Demian (1919)


What constitutes a real, live human being is more of a mystery than ever these days, and men – each one of whom is a valuable, unique experiment on the part of nature – are shot down wholesale. If, however, we were not something more than unique human beings and each man jack of us could really be dismissed from this world with a bullet, there would be no more point in relating stories at all. But every man is not only himself; he is also the unique, particular, always significant and remarkable point where the phenomena of the world intersect once and for all and never again.
Hermann Hesse: Gertrude

Hesse begins his great short novel Demian developing a contrast that permeates much of his general output: the contrast between two co-existing but separate worlds with an central ‘meeting place’ consisting of relatively neutral

…dark and sunlit streets, houses and towers, clock chimes and people’s faces, rooms full of comfort and warm hospitality, rooms full of secret and profound, ghostly fears. It is a world that savours of warm corners, rabbits, servant girls, household remedies and dried fruit… day and night came thither from two opposite poles.

Emil Sinclair’s first world was that

…of my parents’ house, or rather it was even more circumscribed and embraced only my parents themselves. This world was familiar to me in almost every aspect – it meant mother and father, love and severity, model behaviour and school. It was a world of quiet brilliance, clarity and cleanliness; in it gentle and friendly conversation, washed hands, clean clothes and good manners were the order of the day. In this world the morning hymn was sung, Christmas celebrated. Through it ran straight lines and paths that led into the future; here were duty and guilt, bad conscience and confessions, forgiveness and good resolutions, love and reverence, wisdom and Bible readings, In this world you had to conduct yourself so that life should be pure, unsullied, beautiful and well-ordered.

By contrast, his second world, bordering very closely on the other and ‘wonderful’ to know that it existed, was challenging, violent & uncompromising, beginning also

…in the middle of our own house… it smelt different, spoke a different language, made different claims and promises… peopled with servant girls and workmen, ghost stones and scandalous rumours, a gay tide of monstrous, intriguing, frightful, mysterious things; it included the slaughterhouse and the prison, drunken and scolding women, cows in labour, foundered horses, tales of housebreaking, murder and suicide. All these attractive and hideous, wild and cruel things were on every side, in the next street, the neighbouring house. Policemen and tramps moved about in it, drunkards beat their wives, bunches of young women poured out of the factories in the evening, old women could put a spell on you and make you ill; thieves lived in the wood; incendiaries were caught by mounted gendarmes.

Emil Sinclair puts himself in thrall to Franz Kromer, savage representative of the second world, who demands money from him as the price of not revealing him to the authorities as an apple thief on account of a bragging lie he told – he stole no apples but the lie made him seem like ‘one of the boys’! Fearful of admitting any of this in the first world he is discovered by new boy Max Demian to be afraid of Kromer. “You never need to be afraid of anybody,” says Demian, simply, which ought to have been a great learning experience; he proposes an experiment – one which might have helped Sinclair to understand Demian’s genius but he is unable/unwilling to provide Demian with the ‘evidence’ which the rest of his story would have contributed to the experiment; Demian has ideas which Sinclair finds baffling about the Cain & Abel story – that one could be both Cain and Abel, destroyer and victim, turn and turn about. Demian has to carry out his experiment without letting Sinclair into the secret which included perhaps his adopting the role of a Cain in sorting out Kromer without the physical murder, a turn of events which has the effect of causing him no longer to plague Sinclair; he is relieved of his terror but not by his own action; this is something he has eventually to learn how to do. Meanwhile…

I had to replace my dependency on Kromer by a new one for I was unable to walk alone. In the blindness of my heart, I chose to be dependent on my father and mother, on all the familiar and much cherished ‘world of light’ I already knew that it was not the only one. If I had not followed this course, I would have had to stick to Demian and confide in him. That I did not do so seemed to me at that time on account of my justifiable mistrust of his strange Ideas, in reality it was entirely because of fear. For Demian would have been far more exacting than my parents; by means of persuasion, admonition, mockery and sarcasm he had done his best to foster an independent spirit in me. Alas, how well I realise that today. Nothing in the world is more distasteful to a man than to follow the path that leads to himself.  [My emphasis]

Self-realisation required that Sinclair abandon the simple self-calming first world ‘islands of happiness’ and take on aspects of Kromer’s second world nastiness in order not to practise it but to understand it. In his eventual wisdom, he suggests that this appallingly difficult task is the pendulum balancing act of adolescence that one must go through to be able to face the inevitable contradictions in life with a sense of individual purpose.

