Monday, November 23, 2015

Creating An Unforgettable Character like Steppenwolf by Hermann Hesse

One of the most complicated and intriguing characters in any book I've ever read has to be Harry Haller, in Hermann Hesse's Steppenwolf. Like other depressed characters I've recently read oozing malaise through the pages of their stories, such as Richard Ford's Frank Bascombe and Percy Walker's protagonist in The Moviegoer, so to is Haller having intense sickness of heart and undergoing what might be carefully termed as a 'spiritual crisis'.

The difference between some of the other notoriously miserable characters in literature is that there is far less plot and contrivance of narrative action in Steppenwolf than the others. It's a lot closer to Notes From the Underground in that respect, than what is mentioned above.

This book is still memorable for spiritual seekers and disillusioned Westerners the world over because of the way it flips a character inside out through a varied combination of Eastern speculation and Western mechanics. But how does one create a character who has transformed its readers and has been the catalyst for many a seeker in life?

First, the author must map out the internal dialogue within the character with enough detail that it takes on an energy of its own. Hesse does this with such clarity, and lets it dominate the novel, that many readers will be put off by the lack of plot and material tension. The tension is within the language, within the man's thoughts, and believing that he really will test his mettle with his shaving razor.

If one's despair over life starts to spin its linguistic tires, the mud will fly and there will be no ground covered. The internal system must build on itself, come back around again, connect, and show its capacity to build more. It must move. Otherwise, it's just mere complaining thinly veiled from the mind of a grouchy, petty writer.
For what I always hated and detested and cursed above all things was this contentment, this healthiness and comfort, this carefully preserved optimism of the middle classes, this fat and prosperous brood of mediocrity (27).
Fair enough. I feel the same way. But the risk with a book like Steppenwolf is that this complaint wears thin, becomes hypocritical, and poisons an otherwise good treatise on soul sickness. But Hesse carries it through, and we're given a more concrete example pages later to link to the abstract detestation:
Ah, but it is hard to find this track of the divine in the midst of this life we lead, in this besotted humdrum age of spiritual blindness, with its architecture, it business, its politics, its men! How could I fail to be a lone wolf, and an uncouth hermit, as I did not share one of its aims nor understand one of its pleasures? I cannot remain long in either theater or picture-house. I can scarcely read a paper, seldom a modern book. I cannot understand what pleasures and joys they are that drive people to the overcrowded railways and hotels, into the packed cafes with the suffocating and oppressive music, to the Bars and variety entertainments, to World Exhibitions, to the Corsos. I cannot understand nor share these joys, though they are within my reach, for which thousands of others strive (30).
We then see what at first seems like a dual nature battling within Haller, which Hesse defines for us in abstraction, then transmutes into a moment of human longing and abstention:
How foolish to wear oneself out in vain longing for warmth! Solitude is independence. It had been my wish and with the years I had attained it. It was cold. Oh, cold enough! But it was also still, wonderfully still and vast like the cold stillness of space in which the stars revolve. 
From a dance hall there met me as I passed by the strains of lively jazz music, hot and raw as the steam of raw flesh. I stopped for a moment. This kind of music, much as I detested it, had always had a secret charm for me. It was repugnant to me, and yet ten times preferable to all the academic music of the day. For me too, its raw and savage gaiety reached an underworld of instinct and breathed a simple honest sensuality.  
I stood for a moment on the scent, smelling this shrill and blood-raw music, sniffing the atmosphere of the hall angrily, and hankering after it a little too. One half of this music, the melody, was all pomade and sugar and sentimentality. The other half was savage, temperamental and vigorous. Yet the two went artlessly well together and made a whole. It was the music of decline (37).
How authentic and human it feels to have the push and pull of sensuality and good sense. Words like
Hesse, 1926, public domain
'raw' and 'hot', 'steam' and 'flesh' underlines the sexuality in the music, sniffing it angrily, and fighting the craving for the experience to lower oneself into the fast rushing stream of animal passion, yet noticing the repugnant way others do it without a thought otherwise. It's the soul and the body and the multiplicity of self in each.

