Rage Against the Machine
Harry Haller’s purported journal begins with a description of his day—written in past tense, something we must return to later. He is, to put it mildly, rather glum. He describes suffering from physical pain, a headache, gout, all of which he attributes to old age—he is forty-seven. He writes of his anger at mediocrity, his desire to smash order, disrupt complacency. This has a very contemporary feel, and one can see how Tim Leary and later rebels would like this. He lives in a very orderly and bourgeois house, and delights at the contrast of his disordered room. He contemplates suicide. As a narrator, he is unlikable; it’s challenging to feel much compassion for such an old crank. He sees himself as old, diseased, hopeless. But Harry’s unique and perhaps redeeming feature is that he believes part of his nature is a Steppenwolf, a wolf of the steppes. Our trusty electronic dictionary tells us that the Steppe Wolf is a subspecies of grey wolf native to the Caspian steppes, the steppe regions of the Caucasus, the lower Volga region, southern Kazakhstan north to the middle of the Emba, and the steppe regions of the lower European part of the former Soviet Union. They are dangerous; they like to eat seals. They often carry rabies.
Where do they find the seals?
In consideration that the character of Harry, being a creation of the real author who wrote this in 1926, we could speculate that Hesse, a German who was a non-combatant in WW1, tried to come up with a frightening image for his character to admire. A predatory wolf from the steppes of Russia! Harry believes he has a dual nature, half highly civilized European aesthete, and half slavering beastie boy from the dangerous wild. It should be said though, that Harry never kills anyone (except in the Magic Theater, of course—more on that later). He feels this brutal and uncivilized side in his nature but is never violent. He does not behave like some sort of werewolf in the streets of the unnamed city he lives in.
What he describes is that he wants to experience beautiful things, art, music, friendship, but always runs up against his wolf nature which ridicules him for liking beauty. Then when he feels more wolf-like, his human nature ridicules him for being an animal. He is rarely happy.
The 1920’s were famous for being inhabited by the “lost generation” of men and women who experienced the technological and human horrors of WW1, and who subsequently found themselves unable to fit into postwar life. Ernest Hemingway comes to mind. "You are all a lost generation," he wrote as an epigraph for his 1926 novel, The Sun Also Rises. T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein, Jean Rhys, and F. Scott Fitzgerald are other notable figures.
And so is the Steppenwolf, a wild creature who must exist always on the fringes of society. However, Harry never makes mention of WW1, in fact, makes no mention of any historical events, a feature of the story I commented on last week. It tends to give the story a curious, timeless feel, making it a tale that could occur anytime. And anyplace, since there’s no anchoring of the story to a particular city or country.
After the preface, in which the character narrator explains how the story should be read, we have a classic story beginning. Harry describes and shows his condition at the beginning of the story, before the events of the story change him. We have a good eight pages of description of his miserable existence before he happens (?) upon the Magic Theater, a place that will alter the course of his life.
Another philosophical angle on Steppenwolf is existentialism. Yes, you read it right. The beginning of Harry’s story can be seen as a presentation of the existentialist concept of the longing for immediacy. Harry dreams of being a wolf, an animal with an immediate grasp of sensory reality without any mediation of consciousness. The wolf doesn’t think “Huh, I’m pretty hairy,” the wolf just is hairy. It has direct access to “reality.” In contrast, Harry the human (who may be hairy, ha, ha!)—
(whiny voice—‘scuse me, Mr. Pretentious Bully. “Scuse me. Why do you put apostrophes around certain words?)
Is that a “real” question? Heh, heh, heh.
I’ve been asked about my usage of parentheses set around certain words. I do this to indicate the subjective nature of these words. For instance, there is not one “reality” that everyone more or less experiences. We all have our own perspective on reality, and this particularity is a key concept in modern fiction.
(whiny voice—I think you do it to make fun of me.)
Let’s move on.
Harry the human, must be conscious of all the beauty he experiences, painfully aware that he can never immediately “be” in a Mozart sonata; he can only have a second-hand awareness of it, as in, “Now I am listening to Mozart.” This is the pain of Harry’s life, that he yearns for immediacy but can never attain it. And if he did attain it, he would be a wolf, not a human.
The ancient philosopher Parmenides outlines this problem, writing that where a gap appears between words and things, the philosopher in search of Being tries to differentiate what is stable and instable in language, the permanent and the fluid, the “true” and the “deceptive.” (He liked using parentheses too). He persists in trying to sift Being from what he calls words or names, which he regards as a ceaseless flow of things at the level of language.
Harry Haller has a lot of difficulty doing this “sifting,” and that annoys the heck out of him.
‘Kay. Next time, we’ll look at the inciting incident of the story, Harry’s discovery of the Magic Theater and of the Treatise on the Steppenwolf.