For many it is the only time in their lives when they experience the dying and resurrection which is our lot, during the decay and slow collapse of childhood when we are abandoned by everything we love, and suddenly feel the loneliness and deathly cold of the world around us. And a great many people stay for ever hanging on to this cliff and cling desperately their whole life through to the irrevocable past, the dream of the lost paradise which is the worst and most ruthless of all dreams.

For Sinclair, Demian poses as much of a threat as Kromer did but in a way that he finds it impossible to define. He avoids him for a year or more while always being aware of his presence.

I can see him on his way to school, alone or among others of the senior boys, and I can see him strange, lonely and quiet, wandering aloof in their midst, surrounded by his own aura, a law unto himself. Nobody liked him, no one was on intimate terms with him except his mother and even with her his relations seemed to be those of an adult rather than a child. The teachers mostly left him to himself; he was a bright pupil but he made no attempt to please anybody…

Eventually, overcoming his concern, Sinclair notices that Demian is well switched on to the way others function; it seems very much like the noticing prowess that can be adopted after a study of eye movements and the practice of establishing rapport, by anybody with thorough NLP training. Says Demian:-

It is possible however to think hard about someone and frequently guess what he is thinking and feeling and then, more often than not, one can anticipate his next move. It is simple enough only people don’t know it. Naturally you need practice.

It took some time for Demian to open himself to Sinclair. The NLP attitude (and Gurdjieff’s!) towards individuals who shy away is to simply let them do their own thing, not to badger them or attempt contact in any way but wait till the connection seems likely to flourish in its own way. Letting things ‘gravitate to order’. Much later in life Sinclair learns to understand that ‘one could bring about a great deal just by thinking and intensive staring…’, picking up bits of ‘reality’ that would otherwise be missed – getting into rapport with another being, meshing closely with them, noticing signs of internal processing and so on.

In a Bible lesson, the teacher expounds the conventional view of the Cain & Abel story. Demian tells Sinclair he is not happy with it. The habitual notion of the goodness of God is not acceptable. He says with unaccustomed force though he soon smiled and left Sinclair to think:-

“…you must create a God for yourself who embraces the Devil in himself and before whom you don’t have to drop your eyes in shame when the most natural things in the world take place.”

Demian has picked up on where Sinclair is in his thinking which comes out thus:-

His words, however, went straight to my adolescent heart. What Demian had said about God and the Devil, about the godly-official and the suppressed Devil’s world fitted in with my own ideas on the subject, my own myth, the conception I had of two worlds or two different halves of the world – the light and the dark. The realization that my problem was a problem of all humanity, a problem of all life and philosophy suddenly swept over me like a holy shadow and I was overcome with fear and awe when I saw how deeply my own personal life was caught up in the eternal stream of great ideas. This realization was not a joyful one although to some extent gratifying and corroborative. I found it hard and unpalatable because it contained a note of responsibility, of self-reliance, something beyond childish ideas; it implied standing alone.

When Sinclair told Demian about his two different worlds concept which he’d held since childhood, Demian is not surprised: ‘he saw immediately that I was entirely in sympathy with him and believed him to be right. But it was not his way to exploit this knowledge. He listened to me more attentively than he had ever done before and looked into my eyes until I had to avert mine…’ The resourceful NLP way to deal with somebody’s personal revelation when it’s expressed is just to let it happen rather than ‘exploit it’ with a lot of words. “Every man must stand alone…” said Demian after going on at length, suddenly falling silent after seeming ‘to regret having said so much…’

I could already grasp to some extent, intuitively, what his reactions were. Although he was in the habit of expressing his ideas in an agreeable and apparently perfunctory manner, he could not tolerate ‘talking for the sake of talking’, as he once told me. He was aware of my genuine interest but he felt that I treated clever conversation too much as a kind of game, in short, without due seriousness.

