Reading Herman Hesse’s Steppenwolf earlier this year was like taking an ice-bath – it shook me awake to ideas that I had never articulated before but which must have been lying dormant within me.
The book is almost a treatise on the multiplicity of the self, a concept that I have found fascinating ever since first-year-philosophy, where I first met it as a concept. There is a stunning passage where Hesse exhorts us to understand that we have no ‘essence’ – if you peel back the skin-layers there is no solid core underneath that is the ‘real’. (Imagine if this was so, though. It would be like when you catch a splinter in the palm of your hand and your skin, rather than rejecting it, grows over it instead. We humans would be a group of flesh-embedded splinters, protecting our realness with epidermis.) Hesse tries to capture the sense that we are a compilation of multiple selves, few of which have dominance over each other, by describing a group of animals sitting, roaming, inside our rib-cages – a tiger, a peacock, a snake, a mouse, an eagle. We are all each and every one of these at once.
Obviously, he articulates this in a far more breath-taking and eloquent way but I cannot place the exact passage so a paraphrase will have to suffice, for now.
I did find this page, however, whilst re-skimming.
“This Steppenwolf of ours has always been aware of at least the Faustian nature of the two-fold nature within him. He had discovered that the one-fold of the body is not inhabited by a one-fold of the soul, and that at best he is only at the beginning of a long pilgrimage towards this ideal harmony, He would either like to overcome the wolf and become wholly man or to renounce man-kind and at last live life wholly a wolf’s life. It may be presumed that he has never carefully watched a wolf. Had he ever done so he would have seen, perhaps, that even animals are not undivided in spirit. With them, too, the well-knit beauty of the body hides a being of manifold states and strivings. The world too, has his abysses. The wolf, too, suffers. No, back to nature is a flase track that leads nowhere but to suffering and despair. Harry can never turn back again and become wholly wolf, and could he do so he would find that even the wolf is not of primeval simplicity, but already a creature of manifold complexity. Even the wolf has two, and more than two, souls in his wolf’s breast, and he who desires to be a wolf falls into the same forgetfulness as the man who sings: “If I could be a child once more!” He who sentimentally sings of blessed childhood is thinking of the return to nature and innocence and the origin of things, and has forgotten that these blessed children are beset with conflict and complexities and capable of all suffering.
There is, in fact, no way back either to the wolf or to the child. From the very start there is no innocence and no singleness. Every created thing, even the simplest, is already guilty, already multiple. It has been thrown into the muddy stream of being and may never more swim back again to its source.”