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

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.

The World Broke in Two by Bill Goldstein

The World Broke in Two (cover)Bill Goldstein’s book looks at a single year (1922) in the life of four writers — Virginia Woolf, E M Forster, T S Eliot, and D H Lawrence — all of whom were at some sort of creative impasse at the beginning of the year, and all of whom, by the end of it, had set out in a new direction:

“Behind these four writers’ creative struggles and triumphs and private dramas—nervous breakdowns, chronic illness, intense loneliness, isolation, and depression, not to mention the difficulties of love and marriage and legal and financial troubles—lay a common spectral ghost: the cataclysm of World War I that each of them, in 1922, almost four years after the Armistice, was at last able to deal with creatively.”

None of these writers fought in the war, but all were deeply affected by it. Lawrence, for instance, had pretty much been hounded out of Britain; first being found unfit to fight, then being suspected (because he had a German wife) of being a spy. Woolf’s mental suffering during the war might have happened anyway, but it certainly can’t have helped to know that, while she was fighting her own inner battle, the world on the outside was tearing itself apart. Eliot’s breakdown — partly due to overwork, partly to his troubled marriage, partly to the effort of writing his poetry — expressed itself in The Waste Land, but chimed well enough with the post-war mood that, when it eventually came out, was taken to be expressive of the times. E M Forster, meanwhile, had been stuck on his “Indian fragment” for more than ten years. His previous novel, Howard’s End, had come out back in 1910, and some people were assuming he’d died.

The War shattered the world, and with it all the old certainties. To these writers, it was as if the very nature of human being had changed. How could anyone write in the same old way? But all four very much needed to write, and needed to find a new way of doing it, to say what they had to say:

“The techniques these writers experimented with in 1922 were an attempt to make personal and artistic sense of a dislocation in time and consciousness between the country England had been before the war and what it was now, and between the artists they had been then and the pioneers they were becoming.”

What each of them needed — or had found, but needed the confidence to see through — was a way of exploring their inner worlds, of expressing dissonant, complex inner states, where there was no established technique for doing so. It was as if, as far as the novel was concerned, human beings had ceased to be defined entirely by their position in a society bound by shared values (as they were to the Victorians), and now had to be understood, each of them, as a world of their own. Eliot’s The Waste Land is perhaps most purely about that sense of isolation and separation; Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, with its narrative centre skipping from character to character, combines that sense of each us being our own, separate, vibrant inner world of memories, sensations, regrets, judgements, and passing notions, with the sense of constantly brushing against the equally distinctive worlds of others, all the time apart from them, but at the same time connected, by shared memories and experiences.

Eliot finished The Waste Land near the beginning of the year — during his convalescence from a breakdown — but seems to have spent most of the rest of 1922 being difficult with his potential publishers, on the one hand asking for as much money as he could get, on the other failing to type up the poem and let his publishers see what they were actually paying for. Forster returned from an official position in India, stopping in Egypt to see a man he’d fallen in love with years previously, only to find him dying. Woolf began the year in bed, recovering from illness. Lawrence, the writer who, of the four, I know least about, is the most distant from the others. While Woolf, Eliot and Forster all met up quite often in England in 1922, Lawrence was in Italy, Australia, Ceylon, and then America. (Perhaps for the best. As Goldstein says: “There was very little about Lawrence that wasn’t irritating to someone… The only possible permanent reconciliation with Lawrence was a posthumous one.”)

E M Forster, painted by Dora Carrington

The thing that seems to have acted as a turning point for at least the three novelists covered here was reading two books. James Joyce’s Ulysses had been serialised between 1918 and 1920, but was published in hardback in 1922, and it was in this form that Woolf, Forster and Lawrence read it. This was also the year that translations of Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu started coming out in English. And generally, among those three novelists, the basic reaction seems to have been the same: that Ulysses was technically impressive, though something of a drag to get through, but Proust was a revelation, offering proof that there was a way to explore the new inner life in a novel.

Eliot told Woolf that Ulysses was “a landmark, because it destroyed the whole of the 19th century”, but that wasn’t what a novelist desperate to find a way to start a new novel wanted to hear. Woolf felt Ulysses was important, but found it “a mis-fire” — “Genius it has I think; but of the inferior water.” Lawrence and Forster made similar remarks. With Proust, though, the language is very different. “I plunged into Proust,” Forster wrote. Woolf longed to “sink myself in” Proust “all day”, and, Goldstein notes, although she realised she couldn’t write like Proust, soon enough, having read him, “she was writing like herself again.”

