out to do in writing Der Steppenwolf in 1927.

The novel presents a complex narrative that combines three different styles within its structure; a straightforward preface introducing the protagonist, Harry Haller, a "Treatise on the Steppenwolf" in the form of a pamphlet that Harry accepts and interprets as a study of his own life, and Harry's own narrative which moves into a dream sequence when Harry enters the "Magic Theater". We meet characters, both women and men, at least one of whom may be Harry's alter ego or "anima" in Jungian terms. We see a man who would separate himself from the Nietzschean herd and values individuality. Most of all we encounter a man facing not the "two souls" that dwell within his breast, as Goethe described Faust, but one who faces innumerable souls in a personality that seems to be breaking up into different persons. Through it all Harry looks up to artistic "Immortals" as representative of an ideal in the form of idealized visions of Goethe and Mozart. Especially Mozart who plays a critical role in Harry's dreams.

What can I take away from this work? As I said it raises questions and the thoughts and process of reviewing the way I approach the world is one thing that this novel provides. With all great - read transcendent - works of art I continue to find new layers of meaning as I read and reread their pages. One fundamental question, and I think this is central to all of Hesse's writings, is what does it mean to be human? The philosophers from Plato and Aristotle have tried to define this, but Hesse's Steppenwolf continues to present the question and explore original ways to find the answer.

Steppenwolf by Hermann Hesse. Henry Holt & Company, New York. 1990 (1927)


Anonymous said...

I am reminded of a few passages from chapter one in Nikos Kazantzakis's autobiography, Report to Greco:

"Now for the first time since the world was made, man has been enabled to enter God’s workshop and labor with him. The more flesh (man) transubstantiates into love, valor and freedom, the more truly he becomes Son of God...What a fearful ascent from monkey to man, from man to God!"

James said...

Thanks for sharing such a pertinent thought from Kazantzakis. I must add his autobiography to me new year's reading list.