“I wanted only to try to live what was struggling by itself to come out of me. Why was that so very hard?”[1]. These fervent words are prepended as a motto to Hermann Hesse’s coming-of-age novel, Demian, which was first published in 1919. More a cry than a question, it must have established for Hesse the central issue of the story. In fact, it wasn’t hard, at all.

Emil Sinclair, the first-person narrator, grows up in a quiet and prosperous German town, watched over by caring and well-to-do parents. His childhood and early schooldays are exceptionally safe and protected. Danger appears in the form of a local bully, Franz Kromer, who begins to blackmail him. But Sinclair’s torments are soon ended. He is befriended by an older and stronger boy, Max Demian, who drives the bully away.

In his religion classes at school, Sinclair learns about different stories in the Bible, among them, the story of Cain and Abel. Sinclair is disenchanted by the lifeless explanations of his teacher, but Demian approaches him and unlocks fascinating alternative readings. Demian suggests that Sinclair, like Cain, is called to a greater destiny than the herd-like people around them. Thus begins the path away from conventional life and morality that will lead Sinclair to himself.

Sent to a boarding school, Sinclair falls in with low-lifers and squanders his time and his parents’ money. Before punishment descends on him, the sight of a local girl, whom he names Beatrice, restores him to probity. Not for Sinclair the trouble of getting to know her. Instead, he draws her. Not for him the struggle for a good likeness. As one sketch follows another, the features of Beatrice become like those of Demian and Sinclair himself.

A final drawing, which depicts a bird breaking out of an egg, precipitates Sinclair’s introduction to Abraxas, the presiding deity of the novel. Abraxas stands for the unity of good and evil. This new insight does not need to be tested in the real world of acts and consequences. Instead, Sinclair returns to his artist’s easel. He redraws his image of Beatrice. He finishes up with the face of an older woman who exerts both a moral and an immoral attraction on him. These Sinclair now feels able to affirm as one.

Sinclair enrols at university, but we learn nothing about his studies. Perhaps he does no work there at all. His focus is again on Max Demian. Demian introduces Sinclair to his mother, Frau Eva, who turns out to be the face in his drawing of Beatrice. Frau Eva is the guiding spirit of a circle of the elect dedicated to esoteric pursuits. This circle has recognised that a war is coming which will create a path for a new age and a new man.

When war breaks out, Sinclair is sent to the front. and is badly wounded. He regains consciousnesses and finds Max Demian lying next to him. Demian, who is also wounded, does not waste words on lost lives and mutilated bodies, their own included. He speaks about the new age, and gives Sinclair a kiss, which he says is from Frau Eva. Then, Demian dies. The loss of his friend and mentor does not leave Sinclair prostrate with grief. Quite the opposite. Demian is now inside him, and Sinclair has become a being of a new quality. He has been transformed into himself.

If the coming-of-age described here is hard, Emil Sinclair, and behind him, Hermann Hesse, cannot have known much about hardship. The path to oneself is clothed with a blessed inevitability. Struggles may be mentioned, but they take place in the background. Dangers may be met and overcome, but they are not fully experienced. Thresholds loom, but they are easily crossed. The horrors of war are present to Sinclair, but for all the meaning this has, the war could have happened somewhere else and to someone else. At the significant junctures of his story, Sinclair does not have to take responsibility. Facing up to hardship is never demanded of him.

One might object that the novel foregrounds a different kind of hardship, namely the hardship of psychological crisis. And it is true that Demian emerged from a serious psychological crisis in the life of its author. That this can be hard, I do not doubt. A second objection follows on the first. Demian seems to appeal most strongly to individuals undergoing a crisis of identity, as many do during adolescence. This is valid for the years immediately after the Great War, when the youth of Germany took Demian to heart, as it is for for the English-speaking world of the 1960s and 1970s, when disaffected young people took Hesse to heart once more. That adolescence can be hard, and that specifically adolescent challenges can be recognised in the story of Emil Sinclair, need not be doubted, either.

The questions, however, remain. Hesse went to great lengths to make a strong claim for the truth of Demian. Siegfried Unseld, who was Hesse’s publisher after 1945, relates that when the author submitted the manuscript to his predecessors, he pretended that he was doing so on behalf of a first-time author called Emil Sinclair, who was incapacitated and close to death, and whose autobiographical story he had typed up for him. The publisher believed Hesse, and Demian was published under the name of Emil Sinclair [2]. It promptly won a prize for first-time authors, which had to be returned when the true authorship became known. This subterfuge reveals a strange gap between the truth of the book and the truthfulness of its author.

In Demian, intense subjectivity, alternative spirituality, multiple realities, and the power of myths and symbols make for a rich anti-authoritarian mix. If it can act as a signpost in a time of disorientation, as it seems to have done for many, Hesse must have got something right. But it is required of a signpost that it point in the right direction. From the outset, this novel misleads. At its close, the reader has been beguiled into accepting that objective hardship, such as the tribulations of war, is somehow less real than the subjective hardship of becoming oneself.

In a series of short contributions, of which this is the first, different aspects of Hesse’s novel will be explored in the hope of getting to the bottom of its peculiar fascination.


[1] Ich wollte ja nichts als das zu leben versuchen, das von selber aus mir heraus wollte. Warum war das so sehr schwer? Hermann Hesse, Demian. Die Geschichte von Emil Sinclairs Jugend (Frankfurt-am-Main: Suhrkamp, 1979) 7. (Translation mine).

[2] Siegfried Unseld, Hermann Hesse – eine Werkgeschichte (Frankfurt-am-Main: Suhrkamp, 1974) 55.


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