By the end of 1922, Woolf was working on Mrs Dalloway; Forster on A Passage to India; Eliot had published The Waste Land; Lawrence, in Kangaroo, had written directly of the experiences that had led him to leave wartime England.

The Worm Ouroboros, cover by Keith Henderson

Inevitably, I can’t help thinking about the fantastic and supernatural fiction of the time. I’ve covered some of it on this blog: 1922, for instance, saw the publication of E R Eddison’s The Worm Ouroboros, which certainly wasn’t seeking new models of what it meant to be human, but can still be seen to be addressing the aftermath of the war, though in a very different way. Stella Benson’s Living Alone (1919), and J M Barrie’s Mary Rose (1920) are both post-World War I works, and Tolkien’s experiences in the war certainly shaped The Lord of the Rings. But it was the supernatural fiction of the 1890s that seemed to have already been writing about a new way of understanding what it meant to be human. The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mister Hyde and The Portrait of Dorian Gray both addressed the idea that the old model, of people being a single, distinct personality both within and without, no longer worked. Modernist works like Mrs Dalloway and The Waste Land seemed to be trying to work out how to write about what it meant to be human when you threw away this idea of being a single person altogether. The Waste Land takes fragmentation as its central metaphor. Hesse looked at the same idea — of one person being multiple — in his 1927 book, Steppenwolf. His idea was that that inner multiplicity could only be fully accommodated by indulging every part of it to the full. (Which reminds me of what Krag says to Maskull as the reason for his having to make such a violent, disturbing, and personality-changing journey across Tormance in A Voyage to Arcturus: to “run through the gamut”.)

Mrs Dalloway, first edition, cover by Vanessa Bell

But it seems to be Woolf, in Mrs Dalloway, who accepts and finds a way to work with the idea that we are not of “fixed and enduring form” (as Hesse puts it), by presenting her protagonists less as characters in the Dickens manner (with fixed external traits and not much else besides) than as constantly-changing centres of experience, whose personalities alter depending on whom they are with, and what memories or sensations come foremost to their mind. It feels like the most healing of the ideas made in response to this “world broke in two”.

But, of course, it has its dark side, in Septimus Smith, the most explicit victim of the World War presented in any of the four works Goldstein discusses. Smith is an example of what can go wrong with this new idea of human beings, when they lose their delicate centre and become trapped by violent memories and unfaceable emotions overpowering their present reality. Smith’s “writings” — his obsessive and often nonsensical ideas — are his way to try to fix some sort of centre in his wildly-decentred inner world, but they are unworkable (“there is no death”, “there is no crime”, “trees are alive”). Where Mrs Dalloway herself slips nostalgically into the past and drifts back to the present, all the time making new, minor adjustments to her understanding of herself, Smith flounders in a storm of experiences that no idea of what it means to be human can ever help him with. For him, the world is The Waste Land, but it’s debatable whether reading Eliot’s poem would have helped him. Perhaps reading Woolf’s novel might?

The Outsider by Colin Wilson

Wilson_TheOutsider_2001There’s a small list of books I’ve immediately re-read after first reading them, and Colin Wilson’s The Outsider is on it. At the time (I must have been 21 or 22), I’d never read any philosophy, nor much literature outside of SF, fantasy & horror, and part of the impact the book had on me came from its introducing me to subjects I’d never looked into before, but which I soon realised I had a great hunger for. It’s humbling to realise Wilson himself was 24 when he wrote it. By that point he’d already read more books than I, at twice my then-age, have managed even now — and he’d not only read them, but thought about them.

It’s a hallmark of Wilson’s writing that he’s deeply and infectiously engaged in anything he’s writing about, something that’s even more true of this, his first book. What, then, is it about? A general study of the figure of ‘the Outsider’ in literature would be too diffuse; this is the study of a selection of figures that enable Wilson to ask the questions he most wants to ask. So what is a Wilsonian Outsider?

‘…the Outsider is a man who cannot live in the comfortable, insulated world of the bourgeois, accepting what he sees and touches as reality. “He sees too deep and too much,” and what he sees is essentially chaos. For the bourgeois, the world is fundamentally an orderly place, with a disturbing element of the irrational, the terrifying, which his preoccupation with the present usually permits him to ignore. For the Outsider, the world is not rational, not orderly. When he asserts his sense of anarchy in the face of the bourgeois’ complacent acceptance, it is not simply the need to cock a snook at respectability that provokes him; it is a distressing sense that truth must be told at all costs, otherwise there can be no hope for an ultimate restoration of order. Even if there seems no room for hope, truth must be told.’

