Jonathan Delavan shares his inner struggles and the resulting insights over confronting his darker nature face-to-face.
In one of my earlier articles, I promised that I would return to discussing in more depth how certain significant others have touched me and changed my life by reflecting their own lives. Well, I guess it’s about time I did just that. So for this post, I have decided to share the influence Hermann Hesse has had on my life through his distinguished novel Steppenwolf.
I first read Steppenwolf a little over a year ago as a continuation of my mentor’s recommendation to read one of his other novels, Siddhartha. I enjoyed and gained much insight from reading Hesse’s Siddhartha, so I had high hopes for this next novel of his when I first opened its cover. However, this autobiographical fiction far exceeded my best expectations within just the first few pages! Truly, for this is what the narrator had to say about the main character within the book’s preface (which is actually a part of the story itself to a certain extent):
…I suspected that the man [the main character Harry Haller] was ailing, ailing in the spirit in some way, or in his temperament or character, and I shrank from him with the instinct of the healthy. This shrinking was in course of time replaced by a sympathy inspired by pity for one who had suffered so long and deeply, and whose loneliness and inward death I witnessed. In course of time I was more and more conscious, too, that this affliction was not due to any defects of nature, but rather to a profusion of gifts and powers which had not attained to harmony. I saw that Haller was a genius of suffering and that in the meaning of many sayings of Nietzsche he had created within himself with positive genius a boundless and frightful capacity for pain. I saw at the same time that the root of his pessimism was not world-contempt but self-contempt; for however mercilessly he might annihilate institutions and persons in his talk he never spared himself. It was always at himself first and foremost that he aimed the shaft, himself first and foremost whom he hated and despised.
…I have all the same good reason to suppose that he was brought up by devoted but severe and very pious parents and teachers in accordance with that doctrine that makes the breaking of the will the corner-stone of education and upbringing. But in this case the attempt to destroy the personality and to break the will did not succeed. He was much too strong and hardy, too proud and spirited. Instead of destroying his personality they succeeded only in teaching him to hate himself… [Nevertheless,] he was, in spite of all, a real Christian and a real martyr. As for others and the world around him he never ceased in his heroic and earnest endeavor to love them, to be just to them, to do them no harm, for the love of his neighbor was as deeply in him as the hatred of himself, and so his whole life was an example that love of one’s neighbor is not possible without love of oneself, and that self-hate is really the same thing as sheer egoism, and in the long run breeds the same cruel isolation and despair.
After reading this passage alone, I was deeply and intensely hooked! Why? Because that passage described my own personal struggles to a “T”!
Shortly before and during the time I read this book, I was undergoing intensive therapy to address traumatic experiences I lived with growing up in an Evangelical home within religiously conservative communities. And so to read about a man who lived nearly a full century ago suffering, struggling, and living with the same psychological, emotional, and spiritual agony that I was going through (and still am to some extent) was a transformative experience in and of itself—even to the point of being incredibly eerie! Regardless of this initial unnerving experience of Steppenwolf, I continued reading through the fictional story with much fervor and determination.
To give you, dear reader, some perspective of how this particular story impacted me, I will briefly review some of the highlights of Steppenwolf that were most meaningful for me to read.
Shortly after the start of the story from Harry Haller’s perspective, he comes across a rather curious little book titled “Treatise on the Steppenwolf: Not for Everybody”. Afterwards, Harry sits down to read this treatise in its entirety; and so, in essence, the next several pages of Hesse’s novel becomes a small book within the larger book. This treatise discusses at length about a man who is also named Harry—which is not a coincidence—and goes on to reveal characteristics of this Harry that are intimately identifiable with the Harry who is reading it (exactly as was my experience at the beginning of the novel, minus the identical names of course!).
The unknown author of this mysterious treatise quickly reveals to the reader that Harry’s fundamental problem is the reality that Harry is not just a man but also a wolf—more descriptively a Steppenwolf—and thus a mixed being. While the unknown author admits that this kind of mixed being is not all that special, he does acknowledge that in Harry’s case the “man” and the “wolf” within him ceaselessly fight each other with lethal hostility. So much so, that one nature tirelessly ambushes the other whenever and wherever that other nature acts out in either thought or action. Harry’s mixed nature is thus so because of its black and white division: with the “man” embodying everything good, intellectual, and cultured in him while the “wolf” personifies everything evil, primal, and beastly in him.
This duality of natures within Harry has led to a miserable life not just with himself, but also with those around him. For those who admired the “man” in him would become horrified and disappointed upon discovering the “wolf” within him as well; likewise, those who happened to like the “wolf” in him would become angry and deplored the “man” he wished to express as well. Consequently, Harry could never be his whole self with anyone, not even with himself. And so this pain, being both utterly unbearable yet somehow manageable, led him to believe that his ego, his inherent nature, was “an extremely dangerous, dubious, and doomed germ of nature”, i.e., a monster, a bête noire, a Steppenwolf.
