Medusa by E H Visiak

E H Visiak’s Medusa, A Story of Mystery and Ecstasy and Strange Horror (1929) is the narrative of Will Harvell, written in old age but looking back on an adventure from his early years. As a boy he twice found himself responsible for someone’s death — the first his abusive, apoplectic grandfather, the second a school bully — and as a result runs away and finds himself embroiled in a sea-going adventure. He becomes the companion of Mr Huxtable, a gentleman whose only son has been kidnapped by pirates, and who has returned to England to sell enough property to pay the ransom. Now he’s got the money, he’s setting out, with Will, on the ship of Captain Blythe, a blustering, short-tempered man always harping on about his few tenuous connections to even minor gentry. When Blythe’s not kowtowing to the gentlemanly authoritative Huxtable, he’s insulting his curiously passive ship’s mate, Mr Falconer, whose one interest is, as Will puts it, “the making and rigging of little ships, but having such strange and outlandish figureheads as (I know not how otherwise to express it) affrighted my soul”. Also on board are the old, Bible-reading sailor Giles Kedgley, and his opposite, the lazy, work-shy drunk Obadiah Moon, whose only aim in life seems to be to obtain as much fresh fish as he can lay his hands on — and far more than one man, surely, can eat.

It’s worth noting these characters as, for the first half of the book, there’s not much of the mystery, ecstasy, or strange horror of Medusa’s subtitle, and the narrative is sustained by Will’s delineation of this little cast, as well as the day-to-day thrills, difficulties, and novelties of a sea voyage. (I don’t know if Visiak himself ever went to sea, but his descriptions of life on board a 17th/18th century vessel are convincing.) Medusa is written in the style of Stevenson’s Treasure Island, but I think Visiak draws the more lifelike characters. For me, only Long John Silver emerged as a genuinely living presence from Treasure Island, but here Blythe and Moon both make the grade — Moon in particular, who’s something of a would-be Long John Silver, if only he weren’t so lazy and cowardly. He’s the least likeable of Visiak’s little troupe, but the most lifelike.

Cover to German edition

It’s at the halfway point the mysteries begin. They come to the pirate ship Huxtable has voyaged all this way to meet with, only to find it deserted, Mary Celeste-style — except for Mr Vertembrex, a naturalist who’d been tagging along with the pirates, but is now reduced to a mentally childlike state, doing nothing but smile and thread glass beads onto a string. There have already been rumours among Blythe’s crew of a ghost or strange creature seen aboard the ship at night, but now Will, Huxtable and Blythe see it, suddenly standing in a doorway:

’Twas squat and shaggy dark, having prodigious great limbs and hands and feet, that were webbed as a fish’s fins, or a manatee’s flappers; but his face, with its dwindled high peaked forehead, and great globular black glistening eyes…

Visiak’s mysteries and horrors begin to accumulate, but not before we’ve had that third element in his subtitle, the ecstasy — which is, perhaps, the strangest part of it all. There are a couple of moments when Will finds himself being overtaken by a sort of ecstatic trance. At one point, looking at a picture of Mr Huxtable’s late wife, for instance:

My soul was translated with a rapture such as cannot be uttered; enchanted as by the dazzling bright radiance of a celestial sun.

At another time, shortly before the full horrors begin, the sky takes on a “strange complexion of dark violet”, as if it were both day and night at the same time. The feeling is not so much that weird horrors are looming, as that things are entering a zone of strangeness, where normal laws no longer apply. Mr Huxtable tells Will an old legend he’s heard, of a race of once-enlightened beings who perceived not just with their senses, but directly into the essential nature of things, yet who fell from that height and, seeking refuge from both their own decadence and their homeland’s sinking into the sea, used certain “invisible rays of more than chymical efficacy” to split their very souls into their constituent elements, and so transformed themselves into creatures of the water.

