Thanks to and Caroline and Lizzy for organizing German Literature Month. Please visit their sites for tons of links to commentary on all sorts of great German literature.
Those familiar with the writings of Hermann Hesse will find that Demian covers familiar ground. Like many of Hesse’s novels, this work is a Bildungsroman, or the chronicle of the development of a young person’s character. It is a philosophical novel that draws upon contradictory thought systems as espoused by Carl Jung, Friedrich Nietzsche, Gnosticism, Christian theology, Hinduism and Buddhism to name a just a few. As this novel was written fairly early in Hesse’s career, these ideas, as well as the plot, are unfortunately a little underdeveloped here.
Emil Sinclair is raised in a middle class German family. His home life is comfortable and warm with caring family and parents, holiday celebrations, religion, etc. Early in life he begins to realize that he is different from his family as well as his peers. Sinclair seems to live more in his mind and spirit than do those around him. Moreover, he recognizes an opposite world inhabited by darker things.
“On the other hand, the other world began right in our own house; it was altogether different, smelled different, spoke differently, made different promises and demands. In this second world there were maids and journeymen, ghost stories and scandalous rumors; there was a motley flow of uncanny, tempting, frightening, puzzling things, things like slaughterhouse and jail, drunks and bickering women, cows giving birth, horses collapsing, stories of burglaries, killings, suicides. All these beautiful and scary, wild and cruel things existed all around, in the next street, in the next house; policemen and vagrants ran around, drunks beat their wives, clusters of young girls poured out of the factories in the evening, old women could cast a spell on you and make you sick, bandits lived in the woods, arsonists were caught by the constabulary—this second, violent world gushed out fragrantly everywhere,”
Sinclair meets another boy, Max Demian. This extraordinary character seems to understand the duality inherent in the universe and sees into a higher reality. This knowledge is accompanied by amazing powers of persuasion over others. Through the years the pair lose touch for long periods but reconnect several times.
As Sinclair grows up he vacillates between the worlds of “Light” and “Dark” with periods of wild revelry followed by stretches of piety and asceticism. Eventually, after episodes of mystical experiences and dreams, he reestablishes his friendship with Demian.
At this point Sinclair establishes a spiritual balance between his conflicting natures. He and Demian form associations with other “enlightened” people who follow many different belief systems.
Sinclair meets Demian’s mother, Frau Eva. This woman is a figure of wisdom and near spiritual perfection. Sinclair falls deeply in love with her. The two experience a spiritual relationship and connection. As World War I breaks out, both Sinclair and Demian enter military service and meet their destinies.
This is a deep philosophical work. It is clear that Hesse is identifying a duality in the universe, the “Light” and “Dark.” There are multiple references to the Gnostic God Abraxas. This deity represents a combination of universal opposites.
The “Light” side, Spirituality, Christianity and other religious thought are portrayed as half of the balance in the universe.
“the reality of a pious life such as my parents led, for instance; I knew it was neither unworthy nor hypocritical. Instead, I constantly retained the most profound respect for religiosity”
The other half of Hesse’s equation is the necessity of the darker side of the Universe. The writings of Nietzsche are referenced several times. Some Gnostic interpretations of Bible stories are presented. For instance, the idea that the Cain and Abel actually presented Cain in a positive and noble light is suggested.
It is well known that Hesse’s philosophy was influenced by the theories of Carl Jung’s collective unconscious. Sinclair comes to understand that these forces inside of him are shared by all and perhaps result from human evolution.
“But we’re comprised of everything that comprises the world, each of us, and just as our body bears within it the lines of evolutionary descent all the way back to the fish and even much farther beyond that, in the same way our soul contains everything that has ever dwelt in human souls. “
Sinclair enters the world of the highly enlightened when he reconciles that both universal forces are necessary for a balanced psyche and society. I cannot help but to think that Nietzsche must have rolled in his grave at the thought that Hesse’s system rolled together his beliefs with the ideas of piety and Christianity!
I like Hesse’s take on things as an interesting and useful worldview. As a personal philosophy, his concept of balance can be beneficial and helpful. However, Hesse, like many philosophies and religions, seems to go further and imply that these dualities are part of the basic fabric of the universe. I differ with him in this regard as I think that these beliefs are more of an enlightened point of view as opposed to a nuts and bolts description of the universe.
Though full of varying philosophical thoughts, I find Hesse to be relatively transparent as to what he is attempting to say. Though this is the first time that I have read Demian, I have read numerous other works by Hesse, so I was somewhat intellectually prepared beforehand. I would highly recommend that a prospective reader be somewhat familiar with the basics of Jung’s theories on Collective Unconscious and Archetypes as well as Abraxas. A little knowledge of Gnostic beliefs would also help. Deep study is not necessary, twenty or so minutes in Wikipedia will open up many doors to this work.
Readers of this blog will know that I like books full of ideas and philosophical ruminations. This book is indeed full of these things and I very much enjoyed it. However I would not recommend this novel to those who are unfamiliar with Hesse’s other works. The ground that is covered here is covered in his other books in more satisfying ways. This is a short work, too short to be packed with so many ideas. Thus I find that the philosophies expounded here seem underdeveloped. The author needs more words. Similarly, I think more character development would have helped. Finally, the end of the novel seems rushed and comes too quickly.