Rather than spell things out for Sinclair, who must make shrewd internal discoveries for himself, Demian trusts in his ability to engage with his internal ‘Meta-I’, though, of course he doesn’t call it that. Opting out of a conversation (“…excuse me, I must be off home…”), he says that ‘it is good to know that we have within us one who knows everything about us, wills everything, does everything better than we can ourselves…’ In my terms that’s ‘Meta-I’, the part of us that is capable of stepping out of all internal confusion and looks at it in an objective kind of way were we to know how to engage it. This could be linked to one of Demian’s pithy sayings: ‘whoever wants to be born must first destroy the world…’ In Meta-I you rise above the world as it has always seemed to you to be, messy, chaotic, confusing in its normal sort of way, and penetrate a state completely new – the old way of seeing things is destroyed. The dichotomy of Good & Evil, for example, with which we are only too happy to identify by process of association, must be disposed of.

A lately qualified teacher who had come to the school referred to Abraxas whom it is possible to think of as ‘a godhead who symbolizes the reconciliation of the godly and the satanic’.

‘Reconcile the godly and the satanic’. The words provoked an echo inside me. I remembered the connection. The idea had been mentioned to me by Demian in the course of a conversation with him during the last days of our friendship. On that occasion Demian had said that we had indeed a god whom we honoured but he represented only one half of the world purposely separated, that is to say the official, authorised ‘world of light’. But we ought to be able to honour the whole world and so we must have either one god who was also devil or side by side with the cult of God we should institute a cult of the Devil. So we had Abraxas the god who was both God and Devil.

For a time I eagerly pursued this clue without, however, getting any further. I unsuccessfully ransacked a whole library for references to Abraxas but I could never be more than half-hearted in this kind of direct, conscious research in which one can only find truths that are so much dead weight.

Sinclair meets up with the organist Pistorius from whom he acquires more definite experience of learning, ‘holding our tongues and lying on our bellies’ staring into a fire. This reminded me vividly of a time, around the age of 9, when I used to stare into the coal fire for long periods watching the varied shapes of flames and placing short lengths of wood between chunks of coal imagining them as bridges which would catch fire and send travellers crashing into a flaming gorge; this was in the back room of the house in Worcester Park as it was before my father demolished the wall between front & back; I also developed a mania for bonfires which has carried on into my eighties!

Like Sinclair then, ‘…even as a child I had had at intervals a fondness for observing strange forms in nature, not so much examining them as surrendering myself to their magic; their oblique message…’ Very close to my own absorption into the shapes & textures in my father’s garden or in Shadbolt Park or ‘up the Avenue’…

Long tree-roots, coloured veins in rock, patches of oil floating on water, flaws in glass – all such things had a certain fascination for me, above all, water and fire, smoke, clouds, dust and especially the swirling specks of colour which swam before my closed eyes. In the days following my first visit to Pistorius, I began to call all this to mind. For I noticed that I owed a new strength and gaiety, an intensification of feeling – of which I only became aware later – exclusively to this prolonged staring
into the fire. I found it remarkably comforting and rewarding.

The much older Sinclair (or the narrator himself) comments that

…surrender to odd, irrational forms in nature produces in us a sense of the harmony of our inner being with the will which has been responsible for these shapes. Soon we become aware of the temptation to think of them ss being our own moods, our own creations; we see the boundaries between ourselves and nature quiver and dissolve, and we become acquainted with the state of mind when we are unable to decide whether the lineaments of our body result from impressions received from outside or from within us. In no other practice is it so simple to discover how creative we are and to what extent our souls participate in the continuous creation of the world. To an even greater extent it is this same indivisible divinity [more a ‘something-or-other’ as Gurdjieff would say, perhaps] which is active in us and in nature so that if the outer world were destroyed each one of us would be capable of building it up again. For mountain and stream, tree and leaf, root and blossom, every form in nature is echoed in us and originates in the soul whose being is eternity and is hidden from us but none the less gives itself to us for the most part in the power of love and creation.

