by Eamon Kiernan. 03 February, 2021
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 enthusiastic readers.
Demian was originally published in three instalments in the literary journal, Die Neue Rundschau, between February and April, 1919. It came out in book form in June 1919, with regular reprints in the months and years that followed. It was reviewed often and favourably.
I will begin with two early discussions of the novel, the first written in June 1919 by the author and critic, Alfred Döblin, which was one of the earliest of the reviews, the second by the Dadaist, Hugo Ball, in his 1927 biography of Hesse.
Döblin wrote of his ‘unusual satisfaction’ on reading the novel, which for him displayed an ‘incomparable sureness of touch’ and ‘reached the essential’. To clarify what he meant, Döblin singled out the novel’s ‘primordial amorality’ and its ‘resolute refusal of intellectuality.’ These enabled him to ‘see and feel as a reality’ the ‘hidden, supra-moral movements of the soul’.  Hugo Ball chose categories similar to Döblin’s, but took them further. Because of the ‘macabre, hallucinatory clarity’ of the language, the novel’s ‘incestuous and murderous passion’ could ‘light up with purity’. The novel constituted ‘a breakthrough to the self that reaches the depth of primordial undifferentiation’. It represented ‘a song of praise to the power of the Mother and the roots of humanity’. Ball emphasised the novel’s contemporary relevance. For him, Demian held true to the ‘fratricidal and lawless time’ in which it was written. 
Though the superlatives were rarely sustained – in 1956, Döblin wrote to a friend that he could see in Hesse no more than ‘tedious lemonade’  – these early judgments are a useful place to begin in evaluating the reading experience. The specific amorality of the tale, together with the vivid, empathetic manner of its telling, resonated with unusual strength in that time of crisis.
The early readership of Demian is usually referred to as the ‘youth of Germany.’ Never a self-evident category, it certainly needs to be stretched to include sympathetic older readers such as Döblin and Ball. Looking back in 1948, the literary scholar, Ernst Robert Curtius, tried to put it more accurately. Prominent in the readership of Demian were former soldiers who had been young before the Great War, had survived the carnage of the trenches and had found their way to the universities by 1919. Curtius suggested that these ageing youths struggling for orientation had belonged to or had sympathised with the so-called freideutsche Jugend (this translates as ‘free German youth’)  This appellation was adopted in 1913 at the Hoher Meißner youth festival to help to form a coherent body out of the diverse Wandervogel youth groups. It is likely that Curtius had in mind the already evolved Wandervogel youth culture rather than the new departure of the festival in his characterisation of the readers of Demian.
The original Wandervogel (the name means ‘migrant bird’) was a club of Berlin schoolchildren critical of city life, industrialisation and formal education who spent their free time hiking in the countryside, often in the company of sympathetic teachers, in order to educate themselves through shared experiences of nature. Their inspiration took hold. Between 1896 and 1913, a hiking-based counterculture sprang up in German-speaking lands which was to have a lasting influence on society.
What united the Wandervögel was a belief in feeling, spontaneity and the uplifting power of natural beauty. They cultivated a more liberated, often homoerotic, sexuality, and they called for a youth-led national renewal. In 1914, many Wandervögel had seen the imminent war as a spiritual destiny and had joined up without delay. They were to give their lives on the battlefield in disproportionate numbers. Curtius noted in Demian a franker than usual treatment of adolescent sexual torment, an interpretation of war as both a place of individual trial by suffering and a cleansing national destiny, a resolute, though largely polite, rejection of traditional forms of authority, and a recourse to myths and traditions of secret knowledge..
Though these thematic affinities are certainly given, Curtius could have looked a little further. Most Wandervögel disapproved of the use of intoxicants. In Demian, intoxicants, specifically alcohol, though not praised, belong to a stage of the protagonist’s path to himself. Though anti-authoritarian, Wandervogel groups were susceptible to cult-like and pseudo-initiatory formations, and to seduction by charismatic leadership. Reflections of these tendencies can be found in Demian.
German youth, as Curtius pointed out, welcomed the collapse of the old order of Hohenzollern Germany, but to conclude, as he did, that a new springtime took place for former Wandervögel in 1918/1919, does not take account of the conflicted nature of the beginning. Many Wandervögel had believed in the Fatherland as a self-evident focus of communitarian aspiration. After the war, no single consensus was available as to what constituted the national community and what belief in it might entail. The times, to recall Hugo Ball, were fratricidal.
