Out of Many, One:
The fragmented self in Orlando and Steppenwolf
by Christine Hoff Kraemer
Though popularized this century in the context of Freudian and Jungian psychoanalysis and later by postmodern theorists, the concept of the disunity of the self is hardly new. As early as the eighteenth century, Hume attacked Descartes and others in his Treatise of Human Nature with this scathing commentary:
There are some philosophers, who imagine we are every moment intimately conscious of what we call our self; that we feel its existence and its continuance in existence; and are certain, beyond the evidence of a demonstration, both of its perfect identity and simplicity. . . .
Unluckily all these positive assertions are contrary to that very experience which is pleaded for them; nor have we any idea of self, after the manner it is here explained. For, from what impression could this idea be derived? . . . It must be some one impression that gives rise to every real idea. But self or person is not any one impression . . .
The self, argues Hume, is at best a loose collection of impressions and experiences, bound together by the uncertain ties of memory. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the ideological breakdown and general cultural tumult of the period between the First and Second World Wars provided the perfect environment for this notion to take root in the intellectual community. Virginia Woolf’s 1928 novel Orlando and Hermann Hesse’s 1929 Steppenwolf both present conceptions of the self that are multiple and constructed, suggesting the malleability of identity and the powerful influence of society upon the individual. Though the protagonists of both novels struggle with the necessary incompleteness of the clearly defined and therefore limited self, Steppenwolf and Orlando end as hymns to intellectual and psychological liberation, and illustrate how the individual may rid him- or herself of the bonds of a static self-image.
The crisis in which Harry Haller finds himself at the opening of Steppenwolf is of a classic Freudian type – the eternal conflict between instinctual, emotional id and conscious, rational ego. In acknowledgment of his dual nature, Harry refers to himself as a Steppenwolf, one who “went on two legs, wore clothes and was a human being, but nevertheless . . . was in reality a wolf of the Steppes” (47). Harry is intensely conscious of the conflict he feels between his two selves, to the extent that he sees them as continuously at war: one an untameable, savage, but unhypocritical wolf, and the other a refined, intelligent, but dissembling man. As in the Freudian paradigm, each half perpetually struggles with the other for dominance. The wolf drives Harry to reject the pretenses of civilization and to follow his basest, most instinctual urges; the man, on the other hand, acts as an apologist for the bourgeois society that Harry is both repelled by and attracted to, and criticizes the wolf for its bestiality and single-minded sensuality. This dichotomy (Civilization and Intellect vs. Nature and Instinct) puts Harry in a state of unending misery. His daily life is an agony of trying to choose between the honesty of the wolf and the sophistication of the man, to the extent that he finds himself unable to perform even the simplest social interactions without distress.
The learned man held me with his friendly eye and, though I found it all ridiculous, I could not help enjoying those crumbs of warmth and kindliness, and was lapping them up like a starved dog. . . . And while I, Harry Haller, stood there in the street, flattered and surprised and studiously polite and smiling into the good fellow’s kindly, short-sighted face, there stood the other Harry, too, at my elbow and grinned likewise. He stood there and grinned as he thought what a funny, crazy, dishonest fellow I was to show my teeth in rage and curse the whole world one moment, and the next, to be falling all over myself in the eagerness of my response to the first amiable greeting of the first good honest fellow who came my way . . . Thus stood the two Harrys, neither playing a very pretty part, over against the worthy professor, mocking one another, watching one another, and spitting at one another, while as always in such predicaments, the eternal question presented itself whether all this was simple stupidity and human frailty, a common depravity, or whether . . . this slovenliness and two-facedness of feeling was merely a personal idiosyncrasy of Steppenwolves. (86-7)
Harry can give in to neither self without being abused and criticized by the other. To be honest with his friend about his unhappiness is to ignore propriety and etiquette, which would probably result in the loss of the good-natured companionship that he craves; yet in concealing his despair, Harry piles on lie after lie until the exterior he shows to the professor hardly resembles his interior state at all. Harry heads for home in an ecstasy of self-loathing, unable to resolve his internal conflict.