Seems to me that this is the kind of non-dualism that is essential for the proper writing of haiku, entry into the world as undifferentiated unity. It perhaps accounts for the way in his prose style Hesse frequently indulges in staccato listing of the concrete details of surroundings. Here’s an example from The Prodigy which demonstrates how systematic looking around to pick up details (istigkeit) becomes part of the soul:-

Now he roamed the autumn meadows and succumbed to the influence of the season. The decline of the year, the silent fall of the leaves, the russet-coloured fields, the thick early morning mists, the ripe, tired dying of the vegetation drove him, as it does all sick people, into heavy, hopeless moods and thoughts of deep sadness. He felt the desire to wither with it, fall asleep and die too; and he felt it all the more in that it ran counter to all his youthful instincts which clung to life with quiet obstinacy.

As Pistorius points out to Sinclair, only when you realise all this is just the way to be in the world and learn to make the process a vividly conscious part of yourself can you be said to possess yourself. Even when

“…something that seems quite mad or sinful enters your head in the future, should you feel like murdering someone or committing some enormity, remember for a moment that it is Abraxas at work in your imagination. The person you wish to murder is never Mr So and So. He is only a disguise. When we hate some one we are hating something that is within ourselves, in his image. We are never stirred up by something which does not already exist within us…”

What deeply affected Sinclair

…was the similarity of this exhortation to Demian’s words, which I had been carrying round with me for years. They knew nothing of each other and yet both had given me the same message.

“The things we see,” said Pistorius gently, “are the things which are already in us. There is no reality beyond what we have inside us. That is why most people live such unreal lives; they take pictures outside themselves for the real ones and fail to express their own world. One can of course live contentedly enough in that situation. But once you know about the other you no longer have the choice of following the majority way. The way of the majority, Sinclair, is easy, ours is hard…”

However, when Pistorius appears to Sinclair to be doing ‘tedious research among the fragments of ancient worlds’ rather than pursuing an original thought-provoking seeking after new ideas, towards something really new, he accuses him of doing something merely ‘damned antiquarian’ and their close relationship was shattered though they remained friends.

And at this point I felt the truth burning within me like a sharp flame, that there was some role for everybody but it was not one which he himself could choose, re-cast and regulate to his own liking. One had no right to want new gods, no right at all to want to give the world anything of that sort. There was but one duty for a grown man; it was to seek the way to himself, to become resolute within, to grope his way forward wherever that might lead him. The discovery shook me profoundly; it was the fruit of this experience. I had often toyed with pictures of the future, dreamed of roles which might be assigned to me – as a poet, maybe, or prophet or painter or kindred vocation. All that was futile…

…what Sartre would have called ‘Bad Faith’, sheltering under a label, pretending that there was a simple definition that would cover and account for everything one ever did, taking refuge in a single ‘I’.

I was not there to write poetry, to preach or paint; neither I nor any other man was there for that purpose. They were only incidental things. There was only one true vocation for everybody – to find the way to himself. He might end as poet, lunatic, prophet or criminal – that was not his affair; ultimately it was of no account. His affair was to discover his own destiny, not something of his own choosing, and live it out wholly and resolutely within himself. Anything else was merely a half life, an attempt at evasion, an escape into the ideals of the masses, complacency and fear of his inner soul. The new picture rose before me, sacred and awe-inspiring, a hundred times glimpsed, possibly often expressed and now experienced for the first time. I was an experiment on the part of nature, a ‘throw’ into the unknown, perhaps for some new purpose, perhaps for nothing and my only vocation was to allow this ‘throw’ to work itself out in my innermost being, feel its will within me and make it wholly mine.

After a long time apart from him, Sinclair at last meets up by chance with Demian in the street and they talk as if they’d never been apart from one another – a mark of profound togetherness.

…there was a fundamental and inner unity of idea behind everything Demian said. He spoke of the spirit of Europe and the signs of the times. On all sides, he said, we were seeing the reign of cooperation and the herd instinct, love and freedom nowhere. All this communal spirit from student club and glee-club to the same spirit in government was an inevitable development, it was community life based on anxiety, fear and opportunism; within it was an outworn and indolent way of life approaching its collapse.

