Why do you suppose Hesse places such emphasis on the Magic Theater? What is the relation between magic and spectacle in the novel, and why should this relation be of interest to Hesse?
One way of understanding the Magic Theater is as the stage upon which Harry can encounter or give life to all the different manifestations of his personality. Pablo introduces Harry to the Magic Theater by saying that all he will do is make the world of Harry’s soul visible. After the self-dramatizing spectacle in the splintering mirrors of the Magic Theater, Harry will be put back together again in a new, rejuvenated configuration.
Magic, magical thinking, and the role of the magician are important in Steppenwolf. Magical thinking is a kind of inspired vision that borders on madness, which is why the Magic Theater is advertised as being “for madmen only.” Madness and magic involve the ability to arrive at a deeper truth by transcending the material and the everyday. To Hesse, madmen are those who have seen through the morass of social and moral conventions, penetrating to the realm of eternity of the immortals. The figure of the magician is key, because the magician allows a transition into the madness and magic of heightened perception. While Pablo and Hermine are the novel’s most obvious magicians, Hesse himself is also such a magician. After all, the power of the author to use symbol and metaphor to give voice and vision to interior life is a kind of analogous magic.
2. Think of all the ways in which mirrors function in the novel. What significance do they have in the Steppenwolf’s quest for himself and the writer’s quest for artistic form?
Reflection is one of the novel’s main concerns. The image of the city is reflected in the wet asphalt streets in the opening scene, and as we proceed in the story, reflections and mirrors become increasingly important. Hermine uses a pocket mirror, Harry sees himself and his doubles in mirrors, and the novel climaxes in Pablo’s Cabinet of Mirrors, the Magic Theater. In addition, characters also mirror one another: Hermine describes herself as Harry’s looking glass. Even the text employs complicated reflections, mirroring both Harry and itself. The “Treatise on the Steppenwolf” is a verbal mirror held up to Harry’s psyche, and the editor’s preface is echoed by Harry’s records, which themselves reflect the words of the Treatise.
Each time a mirror is presented, it does not merely reflect a pure mirror image but corroborates, extends, or draws out other insights. Mirrors are ever-present to remind us of the possibility of double perception, apprehending doubles and opposites at the same moment. This notion of the double or opposite is a useful device for portraying the mind-body split with which Hesse is concerned. Mirrors also raise the question of the writer’s role—especially in a novel such as Steppenwolf, in which characters such as Harry and Hermine are clearly reflections of the author.
3. Using Steppenwolf as evidence, why do you think Hesse was so popular with the hippie counterculture of 1960s America?
Hesse’s novels, particularly Steppenwolf, resonate with groups of people who find themselves struggling against a system to which they feel they do not belong. As the landlady’s nephew expresses in the preface, Harry’s illness is not “the eccentricity of a single individual,” but instead the illness of the era itself, a “neurosis” of Harry’s generation. It is not surprising, then, that the hippies, who felt the stress of the cultural crisis in the 1960s, saw Hesse as a countercultural sage. A key figure in the movement, Timothy Leary, called Hesse his hero and encouraged his followers to read him—especially the Magic Theater segment of Steppenwolf, which Leary called a “priceless manual”—before embarking on a hallucinogenic LSD trip. Evidently, Leary felt that he and Hesse had the same mission to achieve a “transpersonal, unitary consciousness.”