After the Black Eagle through the Tea Dance
“Oh! how stiff you are! Just go straight ahead as if you were walking . . . Dancing, don’t you see, is every bit as easy as thinking. . . .”
Harry runs into his landlady upon returning to his house the next morning. He feels unusually talkative, and they have a pleasant cup of tea together. Harry comments on ancient Indian philosophy, which he says understands the “unreality of time” that has now only been manifest by the device of the radio. Harry points out his disappointment that modern man uses the radio merely as one of his many distractions. He almost launches into a rant, but he holds back his bitterness and makes a joke instead.
Harry waits impatiently for Tuesday, when he is to have dinner with the girl from the Black Eagle. He views his interactions with the girl as the only way he can change his life and avoid suicide. Tuesday finally comes, and during dinner, the girl’s intelligent manner switches between charming jovialness and utter seriousness. Her behavior fascinates Harry. When Harry asks her name, she points out that her face resembles a boy’s and asks him to guess. Because the girl reminds Harry of a childhood friend called Herman, he guesses, correctly, that her name is Hermine.
Hermine tells Harry that she is a kind of mirror for him, one that responds to his gaze with understanding. He does indeed see how looking at his “opposite” is like looking into a “magic mirror.” Hermine explains that Harry needs her—that he is “dying just for the lack of a push to throw [him] into the water and bring [him] to life again”—and that she is going to teach him how to dance, laugh, and live. She also tells Harry she will fulfill his needs, but in return she will make him fall in love with her and then make him obey a final command: to kill her. Harry accepts without protest. By the end of their talk, he feels that Hermine has seen through him entirely, and he tells her his secret about the Treatise.
Harry and Hermine agree to start dance lessons, and she tells him to buy a gramophone and records. Even though Harry hesitates to immerse himself in the jazz music of the times, which he dislikes, he has agreed to obey all of Hermine’s commands. During their meetings, they discuss the Treatise and their daily thoughts. Each time they meet, Hermine displays surprising wisdom, but she always cuts short their conversations with some comment that highlights the uselessness of excessive thought. Once, for example, after a long talk about the inevitability of war, Hermine points out the value of living and seizing life, even if only for a short time. Later, she suggests that Harry’s lack of engagement with life is just as problematic as others’ lack of engagement with serious thought. Hermine, on the other hand, is able to enjoy even the smallest tasks of daily existence, such as choosing a gramophone or pulling meat off a duck bone.
After two foxtrot lessons, Hermine takes Harry to a restaurant, which he sees as a world of unintelligent, unthinking pleasure-seekers. There, after a few dances together, Hermine encourages Harry to overcome his shyness and ask a pretty blonde to dance with him. He does so despite his belief that he is a stiff old man and his fear that he will be laughed at. The girl, who he later learns is called Maria, accepts. Maria’s own effortless grace makes Harry feel like this is the first time he has really danced.
At the dance, Harry also meets Pablo, a striking but taciturn young bandleader who Hermine claims “could play on all instruments and talk every language in the world.” Hermine is very much attached to Pablo. However, Harry is not much impressed as he watches Pablo play his two saxophones and attempts to communicate with the less-than-talkative young man. In the end, Harry dances again with Hermine, and he feels that she is his “double,” resembling not only himself but also Herman, his boyhood friend, “the enthusiast, the poet.” As they dance, Hermine explains that she suffers exactly the way Harry does in the disappointing, crude world.
Steppenwolf recounts Harry’s spiritual education and development, and in this section we begin to see Harry’s gradual process of change. His encounter with his landlady demonstrates how much he has learned from his night at the Black Eagle. Not only has Harry has become open to human intercourse, but he has also begun to appreciate humor. Instead of going off on a rant about the poverty of modern culture, he manages to make a joke instead. In doing so, Harry is acting on the lessons that his various mentors in the novel—Hermine and, in his dream, Goethe—have tried to teach him about the efficacy of laughter. Harry has also begun to reflect on the unreality of time. In Harry’s dream, Goethe says that seriousness is a result of placing too high a value on time. Later, Hermine points to the possibility of a kind of time outside the constraints of the temporal, lived-in world. Harry’s character develops as he begins to assimilate the new arguments and ideas to which he is exposed.
Hermine is both Harry’s opposite and his double. Her name is a feminized version of Hermann Hesse’s and also sounds similar to Harry’s. Hermine’s remarks that she looks like a boy and that she is Harry’s mirror suggest that her character reflects Harry’s own. At the same time, Hermine’s interest in the sensual aspects of the world is quite different from Harry’s own obsession with morose, contemplative thought. Whereas he is a lonely intellectual and a reactionary against modern popular culture, she embraces everything about life, even its most mundane events. Hermine is well versed in the arts of living and the pleasures of the senses; over time, she teaches Harry the dance of life. Like a mirror image, Hermine seems intangible and almost nonexistent. The fact that she knows so much about Harry, devotes herself so completely to his improvement, and discusses so little of her personal history suggests that she might be an apparition conjured up by Harry’s mind to deal with his mental stress.
The fact that Hermine teaches Harry to dance is significant, as Hesse’s writings frequently treat music as the most elevated, most divine engagement of humanity. The description of Harry’s experience at the symphony in the preface demonstrates how music can serve as a means of transportation into transcendence. Likewise, the image of Pablo playing effortlessly on his two saxophones echoes Harry’s earlier mention of the ability to flow untroubled between his wolf-half and man-half. Hermine thus decides to teach Harry how to make his own actions fit in time and tune with music. Dancing requires human interaction, furthering the suggestion that Hermine is Harry’s partner or double. Hesse is deeply concerned with the problem of a divided or splintered self, so the image of two people moving as though they were one resonates strongly with the novel’s philosophical concerns.
Though Hesse was greatly influenced by the German Romantics, Steppenwolf does not follow the stylistic conventions of German Romanticism. Rather than setting his novel in a stylized world in which the supernatural and unnatural take place, Hesse draws the magical out of the everyday. He grounds his novel in the world of the mundane, the recognizable, and the common. As a result, Harry’s experience with Hermine is rife with worldly details: shopping for a gramophone, buying records, and learning the popular dance steps of the day. Hesse’s own writing echoes Harry’s experience: just as Harry allows popular music to infiltrate his jealously guarded intellectual lifestyle to come to a real engagement with life, Hesse writes on a mundane and contemporary plane to approach something more transcendent.