To bring it all home, dark and serious, reality and abstraction, we hit the rock bottom result of what so many like Harry Haller contemplate, and even this is studied, and he has a theory on it. It is an 'in a nutshell' moment that shows the works, exposes all the gears of the character:
The "suicide," and Harry was one, need not necessarily live in a peculiarly close relationship to death. One may do this without being a suicide. What is peculiar to the suicide is that his ego, rightly or wrongly, is felt to be an extremely dangerous, dubious, and doomed germ of nature; that his is always in his own eyes exposed to an extraordinary risk, as though he stood with the slightest foothold on the peak of a crag whence a slight push from without or an instant's weakness from within suffices to precipitate him into the void (47).
Overall, the author must understand the terms of his own character's philosophy, and then prove its depth by mocking the contradictions and then paving an ever deeper system of justifications over those contradictions to plummet deeper and crumble more barriers set up within the psyche.

How painful it is when the author doesn't quite understand the limits and terms of his character's levels and abilities and the thoughts turn vindictive and dribble out like nothing more than a childish whining. The internal mind is its own universe in a novel, and its tendencies must follow its own rules and laws.

Most novels do not need the kind of overt plumbing of the mind to succeed in rewarding the reader for taking time with its words, but Steppenwolf is a study of character first.

Second, we must get a sense of the character's background. Characters are, after all, only organized bits of information on the page. They aren't real humans, but at their best, can realistically transmit and spark new ideas to real humans reading about them. The human condition and all its extended wrath can then be understood an a unique way.

In many books, reading about the character's childhood and surge into adulthood for twenty or more pages is excruciating. It is often at those points I want to find a better book to read. Hesse is more deft in this. He doesn't beat us over our skulls with cluttered files of personal history like, say, Richard Ford.

We only need to see the outline of the gears in the back of the clock to have faith that it's not magic that makes the hands go round the face. We don't even have to fully understand how the gears work or be able to reproduce them to take the clock's word, at face value, that what it's telling us is true.

We find out somewhere in the middle of the short novel (which is his strange and haunting manuscript he leaves in an attic room he rented) that Steppenwolf's wife one day, rather suddenly, dismissed him from her life and kicked him out.

Haller had been so trusting in who he perceived her character to be, and in thinking that she too indeed loved him, that her sudden casting off of him from her life left a wound so deep and vicious on his person that he could never, it seems, be sure of anything again. That's hardly what the book is about, but rather an excuse traumatic enough to launch a man into a wandering abyss, from which we'll learn lessons never before imagined by the reader.

credit: CherryX
This is apparent in Haller's life. He's polite and cordial, but mostly he stays away from people. The third propeller for testing the tortuous inner complexity of a character is his dealing with other characters.

When the Steppenwolf meets an old friend in the street, he lies about how long he's been in town by telling him he's only passing through for a few days (the truth: he's been there for months and has rented rooms). The old friend remembers the wonderful talks they'd had about Krishna, yet Haller has moved on and isn't interested in chatting about subjects that decades ago fascinated him.

Inwardly, he is transformed constantly, and never is able to place faith in any one idea for long. He is not content settling on a subject, or attaining a long term happiness. He's guarded, looking for the truth, and despises falsity in himself.
And when he went on to invite me very heartily to spend the evening with him, I accepted with thanks and sent my greetings to his wife, until my cheeks fairly ached with the unaccustomed efforts of all these forced smiles and speeches. And while I, Harry Haller, stood there in the street, flattered and surprised and studiously polite and smiling into the good fellow's kindly, short-sighted face, there stood the other Harry, too, at my elbow and grinned likewise. He stood there and grinned as he thought what a funny, crazy, dishonest fellow I was to show my teeth in rage and curse the whole world one moment and, the next, to be falling all over myself in eagerness of my response to the first amiable greeting of the first good honest fellow who came my way, to be wallowing like a suckling-pig in the luxury of a little pleasant feeling and friendly esteem (75).
Haller cannot let himself go in public. Yet, when he finds himself gushing over an insipid conversation with an old friend, the lone wolf inside of him, the one that he says rips sentimentality to pieces, tears into his pretense at being just another happy joe on the street, willing to chat and laugh over the superficial nothingness that others consume themselves with. This treachery within is something with which many can identify, even if not as intense as in Haller.

