The following contribution discusses the second extended reference to the Bible in Hermann Hesse’s ‘Demian’: the Story of the Good and Bad Thieves from the Gospel of Saint Luke.
Emil Sinclair’s exemplary coming-of-age, as portrayed in ‘Demian’, requires the disruption of the well-ordered world of Christian morality. One of the narrative ploys used by Hesse to this end is the counter-reading of passages from the Bible.
After 1965, when a new English translation was published, Hermann Hesse’s ‘Demian’, together with ‘Siddartha’ and ‘Der Steppenwolf’, came to be associated with America’s burgeoning counterculture. There followed a surge of interest in Hesse which lasted well into the 1970s. In exploring this phenomenon, the Christian notion of ‘conscience’ is of great help.
When Hesse’s ‘Demian’ comes to an end, European civilization has become a wasteland. A bird-of-prey circles on the edge of the reader’s mind. This is the Gnostic deity, Abraxas, who is looking for another Emil Sinclair foolish enough to give him bodily form. In the following, an attempt is made to examine the significance Hesse ascribes to Abraxas in his novel.
Abraxas, the presiding deity of ‘Demian’, is not an invention of Hermann Hesse. Well known to antiquarians and students of Gnosticism, the name ‘Abraxas’ or ‘Abrasax’ can be found on decorated stones dating from the early Christian era which were used for magical purposes
Germany in the first half of 1919. Disgruntled soldiers trudge home from a war they cannot believe they have lost. The Kaiser is in exile. The reigning noble houses have vanished, swept into history by the so-called November Revolution. Coups d’etat are in open preparation. Violence is everywhere. In this volatile climate, Hermann Hesse’s ‘Demian’ found its first readers.
“I always wanted only the best for Germany.” In the prison yard, the rifles of the firing squad were at the ready. The condemned man, seeing their nervousness, tried to calm them. They shouldn’t blame themselves, he said. They were only doing their duty. He himself stood strong. “Shoot well, comrades,” he finished, looking each of them in the eye.
Vogelschiss. Birdshit. A German politician used this word recently to describe the National Socialist regime which ruled Germany from 1933 to 1945. He was looking for a new perspective, one which would reduce the Nazi dictatorship to proportion in a thousand years of mostly successful German history. Elections were in the offing, and he may have felt that he needed the attention. Because I am reluctant to give him any, he will be referred to here as Mr. Bird, leaving out the second syllable.
Claude Lanzmann’s ‘Shoah’ is a memorable film. Not because of what it says. But because of its refusal to say anything at all. The theme of Shoah is the Holocaust, in which over six million Jews were murdered by National Socialist Germany. But to state the theme in this way is to already go beyond the film. ‘Shoah’ can be classed as a documentary, in that it is concerned with historical events and includes the testimony of eyewitnesses. But it does not document anything, or try to explain anything. If there is a message, it must be worked out by the viewer, in subjective imagination. Which puts the question to me.
Markus Wolf was the legendary head of the Hauptverwaltung Aufklärung (HVA), the East German foreign intelligence service. The HVA was much better at its work than its West German counterpart, the Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND). Intelligence gathering by the BND in East Germany was of persistently low quality and rarely went beyond what anybody could have read in the newspapers. The reason is simple. Markus Wolf had inflitrated the BND so effectively that much of its activity was steered from the HVA.