Demian: The Story of Emil Sinclair’s Youth – Herman Hesse, 1919

The October book for Great Books group – I’m behind as usual. If I didn’t flag passages, I’d be more inclined to just let it go.

As a teenager, I knew Hesse for Siddartha, Magister Ludi, and Steppenwolf (all in my parents’ collection; I think I started Siddartha but never got very far), but I had never heard of Demian. Everyone at book group who was at least a few years older (I’m almost 53) had first read it in their teens, so it’s interesting that it fell out of the zeitgeist that quickly. I and at least one other person found it a little creepy historically, despite its appeal. Hesse was notably anti-war, and yet there are weird echoes to me of what would become Nazism. Like this passage spoken by Demian:

What will come is beyond imagining. The soul of Europe is a beast that has lain fettered for an infinitely long time. And when it’s free, its first movements won’t be the gentlest. But the means are unimportant if only the real needs of the soul—which has for so long been repeatedly stunted and anesthetized—come to light. Then our day will come, then we will be needed. Not as leaders and lawgivers—we won’t be there to see the new laws—but rather as those who are willing, as men who are ready to go forth and stand prepared wherever fate may lead them. Look, all men are prepared to accomplish the incredible if their ideals are threatened. But no one is ready when a new ideal, a new and perhaps dangerous and ominous impulse, makes itself felt. The few of us who will be ready at that time and who will go forth—will be us. That is why we are marked—as Cain was—to arouse fear and hatred and drive men out of a confining idyl and into more dangerous reaches. All men who have had an effect on the course of human history, all of them without exception, were capable and effective only because they were ready to accept the inevitable. It is true of Moses and Buddha, of Napoleon and Bismarck.

It’s a strange book tonally. The first chapter, the narrator Sinclair’s torment at school, is very realistic and vividly agonizing—I was dreading reading on—but then it turns almost supernatural and much more detached. The story of Cain and Abel, with Cain as the hero, threads through the book. Demian says that Cain was visibly special in some way, better than the rest, and that’s why they feared and slandered him. Yet he also says about Sinclair’s enemy, Kromer: “We’ll find a way, even though killing him would be the simplest. In cases like this, the simplest course is always the best.” And later in the book: “You wouldn’t consider all the bipeds you pass on the street human beings simply because they walk upright and carry their young in their bellies nine months!”

The ambiguity of Demian’s appeal is set from the start:

I saw Demian’s face and I not only noticed that it was not a boy’s face but a man’s; I also felt or saw that it was not entirely the face of a man either, but had something feminine about it, too. Yet the face struck me at that moment as neither masculine nor childlike, neither old nor young, but somehow a thousand years old, somehow timeless, bearing the scars of an entirely different history than we knew; animals could look like that, or trees, or planets… he was like an animal or like a spirit or like a picture, he was different, unimaginably different from the rest of us.

Demian can concentrate his will to make things happen. Nietzsche-like. Demian’s Eve-like mother, (even named Eva) also advocates will-to-power, saying to Sinclair: “Your fate loves you. One day it will be entirely yours—just as you dream it—if you remain constant to it.” Later she tells the story of a youth who fell in love with a planet and finally jumps off a cliff: “At the height of his longing he leaped into the emptiness toward the planet, but at the instant of leaping ‘it’s impossible’ flashed once more through his mind. There he lay on the shore, shattered. He had not understood how to love. If at the instant of leaping he had had the strength of faith in the fulfillment of his love he would have soared into the heights and been united with the star.”

I wonder whether this book is one of the first appearances of what’s now the old saw: “If you hate a person, you hate something in him that is part of yourself. What isn’t part of ourselves doesn’t disturb us.”

While the Demian passages I’ve quoted are puzzling and intriguing, there are many Sinclair passages I loved:

For the first time in my life I tasted death, and death tasted bitter, for death is birth, is fear and dread, of some terrible renewal.

The realization that my problem was one that concerned all men, a problem of living and thinking, suddenly swept over me and I was overwhelmed by fear and respect as I suddenly saw and felt how deeply my own personal life and opinions were immersed in the eternal stream of great idea. Though it offered some confirmation and gratification, the realization was not really a joyful one. It was hard and had a harsh taste because it implied responsibility and no longer being allowed to be a child; it meant standing on one’s own feet.

My childhood world was breaking apart around me. … A disenchantment falsified and blunted my usual feelings and joys: the garden lacked fragrance, the woods held no attraction for me, the world stood around me like a clearance sale of last year’s secondhand goods, insipid, all its charm gone. Books were so much paper, music a grating noise. That is the way leaves fall around a tree in autumn, a tree unaware of the rain running down its sides, of the sun or the frost, and of life gradually retreating inward. The tree does not die. It waits.

In the dying embers, red and gold threads ran together into nets, letters of the alphabet appeared, memories of faces, animals, plants, worms, and snakes. … Even as a young boy I had been in the habit of gazing at bizarre natural phenomena, not so much observing them as surrendering to their magic, their confused, deep language. Long gnarled tree roots, colored veins in rocks, patches of oil floating on water, light-refracting flaws in glass—all these things had held great magic for me at one time: water and fire particularly, smoke, clouds, and dust, but most of all the swirling specks of color that swam before my eyes the minute I closed them.

My typical approach is to read the book first, and then start background research if I have time. One of the first things I stumbled upon was the K-pop group BTS, whose album WINGS was inspired by Demian. The music video for “Blood Sweat & Tears” explicitly references it. Apparently the book is very well-known in South Korea. I’m grateful to my boss, Maria, who recommended it!

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