The “Treatise on the Steppenwolf” gives us our first clues as to the true cause of Harry’s misery. Harry’s Man-Wolf dichotomy is artificial, it states; his sense of having two selves that are necessarily at war is a gross oversimplification of the true nature of Harry’s inner reality.
. . . [T]o explain so complex a man as Harry by the artless division into wolf and man is a hopelessly childish attempt. Harry consists of a hundred or a thousand selves, not of two. His life oscillates, as everyone’s does, not merely between two poles, such as the body and the spirit, the saint and the sinner, but between thousands and thousands. (66)
Harry has attempted to divide his urges, thoughts, and feelings into two types, those that spring from raw forces of nature and those that are refined products of civilization. Yet not every desire fits neatly into one of these two categories, nor need every desire necessarily belong to one to the exclusion of the other.
In the “Treatise,”
With the “man” he packs in everything spiritual and sublimated or even cultivated to be found in himself, and with the wolf all that is instinctive, savage, and chaotic. But things are not so simple in life as in our thoughts, nor so rough and ready as in our poor idiotic language . . . He assigns, we fear, whole provinces of his soul to the “man” which are a long way from being human, and parts of his being to the wolf that long ago have left the wolf behind. (70)
Harry Haller is very much a prisoner
of his assumptions, his misery sustained by the artificial division of his
personality and his insistence that his two halves cannot live in harmony. Woolf’s gender-shifting
It is unsurprising, then, that while
The taste for books was an early one. As a child he was sometimes found at by a page still reading. They took his taper away, and he bred glow-worms to serve his purpose. . . . [H]e was a nobleman afflicted with a love of literature. . . . This was bad enough and wrung the hearts of Hall, the falconer, of Giles, the groom, of Mrs. Grimsditch, the housekeeper, of Mr. Dupper, the chaplain. A fine gentleman like that, they said, had no need of books. Let him leave books, they said, to the palsied or the dying. (73-5)
But Rustrum el Sadi . . . had the deepest suspicion that her God was Nature. One day, he found her in tears. Interpreting this to mean that her God had punished her, he told her he was not surprised. He showed her the fingers of his left hand, withered by the frost; he showed her his right foot, crushed where a rock had fallen. This, he said, was what her God did to men. When she said, “But so beautiful,” using the English word, he shook his head; and when she repeated it he was angry. . . . She began to think, was Nature beautiful or cruel . . . which meditations, since she could impart no word of them, made her long, as she had never longed before, for pen and ink. (144-5)
This independence is rooted in
Then, some strange ecstasy came over her. Some wild notion she had of following the birds to the rim of the world and flinging herself on the spongy turf and there drinking forgetfulness, while the rooks’ hoarse laughter sounded over her. She quickened her pace; she ran; she tripped; the tough heather roots flung her to the ground. Her ankle was broken. She could not rise. But there she lay content. . . . “I have found my mate,” she murmured. “It is the moor. I am nature’s bride . . . I shall dream wild dreams. My hands shall wear no wedding ring . . .” (248)
Though it is tempting to argue that
For she had a great variety of selves to call upon, far more than we have been able to find room for, since a biography is considered complete if it merely accounts for six or seven selves, whereas a person may well have as many thousand. Choosing, then, only those selves we have found room for, Orlando may now have called on the boy who cut the nigger’s head down; the boy who hung it up again; the boy who sat on the hill; the boy who saw the poet; the boy who handed the Queen a bowl of rose water; . . . or she may have wanted the woman to come to her; the Gipsy; the Fine Lady; the Hermit; the girl in love with life . . . all these selves were different and she may have called upon any one of them. (309)
self, writes Woolf, is the compact of all these many
selves, all of the possible
This lesson, that
one’s personality is made up of multiple, changing, and discontinuous selves,
takes Harry the entire novel and more to learn. Writing a few decades later,
Ralph Ellison wrestles with much the same issue in Invisible Man, another novel of identity. Near the conclusion of
the novel, the narrator’s conception of self is shattered by the discovery that
one’s identity need not be compromised by its seemingly contradictory,
disharmonious parts. “Could he himself be both rind and heart?” asks the
invisible man, considering the many identities (gambler, preacher, lover, runner) of the mysterious Rinehart (498).
