“And now I come to the araucaria. I must tell you that on the first floor of this house the stairs pass by a little vestibule at the entrance to a flat which, I am convinced, is even more spotlessly swept and garnished than the others; for this little vestibule shines with a superhuman housewifery. It is a little temple of order. On the parquet floor, where it seems desecration to tread, are two elegant stands and on each a large pot. In the one grows an azalea. In the other a stately araucaria, a thriving, straight-grown baby tree, a perfect specimen, which to the last needle of the topmost twig reflects the pride of frequent ablutions.
Sometimes, when I know that I am unobserved, I use this place as a temple. I take my seat on a step of the stairs above the araucaria and, resting awhile with folded hands, I contemplate this little garden of order and let the touching air it has and its somewhat ridiculous loneliness move me to the depths of my soul. I imagine behind this vestibule, in the sacred shadow, one may say, of the araucaria, a home full of shining mahogany, and a life full of sound respectability – early rising, attention to duty, restrained but cheerful family gatherings, Sunday churchgoing, early to bed.”
Hermann Hesse’s Steppenwolf is the story of Harry Haller, an author and intellectual in post-World War I Germany, torn between two selves: a man who desires the respectability and comforts of bourgeois existence, and a wolf who scoffs that these vain, absurd desires. The perpetual antagonism of Harry’s two halves prevent him from finding happiness or meaning in life. Hesse’s novel is about selfhood.
Is Harry man or wolf? He has lived with that conflict all his life until, one rainy night, a stranger hands him a small tract outside a Magic Theatre that he cannot enter.
“…So that’s it, thought I. They’ve disfigured this good old wall with an electric sign. Meanwhile I deciphered one or two of the letters as they appeared again for an instant; but they were hard to read even by guess work, for they came with very irregular spaces between them and very faintly, and then abruptly vanished. Whoever hoped for any result from a display like that was not very smart. He was a Steppenwolf, poor fellow. Why have his letters playing on this old wall in the darkest alley of the Old Town on a wet night with not a soul passing by, and why were they so fleeting, so fitful and illegible? But wait, at last I succeeded in catching several words on end. They were:
ENTRANCE NOT FOR EVERYBODY
I tried to open the door, but the heavy old latch would not stir. The display too was over. It had suddenly ceased, sadly convinced of its uselessness. I took a few steps back, landing deep into the mud, but no more letters came. The display was over. For a long time I stood waiting in the mud, but in vain.
Then, when I had given up and gone back to the alley, a few colored letters were dropped here and there, reflected on the asphalt in front of me. I read:
FOR MADMEN ONLY!”
The booklet is A Treatise on the Steppenwolf – an analysis of Harry Haller that is Nietzchean, Jungian and Buddhist at the same time.
Bourgeois life demands that one lead a balanced life at the cost of intensity. Before meeting Hermine there is no intensity in Haller’s sad life; he is preoccupied with his books and his pains, although his wolf-half occasionally expresses its derision for this path, leaving him to flee social situations in disgrace. Haller is chained to the bourgeois life by childhood experiences. He is fascinated with the washed leaves of the araucaria, by meticulous neatness, by devotion shown in little things. He is disgusted when his wolf-half laughs at the bourgeois life, until he meets a young woman, Hermine, who tells him to do precisely that.
This bond to the bourgeoisie can only be broken through humour, and looking deeply into the chaos of his own soul. In a dream sequence, the Magic Theatre mirror reflects all the thousands of facets of his soul. Behind one of the doors in the Magic Theatre, Haller learns that his numerous selves can be reconfigured like chess pieces.
“I knew that all the hundred thousand pieces of life’s game were in my pocket. A glimpse of its meaning had stirred my reason and I was determined to begin the game afresh. I would sample its tortures once more and shudder again at its senselessness. I would traverse not once more, but often, the hell of my inner being.
One day I would be a better hand at the game. One day I would learn how to laugh…”
Image: Jaroslav Bradac, from A Treatise on the Steppenwolf.