Thus was his lot in life as he believed it to be, that is, till he encountered this mysterious treatise. The rest of the treatise in elegant fashion would continue to flush out Harry’s peculiar problem and provide him a solution to his life-long suffering by offering him a different, more truthful, perspective of himself. The treatise rebukes Harry for reducing his being to only two opposing natures without recognizing the absurdity and childish simplicity such a perspective certainly is. In truth, according to the author of the treatise, every living being has within his/her/its self a vast multitude of natures, various parts of which can be in harmony or in discord with one another. If only Harry would realize and live his life according to this perspective of himself would his life-long torment and depression finally cease—at least, as is humanly possible.
The rest of the novel details how Harry Haller tries to understand and live out this treatise in his own particular and bumbling manner with the help of some rather eccentric individuals.
How does all of this relate to me and my past experiences. Well, just as the passage earlier described me to a “T”, so too does the “Treatise of the Steppenwolf” describes a major part of my internal struggle almost perfectly.
Growing up in an Evangelical environment, I was quickly taught about my completely depraved “sin nature” and how that was my “true nature” which would inevitably destroy me along with eternally damning my very soul if it were not for Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit to save me—and only if I genuinely accepted them into my heart. I have been given this message for as long as I can remember; it became a part of my identity in as much as the color of my skin did. When I hit puberty, this doctrine of the sinful nature took on a whole new and more shameful meaning for me.
Upon the emergence of my sexuality by the age of thirteen, my parents reacted in a very violent, abusive, and condemning manner, telling me all the while how sinful and destructive my sexuality would be for myself and others. I know my parents had good intentions in trying to warn me about what could deeply hurt me, but the underlying message they inevitably gave me about myself was loud and clear: Your male heterosexuality is “an extremely dangerous, dubious, and doomed germ of nature”—more pointedly: the ultimate expression of your depravity, your sin nature manifested, the tool of your own destruction and those around you, the means of your ever-potential damnation, the source of your oblivion.
Moreover, it seemed that my only saving grace around this shameful matter at the time was the blatant relief that I did not have homosexual urges. My teachers and peers at the various Christian schools I attended since sixth grade were of no help either and only compounded this shaming message that my parents first gave me about my sexuality—even all the way up into my college years at a Christian university.
And so, I, just like Harry Haller, became a miserable mixed being with two conflicting natures: the “man” who embodied the ideal Christian I was pressured and expected to be, and the “bête noire” who personified what I came to see as my inherent yet damned nature and shameful sexuality. Such was my traumatizing fate growing up, that is, until I started therapy a few years ago and later when I came across this timeless novel.
Discovering myself and my struggle by reading the fictional autobiography that is Steppenwolf was truly a pivotal moment for me and my life as a whole. Hermann Hesse’s story helped me realize the simplistic yet damaging beliefs I adopted about myself from my religious upbringing, as well as the potential means by which I could endeavor out of that quagmire and create a new, healthier, more authentic life for myself. Ever since, I have had to confront this dark Steppenwolf of mine on many occasions in order to heal the traumatic events that created him in the first place. Doing so has meant dealing with my dark shaming “nature” head on in every way imaginable—cognitively, emotionally, spiritually, and even physically.
Even to this day, I strive for the moment when I can fully accept myself as I am, sexuality and all, without instantly feeling the deep shame and panic that has completely overwhelmed me at times. It has truly been a journey involving many agonizing baby-steps, but progressive steps nonetheless!
I sincerely believe that I have been able to progress as far as I have in my personal journey thus far because of this novel’s influence on my life. In all honesty, I’m not sure if I would have been able to do all of what I have accomplished in this odyssey without encountering Steppenwolf at that particular moment when I first read its pages. There is a principle that comes to mind as I write this post spoken by Thich Naht Hahn:
When conditions are sufficient, we see forms, and when conditions are not sufficient, we don’t. When all conditions are present, phenomena can be perceived by us… But when one of these conditions is lacking, we cannot perceive the same phenomena.
In other words, for me, the story of Steppenwolf was a necessary contributor to the “conditions” that fostered the internal revelations and transformations that have led me to better understand and realize my complex, multi-layered, unique, and beautiful true self.
I know I have shared a lot with you today, dear reader, and some of which is vulnerable for anyone to share with another (let alone over the internet!). Nevertheless, I am happy to share all of this with you as well as to own this transformative experience as my own, as part of my story.
I sincerely hope that I have been able to help you in one way or another by sharing these experiences with you. If you enjoyed reading about the novel of Steppenwolf as I have shared it, then I highly implore you to pick up your own copy and read it for yourself. Who knows, perhaps this novel may change your life or perspectives in ways you may not yet realize, as it did for me!