Wednesday, 30 March 2016

Herman Hesse, "Demian"

 – translated by W.J. Strachan – A London Panther 1969



Read from March 11th to 29th 2016

My Rating:


I will try not to be emotional and write an “objective” review, even though Hermann Hesse’s Demian moved me beyond words and explanations. Maybe because its serene tone and unaggressive intellectualism have a mesmerizing quality, or maybe because, just like Siddhartha some years later, it does not try to challenge or convince you. Or maybe because of the open-minded way in which it sees the world, it tells its story, it reveals its truth. And last but not least maybe because of the beautiful image of a perfect friendship the book leaves us with.

It has been said that Demian is an indispensable reading in order to begin to understand Herman Hesse’s prose, and I can see why. Like the above-mentioned Siddhartha, it follows the same route towards the inner self. But while Siddhartha chooses the path of the Buddhist serenity and separation from the world, Demian searches the path towards the world as a whole in which the contraries, even though they can’t be harmonized, neither can be separated.


This tiny, tiny book, which manages to be at the same time a psychological novel, a bildungsroman and a novel of idea (and brilliantly so) was published under the pseudonym Emil Sinclair, the name of a friend of Novalis, whom the author much admired; the pseudonym was necessary, for Hermann Hesse’s work had been rejected in Germany after he exiled himself in Switzerland and decided to write against the War. His decision had not been an easy one and the torment between the love for his country and the feeling he somehow betrayed it had consequences not only on his life but (fortunately!) also on his creation, sweeping his old system of values to make place for a new one, influenced both by Jung’s psychology and Nietzsche’s philosophy. Demian, written in 1917 and published in 1919, contains in nuce all the concepts that will haunt Hesse’s future works – such as “daemon”, “unconscious”, “anima”, “archetype”, “om”, “androgyne”, concepts one needs to be familiar with to fully understand his “magical thinking” that combines here ideas from both The Interpretation of Dreams and Beyond Good and Evil.

In fact, the author himself confessed that the name of the novel (which softly reminds of “daemon”) came to him in a dream, and the German philosophe’s influence upon his characters’ thinking is explicitly stated. On the other hand, Emil Sinclair is also the name of the narrator of the story, an older narrator who recalls his journey to his inner self from childhood (the book begins with the image of a disturbed child) to maturity (it ends with the image of a wounded young soldier). From the Prologue, Sinclair warns us that his story cannot be beautiful since it is true, and cannot be involved with all humanity since “each person is able to interpret himself to himself alone.” Nor is it easy or comfortable, since “nothing in the world is more distasteful to a man than to follow the path that leads to himself.”

His journey began when he was about ten and discovered for the first time the existence of two worlds – his home, a world of light, peaceful, Christian and safe, governed by moral principles, and the street, a world of darkness, vigorous, intriguing and frightful – and he couldn’t find a reason for their separation. It was the fascination with the second world that made him befriend a boy of bad repute, Franz Kromer and in order to be accepted by him he invented the story of a theft in which he had had the starring role. Kromer, although not really believing him, took full advantage of this lie and made him his personal servant, forcing him to steal and lie for him. This first acquaintance with the evil increased the gap between the narrator and his family, a gap never to be filled again by a boy who feels without being able to explain (yet) that the world is larger than the one his parents were trying to teach him to live in.

In this period of inner and outer torment an enigmatic boy appears to his school, Max Demian, seven years older and seeming even older, with a quiet dignity that discouraged friendship from the other boys even though he fascinates them.

I saw Demian’s face and remarked that it was not a boy’s face but a man’s and then I saw, or rather became aware, that it was not really the face of a man either; it had something different about it, almost a feminine element. And for the time being, his face seemed neither masculine nor childish, neither old nor young but a hundred years old, almost timeless and bearing the mark of other periods of history than our own. Animals might look thus, trees or stars. (…) All I saw was that he was different from the rest of us, that he was like an animal, a spirit or an image.

Demian, with its idol-like stillness and ageless quality and androgyne appearance is not a character but a symbol, a reference point in the narrator’s life, an archetypal hero with a thousand faces who takes by turn the role of the guardian angel who frees the narrator of Kromer, of the brother into Cain who stands tall and clear in a confused world, of the mentor who teaches him the values beyond good and evil, and of the friend who never leaves him behind. Demian is also the embodiment of Nietzsche’s superman, who lives by his own values separated from the conventional ethics, whose sharp vision embraces at the same time the shadow and the light, the weakness and the strength, the happiness and the suffering, without trying to harmonize or divide them, but accepting them in equal measure. He has only one but powerful weapon: the will-power that enables him to stay on his own path and show it to those with the same “sign”, the Cain sign. For Cain, Demian says, was not important in the story because of the fratricide, but because of the mark on his face that singularized him. In fact it was that sign that created the story of the fratricide and not the other way around:

“What happened and lay behind the whole origin of the story was the ‘sign’. Here was a man who had something in his face that frightened other people. They did not dare lay hands on him; he impressed them, he and his children. It is virtually certain that he bore no actual mark on his brow like a post mark! real life isn’t as crude as that. Rather there was some hardly perceptible mark, a little more intelligence and self-possession in his eyes than people were accustomed to. This man had power and they all went in awe of him; he had a ‘sign’. You can explain that how you will. People always want whatever is comfortable and puts them in the right.”

Like Siddhartha, Emil Sinclair acquires the Right View of the world through the dark mirror of the illusions the life blinds us with. His Nirvana is the God Abraxas, and he becomes, if he has not been all along, Demian:

The dressing was a painful business. So was everything else that happened to me afterwards. but when on the many such occasions I find the key and look deep down into myself where the images of destiny lie slumbering in the dark mirror, I only need to bend my head over the black mirror to see my own image which now wholly resembles him, my friend and leader.

And this final, superposed image, emerging strong, proud and clear from the abyss, is one of the most powerful, significant symbols of flesh made spirit, and of humanity redeemed by love I have ever read. 

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