"The human merry-go-round sees many changes: the illusion [of the ego] that cost India the efforts of thousands of years to unmask is the same illusion that the West has labored just as hard to maintain and strengthen."
This book is wall-to-wall wisdom, especially for anyone looking to transcend the trappings of his or her own personality. Hesse is the most advanced spiritual thinker that I've ever read and "Steppenwolf," which is filled with the same Buddhist wisdom of "Siddhartha," is given mass by a truly literary character, Henry Haller. The lone wolf is a troubled observer like Dostoevsky's Raskolnikov, a person who is a grey puzzle to passersby, but one who has a wild, conflicted inner life known almost exclusively to himself. Haller's split self is dramatized by a Jekyll and Hyde division between his sympathetic human side and the "Steppenwolf," a beastly dark side that only wants to fill the desires of the Id.
Through the perspective of this mysterious hermit, Hesse finds the right form for his recurring struggle between ego and enlightenment. Haller is so trapped in himself that he might as well be Kafka's Gregor, the guy who woke up as a bug and couldn't get out of bed, or Gilman's sick protagonist in "The Yellow Wallpaper," who descends into madness after her husband locks her in a room. Haller nests in the place he's renting out from a simple, "bourgeois" landlady with books and wine bottles, sleeping until noon, reading most of the time and occasionally meeting up with a girl, seemingly only to fight with her. His movements are observed by the original narrator of the book, an unnamed fellow lodger, who is bewildered by this oddly charming vagrant, a man that seems closed off from the world. This character, the landlady's nephew, really only serves as a convenient narrative framework, much like Captain Walton in "Frankenstein," although he, ultimately, plays much less of a role.
This story is wholly about Haller, his internal life and his series of misadventures as he tries to step out of himself, only to go begrudgingly/contently back into his usual habits and small pleasures. We enjoy listening to him talk about his inability to enjoy things and accompany him as he finds an essay, the Steppenwolf treatise, which he thinks is magically written about his beastly alter ego. This event is eerily reminiscent of a moment in Gustav Meyrink's "The Golem," a novella, in which a strange man gives a book to the main figure, Athanasius Pernath, that reveals the life of his other self to him. "The Golem" was written in 1914, "Steppenwolf" in the 20s, and I can't help but think that the former influenced the latter. Both books deal with magical visions and doppelgangers, but Hesse's work is, for the most part, much more structured, whereas Meyrink's has the feeling of a dream. That's a matter to be explored more in an essay, however, and not for this review.
Eventually, Haller is pulled out of himself by Hermine, a prostitute who calls him out on his childishness and teaches him how to dance. From this point on, Haller's struggle transforms from one within himself, between beast and man, to one between his new self -- the dancing, jazz club regular who beds beautiful women, his old, curmudgeonly bookworm self, and the millions of potential selves that he could've had or could have. At one point, he says, "I am not content being happy," a quote that defines his life.
Any more mention of the plot would be too much. But I'll conclude by saying that this work made me feel like a 14 year old discovering a great book for the first time. I want to carry "Steppenwolf" around in my bag and quote it to random people on the street (my Facebook friends already are tired of this urge), start a group based on a mutual love for it and spread its influence as far as possible. But in reality, what I'll probably do is just read another Hesse book.