Harry’s experiences in the Magic Theater serve as a direct challenge to Freud’s strict delineation of id and ego in favor of Jung’s more flexible system of archetypes. In the Magic Theater, Harry is taught a kind of chess game, using fragments of his personality as pieces. Within a few moves, it becomes clear that Harry’s identity emerges from the interaction of these archetypal fragments, all of which are present as potentialities in Harry’s psyche:
With the sure and silent touch of his clever fingers he took hold of my pieces, all the old men and young men and children and women, cheerful and sad, strong and weak, nimble and clumsy, and swiftly arranged them on his board for a game. At once they formed themselves into groups and families, games and battles, friendships and enmities, making a small world. . . . The second game had an affinity with the first, it was the same world built on the same material, but the key was different, the time changed, the motif was differently given out and the situations differently presented.
And in this fashion the clever architect built up one game after another out of the figures, each of which was a bit of myself, and every game had a distinct resemblance to every other. Each belonged recognizably to the same world and acknowledged a common origin. Yet each was entirely new. (219-20)
Just as a
game of chess consists of a complex pattern formed from the interaction fixed
pieces with simple rules, Harry’s personality is emergent from the interaction
of archetypes. Harry cannot be reduced to any single archetype, or even to
several; the emergent theme that makes each game recognizably Harry’s is a
product of the interaction of all the pieces. Though Harry has no central,
dominant self, like
The chess game suggests a vast array of possible roles, attitudes, and behaviors that one might take on over the course of a lifetime, but offers no direct explanation as to why some roles come to dominate over others, or why we change our roles over time. Perhaps the answer lies in the origin of the roles themselves. The dynamics of the game suggest that while the personality is constructed out of the complete set of basic building blocks that are common to all human beings, structures less complex than a full personality may also be created. These middle structures, which one might call personas or roles, carry with them expectations about behavior, appearance, and attitude, but lack the complexity and contradictions inherent in a complete personality. Harry’s early conceptions of the Wolf and the Man serve as good examples of this phenomenon – both manifest complicated behaviors, but are still significantly too simple to encompass the entirety of Harry’s personality.
uses the word ‘self’ to describe these limited constructions, but also speaks
of a ‘true self’ that encompasses all other possible selves. These ‘selves’
might be more properly considered to be archetypal roles, personas that
“For nothing,” she thought, regaining her couch on deck, and continuing the argument, “is more heavenly than to resist and to yield; to yield and to resist. Surely it throws the spirit into such a rapture that nothing else can. So that I’m not sure,” she continued, “that I won’t throw myself overboard, for the mere pleasure of being rescued by a blue-jacket after all.” (155)
She remembered how, as a young man, she had insisted that women must be obedient, chaste, scented, and exquisitely apparelled. “Now I shall have to pay in my own person for those desires,” she reflected; “for women are not (judging by my own short experience of the sex) obedient, chaste, scented, and exquisitely apparelled by nature.” . . . And she fell to thinking what an odd pass we have come to when all a woman’s beauty has to be kept covered, lest a sailor may fall from a mast-head. (157)
“To fall from a mast-head,” she thought, “because you see a woman’s ankles; . . . to deny a woman teaching, lest she may laugh at you; to be the slave of the frailest chit in petticoats, and yet to go about as if you were the Lords of creation. – Heavens!” she thought, “what fools they make of us – what fools we are!” And here it would seem from some ambiguity in her terms that she was censuring both sexes equally, as if she belonged to neither; and indeed, for the time being she seemed to vacillate; she was man; she was woman; she knew the secrets, shared the weaknesses of each. (158)
For a moment,
Hermine, the mysterious and intelligent young woman who acts as Harry’s spiritual guide, is also possessed of a certain gender ambiguity. At their second meeting, Harry is struck by the boyishness of Hermine’s face, and from her resemblance to his childhood friend Herman manages to guess her name.
“If you were a boy,” said I in amazement, “I should say your name was Herman.”