Towards the end of Demian, the community re-appears as a trans-national entity which emerges from the ruins of Europe. Its distinctive features, however, remain unimaginable. It has the character of a psychic entity rather than that of a political formation and it seems to be one and the same as the realisation of a new idea of mankind. The fate of the community lies in the hands of a cabal of individuals who have successfully completed the journey to themselves. The community must be born anew out of hardship, with connotations of blood sacrifice. A springtime this may be, but it is a mystical one. In the novel, it is invoked and proclaimed, but it never comes.
In 1965, when a new translation was published, Hesse’s Demian found enthusiastic readers in the English-speaking world. In the United States, together with Siddartha, Der Steppenwolf and Das Glasperlenspiel, Demian came to be strongly associated with hippy culture. Already hailed by LSD guru Timothy Leary, as “the ultimate guide to the psychedelic experience”,  Hesse seemed to many hippies to be a kindred spirit, who shared their goals of expanding consciousness and finding alternative ways of living.
In an article written in 1970, the Marxist intellectual, Henry Pachter, tried for an explanation for what was becoming known as ‘the Hesse boom’. As a young man in 1920s Germany, Pachter had read Demian with enthusiasm. Now, forty years later, in a very different society, he found that Demian was speaking to young people with the same prophetic voice of before, and this despite the poor translations and the unfamiliarity of most of the novel’s cultural references. Pachter concludes, disparaging both Hesse and his earlier self, that the appeal of Demian, like that of Hesse’s other works, lies in the author’s undemanding art. Hesse, he claims, does not ask his readers to think, but to feel. The central benefit his readers derive from the reading experience is the ability to feel themselves while avoiding a cognitive challenge. Pachter goes further, though it is not intended as praise. Comparing Hesse to J. D. Salinger, he points to Hesse’s affirming humanism, which has the existentially challenged protagonists of his novels move towards a solution to their problems. This the darker, and presumably superior, The Catcher in the Rye is unable for. 
Not surprisingly, Pachter does not inquire into what a reader of Demian might feel when he ‘feels himself’ through the novel. Had he done so, he might have been able to acknowledge the power of its religiosity. In its way, America in 1965 shared the sense of existential threat and the pull towards fratricide of Germany in 1919. Deep social divisions made the country unstable. The values on which American society had been built up seemed to many to be false or corrupt. Unwilling to be made complicit, many young Americans claimed the freedom to search for something new.
This search could be nihilistic and destructive. At its best, it was a clear expression of what Christians refer to as ‘conscience’: the perception of the voice of God speaking intimately to the person, asking her to change for the better and to re-connect with a greater reality. Because the trials and tribulations of learning to follow the inner voice are dramatised in Demian, the novel is fundamentally religious.
Because the novel breaks with the traditional recourse to God, the kind of religion it expresses is not easily named and described. I hope to return to the religion of Demian in a later contribution.
As with most of Hesse’s mature novels, the reader of Demian, through empathetic reading, feels herself to be a person of conscience. In Demian, perhaps more so than in the other works, the reader can feel herself becoming a person of conscience.
Hesse himself seems to have seen Demian in these terms. In a letter written in 1956, he advised a correspondent that he could certainly approve of his remaining a member of his Christian Church, but that he should then stay away from Demian.  In explanation, Hesse referred to a moral dilemma of wartime: what should a Christian do if he is told to go to war and kill the enemy? On the one hand, Church and country will tell him to obey. On the other hand, the law of God will forbid him to kill. This dilemma was much discussed at the time, when Germany was rearming and compulsory military service was being introduced. Hesse wrote to his correspondent that it would be up to his conscience whether he obeyed the law of Church and country or the law of God. If at that moment, he began to doubt the absolute authority of Church and country, the young man would be able to profit from reading Demian. Clearly, conscience, as presented in Demian, becomes active through the questioning of authority, that is, through doubt and disobedience.
Unfortunately, Hesse’s letter distorts the urgency of the moral dilemma and thus its reality. Two questions of conscience need to be differentiated. The first, to kill or not to kill, does not arise concretely unless war breaks out and one finds oneself in battle. It is this question which the letter is ostensibly concerned with. For a young man in Karlsruhe in 1956, such as the correspondent, it does not need to be answered. Indeed, it cannot be answered, except theoretically, because it is not real. The second question, whether or not to allow oneself to be trained to kill, is real, and needs to be answered. But the question is asked in peacetime, in the particular context of the newly-privileged post-war society. The question is not primarily about killing, but about participation in society. The answer to this question will not provide the answer to the first.
