Herman Hesse's Steppenwolf - The Reluctant Psychoanalyst Reads a Classic
While on vacation last week in Canada, I realized that I had left the book I intended to read in the car when we jumped onto the train. I feared that in Francophile Montreal I would not be able to find a good book in English, but fortunately our Air B&B (a person's apartment that we rented on the internet instead of staying in a hotel room) was in the McGill University - the English speaking University - student ghetto and was over a small storefront English Language bookstore. The store was tiny - maybe 20 feet deep with shelves on either side of a single aisle and struggling to survive as I learned through overhearing in the hour or so that I browsed through the books, struggling, even though the manager was also using the back small room as his apartment. Which is a shame. It was stocked with classics - in literature was the strong suit, but also in theology and history, science and even a smattering of psychology. It is the kind of bookstore that I fantasized about running as a college student, and that we seem to have come close to eradicating in the US (though apparently in Canada, too) by a combination of chain bookstores and the availability of online bookstores and, now, books.
Well the choosing of books is a delicate matter - it isn't just one of your holiday games. Reviews can be helpful, recommendations are good - though they can be freighted with obligation. Choosing a book on line involves hunting for a particular tome, or following some kind of string of associations based on similar content. It is only in a bookstore that one can truly browse. Which, perhaps because it had been so long since I have had that luxury, felt like a naked excursion. And reading a book on vacation is a bit different than at other times, or it feels that it should be. Among the classics were big, difficult books that I should read because they are part of being well read - Gravity's Rainbow was an example of many in this category - there were books that should be read because of various professional paths I am currently on - the collected writings of Ignatius Loyola was an example of these - but I really wanted a book that I wanted to read - and the only trashyish novels in this rather high minded place were whodunits, and I'm not a big fan of that genre. So I finally settled on Steppenwolf. A book that was a must read among my peers in high school. A book that I seemed to vaguely recall may have to do with the life of the Buddha (I was confusing it with another popular Hesse book, Siddhartha). But also a slender volume that, because my friends had read it for pleasure and enlightenment, promised to be engaging but also meaty enough - and at this moment I was looking for spiritual food and the Buddha confusion was likely fueled by a wish for the kind of nourishment I hoped to find in a book that would be pleasant to read.
Originally published in 1929, the author's note from the 1961 edition further supported the notion that this might actually be the right book to read at this moment. In it, he reflected on the popularity of the book. He noted that it was written when he was fifty and that it represented the struggles of that particular developmental moment. He then went on to note that his biggest problem was not with the detractors of the book, but with the supporters - especially the younger adherents. And I began to wonder whether my friends - and I, had I read it as a late adolescent - were guilty of this sin of somehow subverting the intended message because we could not, from our own developmental vantage point, understand the book, and perhaps I might be able to appreciate that message now, as a fifty something year old reader.
So, the title character, the Steppenwolf or Harry, turns out to be a loner - an intellectual - a passionate but also highly constricted man who, in his fifties, takes a room in a boarding house in a town he lived in many years before. He starts to see messages - weird invitations to enter into another world - a world where the sign says "FOR MADMEN ONLY!" - and he begins to stray into a world that is much more open, free, and sensuously driven than the world that he has inhabited and disdained throughout his life. Harry is guided into this world by a beautiful and ambiguously gendered woman, Hermine, who both reminds him of an old male friend, but also seems to be a version of himself. Harry is guided, then, on a journey of self discovery by someone who is very much like himself, though also somewhat other - this woman; but also by her lover, a black Saxophone player who, instead of being like Harry in talking about music, simply makes music - and the potions that help Harry enter an altered state to appreciate the world differently.
As a twenty year old, I would have heard this tale as one that is inviting me to throw off my inhibitions, to live spontaneously - perhaps I would, as my sophomore roommate did - give up language altogether and communicate only through barks - as if the sensual life - and I don't know that this is the right term, but please allow it to suffice - were the proper life to lead. This level of simplicity would be a very possible, indeed a likely, response were the book read from that vantage point. Life is simple - engage, respond - might be the bumper sticker version. But, in fact, the tale is not about how to live as a twenty year old, but how, as someone in his or her fifties, to enter into a process of coming to know oneself, both who one is and has become, and the paths that were not taken. It is a tale of self discovery that occurs after the self has been formed - after difficult choices have been made - after internal inconsistencies have become habitual and are no longer vividly portrayed, but instead hidden, assumed, covered up; and to discover them - to come to know oneself - brings with it the fear that the process might well lead to madness. The message of the book - at least in so far as my fellow Steppenwolf feels it - is not that the Steppenwolf's life course could have been avoided, but that it is inevitable. That even my barking friend must now, in his fifties, deconstruct the less verbal life that he chose. That his simplicity introduced complications as well, and, in order to put his house in order, he, too must enter into a portal that proclaims "FOR MADMEN ONLY", because to know ourselves is to know the internal inconsistencies that are integral to supporting the facade that is essential both for our public functioning and, more importantly, for maintaining our delusionally consistent self narrative.
