Hermann Hesse the Borderline Steppenwolf
With the help of Carl Jung and the Magic Theatre, Swiss-German Noble Prize winning author, Hermann Hesse may just be the first novelist to describe Borderline Personality Disorder so well.
Harry Haller — the hero of Hermann Hesse’s cult classic novel of artistic alienation Steppenwolf — has very severe case of dissociation. His personality is split between a human being and a wolf:
Passing by the Library I met a young professor of whom in earlier years I used occasionally to see a good deal [….] The learned man held me with his friendly eye and, though I really found it all ridiculous, I could not help enjoying these crumbs of warmth and kindliness, and was lapping them up like a starved dog. Harry, the Steppenwolf, was moved to a grin. [….] 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, shortsighted 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 the eagerness of my response to the first amiable greeting.
Steppenwolf is a fictional study of Borderline Personality Disorder. ‘Harry finds in himself a “human being,” that is to say a world of thoughts and feelings of culture and tamed or sublimated nature, and beside this he finds within himself also a “wolf” that is to say a dark world of instinct of savagery and cruelty’. Trapped between wolfish despair and human hope, ‘the Steppenwolf lived a suicidal existence,’ fraught with emotional and behavioural instability, he longs for death which does not come, and goes from one crisis to the next. Nevertheless he recovers. Much like Hesse himself he finds he can transform his pain and hurt, and turn it into love and happiness. He does so by art and literature. However before any of this can happen, he must face his despair head-on.
Harry Haller, is in fact, one of the most emotionally dysregulated characters in literature. He describes his personality as ‘a labyrinth of chaos’. He ‘knows the bliss of meditation, no less than the gloomy joys of hatred and self-hatred’. He’s also a man who can appreciate the ‘rare hours of joy, what for me is bliss and life and ecstasy and exaltation’ but equally indulge the thought, ‘he is to drink this frightful suffering in his heart to the dregs, and of this suffering he must die’. The bad part of his personality, which feeds on negative emotions he calls the ‘Steppenwolf’. Meanwhile all the positive emotions, such as joy, exultation and happiness he labels ‘Harry’. In doing so he splits himself and the world apart, and ends up having a breakdown.
When Haller is not being devoured by emotions, he ends up feeling bored and depressed. These are ‘soul destroying evil days of inward emptiness and despair’ where he can view the ‘mud hell of an empty heart’ and ‘obstruction of all feelings’ with ease. With the wolf caged and forced to submit, the human being tries to live, even if it means retreating to the ordered world of the ‘bourgeois’ ‘philistine.’ Haller states: ‘I don’t know how it comes about, but I, the homeless Steppenwolf, the solitary, the hater of life’s petty conventions, always take up my quarters in just such houses as this […] These respectable and wearisome and spotless middle-class homes’. In Borderline Personality Disorder, emptiness as a psychological state is actually a pathological object hunger. To fill the void that stems from lack of maternal comfort in childhood, he ’heaped up books’,’cigar ash’ ‘wine bottles’ as a compensation. Meanwhile, his ‘little sham home, where the armchair the stove the ink pot and paint box’ and ‘Novalis and Dostoevsky, awaiting him’ is quite the picture. When the emptiness becomes too much to bear, and the human being becomes worn out, the wolf breaks out the cage, and Haller becomes impulsive.
Haller has a ‘wild longing for strong emotions […] A rage against this toneless, flat, normal and sterile life’. He surfs the urges, simply by recognising them, but that doesn’t mean they are not there. He tells us: ’I have mad desire to smash something, a warehouse, a cathedral or myself, to commit outrages […] To seduce a little girl’. All of this is to ward of the flatness of his soul, meanwhile his heart cries out: ‘The unhappiness, that I need and long for is of the kind that will let me suffer with eagerness and die with lust. That is the unhappiness or happiness I long for’. We find him quite naturally in the Black Eagle, the Steel Helmet, and every other tavern on the strasse, drinking, smoking and seeking out prostitutes. Alcoholic, depressed and trapped inside his own thwarted desires, he can barely contain his rage. When upset he turns to his favourite topic: Self-Destruction
As we’ve already heard Harry Haller ‘lived a suicidal existence.’ Indeed he has even formulated a plan: On his 50th birthday, he will settle his accounts and finally take his own life by means of a razor blade. It’s a decision he’s come too after years of heartache. He tells us: ‘Once I had lost my reputation and livelihood. I had to forfeit the esteem of those who before had touched their caps to me. Next my family life fell in ruins over night, when my wife, whose minds disordered drove me from house and home. Love and confidence had changed of a sudden to hate and enmity, and the neighbours saw me go with pitying scorn. It was then that my solitude had its beginning.’ Now, he tells us, ‘no one could forbid me the satisfaction of a gas stove, or a razor, or a revolver’. That actually ‘this very night I would make an end to the comedy, go home and cut my throat.’ Such thoughts have led to actions in the past, however, ‘the next time I felt that I must have recourse to opium, I might allow myself to use big means instead of small, that is a death of absolute certainty with a bullet.’ Yet on the night he is supposed to kill himself, he discovers the Magic Theatre: It is here he learns the secret of his personality, and begins a new journey of recovery.
Steppenwolf is a novel about getting better and attaining a life worth living. It is Hesse’s most autobiographical novel. Like Haller, Hesse finds his problematic personality rooted in childhood trauma:
‘He was brought up by devoted but severe and very pious parents who make the breaking of the will the cornerstone of education and upbringing…he was much too strong and hardy too proud and spirited… Instead of destroying his personality, they succeeded only in teaching him how to hate himself’.
