Hermann Hesse’s 1927 novel Steppenwolf is a curious mixture of mysticism and existential angst. It’s the story of a strange man who appears one day in an unnamed town and rents an attic apartment. By day he stays alone in his rooms, reading Goethe and Novalis. By night he wanders the dark alleyways of the Old Town, like “a wolf of the steppes that had lost its way and strayed into the towns and the life of the herd.”
Despite a strong element of magic in the story, Steppenwolf is essentially an autobiographical book. Hesse wrote it during a time of acute personal crisis, when he had entered middle age and was dealing with the failure of his marriage to a younger woman. Struggling against thoughts of suicide, the bookish Hesse sought to overcome his sense of isolation and estrangement from society by going out at night to the taverns and dance halls. For a sense of his mental state, here is a passage from Steppenwolf in which the protagonist Harry Haller talks in a dream to his “immortal” hero, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe:
Like all great spirits, Herr von Goethe, you have clearly recognized and felt the riddle and the hopelessness of human life, with its moments of transcendence that sink again to wretchedness, and the impossibility of rising to one fair peak of feeling except at the cost of many days’ enslavement to the daily round; and, then, the ardent longing for the realm of the spirit in eternal and deadly war with the equally ardent and holy love of the lost innocence of nature, the whole frightful suspense in vacancy and uncertainty, this condemnation to the transient that can never be valid, that is ever experimental and dilettantish; in short, the utter lack of purpose to which the human state is condemned–to its consuming despair.
But Hesse saw Steppenwolf as an optimistic book. It’s about a man’s journey to self-awareness and spiritual liberation. As he wrote in the introduction, “The ‘Treatise’ [see above] and all those spots in the book dealing with matters of the spirit, of the arts and the ‘immortal’ men oppose the Steppenwolf’s world of suffering with a positive, serene, super-personal and timeless world of faith. This book, no doubt, tells of griefs and needs; still it is not a book of a man despairing, but of a man believing.”
The animated sequence above is from the rarely seen 1974 film of Steppenwolf by Fred Haines, in which the Harry Haller character played by Max von Sydow reads from the “Tractate on the Steppenwolf,” a mysterious text that was given to Haller and then left behind by him, describing the Steppenwolf’s divided nature. The scene features imagery by the Czech artist Jaroslav Bradác.