I recently re-read Hesse’s
Steppenwolf for the first time since graduate school. The book crossed my attention then in a course called “Puzzling Fictions,” which featured works by John Fowles, Jorge Luis Borges, Thomas Pynchon, and others. My only recollection of Harry Haller, Hesse’s wolf-man main character, was of a guy who walked around a great deal and had a particular passion for Mozart’s The Magic Flute. (I should thank Hesse for that gift, as that reading caused me to check out the opera.)
In this reading, I’m left with an overwhelming impression of a useless character walking around and holding a particular passion for The Magic Flute. Is it hopelessly bourgeois of me to expect that a character will make some mention of his means of support, perhaps even having a job. Perhaps the angst that Haller feels in his wolfish wandering comes not from his dual nature, part man and part wolf, but rather from his pointless existence. In the first few pages of Haller’s narrative, the reader is treated to a list of artistic and philosophical works that the protagonist encounters and admires. Yet what does he do with these works? Do they change him in any way? Does he contribute to the artistic or philosophical conversations they represent?
In the end, the only real progress that Haller can be said to achieve is to move from the suicidal to the homicidal, as his intentions of self-destruction dissipate, replaced by his willingness to murder Hermine. Whether he actually kills her or simply experiences the death as hallucination is debated by critics, but in the end, the question is moot. The willingness is clearly present.
The human animal, like the non-human animal, seems designed for production, for purpose. Even the lone wolf of the Steppes that Haller pompously locates within himself, does not lead the pointless existence of this character. Harry Haller does not feed himself or anyone else. He does not contribute anything to anyone, except to gratify his own self-indulgent desires.
A wolf that lived as unproductive a life as Harry Haller would quickly starve to death. His identification with the animal is naive and self-important. My question is whether this pretension is Haller’s or Hesse’s. Does Hesse take seriously his character’s anxiety or is he holding it up for the reader’s censure? I’m not certain. As I read something like The Catcher in the Rye, I am fairly certain that Salinger intends Holden to be seen as a blunderer, insisting on his own importance. That many readers fail to see this says more about the reader than the writer. With Hesse, I am not as certain.
Should I hold Haller in contempt or Hesse? That question remains open. What does seem clear to me is that this lone wolf is a toothless, pitiable creature.