As gifted and highly sensitive child, growing up in Calw, Hesse always found life difficult. However by the time he reached adolescence, his parents and teachers quest for academic attainment, meant he experienced a complete mental breakdown. After frequent suicide attempts, Hesse ended up locked in a mental hospital for retarded and emotionally disturbed children. From here he wrote many letters to his parents — the one below is typical:
‘There is nothing I wouldn’t be prepared to give up in exchange for death […] I’ve have lost everything; home, parents, love, faith, hope and myself even [….] Farewell, farewell, I wish to be alone…Either let me die here, a rabid dog, or behave like parents!’
Very Borderline in tone, it’s also the desperate plea of a young boy, whose been sent away by the two people who were supposed to love him. His father Johannes Hesse wrote in one letter ‘Humiliating though it would be to us I am nevertheless seriously wondering if we should not put him an institution or farm him out to strangers. We are too nervous and too weak for him.’ That’s exactly what happened and Hesse struggled with this abandonment for a very long time.
Nevertheless getting better comes not from going back to the past, but by having faith in the future. Hesse states: ‘Even as far back as the colourful wilderness of childhood, there is demonstrated the existence of an intelligence, a unity, a secret centre we have circled around — now consciously, now unconsciously — all our lives…around which even an imperilled and troubled life can always form anew.’ This is Hesse’s story but also the story of Steppenwolf. We too can find that centre, whatever it happens to be.
After Harry Haller has been swept up in a magic world of music, sex and adventure, he learns happiness is possible if he is ready to let go of this personality, and visualise a better one. Pablo, the jazz swinging saxophonist and secret magician tells him.
You were striving were you not, for escape? You have a longing to forsake this world and its reality and to penetrate to a reality more native to you, to a world beyond time […] You know of course, where the other world lies hidden. It is the world of your own soul you seek. Only within yourself exists the reality for which you long […] I can throw open no picture gallery but your own soul.
Recovery begins in ‘The Magic Theatre: For Mad Men Only’. In this timeless realm of the spirit, he finds his heroes, Mozart, Goethe, Novalis who admonish him by saying: ‘Seriousness, young man is an accident of time […] In eternity there is no time you see. Eternity, is a mere moment just long enough for a joke’. It’s no mystery, a healthy dose of laughter does wonders for the personality. But this is ‘laughter without an object’ and so even more wonderful, because it suggests a place ‘outside the air of this world’ which is ‘the Kingdom of Truth where we belong. our home.’ Knowing that the future need not be so frightening he is able to adequetly appraise his past.
In the tender beauty of the night many pictures of my life rose before me who for so long had lived in a poor pictures vacancy […] For moments together my heart stood still between delight and sorrow to find how rich was the gallery of my life, and how thronged the soul of the wretched Steppenwolf, with high eternal stars and constellations […] These pictures there we’re hundreds of them, with names and without it all came back. They rose fresh and new out of this night of love and I knew again what in my wretchedness I’d forgotten. That they were my life’s possessions and all its worth. Indestructible and abiding as the stars these experiences though forgotten could never be erased. Their series was the story of my life, their starry light the undying value of my being […] The kernel of this life of mine was noble. It had purpose and character and turned not on trifles but on stars.
In this epiphany Haller unlocks the unshakeable inner self-worth he never knew he had. Yet, it’s not over yet, he also has to deal with the wolf which is still inside of him. By taking a long look in the mirror, he undergoes precursor to Schema Therapy, and learns he is not split between man and beast, but many colourful fragments.
I faced the gigantic mirror ….I saw myself for a brief instant I had scarcely had time to recognise myself before the reflection fell to pieces. A second, a third, a tenth, a twentieth self sprang from it till the whole gigantic mirror was full of nothing but Harrys or bits of him, each of which I saw only for the instant of recognition. Some of these multitudinous Harrys were as old as I, some older, some very old. Others were young. There were youths, boys, schoolboys, scamps, children. Fifty-year-olds and twenty-year-olds played leap frog. Thirty-year-olds and five-year-olds, solemn and merry, worthy and comic, well-dressed and unpresentable, and even quite naked, long haired, and hairless, all were I and all were seen for a flash, recognised and gone. They sprang from each other in all directions, left and right and into the recesses of the mirror and clean out of it.
It’s not enough for Harry to only see the various ‘alters’ that dwell inside him. He must find a way to incorporate them. Sitting down to a Magic Theatre game of Chess, he is told by the Grandmaster Pablo:
Of the pieces into which you saw your-so-called personality broken up […] We demonstrate to anyone whose soul has fallen to pieces, that he can rearrange these pieces of a previous self in what order he pleases and so attain to an endless multiplicity of moves in the game of life.
He learns the key to recovery is the ever constant renewal of the heart: To ‘go on transforming forever.’ The ability to reinvent ourselves, and create new stories in which to live is the way in which recovery from BPD is possible. It’s been a pleasure to have also been one of the Mad Men who ventured inside the Magic Theatre. Their I met my favourite author Hermann Hesse, and said:
Now I understood […] I knew that all the hundred thousand pieces of life’s game were in my pocket. A glimpse of is meaning had stirred my reason, and I was determined to begin the game afresh […] One day I would be a better hand at the game. One day I would learn to laugh.