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.
I have previously read Siddhartha, Steppenwolf, Narcissus and Goldmund, The Journey to the East and The Glass Bead Game. I tend to love Hesse's work. I would recommend any of these as more fulfilling, both thematically and aesthetically, works over Demian. If one has already read Hesse’s other great works and wants to read more, then I think that they will find this is an enjoyable supplementary novel.
Thanks for this great review which is also a great introduction to Hesse's work. I don't remember this as well anymore. I read Siddharta and Steppen wolf just before and liked them much better. I have still not read everything by him although it's a goal. So far I liked Narziss und Goldmund best.
I like his attempt at exploring spirituality, philosophy and find the ideas quite fascinating. A lot is revealed by his biography as well. I think he had phases of great depression too.
I agree, DEmina, might not be the best starting point. I suppose the most accessible is Beneath the Wheel. Your reviwe has really put me in the mood to read him again.
Hi Caroline - I never read Beneath Wheel. I think that it might be next for me. Steppenwolf and Siddhartha are probably my favorites. The Glass Bead Game comes close for me, it is however very odd and I think less accessable then the other works.
Since he is one of my favorite writers I should also get to his biography.
I thought you'd be quiet recently and I cam over and found reviews I didn't get by e-mail for some reason...
Anyway, thanks for this as I haven't read Hesse but should one of these days. Actually come to think about it, I even have this one.
Hi Guy - Several folks have mentioned the email thing. I need to get that fixed!
As I mentioned this is a good book but I also thing that Hesse wrote better.
On the issue of folks not getting notifications - I am not sure what happened, but if anyone re — enrolls for the emails it seems to be reseting.
The joys of technology!
I loved Siddhartha while and this book seems to be psychologically appealing were young mind is set and preset in several layers with worlds of thoughts and idea...great way to go...
Holy crap! I've read this book and yet nothing you wrote is jogging my memory of it. I need to brush up on my Hesse.
Hi VB - I loved Siddhartha too. This one was not as compelling. It is very much a psychologically novel.
Hi Ryan. I hate when I read siomething and then forget about it. As a consequence I started taking notes a few years ago on everything I read. I actually do the same thing when I try new cheeses and beers. Admittedly these are odd practices :)
Ahhh....Hermann Hesse!! One of my favorite writers!! I was heavily into his work when I was a college student. I especially liked "Narcissus and Goldmund", since I was studying art at the time. However, another of his novels that I especially like as well is "Magister Ludi", or "The Glass Bead Game".
Hesse absolutely mesmerizes me! Or at least he did, back then. I have re-read only one of his novels, "The Glass Bead Game", and found it to as compelling as it was the first time, if a bit slow, I must admit. I've just GOT to re-read the others I'm familiar with. And, I have to read "The Journey to the East". That's one I haven't read. Ditto for "Rosshalde", and several others.
I remember enjoying and yet feeling disturbed by "Demian". I was particularly troubled by this god, Abraxas. By the way, have you noticed that the cover for one of Santana's albums has the title, "Abraxas"? I'm referring, of course, to the great guitarist/composer Carlos Santana, whose music I simply ADORE. Still, that name on the album cover... I guess this means that Santana has delved into the religious philosophy of Gnosticism.
Then, of course, there's the rock group, Steppenwolf. It's obvious that the group was named in honor of Hesse's novel. This is the one Hesse novel I totally dislike, because of its very stereotypical notions of a woman's psyche. This would bear some exploration, so I won't comment further, as this space is rather limited.
In spite of some disturbing aspects in Hesse's novels, he's still one of my favorite writers. Although I have only read him in translation, since, unfortunately, I don't speak German, I find that his prose is absolutely BEAUTIFUL. He mesmerizes, he hypnotizes, he ensnares the reader with his gorgeously poetic style, his strange characters, as well as surreal interpretations of reality.
Your review has made me want to re-read "Demian"! Yes, it 's a very short work, but, as you have stated, one full of plenty of meaty "philosophical ruminations"!
Thanks for another GREAT review!! : )
I've never read Hesse but I've seen his novels in the store. I've always wondered what they were about.
It's interesting that he embraces the Eastern notion of Yin and Yang: good and evil are equal and necessary for a balanced existence.
This contradicts the Christian belief: God is good and evil is not the opposite of God but the absence of Him.
I have noticed that societies that practice this Yin Yang belief (such as India)maintain a passive, fatalistic view towards evil. Which is perhaps why they are one of the grossest violators of human rights with their caste system and disposal of baby girls.
Countries based on Judeo-Christian values assert that wrong should not be tolerated (hence the eventual outlawing of slavery in the US, for one example.)
Hesse lived in his head. Good/evil balancing each other sounds appealing when you're philosophizing about it.
It's quite another thing to believe that the man next door molesting your four year old daughter is a necessary component in keeping the universe balanced.
Thank you for reviewing this author. I'm glad to finally know about him.
Hey Maria - There really is something special about Hesse. "The Glass Bead Game" is really oddly different but amazing.
I really like Carlos Santana too! I did not make the connection either! I have also head that Steppenwolf was named after the book.
I think that I know what mean about Steppenwolf as well as Hesse's other female characters. He tends to write about women very simplistically and in stereotypes.
