Demian by Hermann Hesse
It is a signal honor to introduce Hermann Hesse’s Demian to a contemporary audience, since it means following in the footsteps of no less a predecessor than Thomas Mann, who wrote in April 1947, “For me, [Hesse’s] life, with its roots in native German romanticism, for all its strange individualism, its now humorously petulant and now mystically yearning estrangement from the world and the times, belongs to the highest and purest spiritual aspirations and labors of our epoch.”1 This statement accurately describes the achievement of Hesse, whose vision appealed not only to the generation of young men who survived World War I, but also to the counterculture of the 1960s and ’70s in America and Europe.2
This new translation returns Demian to our consciousness as a welcome face we had almost forgotten. Hesse’s later works like Siddhartha and Steppenwolf have long since become part of our lives, but Demian, the novel that blazed the trail for those later works, has unjustly dropped into the background. As Demian and its stirring message once led readers into a new world of creation, Hesse’s vision is again reaching out to another generation searching for meaning in an age of anxiety and war.
On the surface, Demian appears to be a simple novel of education.
Young Emil Sinclair is acutely aware of two forces in the world—the good and the evil. He is rescued from the control of a neighborhood bully by a classmate, Max Demian, who becomes his mentor. Demian leads Sinclair to various symbols that accompany him for life—including a sparrow hawk carved above Sinclair’s front door. Away at boarding school, Sinclair drinks heavily and neglects his studies, but a beautiful young woman he sees in a park transforms his life, even though he never meets her. Sinclair discovers painting as a means of expressing his inner turmoil. He paints the woman’s portrait and recognizes her resemblance to Demian, his childhood mentor and savior. He next paints the image of the hawk emerging from its egg, and of Jacob wrestling with the angel—portraits of his own struggle for self-realization. He learns of a Persian god, Abraxas, who incarnates the universe, including good and evil, light and dark, masculine and feminine. The musician and theologian Pistorius teaches him more about Abraxas—and about himself. Sinclair transcends this mentor and finds Demian again, now with Demian’s mother, Eve. At the outbreak of World War I, Demian and Sinclair become soldiers. The dying Demian passes on his legacy of enlightenment to the severely wounded Sinclair.
Delving into this story, we will encounter Hesse’s projection of both an individual and a generation against the backdrop of impending disaster.
Demian is at the same time the story of a youth and the history of the emotional crisis and intellectual evolution of a man around forty. In writing this novel, Hesse balanced the presentation of his own individual experience with the portrayal of universal problems. We respond to this dual effort even today, because, in the issues the novel raises—good versus evil, war and its aftermath—we recognize that our own relative safety is likewise projected against the monstrous deaths of others.
In one of the first sentences of the book, Hesse states his position on personal versus universal experience. “Novelists when they write novels,” he says, “tend to take an almost godlike attitude toward their subject, pretending to a total comprehension of the story, a man’s life, which they can therefore recount as God Himself might, nothing standing between them and the naked truth, the entire story meaningful in every detail.”3 This, he declares, he cannot do. Instead of presenting an invented and therefore a mendacious work about imagined people, he wants to write a “real story about a real, unique living person.” Through Hesse’s new artistry, this person became by extension the author himself, yet “objectified” in an attempt to come to grips with evil in man, in society, and, of course, the cataclysmic evil of war.
Composed under great personal stress, Demian was published in 1919. It appeared first in monthly installments from February to April in the literary journal Die Neue Rundschau, then in book form in June of that year. Both times it was published under the pseudonym of its protagonist, Emil Sinclair.
Pretending to be Sinclair had the great advantage for Hesse of assuring readers, many of whom were returning soldiers, that such a young writer—much like themselves—actually existed. These soldiers came home defeated, having survived the horrors of trench warfare only to confront humiliation, the miseries of revolution, and a nationwide depression. They were seeking a way out, and Emil Sinclair’s story provided provisional answers.
Another reason why Hesse published the novel under a pseudonym was more deeply personal. He evidently wished to signify that he had embarked on a new life. Whatever his motives, Hesse was so successful that Demian won the notable Fontane Prize as a first novel (though in reality it was his fifth). The prize, named for the popular novelist Theodor Fontane (1819–1898), gave further proof that “Emil Sinclair” was a beginning author who promised great distinction.
But something about this manuscript made certain prominent people doubt that Sinclair was really the author. By all accounts, Hesse’s publisher, Samuel Fischer, initially accepted the pseudonym as real, although Fischer’s wife, Hedwig, was among the first to guess the author’s true identity. The matter was officially brought to an end by Eduard Korrodi, the editor for literature and the arts at the Neue Zürcher Zeitung, who revealed the truth in an open letter “To Hermann Hesse” on July 4, 1920.4 It must have been with considerable regret that Hesse had to return the prize when his authorship was revealed.
Demian’s reception was an instant success and continued to be so despite the revelation of its authorship, in large part because the book is a reflection of its time, embodying both order and underlying chaos in a society whose complacency had been violently disrupted by World War I. Although Sinclair and the avid readers who identified with him were more than twenty years younger than Hesse was, Hesse had understood and expressed their feelings and frustrations. Oddly, though, the war itself is hardly mentioned except in the foreword and the final chapter.
Still, it is a war novel. How can that be?
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