Demian by Hermann Hesse

Translated by W. J. Strachan

Reviewed by Karen Langley

Is it the destiny of mankind to be pulled constantly back and forth between the two poles of good and evil, and can this disjuncture ever be remedied? That’s the concept explored in this seminal novel by Nobel-prize winning author Hermann Hesse, first published in 1919 and now reissued in a beautiful edition, featuring the imprint’s new design, from Penguin Modern Classics.

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. That is why every man’s story is important, eternal, sacred…

Hesse has been described as “the poet of the interior journey” and this story of the spiritual and emotional search of Emil Sinclair certainly does take the reader inside the narrator’s psyche. The book was in fact originally published with the pseudonym of Emil Sinclair given as the author, and from the beginning we are immersed in Sinclair’s first person world. Even as a child, he is painfully aware of the two lives he perceives: that of light, his home and family, a pure and clean existence; and the darker side of things, the world of the servants, of what happens outside and the more sinister behaviours of other human beings, exemplified by his persecution by a more worldly and experienced schoolfellow, Franz Kromer.

Into this confusion comes the figure of Max Demian, an older boy who joins Sinclair’s school and yet seems so apart and different from the rest of the pupils that he is more like an adult. The two form an unlikely alliance, and it is Demian who rescues Sinclair from his bully and begins to teach him how to explore the dichotomies with which he seems unable to deal. Demian’s influence will run through the book and through Sinclair’s whole life, despite the fact that he is absent for much of it; and we follow Emil as he grows up, goes to university, finds another mentor in the musician Pistorius, and continually seeks for understanding.

I had always been a sensitive and essentially good child. Now I had completely changed. I had acquired an attitude of indifference towards the outside world and for days on end I was preoccupied with inner voices and the dark, forbidden streams which ran beneath the surface.

Eventually, the outside world breaks into the lives of Sinclair and Demian as war comes to their land – the First World War, presumably, although this is never explicitly stated; and a kind of resolution is reached with a final encounter, leaving the affected men to search for a new world.

Demian is a complex book, laden with symbolism, and despite its short page count it conveys much but perhaps raises more questions than it provides answers. Hesse seems to be focusing in on the essential double-edged nature of humanity, the constant discord between good and evil, yin and yang, and asking whether this will ever be reconciled.

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.

And Sinclair goes through many phases while making his search, encountering most significantly the concept of Abraxas, drawn from Gnostic texts. This god-figure features strongly in the life of Pistorius as well as of Demian and his mother Eva, and personifies the combination of dark and light which the seekers wish to harmonise.

…I live in my own dreams; that’s what you have felt about me. Others live in dreams but not their own – that’s the difference.

Demian also focuses on a recurring theme in Hesse’s work, that of the outsider; for example, another of his great novels, Steppenwolf features the ultimate man apart, Harry Haller, and it is obvious that Hesse favours those who live away from everyday run of the mill existence. It is not for ‘ordinary’ people to think of these things, to ponder the meanings of the world; it is for those who stand outside of the rush of existence and can look at it with a certain distance and discern the point of things.

And where do women sit in this philosophy? I’ve tended to find in most of Hesse’s work that they have a somewhat peripheral role – his works are usually about men, but in Demian there is a woman with a more central position in the story. Eva Demian, mother of the title character, plays a multiple role of muse, mother and potential lover, which perhaps reflects Hesse’s somewhat complex attitude towards women. She is given an important role yet never becomes a flesh and blood character to my mind, and she is a receptacle rather than a seeker herself.

Despite that small caveat, I found Demian an intense, fascinating and mentally stimulating read. Hesse’s prose is always wonderful and very beautiful, leaving the reader with vivid images of the places and events. It’s worth remembering that this book was published in the immediate aftermath of what must have seemed at that point the most cataclysmic event the world had seen, and it’s no stretch to conclude that WW1, with its horrendous battles, must have informed Hesse’s mindset when writing the book. The conflict between good and evil in all its stark horror, whichever side you were on, couldn’t help but affect the artists of the time and it’s hardly surprising that Hesse and his characters dreamed of reconciliation and wholeness. In our modern fragmented and violent world, it’s something that is a familiar wish of many of us…

Karen Langley blogs at kaggsysbookishramblings and spends far too much time dreaming in the alternative reality of books.

Hermann Hesse, Demian (Penguin Modern Classics, 2017). 978-0241307434, 135pp, paperback.

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