Tuesday, June 21, 2016

“Steppenwolf” by Hermann Hesse – Reconciling Our Psyches

Steppenwolf by Hermann Hesse - book cover
Hermann Hesse was definitely a very unusual person whose life followed a rather difficult path. Amongst countless afflictions he had to deal with was the deteriorating mental health of his first wife, a variety of physical ailments as well as a non-stop criticism from German nationalists who accused him of being a pacifist during the First World War. As the tragedies of his life accumulated he began to waver, eventually resulting in a nervous breakdown, one that changed his life forever. During these dark days, Hesse underwent Jungian psychoanalysis, and it changed his outlook on the world, so much that he subsequently penned his most revered masterpiece, Steppenwolf.

As a book Steppenwolf isn't very easy to describe, practically making for a unique genre all on its own. The story is structured into three basic parts. In the first one we are introduced to the main character, Harry Haller, who is basically a representation of the author himself. We get to learn about his life, about what makes him tick, his idiosyncraties... basically who he is as a person. The second part of the book focuses on Haller's inner world and the intense psychological conflict raging within between the different aspects of his psyche. In the third part of the book, we march onwards towards the resolution of this inner conflict, the reconciliation between the different fragments of his personality to once again form a fulfilling whole.

While there definitely is a plot to follow, for the author it was nothing more than a vehicle through which he could explore himself as well as the various aspects of Jungian psychology. Many of the characters we meet are metaphors for psychological concepts, with Haller treating the different aspects of his mind as separate entities. The actual story is really about how a middle-aged man in a spiritual, psychological and intellectual crisis salvages his inner world and rebuilds it from the ruins he's been left with.

As you can imagine, this is the kind of book where every sentence matters. There is no filler or empty text here, with every word being delivered sincerely with some kind of purpose behind it. We can really feel the power behind the narrator's emotions, whether he is agonizing in grief over the tragic losses of his life or looking with high hopes towards the future. Hermann Hesse really went all out on this one, pouring the complete contents of his inner world on paper for the whole planet to see. He delves deeper within himself than most of us ever will, probing the various workings of his consciousness while sharing his beliefs, values, insecurities, fears, dreams, joys and sorrows. While it is true that this type of text is generally harder to read through due to its complexity, rest assured it's something you'll get used to very quickly and then even stop noticing it, in large part due to the quality of the ideas discussed.

With everything being said and done, Steppenwolf certainly isn't a novel for everybody. It is a deep and thoughtful journey into the infinitely complex, vivid and suffering mind of one of this century's greatest authors, exploring the human psyche like few before. It's the kind of book that begs to be read more than once, the kind that will keep on giving time and time again as you open it anew, always full of new insights into the nature of our minds. If you're attracted to psychological literature and aren't afraid to make a little effort while reading, then you definitely ought to include this immortal classic in your library.

Hermann Hesse (July 1877-August 1962)

Hermann Hesse was a German-born Swiss author, poet, novelist and painter whose many works of writing have shaped the world of literature, with some of his more titanic efforts including Steppenwolf, Siddhartha and The Glass Bead Game. In 1946 he was awarded the highest honor any that can be bestowed upon any writer, the Nobel Prize in Literature.

More of the Hermann Hesse's book reviews:
Narcissus and Goldmund

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