The dinner with his friend goes awry when Haller criticizes the noxious way his favorite, esteemed poet Goethe is depicted in a painting. The Steppenwolf ends up storming out of the house and decides certainly he'll kill himself with a razor that night. But he lingers in the dimly lit pubs and underground bars, having one drink after another, not willing to admit that he's truly afraid of death. Until he meets a woman named Hermine. A flirt who seems to be a mirror of himself in the way she diagnoses his troubles and speaks harshly to his sensitivities by calling him a baby.

This interaction marks a dramatic shift in the book. Fresh air rushes into the stuffy apparatus that Hesse had created. The mad musings and mental wanderings had built and became so structured they felt as familiar as the two small rooms the Steppenwolf paced back and forth in.

Until the girl. The new understanding of Hesse's complex character is shattered. For a moment, the depth of his spiritual grief and dismay for the way society functions, yet his admittance that he likes the stability of a middle class life, is all swept aside with the harsh, not-untrue reaction of a pretty bar girl with a strong chin: You're a baby.

The sympathetic reader suddenly wonders: Really? Maybe I've been duped to go along with this pitying the self. Is Harry Haller the weakest imbecile self-tortured in Western literature? But that quickly recedes as Haller's feelings are often verified and given new analysis by his female friend.

Through Hermine's speech we can verify or dismiss certain truths related to us by the Steppenwolf, such as when she insists Harry take a bite of tender duck meat from her fork:
Oh, you're a sheep! Are you ready? I'm going to give you a piece off the bone. So open your mouth. Oh what a fright you are! There he goes, squinting round the room in case any one sees him taking a bite from my fork. Don't be afraid, you prodigal son, I won't make a scandal. But it's a poor fellow who can't take his pleasure without asking other people's permission (111).
How adept Hesse is at defining and redefining everything the Steppenwolf has said about himself. He truly is uncomfortable in public, showing himself in intimate fashion, and letting himself go like the other thousands who strive for those pleasures every day. Internally, for him, it's a small scandal, and Hermine calls it out perfectly.

Harry's female companionship opens him up to new levels of warmth, and regrettably he dips a few toes into the swirling waters of careless fun--dancing and music. The internal battle rages all the while. He meets one of the musicians, Pablo, who is friend of his lady's. With Pablo, who becomes a type of foil, the reader sees the opposite of the Steppenwolf, which again sharpens the image of our protagonist, highlights more of his borders and outlines, and the many creases and wrinkles of his composite persona.
Often during the course of the music he would suddenly clap his hands, or permit himself other expressions of enthusiasm, such as, singing out "O O O, Ha Ha, Hallo." Apart from this, however, he confined himself to being beautiful, to pleasing women, to wearing collars and ties of the latest fashion and a great number of rings on his fingers.... His dark and beautiful Creole eyes and his black locks hid no romance, no problems, no thoughts. Closely looked at, this beautiful demigod of love was no more than a complacent and rather spoiled young man with pleasant manners (124).
In some ways, meeting Pablo confirmed exactly the way Hermine described the animals--which impressed Haller very much:
"Well, look at an animal, a cat, a dog, or a bird, or one of those beautiful great beasts in the zoo, a puma or a giraffe. You can't help seeing that all of them are right. They're never in any embarrassment. They always know what to do and how to behave themselves. They don't flatter and they don't intrude. They don't pretend. They are as they are, like stones or flowers or stars in the sky..." (114).
It is from these hints in the book, that sometimes contrast, sometimes expose, and sometimes guide us through the difficult mind of Harry Haller. Because of the depth and connection of thoughts, coupled with the introduction of people who seem to fill, and then defy the very lifestyles and easy mentalities of the people and society that the growling Steppenwolf circles and despises, yet sometimes admires and crouches close, the reader has an opportunity to view himself in the looking glass and watch his own pretenses, hypocrisies, triumphs, and inner quarrels break into pieces that can only vaguely be fit back together again.

Hermann Hesse. Steppenwolf. Trans Basil Creighton. Picador. 218 pages.

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