A friend recently wrote that he would be interested in my thinking about Steppenwolf in light of recent mass and/or school shootings, as exemplified by the horrific Michigan high school killings. I had to do some brooding about this; it really “put me through the changes,” as another old friend used to say. I hadn’t been thinking of Steppenwolf in this way.
Regarding violence, Steppenwolf is problematic. It depicts strong suicidal ideation, and then very realistically describes murder, although these are eventually recast as fantasy. There is a sense in which Harry treats real humans as chess pieces or toys, in the same way I believe some mass murderers have thought about their victims, de-humanizing them the same way the Nazis tried to de-humanize Jewish people, or certain Americans de-humanized African Americans to enslave them. If you regard someone as a toy, it’s much easier to abuse them.
But does Steppenwolf promote this attitude? I don’t want to say this, but my answer is I’m not sure. Hermann Hesse was a pacifist; the book can be read as a protest against the mass killings of WW1. I think he would strongly condemn efforts to criticize Steppenwolf based on its encouragement of violence. However, I don’t think the book is appropriate for young people to read, frankly. I think it’s only okay to read it as long as you have a good sense of who’s human and that murder (and suicide) is wrong. Many adults don’t have these senses. I believe its (ironic) point is that if it’s okay to kill millions in a war, it’s okay to kill people in peacetime. I don’t think Hesse believed murder was ever a good thing, but without a good sense of irony, the reader may miss his point.
In the Magic Theater, Harry enters the door marked:
Great Hunt in Automobiles
“I was swept at once into a world of noise and excitement…I saw at once that it was the long prepared, long-awaited and long-feared war between men and machines…On all sides lay dead and decomposing bodies and on all sides too, smashed and distorted and half-burned cars. Airplanes circled above the frightful confusion and were being fired upon from many roofs…In every eye I saw the unconcealed spark of destruction and murder and in mine too these wild red roses bloomed as rank and high, and sparkled as brightly. I joined the battle joyfully.”
‘Kay. Harry observes a scene of wild destruction and death—so far, he’s not a participant. But then he encounters his old friend Gustav and the two of them embark on a murderous adventure of ambushing and shooting the drivers of cars.
“Aim at the chauffeur,” commanded Gustav…I aimed and fired at the chauffeur in his blue cap. The man fell in a heap. The car careened on, charged the cliff face, rebounded, attacked the lower wall furiously with all its unwieldy weight…and…crashed…into the depths below.
“Got him!” Gustav laughed. “My turn next.”
So far, I’d say this reads a bit like a description of playing a violent video game. It’s cold and the victims are de-humanized.
Gustav remarks after the next murder. “…it is all one what our victims are called. They’re poor devils just as we are. Their names don’t matter…we do not kill from duty, but pleasure, or much more, rather, from displeasure and despair of the world. For this reason we find a certain amusement from killing people.”
Indeed. And there’s no remorse, no consequences. Murder is shown as being an amusing game. The victims are not real.
In what is arguably the climax of the story, Harry enters the last door of the Magic Theater. Inside, he sees a naked Pablo and Hermine, “side by side in a sleep of deep exhaustion after love’s play. Beautiful, beautiful figures, lovely picture, wonderful bodies. Beneath Hermine’s left breast was a fresh, round mark, darkly bruised—a love bite of Pablo’s beautiful, gleaming teeth. There, where the mark was, I plunged in my knife to the hilt. The blood welled out over her white and delicate skin.”
Pablo and Mozart chide Harry for this murder, and Harry tries to justify it by saying that Hermine wanted him to kill her. Pablo ultimately transforms the dead Hermine into a small toy figurine and puts it away in his pocket. Nevertheless, Harry must face punishment for his crime; he anticipates execution, but the sentence is to be laughed out of court.
It seems clear that the implied author’s intention is to show that all the scenes in the Magic Theater are from within Harry. He does not commit murder; he only fantasizes it. But is this so different from the way real mass murderers operate? A troubling question.
Even more troubling is the way Steppenwolf is written, with beauty and lyricism. A pretty package containing poison that the reader must have an antidote for.
Yet, I can imagine many fans of the book and critics saying, “You are reading the text in a naïve way. Steppenwolf certainly doesn’t promote murder. You are missing the point. It’s supposed to be all fantasy. Irony, my dear.”
‘Kay. I’m troubled. I can think of other novels that show violent acts. Madame Bovary, as an example, shows a graphic suicide. Does it make the reader fantasize about the romance of suicide?
No, it’s horrible. The suicide is presented in a horrible way, and there’s a harrowing lead-up to it of despair.
Does reading Steppenwolf make the reader want to shoot the drivers of cars or stab naked women to death? Keep in mind, each act is presented with an absence of consequence—but we all know there are consequences for murder, right?
Did the young man who killed four of his fellow students in Michigan know this?
Read Steppenwolf, please. It’s a magnificent novel. But be prepared to become uneasy about the questions it raises. Maybe that’s one of the purposes of literature.
On a seasonal note, may all your end-of-year celebrations be joyful, best beloved.
Till next time.