Of Steppenwolves and Hedgehogs

by Matthew Koslowski on September 16, 2009
in Essays

One night in May while walking around the MFA, I was reunited with some old friends. Though the paintings and sculptures have settled here in Boston and need to be visited in person, I had pictures of many of them, just like having photographs of friends in an album.

A few weeks ago, I was again reunited with an old friend while pawing through boxes of books that I have not unpacked.

But this friend, this dear old friend who reached out to tell me my own story, who I called godfather, was always with me. With me when I moved to Ohio for college. With me when I fled Ohio for Chicago. And with me on my return to Massachusetts and Boston.

That this friend, Harry Haller, did not have pride of place, that he was packed away in a box embarrasses me not a little. He should have sat always at my right hand.

Steppenwolf, or For Madmen Only

When I first read Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha, I saw myself and sought out Hesse’s other works. While Siddhartha spoke to me, the story of Harry Haller, Steppenwolf sang to me.

Harry Haller’s story was my story. It still is. Just as Harry stumbles upon “The Treatise on the Steppenwolf” when he was lost in his own solitude and feels while reading it as if he were looking in a mirror, so too did I stumble upon Steppenwolf and find a mirror.

While rereading Steppenwolf, I keep thinking about illusory superiority, our own bias towards rating ourselves above average. Haller thinks he is alien to the world of the common man but the self-mocking “Treatise on the Steppenwolf” proves otherwise.

He who is developed far beyond the level possible to the bourgeois, he who knows the bliss of meditation no less than the gloomy joys of hatred and self-hatred, he who despises law, virtue and common sense, is nevertheless captive to the bourgeoisie and cannot escape it.

–Hermann Hesse from Steppenwolf, page 53. (Basil Creighton, trans.)

Harry feels that he has two souls within him, that of the man and that of the wolf. To the man, he attributes all things virtuous and rational; to the wolf, he attributes all things wild and emotional. He wants to be authentic to himself but he is unable to determine which side of him is his real self and when he allows himself to give over to one side or the other, always lurking in his mind is those parts of himself that he has rejected, and he cannot stay wholly man or wolf for too long.

Many loved him as a refined and clever and interesting man and were horrified and disappointed when they had come upon the wolf in him. And they had to because Harry wished, as every sentient being does, to be loved as a whole and therefore it was just with those whose love he most valued that he could least of all conceal and belie the wolf. There were those, however, who loved precisely the wolf in him, the free, the savage, the untamable [sic], the dangerous and the strong, and these found it peculiarly disappointing and deplorable when suddenly the wild and wicked wolf was also a man, and had hankerings after goodness and refinement, and wanted to hear Mozart, to read poetry, and to cherish human ideals. Usually these were the most disappointed and angry of all; and so it was that the Steppenwolf brought his own dual and divided nature into the destinies of others besides himself whenever he came into contact with them.

–Hermann Hesse from Steppenwolf, page 43. (Basil Creighton, trans.)

While the above passage makes me think of illusory superiority, it leads me more into one of my favorite parables, the Hedgehog’s Dilemma.

The Hedgehog’s Dilemma

Though the German word Stachelschweine, which Schopenhauer uses, translates as “porcupine” and thus should be known as “The Porcupine’s Dilemma”, the parable is better known as the Hedgehog’s Dilemma. I’ve included the entire parable below.

One cold winter’s day, a number of porcupines huddled together quite closely in order through their mutual warmth to prevent themselves from being frozen. But they soon felt the effects of their quills on one another, which made them move apart. Now when the need for warmth once more brought them together, the drawback of the quils was repeated so that they were tossed between two evils, until they had discovered the proper distance from which they could best tolerate one another. Thus the need for society which springs from the emptiness and monotony of men’s lives, drives them together; but their many unpleasant and repulsive qualities and insufferable drawbacks once more drive them apart. The mean distance which they finally discover, and which enables them to endure being together, is politeness and good manners. Whoever does not keep to this, is told in England to ‘keep his distance’. By virtue thereof, it is true that the need for mutual warmth will be only imperfectly satisfied, but, on the other hand, the prick of the quills will not be felt. Yet whoever has a great deal of internal warmth of his own will prefer to keep away from society in order to avoid giving or receiving trouble and annoyance.

–Arthur Schopenhauer from Parerga and Paralipomena, Volume 2, Chapter 31, Section 396. (E.F.J. Payne, trans.)

Though often used to discuss the struggles for intimacy that individuals face when involved in a romantic relationship, the Hedgehog’s Dilemma has wider implications. On the level of relationships, it is equally applicable to friendships. Looking to Schopenhauer, the source material, the Hedgehog’s Dilemma is about an individual interfacing with society. The deeper you are within the thick of society, the more you are surrounded by other individuals and the more likely you are to encounter the quillish character of other people.

Facing the Cold

Schopenhauer suggests that your placement within society has much to do with your ability to bear the cold, how comfortable you are with your own loneliness and solitude. If you have “a great deal of internal warmth of [your] own”, you can face the cold, you can look at the world beyond society. I wonder if Hesse had this last section of the passage in mind, as well as certain passages from Nietzsche, when he wrote about the importance of the Steppenwolves in society.

…indeed at times he [the bourgeois] appears to rule the world. How is this possible? Neither the great numbers of the heard, nor virtue, nor common sense, nor organization could avail to save it from destruction. No medicine in the world can keep a pulse beating that from the outset was so weak. Nevertheless bourgeoisie prospers. Why?

The answer runs: Because of the Steppenwolves. In fact, the vital force of the bourgeoisie resides by no means in the qualities of its normal members, but in those of its extremely numerous “outsiders” who by virtue of the extensiveness and elasticity of its ideals it can embrace. There is always a large number of strong and wild natures who share the life of the fold.

–Hermann Hesse from Steppenwolf, page 53. (Basil Creighton, trans.)

Pricked by the Quill of Pride

We expect Harry Haller, our Steppenwolf, rejecting his relationship to the bourgeois — though he stands at the outside of the circle of hedgehogs, though he is an exceptional hedgehog, he remains a hedgehog — to struggle with the Hedgehog’s Dilemma. We also expect other fiercely independent characters that we find in other existential works to struggle with their senses of themselves versus their senses of duty, I think here of Dr. Bernard Rieux in Camus’ The Plague or Dr. Thomas Stockmann in Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People.

But even in a comedy of manners, such as Pride & Prejudice — which I must admit I am reading for the first time at 26 years old — or The Importance of Being Ernest, themes of the Hedgehog’s Dilemma play an important role. Take this scene from Pride & Prejudice in which the young ladies discuss the first ball that Mr. Darcy attended, during which Mr. Darcy offended Ms. Elizabeth Bennet.

“His pride,” said Miss Lucas [of Mr. Darcy], “does not offend me so much as pride often does, because there is an excuse for it. One cannot wonder that so very fine a young man with family, fortune, every thing in his favor, should think highly of himself. If I may so express it, he has a right to be proud.”

“That is very true,” replied Elizabeth, “and I could easily forgive his pride, if he had not mortified mine.”

–Jane Austen from Pride & Prejudice, Book 1, Chapter 5.

That themes of the Hedgehog’s Dilemma appear in comedies of manners surprised me, though it should not have. As I said above, the Hedgehogs’ Dilemma is framed as the dynamic of self versus society. Comedies of manners expose the games and intrigues of individuals in polite society, as well as their many “insufferable drawbacks.”

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