Demian by Hermann Hesse

Although Hermann Hesse had been a published author since 1902, Demian (written in 1917, published in 1919) marked a new beginning for him as a writer. He had volunteered at the start of World War I and, found unfit for duty, was put to use taking care of prisoners of war. But he didn’t buy into the relentless patriotism of the times, and wrote against it, earning himself a tirade of hate from the press and through the mail. In the midst of this, his father died, his son became seriously ill, and his then-wife Maria Bernoulli (of the mathematical Bernoullis) was suffering from schizophrenia. Hesse had a breakdown, and began receiving psychoanalytic therapy from J B Lang, a doctor on Jung’s staff. Although later he was not uncritical of psychoanalysis (particularly when it was applied to literature), Hesse remained a friend of Lang’s, who treated him again whilst Hesse was writing Steppenwolf, and Hesse even returned the favour, seeing Lang through a crisis of his own. Hesse also became friends with Jung, and Jung’s ideas are an obvious influence on Hesse’s novels from this point on, though most markedly in Demian, which Colin Wilson, in The Outsider, identifies as the first of Hesse’s “major novels”. When it first came out, Demian was presented as the memoir of its protagonist, Emil Sinclair. It was only when it was in its ninth edition, the following year, having become a hit with young men coming back from the front wondering what the fighting had all been for, that the book was published under Hesse’s own name. (I can’t help wondering if any of its earlier readers might have felt a little betrayed on learning it was fiction, not autobiography.)

The story follows the development of its narrator, Emil Sinclair, from the age of ten to eighteen. At the start of the novel, although he lives in a comfortable, well-off and loving family, he’s aware that outside the warmth and light of his home there’s a world of darkness, chaos, crime, “servant girls and workmen, ghost stories and scandalous rumours, a gay tide of monstrous, intriguing, frightful, mysterious things”. He has his first brush with this world when an older boy blackmails him into stealing money from his parents. Sinclair is saved by another older boy, Max Demian, who seems much more mature than any of the other boys in the school, and more knowledgeable than many of the teachers.

Walking home together after a lesson on the story of Cain and Abel, Demian introduces Sinclair to an alternative interpretation: Cain was feared before he did anything wicked, and the story of his murdering his brother may be a later addition, provided as a justification for the fear people felt of this man who bore a special “mark” on his face, that set him apart from his fellows. Sharing this with his father, Sinclair is warned against such heretical thinking. For a while, Sinclair avoids Demian, and retreats once more into the familial “world of light”, though it feels, more and more, a lie.

This knowledge of the darkness in the world — and within himself — continues to work on Sinclair throughout his education, leading him to, at one point, become nothing but a drinking wastrel among the worst of his fellow students. But the influence of Max Demian continues to be felt, even when the boy himself is not there, and Sinclair pulls himself through, becoming, after that low point, a much more serious-minded solitary student, pursuing his own path to self-knowledge through dreams and painting, through which he tries to realise certain symbolic images that keep recurring to him — first the face of a young woman he idolises from a distance, then an image of a bird emerging from an egg which Max Demian pointed out on a faded, worn-down coat of arms above the doorway to Sinclair’s family home. When this bird image is finished, Sinclair sends it to Demian, even though he’s not sure Demian is still at his old address. He receives, by way of an answer, a slip of paper in his school book, reading:

“The bird is struggling out of the egg. The egg is the world. Whoever wants to be born must first destroy a world. The bird is flying to God. The name of the God is called Abraxas.”

Abraxas is a name tied to Gnosticism, and may be related to the word “Abracadabra”. (It may also be a mis-transcription of the far less impressive-sounding “Abrasax”.) Hesse, though, may have encountered it in a privately printed little volume called Seven Sermons to the Dead, which was the only portion of what is now known as The Red Book: Liber Novus that Jung published during his lifetime. (A translation of Seven Sermons, by Stephan A Hoeller, can be read online, at Gnosis.org.)