Even as I say this, though, I am remembering the author's note, where he states "I neither can nor intend to tell my readers how they ought to understand my tale." And this, in turn, leads to a wonderful essay that Thomas Ogden, a psychoanalyst, wrote as an introduction to a book that he wrote about reading classic psychoanalytic papers. Ogden's position is that readers who closely read other's work are actually writing it themselves. They are taking whatever the author offers and remaking it, filtering it through their own experience. While my identification with Steppenwolf leads me to feel kinship, it also leads to distortions. From Ogden's position, I have rewritten it - or taken the ideas from it and made them my own. As psychoanalysts, we are constantly doing this, including when we make interpretations in the consulting room. Sometimes we lose track of this and believe that we know what is going on in the minds of our analysands, and to a certain extent this is true - frequently we accurately apprehend unconscious dynamics that are unknown or unseeable to the person who is freely associating, or writing a novel, as the case may be. But our interpretations, and Ogden's clinical writings make this amply clear about his own practice, are infused with our own idiosyncratic mental content - we are rewriting the text that our patients give us.
I am aware of some distortions that my reading has introduced in the brief review that I have offered here. I could go back and more closely tie what I have reviewed to the text- to clarify what is Hesse's thought and what my own. Ogden does this in the articles he reviews, quoting them at length and closely parsing individual elements from the articles. I do this as a requisite part of the process of editing these blogs for "publication". But I also like to keep some of the boundaries blurry and, in the spirit of both Hesse and Ogden, would cathect - would own - Hesse's work and his intent, at least in this moment, as my own. As I do that, I run the risk of cultivating Hesse's now silent wrath - of being like the twenty year old boys who distort his ideas and turn them into permission to live a different kind of life - but as I reread the author's note, I find that he is concerned not with the twenty year old starry eyed readers - perhaps a group of readers who would pick up the book in the twenty years after he wrote the note - but with a group of readers who misinterpret the Steppenwolf's, Harry's, Herman's suffering with despair. From that perspective, my twenty year old friends are not appreciating the healing power of reflection - and are, as I imagine them, trying to avoid the kinds of wounds that Hesse portrays Steppenwolf as bearing. And as I circle back, as I discover one way in which I have misunderstood Hesse, I am also finding ways in which I have actually gotten a clear vision of him and what his message is. The bumper sticker version is that the wounds are a necessary part of healing - that redemption can only come as a result of having been in the dark. But this is not just his message, it is my own. He has become my Hermine. And deliciously, even this name - her mine - transliterated into English - does it mean the same in German? - betrays an identification - the same identification that J.K. Rowling betrays when she names her alter ego Hermione (she and I are one). Is Hesse punning in English? Was Rowling? At this moment it doesn't matter, because I am - and it is my Hermine that Hesse has become. As my transferential figure, I bestow on him - and discover within him, and his character, Harry, the traits that I am struggling to understand. And if, like he, I am able to discover this book as a redemptive one then I am able to make use of it in a way that is parallel to Hesse's stated intent. Of course, if I do not, as he feared many of his most effusive readers had not, we end up in very different places. And it is not surprising to me that he would be dismayed by this - for this, I think, is where, for Hesse, madness lies.
Wandering in a bookstore, browsing - wandering in another country - losing our way - becomes then a metaphor for being able to sort and sift through partly known, but also unknown elements - to choose the ones that resonate, and to follow a path that leads to, at the very least, a satisfying read, but perhaps more grandly, a moment of connection, with the author, with other readers - not a perfect connection, this is our own construction based on who we are at this moment - but it is also a shared construction - one that is influenced by the author - and that influence shapes the way that we experience subsequent connections. By destroying parts of ourselves (portrayed in the book quite concretely) - finding out how the author actually does have a different point of view that we must take into account - leads to a rebirth not in the world that we have lived, or would have lived, but in the life that we lead from this moment forward.
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