Hi Sharon -
I must first say that my commentary on this book might have oversimplified things a bit. Hesse does address the issue of wonton evil and indicates that is not what he is talking about. Unfortunately he does not make it clear as to how it is really different. As I mentioned, some ideas were underdeveloped in this book.
I agree that the Judeo Christian philosophy has had a powerful humanizing effect upon the West. However, like some of the eastern Religions there are some really bad aspects to Western Religious thought too. I think that the ideas of the enlightenment, which in many aspects is a very different belief system actually contribute more to the state of things in Western lands today, as opposed to the stare of things elsewhere.
Likewise I think that there are vsome really noble aspects to Hinduism. There is some acceptance of good and evil, Yet after reading some of the Hindu epics it is clear to me that at least from some angles Hindi belief system incorporate the idea of defeating evil both internally and externally.
Granted Hesse really tries to combine a hodgepodge of thought systems in his books. Sometimes it is difficult to wrap one's head around it.
I read this many years ago when I was in my late teens and remember thinking it was excellent. Perhaps its time for me to rediscover Hesse - a writer I've not read since that early period of my life. I don't think I read the Glass Bead Game but I know its highly regarded
Hi Tom - Interesting that many people have read Hesse when young. I have a criticism of Hesse that I did not touch upon above. Sometimes I do find that some of his ideas do touch a little upon the sophomoric and do lack a certain amount of nuance. I think that when we are young one can be more forgiving of this sort of thing.
Nevertheless I still love his work.
It's interesting to see a writer trying out his ideas and testing his writing wings. I haven't read much Hesse, but what I have read showed he was certainly eclectic in his beliefs.
Hi Violet - That is a great description of this book - It does seem like Hesse was testing his wings here. He did write some novels before this that people say are worth reading though I have not read them. I hope to get to them eventually.
Even though it's kinda short for me but i really love Demian and yup i agree with you that some ideas were underdeveloped in this book.
Anyway if you don't mind, can you recommend me some books that similar with Demian, whether it's Hesse's works or from the other authors
Hi Zara - Thank you for stopping by.
I find Hesse unique. His books often share common themes. My favorites among what he wrote are Siddhartha, Steppenwolf and the Glass Bead Game.
By the way, do you have a blog? I would like to check it out if you do.
I am just happy to have found other people who have actually read this book.
While I, like others, would happily have consumed 5 times the volume of the book, I find the content quite fulfilling. It is consistent with the inherent message of the book - there are signs, there are moments of companionship, there are mystic events, but in the end every man and woman must follow a unique path to the Self. So further explanations would only have muddled the message by seeming to "do the work for you" or worse, create yet another misguided religion. One point, among many, is that religion falters because it seeks to codify rather than free, it seeks to replace personal experience with dogma. This is the antithesis of Demian. One person can help another person, can even guide or lead another person, but cannot take him to that place. In the end it is a lonely business indeed.
On another site the "study question" was: can a life so focused and devoted to self ever truly be heroic?" The problem for me is the question itself. Demian eschews heroism in that sense. Neither Sinclair nor Demian are trying to heroes. That is not their purpose. If the illuminated person does something that seems heroic, it was never the intent to BE heroic - it never came from that place. (S)he was simply being true to himself, doing what was right for him/her. That it benefitted others is beside the point. This also is reflected in Derrida's approach to altruism - if you get anything out of the altruistic act (satisfaction, a warm glow, or a tax refund) it ceases to be altruistic. The only true altruism is if the person performing the act has no idea and gets no reward whatsoever from the act.
No explanations. No apologies. Truth to self. Commitment to the whole of the self. This is what Demian reflects. In that, I find its brevity both infallible and infuriating, both fulfilling and frustrating. I called it Mother and Whore.
Thanks for commenting. This is a book that it seems few have read, even people who have read a fair amount of Hesse
I think that your analysis is mostly on target. I have only a limited amount about Buddhism, is not the idea of finding one’s own path and not following a codified religion part of the teachings?
Though I think that the concept of people only really being altruistic when they do not benefit is interesting, and I agree that this message is contained in this work, I am a bit more pragmatic. I think that in our messy world people are motivated and act out of a combination of reasons, both self - satisfying and not so self - satisfying and that it is fine if we give accolades to good behavior regardless of its motivations.
This is indeed a philosophically compact work.
Hi Brian - thank you for the reply.
I have friends who are Buddhist and I am somewhat acquainted with the teachings thereof. I am slightly more familiar with Tao, which is similar in that respect. My own journey is a mutt - drawing from many traditions. As the organist in the book, I may be too rooted in the path to promote the movement forward other than by assisting those who will. Still, I find a number of philosophies are adopting this model: Unitarian Universalists, various groups that practice various forms of meditation - while eschewing religion and the associated trappings, there are even reflective sects of atheism that seem to promote the idea of a path as opposed to just "freedom." This is one of the things about Demian I find really interesting: that the path is both "self" determined, and simultaneously has little regard for the self. You are either awake and accept or a vegetable and accept - the only difference is what you are accepting. The idea that all people are not "human beings" is also interestingly pervasive. I can see that leading to both trouble and enlightenment, but even there Demian is ahead of me.
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