Thinking With Hermann Hesse’s Steppenwolf

Let’s consider an excerpt from Hesse’s classic novel Steppenwolf:

Now what we call “bourgeois,” when regarded as an element always to be found in human life, is nothing else than the search for balance.  It is the striving after a mean between the countless extremes and opposites that arise in human conduct…. It is open to a man to give himself up wholly to spiritual views, to seeking after God, to the ideal of saintliness.  On the other hand, he can equally give himself up entirely to the life of instinct, to the lusts of the flesh, and so direct all his efforts to the attainment of momentary pleasures.  The one path leads to the saint, to the martyrdom of the spirit and surrender to God.  The other path leads to the profligate, to the martyrdom of the flesh, the surrender to corruption.  Now it is between the two, in the middle of the road, that the bourgeois seeks to walk….In short, his aim it to make a home for himself between two extremes in a temperate zone without violent storms and tempests; and in this he succeeds though it be at the cost of that intensity of life and feeling which an extreme life affords.   A man cannot live intensely except at the cost of the self….The bourgeois is consequently by nature a creature of weak impulses, anxious, fearful of giving himself away and easy to rule.  Therefore, he has substituted majority for power, law for force, and the polling booth for responsibility….It is clear that this weak and anxious being…qualities such as his can play no other role in the world than that of a herd of sheep among free roving wolves.

So much for “bourgeois” tastes, inclinations, sentiments and dispositions.  Perhaps we see ourselves in this description.  Even the Steppenwolf is not beyond the pull of a bourgeois lifestyle.  He admires order, cleanliness, and the nostalgia of quiet domesticity.  Don’t we all?  Today we might witness the “bourgeois” in our esteem of chain stores and mini-malls–the blandly generic–the homogeny of social norms and consumerism.  We admire the clean and polished, the fresh and bright fabrics of social cohesion, without much consideration of the deliberate methods of corporate profiteering.  We shop at Bed, Bath, and Beyond for clean sheets with the highest thread count.  The problem is not the attraction of bourgeois values but the trappings of it…the limitations… the dogmatism of simulations and simulacra.

One of the reasons I am not a fan of Occupy Wall Street is its attack on extremism–the crooks of the one percent.  Of course, nothing is amiss with combatting corruption, greed, and overweening pride at the expense of the poor or the middle class.  But Occupy’s main premise concerns balance and fairness in wealth distribution.   Regrettably, they lack intellectual rigor.  But what else can we expect?  They don’t offer much in terms of an alternative worldview.  And if they have a worldview, then it seems indistinguishable from a commitment to ‘bourgeois’ values.

I admire the above passsage for its usefulness in critical thinking.  We are invited to examine our beliefs and assumptions.  We are invited to consider human nature, the scope of hypocrisy, the scale of values by which we live.  We witness these sentiments in other great thinkers of the past: the 19th-Century Decadents, Dostoevsky’s Underground Man, Nietzsche, Flaubert, Baudelaire, Walter Pater, Oscar Wilde, to name a few.  Hesse invites us to consider the multifarious selves that constitute the diverse lives we live–to what extent shall we challenge Aristotle’s Golden Mean–the middle ground between vice and virtue?  Or shall we ignore it, comply, and continue on without blinking twice?


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