“Communal spirit,” said Demian, “is a fine thing. But what we now see flourishing everywhere is not really that. The real spirit will rise up, new, from the separate contribution of each individual and for a time it will transform the world. The only manifestation of communal spirit to be seen at present is the herd-instinct at work. Human beings fly into each other’s arms because they are afraid of each other – the masters afraid for themselves. They are a community composed entirely for themselves. And why are they afraid? Man is only afraid when he is not attuned to himself. They are afraid because they have never made themselves known to themselves. They are a community composed entirely of men who are afraid of the unknown element within themselves! They are all conscious of the fact that the laws of life they have inherited are no longer valid, that they are living according to archaic tablets of the law that neither their religion nor customs are adapted to our present-day needs. For a hundred years or so Europe has done nothing but study and build factories. They know exactly how many grams of explosive are needed to kill a man but they do not know how to pray to God, they do not even know how to remain happy and contented for one single hour. [People] who come together in this nervous fashion are riddled with fear and evil: none of them trust each other. They cling to ideals which no longer exist, and stone anyone who sets up a new one. I have a presentiment that great divisions lie ahead… Whether the workers murder the manufacturers or the Russians and Germans shoot each other, it will merely be a change of ownership.

The coming war would sort things out. Destroy in order to create!

The kind of communal spirit Demian is talking about is that which appears to come about when some great communal wailing is prompted by the Power Possessors as occurred after the death in September 2022 of the Old UK Queen in the so-called ‘United’ Kingdom. Individuals in the 30 hour long queue in order to be able to be allowed to look briefly at a wooden box containing a rotting corpse claim that they exchanged tears with people next to them and made new friends. But they were all simply people ‘who are afraid of the unknown element within themselves’ and need to open their mouths to simulate closeness and commonality – an exchange of utter vacuity.

Demian’s mother tells Sinclair that ‘one never reaches home… whatever friendly paths intersect, the whole world looks like home for a time…’ before the darkness descends again. On the other hand, she suggests that Sinclair must find his own dream so that the way becomes easier; ‘but no dream lasts, each dream releases a new one and you should not wish to cling fast to any particular one…’

Sinclair tells Demian he has a ‘wonderful mother… like a universal mother…’ It appears that Sinclair is the first person she’s told her first name to in the first hour of meeting. Sinclair declares that

…here was love and soul, this was the home of dream and legend… It was our function to represent an island in the world, a kind of prototype perhaps, to proclaim in our lives new potentialities by our way of living. I, who had been a solitary so long, learned about the companionship which is possible between human beings who have tasted utter and complete loneliness…

It feels as though Eva, Max & Sinclair become part of a community of like-minded people dedicated to resolving the unsettled state of the world – the kind of community I would like to have built in my younger days! Something that might have been considered very odd by the conventional world ‘even mad or dangerous…’

We were ‘awake’ or ‘wakening’ and our striving was directed at an ever-increasing wakefulness, whereas the striving and quest for happiness of the rest was aimed at identifying their thoughts, ideals, duties, their lives and fortunes more and more closely with that of the herd. That too was striving, that too was power and greatness. But whereas we, in our conception, represented the will of nature to renew itself, to individualize and march forward, the others lived in the desire for the perpetuation of things as they are. For them humanity – which they loved as we did – was something complete that must be maintained and protected. For us humanity was a distant goal towards which we were marching, whose image no one yet knew, whose laws were nowhere written down.

What would happen if it were possible to get together a League of people dedicated to the idea that all the old ways could be abandoned? Or perhaps not so much ‘abandoned’ since that would give them a credence they ought not to possess in the first place; political hostilities ought to be avoided – we might leave this to youth. Starting from scratch with the purest of impressions; emptying out all the old ways of thinking; just looking at fish & birds & cats & trees & sunsets for inspiration – how they perform their Being in the world ; asking the simple question – What will be best for the human race as a whole?

