The title probably catches the eye of the aging rocker, doesn't it? My apologies to John Kay & Co., and to all of you old hippies (you know who you are) who must now be disappointed to learn that this is not about the legendary authors of biker anthems. For those with a discerning eye for world literature the title will also jump out from the scroll as the most famed work of German author Herman Hesse. Speaking for myself it is a title that would garner my attention for both counts.
I am acquainted with the catalogue of the band, though I must confess that I have never been so much of a fan to delve into the origins of their name. I assume, perhaps erroneously, that the name was selected with at least the knowledge of the literary work also thus titled. On the part of at least one of their songs I may draw a connection of the two beyond the question of namesake. Born to be Wild. That is the essence of Hesse's steppenwolf.
The wild creature, set loose to run upon wide open vistas; free and savage. This is our animal nature. It lives inside of us all, sublimated to varying degrees. In some it is but a feeble pulse, rendered to a socially induced coma for the safety of the patient. In others the beast lives just beneath the veneer of humanity, only waiting for that moment to “fire all of the guns at once and explode into space”.
Of all the fauna of the Eurasian steppes that Hesse could have chosen it was the wolf which best captured his theme. It is yet another expression of that symbiotic link between our species. We, like our canine cousins, have run in packs through the ages. First, almost certainly, as competitors; later as partners. In ours, as with nearly every other species, there are rogues. Not roguish characters, rather lone actors or solitary hunters. We have in fact made the term “lone wolf” a commonly understood expression of this idea for canine and human alike.
Harry Haller is the steppenwolf, a man gone rogue from the pack. He is not a wild beast that has wandered in from the steppes to pick upon the scraps at the edges of man’s domain. His isolation from the bourgeois realm he inhabits is self imposed, the product of his latent understanding and the manifestation of his animal being. Harry, a product of his society, becomes aware of and struggles with the beast within as it emerges. He identifies as the steppenwolf, but slowly comes to terms with the fact that he is not the wolf wandering upon man. He is a man wandering off from society, a rogue, returning to the wolves. Not a sickness, instead a liberation. To walk alone.
Much of this struggle resides in having to confront the suspicion cast upon the rogue. When discovering the world from the wolf’s eyes Harry Haller begins also to catch scent of the weakness that surrounds him:
A man can not live intensely except at the cost of the self. Now the bourgeois treasures nothing more highly then the self. And so at the cost of intensity he achieves his own preservation and security. His harvest is a quiet mind which he prefers to being possessed by God, as he does comfort to pleasure, convenience to liberty, and a pleasant temperature to that deathly inner consuming fire. The bourgeois is consequently by nature a creature of weak impulses, anxious, fearful of giving himself away and easy to rule. Therefore, he has substituted majority for power, law for force and the polling booth for responsibility.
The pack has grown weak, truly tamed and not just domesticated. As dogs are no longer wolves, so men are no longer men. Harry is not leaving a pack. He is leaving a flock. A wolf may not live amid sheep, for it shall ever be distrusted. Only by leaving the flock can one live, either to prowl the steppes alone or to be welcomed home to the pack once again.
Nearly a century now after it’s first publication Steppenwolf still holds a valuable lesson of man’s animal nature, not as a vice; rather as a virtue.