Tuesday, August 11, 2009
Demian by Hermann Hesse
Demian is a bildungsroman outlining the path to maturity of Emil Sinclair and his attendant awakening of unconscious and realisation of the self. When the story begins, Sinclair is a ten year old boy living a comfortable, bourgeouis existence in the early years of the twentieth century. Despite the ease of his existence, though, he is unsettled; he is conscious of two worlds – the world of light and safety, that of his parents, and the one outside – of darkness, dangerous and yet, in a way, appealing. Thus is set in train the ambiguity and duality at the heart of his being, and thus begins his quest for something else, his rebellion against the comfort of his safe family life.
His early years are shaped by two people: firstly, Franz Kromer, a typical small-town bully who extorts money from him and exacts favours; and secondly Max Demian, a strange, otherworldly boy, a couple of years older in age but appearing considerably more mature, almost adult. With Demian’s help, Sinclair breaks free from the tyranny of Franz Kromer and the two become friends. Demian is an enigmatic, almost magnetic character, and he begins to teach Sinclair about life, existence, the world: it is up to each individual, he tells him, to shape his own destiny. He shocks the younger boy with his radical interpretation of the story of Cain and Abel: the mark of Cain, he says, is not something to be deplored, but is rather a mark of distinction, and Cain’s act was not one of evil, but of necessity. Moreover, those who bear the mark of Cain – and it is clear that this includes both Demian and Sinclair – are in some way superior to the common herd. Sinclair listens to the older boy with a mixture of horror and fascination and gradually finds himself questioning all the certainties in his life. In this way, he embarks on his quest for knowledge and self-realisation.
Over the course of his early life he loses touch with Demian, first leaving for boarding school and then university but, even then, when crisis points in his life emerge, he finds he can reach out to his friend and, somehow, contact is made. Along the way the questing boy also attaches himself to further mentors, to the older schoolboy Alfons Beck who leads him, once more, from the safety of conventionality, the world of light, encouraging him to drink with such abandon that he comes close to being expelled from school; and Pistorius, the eccentric pastor and organist who teaches him gnostic theory and aspires himself to be a great leader of men towards a new religion. Each, in his way, teaches Sinclair something of life and acts as a guide across the various stages on the way to mature realisation, but neither is able to provide for him the solution – the salvation – he seeks. That must come, of course, from Max Demian, and from his mother, Frau Eva.
In the novel’s final third, Sinclair comes ever closer to Demian and especially Frau Eva, who is, for him, the personification of perfection, a symbol of life in all its affirmation, at once a mother, a friend, a guide and – in aspiration at least – a lover. You want me, she tells him, but to allow that he must first make her desire him: then she will come to him. And, slowly, uncertainly, Sinclair makes progress. He will, one feels, reach realisation sooner rather than later, but before that state can be reached, at the novel’s end a rupture emerges in the shape of war, and Sinclair and Demian are both sent to the front. Man may find self-knowledge, it seems, but mankind is forever on a path which leads to pain and anger.
Demian is one of those novels, like Catcher in the Rye or Catch 22 which it is probably important to encounter when young and idealistic. I first read it when I was a teenager and thought it was outstanding. I then read Siddhartha and it blew my mind. Afterwards, I pretended I’d read Steppenwolf and then I got fatally stuck on the Glass Bead Game, but even so I was pompously clear in my mind that Hermann Hesse was an important writer. It’s odd, then, that so little of Demian has actually stayed with me. Re-reading it now, I honestly couldn’t remember much of it from that first reading so many years ago. Is that a weakness in me or the novel? Both, I think.
Demian is, by all accounts, an extremely autobiographical novel, written over a very short period of time when the author was undergoing considerable personal traumas – the death of his father, a life-threatening illness to his son and mental breakdown of his wife. Even the world was undergoing a mental trauma – the novel was written in 1917, three years into the horrors of the First World War, and this duly appears in the novel, thus allowing the outside world, that of the ‘herd’, to intrude on and impede the knowledge-seeking existence of the main protagonists. Hesse spoke out at the time against the prevailing public mood in wartime Germany and suffered considerable hostility as a result. It must have been an unbearable time for him, and it is unsurprising that he entered psychoanalysis. Thus, the bewilderment and alienation that comes from such a series of uncontrollable stresses comes across clearly in the novel. So too does Hesse’s investigations into pyschotherapy and Jungian analysis. The series of mentors to whom Sinclair attaches himself each takes the role of analyst, each offers the boy – Hesse himself? – an explanation for the confusion he is suffering.
Where, as a youth, I could relish the controlled pessimism of the novel – it spoke to my concerns and a typically teenaged solipsistic worldview – now I find its moralising forced and didactic. My main difficulty, I think, is one that I have with a lot of modernist writing, that of fatalism, destiny, determinism. I can’t go along with the Heraclitian notion that character equates to destiny and yet, in Demian, Hesse seems to be implying as much or, at very least, that destiny will override character. It doesn’t have to be that way. (I suppose it comes to something when I’m more idealistic than Hermann Hesse, but there you go.) Demian begins in much the same vein (I seem to recall) as Siddhartha, focusing on the search for self and self-fulfilment, but as it proceeds the darkness which must have overtaken Hesse personally at the time begins to dominate, and by the end of the novel it has changed in tenor and the self, freedom of will, find themselves buried beneath that overwhelming, overpowering sense of fate. Thus, it seems, no matter how Sinclair strives to reach Frau Eva – perfection – the brute realities of existence – in the shape, here, of war – will of necessity intervene.
I think it may be that Demian can only be read in conjunction with Siddhartha – allowing the hope of the latter to overcome the darkness of the former, like an alkaline neutralising acid. Certainly, it was written during wartime and is clearly a product of its time; and equally (if one allows the anachronism of hindsight), the future history of Hesse’s country could be argued to justify the pessimism of his view. But what I can’t reconcile is the bluntness of the dialectic Hesse presents: there is Sinclair’s world of light and his world of dark, and they remain incompatible; there is his private quest for enlightenment and the worldly intervention of fate and, again, the corollary is negative, mired in the loss of hope.
And, ultimately, this loss of hope seems final. The ending of the novel is opaque, to say the least, but the only sensible interpretation seems to be that Sinclair is dying, and that he is being visited by the spirit (memory?) of Demian. Hope, then, aspiration, the flight of consciousness, the perfection of Frau Eva, is lost. It is, in fact, difficult to square this ultimate pessimism with the foreword of the novel: ‘If we were not something more than unique human beings, if each one of us could really be done away with once and for all by a single bullet, storytelling would lose all purpose.’ There is something beautiful and uplifting about that. It reminds me strongly of Sorley Maclean’s Hallaig, his paean to the lost generations of his island people, in which a single bullet from the ‘gun of love’ will ensure that the memory of his people will indelibly remain ‘while I live’. But for all the poetry of his foreword, what Hesse is doing in the subsequent novel is inverting that human power and human beauty. He is filtering it through the prism of religion, either Christian or gnostic, it is difficult to say which: Sinclair is dying, he will die, he must, but do not fear because in death there will be life; salvation will come. Meanwhile, there is only hell, and hell is where Sinclair now resides, the hell of Flanders field. We have reached the Apocalypse. It becomes a story, then, not about Sinclair, the everyman, the human being, but rather a story of the godhead, the continuing struggle of man the archetype with brute existence towards a final transcendence. And when it does that, this reader loses all connection with the story, with the characters, the humanity. Unique human beings? Not while Hesse’s, modernity’s, waste land is imposed on us.