Reading by the light of a burning phoenix: an inquiry into faith, deliverance, and despair within humankind's paradoxical suspension between the conditional and the unconditional in the work of Immanuel Kant and Hermann Hesse
Date of Degree
PhD (Doctor of Philosophy)
This thesis offers a new interpretation of Hermann Hesse's Steppenwolf. This interpretation is grounded on Immanuel Kant's moral philosophy and is centered on a discussion and analysis of an inescapable paradox which is fundamental to the human condition. I argue that our rational capacity exposes us to an unconditional and insuperable moral demand. However, we have only ever a finite material capacity to offer in response to this autonomous command. It is our fate, therefore, to impose conditions on our own unconditional imperative, that is, to exist as a self-evident contradiction. Since it is possible to escape neither the conditioned nor the unconditioned pole, we must eventually despair of the possibility of moral sufficiency. I argue that Steppenwolf is an aesthetic articulation of and response to this radical and tragic disparity within the structure of the human being. The first of four chapters focuses on Kant's moral philosophy and offers a philosophical foundation for the discussion of this disparity. I investigate the most basic structures of freedom, autonomy and responsibility in an effort to reveal and acknowledge this inherent human contradiction. The second chapter locates my position within the tradition of Steppenwolf interpretation. My own interpretation of Steppenwolf follows. By means of Hesse's non-fictional writings, I situate some of the novel's ambiguities within the larger context of Hesse's written thought. I argue that Steppenwolf chronicles one man's resisted progression toward the despairing acknowledgment of his own moral inadequacy. I also argue that Steppenwolf offers an intimation of deliverance, but only in the form of willing and anonymous self-sacrifice in the name of the impossible ideal. The final chapter considers a fundamental three stage moral development described by both Kant and Hesse. The progression from one stage to the next seems rationally impossible. However, stage progression can be accomplished by means of enabling aesthetic and symbolic experiences. By means of this analysis I explain why the immortal can appear in the temporal realm only in the unconditional and self-abandoning submission of the finite to self-evident, yet impossible, practical commands.
vi, 344 pages
Includes bibliographical references (pages 3441-344).
Copyright 2006 Patrick James McCauley