By Hermann Hesse.
Translated from the German original by Michael Roloff and Michael Lebeck
New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1963
171 pages

Comments by Bob Corbett
November 2011

Caution to those who have not read this novel: My comments are not intended to give a brief overview of the novel, but to reflect on what it meant to me and how I interacted with the book. Thus there are plot spoilers throughout. These comments are more for myself to clarify my experience of the novel and to share it with others who might wish to discuss it or use my reflections to check against their own.

Emil Sinclair narrates this tale which is about his life from about age ten to his early twenties. At the same time it is a story of the role Max Demian plays in his life, and finally, there are lesser, but interesting roles played by the organist, nihilist, Pistorius and Max’s mother, Eva.

The first chapter is simply marvelous and could stand as an independent short story. The young Sinclair lives in an upper middle class family, is quite innocent, a student at a decent school. One day he and a couple of classmates fall in with a fellow a year older than they, from another school, of the underclass, tough and rough. He sort of bullies the boys and impresses them with his toughness and power. The other boys tell some stories which suggest there aren’t quite the innocents that Sinclair is, and in embarrassment of his own “goodness,” he makes up a story that he stole some apples from a near-by farmer. The boys challenge him on the story and he swears he really did it.

A couple days later the older boy corners him and demands some money to keep quiet about this theft that never happened, but Sinclair simply can’t admit that he lied. Yet he had no money. Thus begins a time of great anxiety and a change of life. He goes from a young boy living in a nearly ideal world of his comfortable family to a guilt ridden sad boy who has come into contact with a messier world that he has yet known and doesn’t know how to handle it, having little access to cash money.

Hermann Hesse is brilliant in making us feel the miserable situation Sinclair is in and we can both agonize with his inability to handle this pressure, but shake our heads in some superior sense that we would probably have handled it better.

This first chapter is extremely important in setting up the stair-steps of the novel’s plan, but it also reads like a short story that could well end in a happily-ever-aftering once he finally bucks up and confesses his situation to his understanding, if disapproving parents.

Ah, but it isn’t really a separate short story, and to view it as the above paragraph suggests is to basically leave Max Demian out of it. That would, of course, be to miss the whole structure of Hesse’s magnificent plan.

Max is two years older than Sinclair and seemingly 40 years wiser and experienced. He comes to the school during Sinclair’s enslavement to the older bully, and without ever having heard about the story, seems to understand what is going on and presses Sinclair to go to this parents. But Max’s first contact comes with the critical story of Cain and Abel.

The Cain and Abel story was part of a school lecture given by a priest and telling the generally known Biblical story. Demian challenges this interpretation suggesting that actually Cain was very strong and powerful. Abel a bit of a wimp and follower. However, others feared Cain’s power and authority and encourage Abel to challenge Cain. Cain, perhaps even in self-defense, kills Abel and this allows the masses to accuse Cain, create an image of him as evil and live apart from him.

However, on Demian’s view Cain is the stronger, totally disdains the masses and lives a superior life of power, totally confident in himself and his own ways.

In the process Demian warns him:

“I realize today that nothing in the world is more distasteful to a man than to take the path that leads to himself.”

The influence of Demian leads Sinclair to intellectually adopt a world where the individual takes charge of his or her own notion of good and evil, yet he doesn’t fully understand the notion, nor have the courage or need to live it.

The next development in Sinclair’s life is his years of adolescence and his guilty hidden world of thought and feelings about sex. Here too he discovers the clash between the worlds of light and darkness, an image throughout the novel.

His first year at boarding school was quiet and he remained alone and aloof. Then he learns to drink and bar-crawl and becomes a leader of that faction of students, bringing himself into conflict with the school and his family, coming closer and closer to being expelled.

He is sort of caught. He doesn’t really like this life he’s defined as himself, but feels rather trapped, having defined himself as the very person he is. One day, however, he sees a lovely and innocent girl of his own age in a local park, sort of idealizes her and begins a new life moving himself in a more positive space for himself that includes painting. Indirectly this leads him to rethink his days and times with Demian, though they don’t really meet.

When he goes off to university he is in a much more exploratory world about himself and life in general. He meets an organist who is fairly much an outsider from normal society and several years older than Sinclair. The organist, Pistorius brings up the name “Abraxas,” a name that Sinclair has only encountered in a note he once received which he believes to have been from Demian, but he isn’t really too sure.

Pistorius instructs Sinclair, now just about 18, about Abraxas, a godly/devilish spirit which integrates forces of good and evil into one. It is Pistorius’ ideal and he tries very hard to convince Sinclair to this position, a view to which Sinclair is actually quite drawn, but just not fully sure he wants to adopt it.

Pistorius tell him:

“. . . Sinclair, our god’s name is Abraxas and he is God and Satan and he contains both the luminous and the dark world. Abraxas does not take exception to any of your thoughts, any of your dreams. Never forget that. But he will leave you once you’ve become blameless and normal. Then he will leave you and look for a different vessel in which to brew his thoughts.”

Later he instructs him that:

“There is no reality except the one contained within us. That is why so many people love such an unreal life. They take the images outside them for reality and never allow the world within to assert itself.”

And further:

“An enlightened man had but one duty – to seek the way to himself, to reach inner certainty, to grope his way forward , no matter where it leads.”