What is more, the moral dilemma fits badly with Demian, which lacks the pacifism we usually expect from Hesse. Nowhere in the text is war condemned. On the contrary, Max Demian is presented as a warlike figure who is affirmative of violence. In a prominent passage, he refuses to condemn killing as morally wrong. Towards the end of the novel, it is revealed that he has secretly volunteered for training as a reserve officer and is glad to go to war.
Hesse’s fudging of the issue in his letter throws light on his understanding of conscience. Awareness and disposition seem to be more important than a moral act. Conscience is less about concrete judgments of right and wrong in concrete situations. It is much more about the awareness of a crisis in the perception of the values of right and wrong, and about acquiring the disposition of openness to a guidance that may run contrary to the established order. One can only assume that Hesse expects reading Demian to have a subvervise effect on moral convictions and cherished ideals, perhaps even those he cherished himself. Conscience should be antinomian, subversive. It should drive onwards in doubt rather than come to rest in certainty.
Such, then, is the person of conscience that the reader of Demian feels herself becoming.
When the crisis of authority strikes, Emil Sinclair turns for orientation to the amoral, free-flowing imagery of the psyche and the mythic imagination. As critical as he is of what the Church and the social order have previously made of much the same kind of imagery, he immediately welcomes as his own the images that appear before his inner ear and eye. The feeling of stagnation loosening, and of verification surging from within, seems to be reason enough for a positive judgment. Is this the voice of God? Hesse must have thought so. Perhaps it is not.
 “[J]edesmal legte ich [das Buch] mit einer ungemeinen Sätting und Befriedung hin […] mit einer Sicherheit die ohnegleichen ist, rührt [es] an das Wesentliche.”
“[Es] hebt an das Licht die urgeborene Amoralität; real sehe ich, fühle ich, erlebe ich die übermoralischen Seelenbewegungen […] es lehnt auf das Entschlossenste in Wort und Gebärde das Intellektuelle ab […]”.
Alfred Döblin, “Reform des Romans,” Der Neue Merkur, 3. Jg.(1919/1920): 189–202. Quoted in Siegfried Unseld, Hermann Hesse: Eine Werkgeschichte (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1971), 59.
 “Die Sprache ist durchsichtig hell, und doch so sehr in eine makabre, mohnhafte Sphäre getragen, daß sie alle wilde Süßigkeit […] sogar einer inzestuöse, eine kainitische Leidenschaft zu tragen weiß und doch ganz rein von menschlichen Gedanken und Stürmen zu leuchten vermag”.
“Demian ist ein Durchbruch des Dichters auf der ganzen Linie; ein Durchbruch zu sich selbst bis hinab in eine Urverflochtenheit.”
“Denn auch die Zeit ist in diese Sprache eingegangen […] eine brudermörderische, eine rebellische, eine gesetzeswidrige Zeit.”
Hugo Ball, Hermann Hesse, Sein Leben und Werk (Berlin: Fischer, 1927), 138, 145. Quoted in Unseld, Hermann Hesse, 61.
 “So viel wie die langweilige Limonade Hermann Hesse bin ich schon lange.”
Letter from Alfred Döblin to Harald Kohtz, 12 April, 1957. Quoted by Christoph Koenig, “’Vor dem Gerichtshof über Weltliteratur’: Zu Versuchen, deutschen Dichtern den Nobelpreis zu verschaffen,” Zeitschift für Literatur und Linguistik, 107 (1997): 44.
 Ernst Robert Curtius, “Hermann Hesse,” Merkur, Jahrgang 1, Heft 2 (1947): 170.
 Timothy Leary and Ralph Metzner, “Hermann Hesse: Poet of the Interior Journey,” The Psychedelic Review, vol. 1, no. 2, (Fall, 1963): 181.
 Henry M. Pachter, “On Re-Reading Hermann Hesse,” Salmagundi, no. 12 (Spring, 1970): 83-89.
 Letter from Hermann Hesse to N.G. August, 1956. Hermann Hesse, Briefe, erweiterte Ausgabe (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1964), 468-469.