Then a whole shoal of “squat and shaggy” fish-men arrive and kidnap Will, along with most of the rest of the crew, taking them to an all-but-submerged island, where they’re cast into a cavern, there to await the tentacles of a giant squid-monster. The strange thing is, the crew don’t see the fish-men as repulsive, but as “feminine and ravishing forms, all softness and delight, lifting up their alluring arms”, like the mermaids of sailors’ legends.

Will, of course, escapes, and is even told (by the suddenly-recovered Mr Vertembrex) “There will be a time for explanation”, but that time never arrives. What remains of the crew escape, and Will, in old age, writes his narrative.

August 1983 issue of Twilight Zone Magazine (image from isfdb)

Medusa gained something of a reputation as a lost classic of the weird when Karl Edward Wagner listed it as one of his “13 Best Supernatural Horror Novels” in the June 1983 issue of Twilight Zone Magazine. In the August issue, R S Hadji listed it as one of his “13 Neglected Masterpieces of the Macabre”, concluding with the remark that “Visiak achieved the terror and wonder, the sense of awe, that Lovecraft could only grasp at.”

It’s no wonder, then, that the book became sought-after. And it’s no wonder some readers were underwhelmed. Medusa works best not if you come to it thinking it’s going to out-Lovecraft Lovecraft (it won’t), but if you take it how it at first appears, as a Robert Louis Stevenson pastiche that, in its second half, takes an increasingly strange dive into the weird.

(There are similarities with Lovecraft, though. Not just the sea-going narrative that ends in a submerged island where we meet a tentacled, mind-affecting monster. Another moment, when Huxtable is relating his old legend, sounds like it could be describing a different Lovecraft story, “From Beyond”: “…certain of these rays discovered many creatures that were ordinarily invisible (being transparent to the eye), of which some were of an incredible oddity and strangeness to amuse and enlarge the mind.”)

The weirdness, though, isn’t there in the service of cosmic horror, as it is with Lovecraft. Nor is it, as Colin Wilson implies (writing about the novel in 1998’s The Books in My Life), wholly psychological:

“I suspect that any Freudian psychiatrist, reading Medusa, would have declared unhesitatingly that it was a kind of dream-novel symbolising Visiak’s own fear of sex. And I suspect he would be right.”

(This is perhaps most convincing when you consider that the submerged island at the end of the novel is seen only as a phallic pillar of rock rising from the sea. But this makes me think of another thing — Visiak was the son of four generations of sculptors, and the pillar of rock could just as well symbolise a sort of dark father figure, or the unformed self, yet to be shaped out of the formless rock.)

But the weirdness in Visiak’s novel is more there, I think, to point to another order of reality, not only more horrific than the world we know, but also more ecstatic, both holy and unholy. Visiak isn’t insisting on any particular interpretation, he just wants to open our eyes to the fact there’s more to reality than our day-to-day selves might accept.

Another, earlier, Wilson quote (from 1965’s Eagle and Earwig) is better:

“Visiak seems to be haunted by a vision of the unsayable. Primarily he is a poet, not a conscious literary artist…”

New Tales of Horror, 1934, edited by John Gawsworth, where “Medusan Madness” appeared

Wilson writes this in relation to a short story of Visiak’s, “Medusan Madness” (published in 1934), which feels like an ultra-compressed version of Medusa. A visitor to a psychiatric rest-home hears the story of an intense and otherworldly experience one of the inmates had at sea. We never hear the story ourselves, but the narrator, on hearing it, has a vision of a weird sky over the sea and comes down with whatever “madness” caused the other to become an inmate of the home. Both of them, from then on, take refuge in talking to a woman they call Diomedia, who seems the equivalent, in this short story, to Will Harvell’s visions of Huxtable’s dead wife in Medusa: a mother-figure who acts as a refuge from the world’s darkest extremes. It’s perhaps easy to fit this into that same Freudian view, with the mother-figure representing a retreat into the certainties of childhood. But Visiak doesn’t see childhood as a place of retreat, rather as our one moment of clear perception, after which adulthood is nothing but confusion and exile. As Huxtable says:

“This topic of childhood and the enchantment it casts, has powerfully worked in my thoughts, and was the ferment of my philosophy when first I became sensible of its loss and what a brave glittering robe was fallen from me into the past. It’s my first chapter of Genesis, which, in that story of lost Paradise, is a grand fable of the beginning of our life in this world; when we are innocently happy, or, as I may express this harmonious state, happily whole. There is as yet no rift to set body and spirit out of tune in their jangling spheres, and the elements are so mingled in us as that we may truly be called, in those eloquent words, living souls…”

In both “Medusan Madness” and Medusa, this transcendental mother represents humanity itself in the face of the very inhuman weirdness that’s out there in the world, compared to which we’re all innocent and bewildered children. The proper attitude to take to the world, the proper way to look at it, is with the open-eyed innocence of Will Huxtable, to whom no explanations are offered, and who is only left with the experience of mystery, and ecstasy, and strange horror.

A Glastonbury Romance by John Cowper Powys

1975 Picador PB, art by Mark Harrison

In some ways, John Cowper Powys’s massive 1933 novel A Glastonbury Romance bears comparison with David Lindsay’s massive 1932 novel Devil’s Tor. Both are set in rural South West England, where mystical visions seem to presage a worldwide spiritual or religious revival; both spend a lot of time examining, in intense detail, the inner lives of their characters; and both are, as already said, massive (A Glastonbury Romance being more than twice the length of David Lindsay’s 200,000-word “monster”). And this massiveness is part of their point — they want to come across as major statements, their physical heft a corollary to the weight of what they’re trying to say. But Lindsay’s and Powys’s intents are poles apart. Lindsay’s fundamental urge was world-rejection; his need was for a radical re-understanding of the universe’s troubling core mystery. Powys, on the other hand, was all about acceptance of life. To him:

“There is no ultimate mystery! Such a phrase is meaningless, because the reality of Being is forever changing under the primal and arbitrary will of the First Cause. The mystery of mysteries is Personality, a living Person; and there is that in Personality which is indetermined, unaccountable, changing at every second.”

But Powys isn’t the sunny-minded optimist you’d imagine as Lindsay’s opposite. He doesn’t turn away from (Lindsay’s touchstone) pain. He believed in accepting all of life, from the sublime and mystical to the crude and rude, and not merely with a stoic shrug, but by seizing it with an almost pagan ferocity. As one of the central characters of A Glastonbury Romance, the unconventional preacher, faith-healer, and (for most of the novel) Mayor of Glastonbury, “Bloody Johnny” Geard, says of his (very personal and idiosyncratic) beliefs:

“It matters not at all from what cups, from what goblets, we drink, so long as without being cruel, we drink up Life. The sole meaning, purpose, intention, and secret of Christ, my dears, is not to understand Life, or mould it, or change it, or even to love it, but to drink of its undying essence!”

The novel starts with the reading of a will. Canon Crow has died, and his family, with members ranging from the trampish rogue John Crow to the opportunistic industrialist Philip Crow, gather to learn that none of them has inherited anything. The whole £40,000 has been left to “Bloody Johnny” Geard of Glastonbury. Geard, though, does not see this as a personal bequest. He believes it’s his mission to turn his home town of Glastonbury — resting place of the Holy Grail and the Blood of Christ — into a world-class site of spiritual pilgrimage, “a mystical rival to Rome and Jerusalem”, and sets about doing just that. His first act is to announce a Passion Play, with mixed-in Arthurian elements, and he hires John Crow to organise it and advertise it to the world.

But really, Powys is almost wilfully uninterested in plot. His intent, as stated in a 1953 preface to a later edition, was to examine:

“Nothing more and nothing less than the effect of a particular legend, a special myth, a unique tradition, from the remotest past in human history, upon a particular spot on the surface of this planet together with its crowd of inhabitants of every age and of every type of character.”