In these “sermons”, which condense Jung’s explorations of the deepest aspects of the unconscious, Abraxas is presented as a forgotten deity who combines and transcends good and evil, and seems a presiding deity of the unconscious:

“He is the unlikely likely one, who is powerful in the realm of unreality… he is undefinable life itself, which is the mother of good and evil alike… Abraxas, however, speaks the venerable and also accursed word, which is life and death at once… Abraxas generates truth and falsehood, good and evil, light and darkness with the same word in the same deed. Therefore Abraxas is truly the terrible one.”

As Sinclair is trying to find a way to contain both the light and darkness within himself, he wants to know more about this mysterious god. He meets a musician, Pistorius, who seems to want to be a priest of a new religion bringing Abraxas back into worship. At first, I thought Pistorius might have been Hesse’s characterisation of Jung, but several sources I’ve read say it’s a portrait of Hesse’s analyst, Lang. This part must have been written when Hesse was coming to the end of (or after) his analysis and was getting impatient with what he perceived as its limitations. Of Pistorius, he says:

“He had wanted to be a priest, to announce the new religion… But it was beyond his power to do so… He lingered too much in the past, his knowledge of ancient days was too precise; he knew far too much about Egypt, India, Mithras and Abraxas… the New must be really new and different and must spring up from new soil and not be created from museums and libraries.”

Hesse’s novel is all about finding “the New”, and how to be a human being in a world where many people:

“…are all conscious of the fact that the laws of life they have inherited are no longer valid, that they are living according to archaic tablets of the law, that neither their religion nor customs are adapted to our present-day needs.”

This is not the nineteenth-century world in which each person’s destiny is clear — for the young Sinclair, for instance, “my destiny in life was to become like my father and mother; pure, righteous and disciplined” — but a new world, with no established guide as to how to live. Hesse, through Sinclair, puts forward the idea that each human being “is a valuable, unique experiment”, “each one… an attempt on the part of nature to create a human being.”

As Sinclair says:

“I was… a ‘throw’ into the unknown, perhaps for some new purpose, perhaps for nothing, and my only vocation was to allow this ‘throw’ to work itself out in my innermost being, feel its will within me and make it wholly mine. That or nothing!”

And doing so, uniting in himself the dark and light worlds into one, whole, new world, may mean destroying the old one, but Hesse, in 1917, already knew such a destruction was on the cards, and the novel ends with Sinclair taking part in the First World War.

Hermann Hesse, image from The Dutch National Archives, via Wikipedia.

Throughout this latest read of Demian, I found myself at times reminded of another writer I hadn’t previously associated with Hesse, Gustav Meyrink (whose Angel of the West Window I reviewed last year). Demian treads the line between a psychologically-minded Bildungsroman and a novel of occult initiation full of strange, perhaps-visionary incidents. Max Demian, for instance, proves to have mental powers that enable him to make teachers ignore him when he doesn’t want to take part in a class, and even to will people to do certain things, if he thinks strongly enough. But the most Meyrink-ian aspects are where Sinclair’s involvement with his visionary inner world spills into the outer world: is Max Demian a person at all, or is he an aspect of Sinclair, an exteriorisation of his Jungian, realised Self?

Demian’s ending has always disappointed me, because its resolution is almost entirely visionary, or symbolic. (Colin Wilson says it “ends with a whirl of Shelleyan airy-fairy…”) It seems to me that novels based on beliefs such as Hesse was presenting, about the ultimate path of human destiny rather than being based on actual experience, run a real risk of ending in unconvincing wish-fulfilment, or petering out trying to avoid it. Demian does the latter, but not before presenting a very compelling picture of the dilemma of how to live in a world where there’s no clear, God-made plan for each and every man and woman. Hesse does provide something of an answer (“There was but one duty for a grown man; it was to seek the way to himself…”); it’s just finding a way to depict the culmination of that “way to himself” (which is surely never-ending). Still, Demian is my second-favourite Hesse novel (after Steppenwolf), and worth reading.

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