Apart from Frau Eva, Max and myself many seekers of a very varied kind were closely or in a more general way attached to our circle. Many of them followed particular paths, had chosen special aims, put their faith in specific ideas and duties. They included astrologers, cabbalists and a disciple of Count Tolstoy and all manner of sensitive, shy, vulnerable men, members of new sects, devotees of Indian practices, vegetarians and so forth. With all these we had no common spiritual bond save the respect which each of us accorded the secret ideal of the other. Those who were concerned with the pursuit of gods and new ideals in the past were closer to us. Their preoccupations often reminded me of those of Pistorius, They brought books with them, translated texts of ancient tongues to us, showed us illustrations of ancient symbols and rites, and taught us to see how the whole possession of humanity so far consisted of ideals that emanated from the unconscious soul, dreams in which humanity groped after the vague notions they had of their future potentialities. Thus we made our way through the wonderful, thousand-beaded throng of the gods of the ancient world up to the dawn of the Christian conversion. We learned about the creeds of solitary saints and the changes of religion among different races. And from everything we collected in this way we gained a critical understanding of our time and contemporary Europe which with prodigious efforts had created new weapons for mankind but had ended by falling into a deep and final desolation of the spirit. For it had conquered the whole world only to lose its own soul in the process.

All that was part of a new kind of education which took it for granted that the old ways were dead & done with; only those things which it was to be agreed might fit with the New World could be preserved in some kind of way to be agreed with all. Followers of many sects and spiritual groupings were attracted to the Demian apparent New Beginning; there was the risk that each would flog its own cause as before. How to overcome that? Some educational ideal, perhaps, something akin to a Glass Bead Game… dedicated to the notion of becoming as Nothing but open to everything – until we accomplish that there is no chance of development, as Gurdjieff said.

Every sect, every faith seemed dead already and of no use. The only duty and destiny we acknowledged was that each one of us should become so completely himself, so utterly faithful to the active seed of nature within him and live in accordance with it that the unknown future should find us prepared and ready for whatever it might bring forth. For expressed or unexpressed this was clear in our minds, that a new birth and a collapse of the present time was imminent and already discernible. Demian often said to me, “What will come is beyond our powers of imagination. The soul of Europe is an animal which lay fettered for an infinitely long time. When it becomes free, its first impulses will not be the most agreeable. But the ways, straight or crooked, are unimportant provided the real need of the soul – which we have so long and continually drugged and led on false trails – finally comes to light. Then our day will dawn; then we shall be needed, not as leaders or new law-givers – we shall not, survive to see the new laws – but rather as men of good will and, as such, ready to go forth and stand prepared wherever fate may need us.

6 thoughts on “Demian (1919)

  1. I haven’t had time to read all of this yet Colin, but as I prrobably mentioned before Colin Wilson played a huge part in making Herman Hesses’ name and books known in 1956 when The Outsider was published. I was 21 when I read it and it supplied me with lots of other authors to devour as well as Hesse. His Glass Bead Game is worth a read; in fact I may re-read it soon.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi, Eric! 1956 was a very memorable year for me what with The Outsider that started so many hares running and beginning so-called ‘National Service’ which rather exciting two years out of the Rat Race turned me into a lifelong pacifist! Being myself in the middle of a ‘re-reading Hesse binge’ I shall arrive at Glass Bead Game once again in a few weeks or days time! Last read it for the third or fourth time in the early nineties!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Unfortunately I was unable to procure a copy of Demian, hopefully I’ll buy one soon on Amazon.

    As usual Colin your glob is full of psychological dimensions and spiritual paradoxes that are a delight to try and unscramble. I will not attempt to unscramble all of it.

    I’ve always enjoyed the way Hesse plays around with duality and this novel seems like something I am going to enjoy! Emil’s life seems middle of the road before he meets Demian. Demian takes steps to awaken Demian to another world; a world of shadow and light, a world of darkness where people are not so one sided.

    Pistorius is like many people in my life that helped me look inside, but it wasn’t until writers like Virginia Woolf, D.H. Lawrence, and others revealed to me the hidden shadows inside myself that I began to wake up to how devious this darkness went.

    Abraxas reminds me of Blake’s artistry of illumination and his attempt to squash duality thinking.

    Onward! Patrick

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Thanks Colin.

        I also forgot to mention that your glob did mention Power Possessors and how the politics of today are bound by their own duality. Over here in America we have a cult following of a man with zero self reflective abilities. These are indeed dangerous times.

        Liked by 1 person

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