What it comes down to is a basic question asked of life itself: ‘Ultimate Yes, or Ultimate No?’ The non-Outsider says, ‘Ultimate Yes, obviously,’ but this is the dismissive reaction of someone who’s never had to make the choice. The Outsider, who ‘sees too deep and too much’, has to ask the question every moment of every day, either recoiling in horror at the suffering in the world (‘Ultimate No’), or discovering, once again, in moments of intense affirmation, his own particular ‘Ultimate Yes’ — but always in spite of all that could lead to an ‘Ultimate No’:

‘The way lies forward, into more life… accept the ordeal… “ever further into guilt, ever deeper into human life”… Life itself is an exile. The way home is not the way back.’

A Voyage to Arcturus, Ballantine Books, cover by Bob Pepper

A Voyage to Arcturus, Ballantine Books, cover by Bob Pepper

(Those last two sentences can’t help reminding me of the journey towards our ‘true home’ in David Lindsay’s A Voyage to Arcturus, a book I also first read, and immediately re-read, around the same time, without knowing Wilson had written about it. Re-reading The Outsider now, I’m struck by how similar the two books are, both in subject matter and basic form. Both begin by rejecting the idea of normal, ‘bourgeois’ reality: in Arcturus, this is the gathering described in the opening chapter, ‘The Séance’; in The Outsider, this is in Wilson’s opening sentence — ‘At first sight, the Outsider is a social problem’ — and his discussion of Henri Barbusse’s novel, L’Enfer, in particular the dinner table scene, which is, like Arcturus’s séance, a social gathering where something shocking — the story of a local murder — is presented for entertainment. Both books then go through a series of explorations and rejections of possible answers to the questions they’re asking, leading, ultimately, to a more visionary conclusion.)

In 2001, The Outsider, having been constantly in print since its first publication in 1956, was re-published with some additional after-thoughts by Wilson, in which he summarises the Outsider’s position:

‘…it still seems to me that the whole “Outsider problem” is epitomised in the contrast between Van Gogh’s painting The Starry Night and the words of his suicide note: “Misery will never end.”’

Manic_Street_Preachers-The_Holy_Bible_album_cover“La Tristesse Durera” — not coincidentally the title of one of my favourite songs by one of the most Outsider-ish (in the Wilsonian sense) bands, the Manic Street Preachers. (Their Holy Bible is a modern ‘Outsider document’ if ever there was one, highlighting all the ‘Ultimate No’s’ of the 20th century, from serial killers to eating disorders to concentration camps — issues not touched upon by Wilson in his first book, though serial killers were a speciality of his later work. The energy of the music itself acts as an ‘Ultimate Yes’. Of course, the fate of Richey Edwards, who disappeared after the album’s release, touches on the question that made Wilson start his book in the first place: why did so many young men of genius in the 19th and early 20th centuries end up killing themselves?)

The Outsider was published in 1956. There’s something about that era, the mid-1950s to mid-1960s, that had a much more serious intellectual air about it. Writers could expect their public to have a basic familiarity, and interest in, both new scientific ideas and experimental art. The era also had its dark side, as when ‘the Establishment’ grew defensive. Perhaps sensing this non-university-educated upstart was getting too confident, Wilson’s sequel, Religion and the Rebel (1957), was reviewed as scornfully as his first book was praised. He went on to write a total of six books in his ‘Outsider sequence’, but it wasn’t until the 1970s, with the success of his massive tome, The Occult, that he was once more taken seriously as a writer in his homeland (other countries were far more enthusiastic, and less duplicitous).

Colin Wilson, from the back of Dreaming to Some Purpose

Colin Wilson, from the back of Dreaming to Some Purpose

For me, The Outsider stands alongside other books such as the already-mentioned A Voyage to Arcturus, Alan Garner’s Red Shift, Hermann Hesse’s Steppenwolf, J G Ballard’s The Atrocity Exhibition, that are a form of ‘crisis literature’, in that they’re both about, and are often the result of, a crisis in the author and the culture. They seem to call for an intellectual response — the need to decode, categorise, ‘solve’ — but more and more I think these books are primarily emotional statements than steps towards some sort of rational answer. The Outsider describes a stage we can all come to — and hopefully pass through — each time we find ourselves seeing ‘too deep and too much’, beyond the comfortable myopia of our personal boundaries, or those of our times. The distress of alienation (from self, or old ideas, or from family, or society, or culture), and the need to move forward into a newer, stronger certainty, make these into books of ‘crisis’, and each solution must be new-found, new-made, by each individual. But at least some such individuals leave guidebooks for us; and Wilson’s could be the arch-guidebook, or certainly the vital first step, composed as it is of fragments of others’ — a guidebook of guidebooks.