“Who knows, perhaps I am one and am simply in women’s clothing,” she said, joking. (122)
dreamlike narrative develops and strange coincidences mount, it seems less and
less likely that Hermine’s flippant statement is
actually only a jest. Like
Despite her androgynous tendencies, Hermine inhabits a female body, a characteristic that
“There’s nothing you don’t know, Hermine. . . . It’s exactly as you say. And yet you’re so entirely different from me. You have all that I lack.”
“So you think,” she said shortly, “and it’s well you should.” (123-4)
Nevertheless, Hermine encourages Harry’s perception of her as his opposite, referring to their relationship as that of brother and sister and claiming that “there is something in me that answers and understands you” (123). Though Harry does not see it yet, his conception of Hermine as his “other self” will be necessary to the process of his learning to live. Once he realizes that both the self he is aware of and the complementary self he sees in Hermine are both part of him, Harry begins to understand that the two are not mutually exclusive. With Hermine’s help, Harry discovers that his love of fine art and his intellect do not prevent him from appreciating jazz or enjoying the sensual pleasures of dancing, food and lovemaking.
Hermine represents a part of Harry’s psyche that he possesses but is not yet aware of, suggesting that Harry’s gender identity is incidental to his physical body. Though he perceives Hermine’s personality traits as feminine, this is just further evidence that he has artificially categorized them as things he is not – not spontaneous, not hedonistic, not modern, and above all, not feminine. In fact, Harry can be all of these things if he chooses to be, just as Hermine can play a masculine role at will. So well does she take on a masculine demeanor at the costume ball which serves as a lead-in to the climax of the novel, in fact, that Harry initially again mistakes her for his childhood friend, Herman.
And without Hermine appearing to give herself the least trouble I was very soon in love with her. . . . It was the spell of a hermaphrodite.
. . . We took to the floor as rivals and paid court for a while to the same girl, danced with her by turns and both tried to win her heart. And yet it was all only a carnival, only a game between the two of us that caught us more closely together in our own passion. (190-1)
By degrees, Hermine has brought Harry’s unconscious selves to the surface, to the point that when she at last puts on a masculine face, revealing that it was himself that Harry saw in her all the time, he is doubly entranced. Through a kind of mystical communion with another who chooses to personify the hidden parts of his own soul, Harry has come closer to realizing the full potential of his personality – come closer, in a sense, to being a whole person. Hermine, though she consciously directs the process, suggests she has benefited similarly, as when she tells Harry,
“. . . You are surprised that I should be so unhappy when I can dance and am so sure of myself in the superficial things of life. And I, my friend, am surprised that you are disillusioned with life when you are at home with the very things in it that are the deepest and most beautiful, spirit, art, and thought! . . . I am going to teach you to dance and play and smile, and still not be happy. And you are going to teach me to think and to know and yet not be happy. . . .” (144)
Hermine too is reaching toward wholeness
through her contact with Harry, seeking to further develop the immature parts
of her own soul. Their mutual need pulls them strongly together with an
intuitive force that
This communion, which in Steppenwolf results from the mutual
projection of anima and animus (the woman’s repressed masculine self), also
takes place in
No sooner had the words left her mouth than an awful suspicion rushed into both their minds simultaneously.
“You’re a woman, Shel!” she cried.