The mark of Cain, the mark of the dark side, is to really become oneself, not a being that lets others tell them what they should be.

“Each man had only one genuine vocation – to find the way to himself. He might end up as poet or madman, as prophet or criminal – that was not his affair, ultimately it was of no concern. His task was to discover his own destiny – not an arbitrary one – and live it out wholly and resolutely within himself.”

Eventually in the last pages Sinclair reunites with Damien who is living with his mother, Eva, and Sinclair is actually in love with her. The two of them have a very strong influence on him. And the theme of Cain and Able returns strongly. Damien tells Sinclair that he has that mark of Cain. This is not the life of the masses. Their destiny is:

“Humanity, which they loved as we did – was for them something complete that must be maintained and protected. For us humanity was a distant goal toward which all men were moving, whose image no one knew, whose laws were nowhere written down.”

But the duty of people like Sinclair, Demian, Eva and even Pistorius is:

“The only duty and destiny we acknowledge was that each of us should become so completely himself, so utterly faithful to the active seed which Nature planted within him, that in living out its growth he could be surprised by nothing known to come.”

Earlier Pistorius had describe the situation as:

“But no one is ready when a new ideal, a new and perhaps dangerous and ominous impulse, makes itself felt. The few 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 continuing idly into more dangerous reaches.”

We are left with a young man, unfinished, leaning toward the world of Cain. There is no question that Hesse, himself, leaned toward such a view and had been deeply influence by Friedrich Nietzsche who holds a quite similar view. This novel was published in 1919 and in 1927 Hesse returns to a similar view in his novel Steppenwolf on which I commented some 10 years ago.

I have very strong leanings toward the views expressed in “Demian” though I have played them out in my life in a more modest manner. I think it may be time for me to turn to a few of Hesse’s other works which I have not yet read. Sinclair’s growth in this novel is over about a 15 year period, into his mid 20s perhaps. But, even us oldsters can still grow.

Like Hesse, I have long been influenced by Nietzsche. However, my years in the 1950s and 60s brought me in touch with the later Existentialists and I have been rather deeply influenced by Martin Heidegger, Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone DeBeauvoir and Albert Camus, among others. Like Demian they celebrate the individual who takes control of his or her own life and values, and creates a self answerable to no one but one’s self. Like Demian we do not expect an afterlife nor any “judge” of our lives. My life is mine to make as I wish and can, and the price is that I live the consequences. I am who I have chosen to become. Certainly there are limits to what I may choose and bring into being. I may well “choose” not to age and have knees that no longer work, but some choices are not within my power. In my case, I did have the power to choose to get new knees implanted in my legs and to get my ability to walk back within my power. But, the aging comes, illness, control that others more powerful than I may have over me and so on. I have to power to do what I have the power to do, but I have the right to choose and act as I wish; I simply have to bear the consequences of me choices. Acts, after all, often have consequences.

It’s fascinating for me to read this partial life of Emil Sinclair. We follow him from about age 8 until about his early 20s. He is, at the end of the novel, about where I was when I was 20, just having really come into the knowledge of theories of the self and choice and the right to choose, and having finally buried my older beliefs in a world ordered by nature and/or God. Like Emil I had been struggling with the traditional ideas from about the time that I was 7 or 8.

Now I am 72 and have managed to carve out a life for myself that I tend to see as very much within the frame of my own conscious and careful choosing. Certainly I am not all-powerful over my choices, and stuck with the consequences of many of them that I sort of wish I had done other. But, in my view, the my philosophy of life, I have taken the notion which Sinclair has moved toward – a life where there are no necessary choices, no absolute rules from outside that I must follow. However, once I choose, in an important sense, I choose for all time. I did the act x, and x will have consequences that I cannot necessarily undo. That is my responsibility, my freedom, my risk in life. For me that view of human existence works well. I simply don’t believe in any higher power nor any life after death, nor do I grant any human willingly to have power over what I choose. I know others may well, in FACT, be powerful enough to compel me to do some things I may not wish to do, but that they have the power gives them neither the right nor the correctness in doing so. They just have more power than I. I can’t help but recognize this fact of my daily life. If I don’t pay my electric bill the company will shut off my electricity. I can chose as I wish, but my choices are not all going to go as I might wish they could. My power is limited in what acts I can successfully and continually carry out, but my right to chose to act as I decide within my power and is without limit.

Many older folks seem to regret growing old, losing some power, and moving ever closer to death. Not me. I look at Emil Sinclair in this novel’s end, at about age 20 or so, and he is still at the point of making a very serious level choice, perhaps, to embrace a life like that I describe in the few paragraphs above. He will succeed in some of his choices, fail in others, and continue defining who he is by his choices as he grows older. Ah me, there are some 40s years of age between the two of us. I simply loved most of those days of the past 40 years, but certainly not all of them. But even though overall I have lived a life of much much greater happiness than not, I wouldn’t want it to do all over again; wouldn’t want the work and energy, fear and joy, in succeeding and failing in my choices.

Nope. I’m one very happy 72 year old, fearing nothing in my, now, shorter future, and definitely never wanting to retreat and do it over again. I am who I am; accepting myself as I am, warts and all, and extremely happy and joyful that I took a path in which, in a very significant degree, I took control of my own life and made conscious and reflective choices of who I would become. I’m still on my way, even if walking slowly and reflectively rather than dashing and dreaming.

Bob Corbett


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