Updated: Jan 5
“The man of power is ruined by power, the man of money by money, the submissive man by subservience, the pleasure seeker by pleasure.” Hermann Hesse from Steppenwolf
In novelist Hermann Hesse’s Steppenwolf, Harry is hopelessly paralyzed by a crisis of identity. He is pathetically miserable, possessing the instincts of a wolf and of being a rational man. The friction between the instinctual and the rational is terrifying. These two identities are in deep conflict with each other leaving Harry always at the precipice of sanity and suicide. In constant search for emotional equilibrium, his center if you will, results in incessant and jarring pain and suffering.
Peace had alluded Harry. He refuses all contemporary maps to happiness- the contentment found in long-term relationships with families and friends. Or from achievement and notoriety. His road does not see a world made comprehensible by the creative rationalizing of purpose and meaning. There is no sea of joy that can mitigate the part of the human experience that includes pain and suffering. But when you’re as conflicted and uncompromising as Harry, you don’t just accept the compromised conclusion of the masses or the preachings of a preacher or the dribblings of a writer. You see, Harry is an alien to convention- an uber-rebel.
Ironically, Harry chooses to live amongst those in the middle. The contented center who keep a tidy yard and hold jobs that require punctuality and discipline. He’s fascinated at their ability to accept their menial drab existence. How they easily accepted the various orthodoxies of the day. Yet, he sees their world as trite and shallow- in full pursuit of empty adoration and in constant need of affirmation. While admiring them, he could not join them. He loathed them- one of Harry’s many contradictions.
When loathsome, Harry would stalk the night like a wolf. Gnarly and frothy, he’d drink himself lonely. As he ebbed back to rational man, he’d return to the safe white picket fences of the middle. Sensing his own weakness, he’d fall into a deep depression and not get up for days. He was most loathsome of himself.
He particularly loathed those who sought only warmth and comfort. Those who sought virtue 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 reader perhaps relates to Harry. We too have encounters with our demons. We’re visited by dark shadows that have us snarling and circling in the dew of the morning. Our instinctual anxiety dries up in the sun of day when rationality once again creates a facade of being safe and centered. Some come to fear the night, the howling and laughter of the wolves.
Mr. Hesse’s Harry is a very uncompromising figure. He refuses the mental gymnastics required of the rational middle. He refutes those who preach that mediocrity, the seeking of safety and security and conformity, and the drive for adoration and respect are any sort of worthy virtues. He flirts with nihilism but pulls back to consider deeply the transcendent. Perhaps this conflict describes our considerable cultural divide today. Is Harry a character worth considering? Is there a smidgen of wisdom in Harry?
If you have read Steppenwolf, you likely read it when too young. It is best absorbed by those who have confronted mortality beyond what it means as a fleeting abstraction. It is age, hard knocks, and battles with our demons that allow for meaningful contemplation. From this reference, we’ve come to understand why our instincts hold our rational self in such contempt and vis-versa.
Slowly but surely, we come to understand Harry. Not because we want to be him, for he is, after all, a basket case made fragile by his severe critical introspection. But because he’s incorruptible. Fearless. Courageous. All things we aspire to or should. We relate to his self-loathing because we, too, have passed a mirror and become startled. Our actions have far too often not intersected with our proclamations. We know something of what it means to sabotage our own dreams and aspirations- to have become hopelessly disappointed in ourselves and others. Our flesh is weak and the temptations great- our instincts in conflict with our rational self.
As we exit 2022, we may wish to consider carefully those who wish influence. To listen with a jaundiced ear to those who claim they are the center, the normal. the moderate or the compromiser. We are told we must compromise a little here and a little there. We are to avoid confrontation with those seeking to destroy what we know to be truth. They will say your politics, your theology, and your philosophy is extreme, placing you far from the center. The new moderate is to accept the changing of language to fit political ends, that gender identity is a mere construct requiring acceptance of the fluid use of endless pronouns, and that our existence can only be viewed through the prism of skin color.
Perhaps Hesse, himself a Christian, sees Harry as a clarion call to those of faith. To believe is to be on a collision course with modernity. To resist those who hold truth in such contempt that wrong is right and right wrong.
And so the center moves, nearly imperceptible, in its slide down the slope- destination unknown.
For people of faith whose destination is known, may this Christmas have us both standing firm and falling to our knees. To stand up boldly against the forces of the dark, the howling demons of our mornings, and those who wish us to join them toward joyless paganism.
May this Christmas find us on our knees in humble gratitude. That we accept our contradictions, self-loathing, and emotional turmoil that results in emotional pain and suffering. And gracefully accept that the only resolution to our rational human predicament is in the transcendental- from the joy and peace found in the promise of the birth of Jesus Christ.
Centered? Not by today’s standards. Moderate? Not a chance. Safe? Afraid not. Radical? Perhaps.