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The Importance of Humor in Steppenwolf
After accepting the many sides of his personality, Haller comes to believe in humor and is able to truly laugh for the first time in the novel. Because of his experiences at the Masked Ball and in the Magic Theater, he finally has the capacity to view his life in a totally detached manner, like the Immortals. When one really experiences the art of the Immortals, like Mozart or Goethe, it is a "a communion with saints." Through their art, they bring harmony to the chaos of life. When Haller can finally bring harmony to his own inner chaos, he can smile, even laugh, at the discordant and troubling elements of life, just like the Immortals.
The opposite of humor is taking oneself too seriously, as Haller does before his entry into the Magic Theater. Goethe has previously told him in a dream that seriousness is an accident of time. Before Haller enters the Magic Theater, Pablo tells him that true humor begins when a man ceases to take himself too seriously. When Haller accepts that he belongs to the world, which the Immortals regard with humor, then he too can join in their laughter.
In German, the word "humor" does not really mean "finding things funny;" instead, it refers to the quality of irony, where one thing really means another. Irony is consistently used in Steppenwolf; its purpose is to shock the reader out of his self- complacency and to prevent him from merely enjoying the story. Sometimes the irony is gentle and is achieved by slight exaggerations. Harry Haller does not live in any palaces, as indicated. Instead, he lives in an extremely boring, neatly kept bourgeois boarding house that smells of turpentine and soaps. At other times the irony is more shocking. All of the experiences in the Magic Theater are ironic, for they seem to be enactments on a stage, but are really experiences for Haller's growth. An example is in the scene with the war between the machines and the humans. Haller, who seems to be the pacifist, is drawn to the violence and participates in the war. Even the sign outside the "magic" theater is filled with irony. It seems improbable that it is magic if it is only for madmen. The wolf images are also filled with irony, as seen in the description of Haller: "He went on two legs, wore clothes and was a man, but . . . was just a wolf from the steppes." Such irony adds to the humor and meaning of the novel.
Steppenwolf describes a lonely, aging intellectual who learns to dance, shedding some of his inhibitions. The more he sheds of his past, the more he learns to understand himself and find spiritual harmony and peace. When Haller learns to dance for the first time at age fifty, he enters into a new cultural and social world. Through the dancing, he overcomes the intellectual snobbery and feelings of superiority and correctness that he has always possessed. By dancing to modern jazz music, he even learns to appreciate the fact that contemporary culture has some value. While dancing, he even dares to mix with people from lower social groups and on the fringe of society. Dancing, therefore, becomes a great teacher for Haller.
Haller's first instructor in the art of dancing is Hermine. As she encourages him to dance, she is also encouraging him to acknowledge the erotic, sensual side of his personality. She then offers him Maria, who will teach him more about dancing and life. Through her, he accepts that entertainment, both social and sexual, is a proper activity that brings "gaiety, innocence and elasticity." Dancing also helps to show him that life is "neither good nor bad, neither loved nor hated."