Which reminds me of Alan Moore’s intent with From Hell, to take the Jack the Ripper murders and examine them as a “human event” that touches the lives of many different people in many different ways. Powys is doing the same with the myth of the Holy Grail. But even this is to imply A Glastonbury Romance has more focus than it has, and I’d say a better guide to the sort of thing this novel is doing is a quote from the critic George Santayana, who said of Dickens (in a 1921 essay called “Dickens”):

“…what he had was a vast sympathetic participation in the daily life of mankind.”

And that seems more like what Powys is doing. With the excuse of following the events (very loosely, and often only as background or rumours) surrounding the putting-on of Geard’s Passion Play (in the first half of the novel) and, in the second half, the conversion of Glastonbury to a Socialistic commune, and Geard’s use of the healing powers of its “Grail Fountain” to turn the town into a British Lourdes, Powys dips into the inner lives of his many and varied characters, some of whom have nothing to do with the Play or those later events, or who only touch them lightly. Even major-seeming plot events are brushed aside offhand. In one chapter, Geard takes Tittie Petherton, who has been suffering awful pains from cancer, to the Grail Fountain, to cure her and provide his Glastonbury with its first miracle. We leave them there, mid-cure, and hear nothing for several chapters, then all-too-briefly glimpse Tittie Petherton, apparently fully cured, enjoying scones at a tea. It’s never stated that she’s cured, though she’s obviously better, and we don’t get the sort of disbelieving or believing reactions you want to hear. It’s almost as if the actual relation of plot is an embarrassment to Powys, and best brushed under the carpet. (Though it has to be said that in four of the book’s longest chapters — that dealing with the Pageant itself, and the final three which round off the book — Powys resolves his major plot strands with the same sort of dramatic brio as Peake displays in his Gormenghast novels’ major set-pieces.)

Powys is interested, most of all, in inhabiting the lives of his multitude of characters, in sampling their peculiar ways of experiencing the world, of thinking about it, of feeling about it, of relating to it. And he isn’t only interested in human characters. His is “a universe so thrilling and so aching with teeming consciousness” that, in wandering from one character to another, he occasionally brings in a non-human consciousness, including at one point a tree, or the sun (which takes a particular dislike to the Vicar of Glastonbury, though this only results in his feeling the heat a little more than others if he goes outside without a hat), the dead Canon Crow freshly laid in his grave (who has an ethereal though down-to-earth conversation with his wife, who’s buried in another country), and the “First Cause” — the God of Powys’s universe, a being whose nature generates all the good and all the evil in our world. (For Powys, it’s only human beings who can actually “produce good out of evil” as “this they do of their absolute free-will”; the First Cause just pours both good and evil out, constantly.)

In this way, Powys seems to stand in an odd relation to the modernist writers of his time. On the one hand, he employs the stream-of-consciousness technique of dipping into his characters’ minds, to relate both their consequential and their inconsequential thoughts, just as Virginia Woolf does in Mrs Dalloway. (Also her technique of shifting from one character to another as they pass in the street, or glance one another across a field.) On the other hand, he has no interest in the concept of the unreliable narrator, or of giving up any of the authorial authority the likes of Dickens took for granted. Which isn’t to say he comes across as dictatorial. Rather, he’s convincing through the sheer novelty and strangeness of the inner worlds he presents us with. In a way, Powys, as narrator, is like one of the “invisible anthropologists” he sometimes mentions as witnessing the events of his novel — the disembodied inhuman entities he tells us are lingering around his many characters, watching what they do with mild, dispassionate interest. Powys actually gets a mention in Colin Wilson’s monumental study The Occult for his having “deliberately set out to cultivate ‘multi-mindedness’, to pass out of his own identity into that of people or even objects”, and not just in his novels, but in his daily life.

