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A TASTE OF NIGHTLIFE
The bar girl keeps her dinner date with Harry. She makes him guess her name. He sees in her face the face of his best boyhood friend, whose name was Herman, He guesses that her name is Hermine, the feminine equivalent of Herman. In their further conversation, Hermine tells Harry that he is seeing himself in her, as in a looking glass, but he insists that she is not his reflection but his opposite. Can you think of ways in which both may be true? Remember Jung's theory of the anima, the suppressed female in the male personality which he projects onto the woman in his life.
NOTE: SEX TRANSFORMATIONS AND CONFUSIONS
Hermine's momentary change into Herman is the first of several male-female transformations that Hermine undergoes. The blurring of the line dividing the sexes, and the argument over whether Hermine is Harry's reflection or his opposite (or both) are significant points in psychoanalytic theory. They may also be elements in Hesse's independent exploration of the unconscious. Sigmund Freud held that it is a creative artist's function to retrieve disturbing symbols like these from the unconscious, and to reveal them in his art. Hesse uses the symbol of sex transformation strikingly in a dream sequence in Siddhartha. The combination of both male and female characteristics in an individual is called hermaphroditism, from the names of the Greek god Hermes and the goddess Aphrodite, who had a hermaphrodite son.
Hermine tells Harry that he will obey all her commands, including the final
command to kill her. Their conversation, sometimes serious, sometimes
teasing and flirtatious, suddenly verges on sinister fantasy. It swings
back to reality when Hermine makes plans to give Harry dancing lessons.
At their next meeting, Hermine has found Harry's name in a newspaper story that attacks him as a pacifist and traitor. She tells him his principles are worth fighting for, that his life will never be dull as long as he fights for his beliefs.
This argument of Hermine's appealed to young people in the Sixties. Does it appeal to you? Would you fight for a cause that had little hope of victory in your lifetime? Are there any contemporary causes comparable to Haller's pacifism?
Hermine has taught Harry the fox-trot. At a hotel dance, she makes him ask a pretty girl named Maria to dance with him. The handsome Latin American saxophonist Pablo comes to their table. Harry has now met the chief characters of his magic adventure.
You know how people appear in dreams, recognizable but somehow changed. This soon begins to happen to Harry. Hermine, Maria, and Pablo seem real enough up to this point. Maria delights Harry with her innocent enjoyment of all pleasures, including sex, without guilt. Pablo dresses flamboyantly, smiles amiably while Harry lectures him about music, and hands Haller a pinch of what must be cocaine to sniff.
Most of all, Hermine seems more than a beautiful bar girl in her understanding of Harry. Hermine and Pablo are already somewhat ambiguous, if not actually magical, figures. Keep your eye on them.
NOTE: REALITY AND FICTION
Steppenwolf transforms Hesse's experiences into the imaginary world of fiction. Harry Haller is reliving the author's life at the very time Hesse was writing Steppenwolf. Hesse too was struggling out of a crisis of despair, living alone like Haller. He made the rounds of night clubs, eating and drinking and, like Haller, learning to dance. Hesse wrote to a friend that he had finished a course of six lessons: "I do believe that I can master the fox-trot and the one-step to the degree that can be expected of an elderly gentleman suffering from gout." Hesse was still seeing his second wife of a few months, Ruth Wenger, from whom he was separated, but their dates always ended in quarrels and misunderstanding. She is the model for Erika, whose photograph is on Haller's bureau and with whom the nephew saw Haller go out one evening, only to return an hour later, sadder than ever. The model for Hermine was Julia Laubi-Honegger, to whom Hesse wrote letters. The models for Maria and Pablo are not known but were probably people he met in his night life of 1924-26 when he was trying "to become part of the world of ordinary people."
In another of his interior monologues, Harry muses on the new intrusions in his carefully secluded life. He is tasting pleasures and indulging some of the many selves that the Treatise and Hermine have told him he has stifled-but he is not enjoying it. He feels he is a traitor to all he has held sacred, that his personality is being destroyed. But he goes on. Hermine sends Maria to teach him the pleasures of sex. He is not surprised to learn that he is only one of Maria's many men and that she has been Hermine's lover as well. He spends his time with Hermine, Maria, and Pablo in their world of bars, night clubs, and jazz sharing their pleasures and Pablo's drugs. The climax of these experiences is the Masked Ball.
Harry confesses to Hermine that he is happy but is longing for suffering-not the kind he endured before he met her but a more beautiful suffering that will make death welcome. She confides that she, too, has found life a disappointment. The world had no more use for her gifts than for Harry's ideals. In her opinion, the great deeds and fine ideas of heroes and geniuses, as taught in schools, are a schoolteacher's swindle. Real people have nothing to look forward to but death and eternity, where Hermine's saints and Harry's Immortals dwell.
What do you think of Hermine's interpretation of life? Are the great thoughts and deeds of history really a swindle, encouraging young people to have expectations that are never to be fulfilled?