“You’re a man, Orlando!” he cried. (251-2)
seems, has already explored her personality to such a degree that her ‘perfect
match’ and mirror, as it were, must be one who has taken the opposite steps in
that exploration, entering the world as a woman then filling in that incomplete
world view as a man. Shelmerdine’s experience is a
The necessity of such a match
suggests that becoming a ‘whole person’ through having explored the full range
of the personality is in the strictest sense impossible. Though
All these things inclined her, step by step, to submit to the new discovery, whether Queen Victoria’s or another’s, that each man and woman has another allotted to it for life, whom it supports, by whom it is supported, till death do them part. It would be a comfort, she felt, to lean; to sit down; yes, to lie down; never, never, never to get up again. (245)
pessimistic view of marriage is swept away in the joy of finding Shelmerdine, the effects of the Victorian era on the
Here Woolf seems to be commenting upon the particularly
oppressive and claustrophobic nature of the Victorian age which deprived her of
freedom in her own adolescence, much as its beats down
Harry also struggles with the spirit of his age. Unlike Orlando, however, who with the exception of the Victorian era changes gracefully with the times, the Steppenwolf clings desperately to the structures of the past, fearing the loss of his constructed self. Blindly, Harry seeks not to retain and increase his possibilities, but to limit them. Thus, his knee-jerk reaction to anything he construes as modern is automatically negative. Its art, he decrees, is shallow; its obsession with gadgetry is grotesque; its pleasures are vapid and ephemeral. To put the things it values on a similar level with the art he loves would be to denigrate and insult that art’s great beauty. He reacts to inward horror at Hermine’s suggestion that he buy a gramophone, thinking to himself:
I could not picture the detested instrument in my study among my books, and I was by no means reconciled to the dancing either. It had been in my mind that I might try how it went for a while, though I was convinced that I was too old and stiff and would never learn now. . . As an old and fastidious connoisseur of music, I could feel my gorge rising against the gramophone and jazz and modern dance music. (131-2)
Again, Harry’s mind is full of ‘cannot’s and ‘never’s. He sees himself as too old to dance, and a man whose tastes are far too refined for jazz. Harry, however, is merely limiting his possibilities, as yet unable to understand that one does not attempt to enjoy jazz in the same way that one enjoys Mozart. The modern, sensual aesthetic, teaches Hermine, is no more or no less valuable than the high art that Harry so enjoys, but merely different. Pablo, the beautiful Latin saxophonist, tries to demonstrate the same:
“. . . Mozart, perhaps, will
still be played in a hundred years and
There is a place in creation, implies Pablo, for every type of music under the sun; though some pieces will endure and others will not, all are good and valuable in their way to the people who love them. The parallel to Harry’s own life is clear: there is a place in his being for every type of experience and every type of self, each to be enjoyed for its singular beauties and gifts. By hanging on so desperately to the past, Harry is depriving himself of the pleasures of the present, and adding to his misery by unnecessarily viewing the modern era as a fall from a state of enlightenment.
Freed from the Victorian age,
and Orlando paint two very
different pictures of how individuals deal with rapid cultural change and its
effect on self and identity. For the most part Orlando, whose self-image only
loosely revolves around nature and literature, changes easily with her times
and circumstances, taking on and discarding roles as Harry might change
clothes. Harry, however, must be painfully taught that his self is not the
clearly defined, fixed dichotomy that he imagined. His dependence on an overly
simplistic and inaccurate mental system leaves him miserable, inflexible, and
bitter towards a modern world which he neither participates in nor understands.
Only when Harry begins to accept the strategy that
Taken together, these two novels offer excellent advice for the individual attempting to cope with the rapid changes of a world at the start of the twenty-first century. Communications technology has exploded, allowing computer users across the world from each other to transmit information in the blink of an eye. The Internet, which once belonged solely to universities, governmental organizations and a few intrepid hackers, is now increasingly the home of businesses, social and political groups, and every adolescent who can click a mouse button.
As psychologist Sherry Turkle argues in Life on the Screen, social life on the Internet is providing real-life applications of postmodern theories that previously seemed entirely abstract. Users are able to maintain multiple personas online and take on social roles other than their own (with gender switching being among the most common experiments). Though exploration of undeveloped parts of the personality is accomplished through the supernatural in Orlando and Steppenwolf, the youth of today are exploring these same realms with readily available communications technology. In this frightening and exciting time of social and technological transition, many fear that the ability to adopt alternative personas on the Internet encourages escapist tendencies and retards real-world social skills. As both Harry and Orlando demonstrate, however, this game of personas and roles can also be a tool for liberation and personal growth. As hysteria concerning the supposed dangers of the Internet continues to circulate through the mainstream media, it is essential that we recognize and study the social and psychological ramifications of a wired society. The flexible, fragmented, liberated identities that Woolf and Hesse could only imagine are already, for those who seek them, a reality.
Hesse, Hermann. Steppenwolf.
Hume, David. A Treatise of Human Nature.
Jung, C.G. The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious.
Copyright (c) 2002 by Christine Hoff Kraemer