Lessons From Herman Hesse’s Steppenwolf

I don’t read much fiction, but I do enjoy one writer in particular, and that is the German Herman Hesse. I don’t read German, but his works are widely available in English. A friend recommended I read Siddhartha, and it changed my view of everything. I felt a lot like Siddhartha, and the journey of the character is very similar to my own.

I decided it was time to read some fiction again, so I went back to Hesse, but this time it was Steppenwolf. Steppenwolf literally means “wolf of the Steppes” and refers to a type of wolf. It is basically a title of the main character, Harry Haller, who feels like a wolf in a world of humans, lost and adrift. His upper-middle class background doesn’t allow him to recognize the wolf part of him.

He meets a woman named Hermine at a jazz club, and connects with her friends Maria and Pablo. At the end, he enters into Pablo’s Magic Theater, which consists of rooms with mirrors and doors. He enters into various doors and explores aspects of his personality.

I won’t share the entire story (I suggest reading it), but basically, Hesse provides a few important lessons in the book, many which are derived from the Eastern religion and philosophy he was interested in.

One part I particularly liked was when Haller had a chance to redo all of his past romantic failures. He even had a chance to respond properly to a girl he liked in middle school. In real life, he didn’t wow her, when in the magic theater, he spoke to her, and eventually got a kiss. Many guys would kill for a chance to undo past mistakes. This book reminds us the importance of freeing the mind of self or society imposed restrictions that limit you in the moment, but which you will regret later.

Another important aspect of this book is the value of laughter. For Hesse, laughter is how one connects to the timeless, i.e. the eternal. The laughter of enlightened people pierces through the trauma of our existence. Harry’s character doesn’t deal with the horrors of reality by becoming obsessed with them, but rather by laughing at them. This makes perfect sense to me. If there is a timeless aspect of life (whether in the Christian sense of heaven, or the Eastern sense that things are illusory), then nearly all the traumas of this short life are pretty much laughable. Attachment is never a helpful solution, but detachment is, which is what laughter provides.

At the end, Harry kills Hermine, because she asked him to. Hermine is likely not real, but a part of Harry’s personality. Even though she helped free him in many ways, he still had to kill that part of him. It is similar to the Buddhist concept of “killing the Buddha,” which basically states that attachment to good things is nonetheless attachment. The master Lin-chi I-hsuan (d. 866) stated:

If you meet the Buddha, kill the Buddha; if you meet the patriarchs, kill the patriarchs; if you meet one who has attained Nirvana, kill the one who has attained Nirvana; if you meet your parents, kill your parents…in this way, you attain liberation.

This proverb is not suggesting killing anybody in a literal sense, but rather destroying any attachment we have. Even though the Buddha, those who have attained Nirvana, and our parents (hopefully) are good things,  nonetheless, we can be unnecessarily restricted by these too. This reminds us that even the things that make us better (such as the techniques here) can become areas of attachment as well.

About David Bennett

David Bennett is author of seven self-help books, and an in-demand speaker and consultant. Over a million readers per year read his online content, and his writings have been referenced in many publications and news outlets, including Girls Life, Fox News, the New York Times, Huffington Post, and BBC. He also writes for The Popular Teen, and other sites. Follow him on Twitter.

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