One way of understanding the Magic Theater is as the stage upon which Harry can encounter or give life to all the different manifestations of his personality. Pablo introduces Harry to the Magic Theater by saying that all he will do is make the world of Harry’s soul visible. After the self-dramatizing spectacle in the splintering mirrors of the Magic Theater, Harry will be put back together again in a new, rejuvenated configuration.
Magic, magical thinking, and the role of the magician are important in Steppenwolf. Magical thinking is a kind of inspired vision that borders on madness, which is why the Magic Theater is advertised as being “for madmen only.” Madness and magic involve the ability to arrive at a deeper truth by transcending the material and the everyday. To Hesse, madmen are those who have seen through the morass of social and moral conventions, penetrating to the realm of eternity of the immortals. The figure of the magician is key, because the magician allows a transition into the madness and magic of heightened perception. While Pablo and Hermine are the novel’s most obvious magicians, Hesse himself is also such a magician. After all, the power of the author to use symbol and metaphor to give voice and vision to interior life is a kind of analogous magic.
2. Think of all the ways in which mirrors function in the novel. What significance do they have in the Steppenwolf’s quest for himself and the writer’s quest for artistic form?
Reflection is one of the novel’s main concerns. The image of the city is reflected in the wet asphalt streets in the opening scene, and as we proceed in the story, reflections and mirrors become increasingly important. Hermine uses a pocket mirror, Harry sees himself and his doubles in mirrors, and the novel climaxes in Pablo’s Cabinet of Mirrors, the Magic Theater. In addition, characters also mirror one another: Hermine describes herself as Harry’s looking glass. Even the text employs complicated reflections, mirroring both Harry and itself. The “Treatise on the Steppenwolf” is a verbal mirror held up to Harry’s psyche, and the editor’s preface is echoed by Harry’s records, which themselves reflect the words of the Treatise.
Each time a mirror is presented, it does not merely reflect a pure mirror image but corroborates, extends, or draws out other insights. Mirrors are ever-present to remind us of the possibility of double perception, apprehending doubles and opposites at the same moment. This notion of the double or opposite is a useful device for portraying the mind-body split with which Hesse is concerned. Mirrors also raise the question of the writer’s role—especially in a novel such as Steppenwolf, in which characters such as Harry and Hermine are clearly reflections of the author.
3. Using Steppenwolf as evidence, why do you think Hesse was so popular with the hippie counterculture of 1960s America?
Hesse’s novels, particularly Steppenwolf, resonate with groups of people who find themselves struggling against a system to which they feel they do not belong. As the landlady’s nephew expresses in the preface, Harry’s illness is not “the eccentricity of a single individual,” but instead the illness of the era itself, a “neurosis” of Harry’s generation. It is not surprising, then, that the hippies, who felt the stress of the cultural crisis in the 1960s, saw Hesse as a countercultural sage. A key figure in the movement, Timothy Leary, called Hesse his hero and encouraged his followers to read him—especially the Magic Theater segment of Steppenwolf, which Leary called a “priceless manual”—before embarking on a hallucinogenic LSD trip. Evidently, Leary felt that he and Hesse had the same mission to achieve a “transpersonal, unitary consciousness.”
1. The critic Eugene Stelzig calls Harry Haller the “Hessean psychonaut par excellence.” The image of the Steppenwolf as a voyager of the inner world is an apt one. How do the spaces through which Haller physically travels in the novel match the psychic stages through which he passes? (Consider, for example, the bourgeois space of the landlady’s lodging house in contrast to the subterranean dens of dancers and musicians.)
2. How are we to understand the character of Hermine? Is she a mother, a friend, a sister, a lover, or every one of those things? What is her significance in relation to Harry? Is she an other, or a part of the same?
3. At the Fancy Dress Ball, Harry considers that the event is “all a fairy tale,” “fanciful and symbolic,” and endowed with “a new dimension, a deeper meaning.” In what ways does Steppenwolf conform to the structure and logic of a traditional fairy tale, and in what ways does it not?
4. From what we know of Hesse’s background and history, much of Steppenwolf clearly stems from real events in his life. What are the implications of this for the novel? Does it alter our sense of Steppenwolf’s genre? How does the confessional nature of the work influence our reception of it?
5. By the end of the novel, Harry has learned to approach the modern world with humor, though not with acceptance and contentment. Do you think his earlier concerns and criticisms have been borne out in the intervening years? What aspects of the second half of the twentieth century do you think Harry—or Hesse—would have felt most conformed to his predictions?
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