There’s a quote from Wilson on the back of my 1975 paperback edition of the novel, calling it “Possibly the greatest novel of the twentieth century, and one of the great mystical masterpieces of all time”. Powys’s mysticism, though, isn’t anything like Lindsay’s. With Lindsay, visions give his characters a glimpse of another reality, and when they return to this world it’s with a feeling they’re sinking back into a second-rate or false reality. With Powys, visionary experiences are just one part of the vastness of the one, single reality — a rare part, yes, but still a part of this world, not a glimpse of another. And his characters’ visionary experiences don’t, in the end, turn out to be that important. Three of his main characters, the roguish John Crow, the would-be-saint Sam Dekker, and the would-be-sinner Owen Evans, have visions. Evans, who thinks playing the part of Christ on the Cross in the Pageant will cure him of his obsessive sadistic fantasies, does have a vision of Christ, but the effect of that vision wears off, and what actually saves him, in the end, is the love of his wife. Sam sees the Holy Grail, and feels the need to rush around telling everyone, but where he expects to have to overcome disbelief, he’s instead faced with indifference. John Crow has a vision of Excalibur, but this has even less effect; chapters later he’s disgusted with Geard’s peddling the reality of the Arthurian myths as “lies”. Geard, the most mystically-minded character in the book, is more childlike than saint-like, and in place of Lindsay’s need, in Devil’s Tor, for his characters to give themselves up to serve that book’s demanding, tragic Goddess, Geard sees Christ more as “a Power to be exploited”:

“He [Christ] was the Mayor’s great magician, his super-Merlin… Never once had it crossed the threshold of Mr Geard’s consciousness that it was his duty to live a life of self-sacrifice.”

(I like that fact that, ultimately, the source of Geard’s force of personality is “the man’s complete freedom from self-consciousness”.)

Powys’s mysticism is not about glimpses of other worlds, but more an awed appreciation of this one. Every moment, for him, however quotidian, is imbrued with a sort of mystical light, and he loves to let us into the mind of a minor character and reveal that, in some quiet way, they have the secret of life’s true meaning, and have had it, quite naturally, since they were born:

“When not in acute physical pain, or in the presence of acute physical pain, Nancy Stickles enjoyed every moment of life. She liked to touch life, hear life, smell life, taste life, see life…”

US 1st edition

It’s an odd thing, though, that for a book published in 1933, and ostensibly set in “the present” — and which features an aeroplane, and cars, and I think at one point someone suggests using a telephone, though nobody has a radio, but evidently it is the 1930s — it makes absolutely no mention of the First World War. None of the characters thinks of it, or recalls having served in it, or has lost anyone to it, or been wounded in it. If Powys is a modernistic writer in the techniques he employs, he seems utterly indifferent to the driving force behind such works as The Waste Land or Mrs Dalloway (with its shell-shocked Septimus Smith). Powys doesn’t even present his life-acceptance as an answer to the worldwide trauma of the Great War, and the widespread loss of belief of the 20th century; it’s as though it just doesn’t affect him, so he doesn’t mention it. (Which is doubly odd, because Powys obviously has a real hatred of cruelty. He apparently had a belief that, early in life, his thinking ill of others caused them actual ill, so he practised a sort of generalised benevolence, so as not to magically cause anyone harm.)

It could be that, as I said with Peake’s Gormenghast, the war makes itself felt in the way both that book and this one ends with a flood. In A Glastonbury Romance, the army even turns out to help, but there’s just not the same feeling, as with Peake, of this being a terrible disaster thrust upon all its characters in the same way the war was thrust upon the real world. With Powys, it feels more as though he just needed to find a way to end his massive book, so came up with a flood, as a sort of watery full-stop.

Reading A Glastonbury Romance is like taking a holiday, not just in another place, but in a timeless time. It’s a glimpse into Powys’s own worldview, one obviously nurtured in a rural upbringing, free of the modern world’s onslaught of communication and networking, a world in which one could really develop an eccentric inner life, an individualistic and even mystic way of experiencing one’s own existence and the quiet, slow-paced, characterful worlds of nature, and other people. That, more than anything, is what lingers, having read this book. It’s less about getting from page 1 to page 1,120, than it is about switching to a different mode of existence whilst being nestled between its capacious pages — a subtler, stranger, and perhaps now-lost mode of existence, but certainly one I’m glad to find preserved in Powys’s novel.

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.