Thinking Again with Hermann Hesse’s Steppenwolf

Here is a lengthy quote worth looking at in full:

My life had become weariness.  It had wandered in a maze of unhappiness that led to renunciation and nothingness; it was bitter with the salt of all human things; yet it had laid up riches, riches to be proud of.  It had been for all its wretchedness a princely life.  Let the little way to death be as it might, the kernel of this life of mine was noble.  It had purpose and character and turned not on trifles, but on the stars.

Time has passed and much has happened, much has changed; and I can only remember a little of all that passed that night; a little of all we said and did in the deep tenderness of love, a few moments of clear awakening from the deep sleep of love’s weariness.  That night, however, for the first time since my downfall gave me back the unrelenting radiance of my own life and made me recognize chance as destiny once more and see the ruins of my being as fragments of the divine.  My soul breathed once more.  My eyes were opened.  There were moments when I felt with a glow that I had only to snatch up my scattered images and raise my life as Harry Haller and as the Steppenwolf to the unity of one picture, in order to enter myself into the world of imagination and be immortal.  Was not this, then, the goal set for the progress of every human life?

As Ludwig Wittgenstein says, a picture can hold us captive.  The picture that emerges here pertains to the gem-like flame of Paterian genius–an individual’s crusade against philistinism to secure a place within a realm that W.B. Yeats calls ‘Unity of Culture’ or ‘Unity of Being’–an ideal realm of art transcending common purpose and understanding.  It is what he also calls the “artifice of eternity.”  In contrast to bourgeois values, the Steppenwolf aspires to secure his place in eternity.  Similarly, Yeats says:

I mock Plotinus’ thought

And cry in Plato’s teeth,

Death and life were not

Till man made up the whole,

Made lock, stock and barrel

Out of his bitter soul,

Aye, sun and moon and star, all,

And further add to that

That, being dead, we rise,

Dream and so create

Translunar Paradise.


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