Written by Eamon Kiernan. July, 2021.
In Demian, Hermann Hesse draws on a wide range of cultural allusions. One of the most recognizable of them is the figure of Beatrice, the heavenly beloved familiar from the works of Dante Alighieri. Less recognisable, because carefully hidden, is what Hesse, through his protagonist, makes of the beloved. Strange as it may seem, Emil Sinclair’s quest for himself, which is the theme and purpose of the novel, requires her murder.
The story of Beatrice is quickly told. Living a degenerate life in a boarding house attached to his school, Emil Sinclair catches a glimpse of a young woman in a nearby park, and falls in love with her. Unable to approach her, he never finds out her name, or anything else about her. Because she reminds him of the portrayal of Dante’s Beatrice in a pre-raphaelite painting, he decides to call her Beatrice.
Inspired by her beauty, Sinclair begins to reform his life. First of all, he changes his behaviour. Abandoning the alcohol excesses and the false friends, he becomes what he calls a ‘servant in a temple’ (Tempeldiener). His daily routines become a setting for secret rituals of adoration of Beatrice. Secondly, discovering that the pre-raphaelite image is not a true enough likeness of his beloved, Sinclair begins to paint her. Painting proves to be a new spiritual gift which becomes a mode of evoking inner guidance. Thirdly, under the influence of the newly painted image, Sinclair begins to dream again. At the close of the episode, he has one of the most significant dreams of the novel, that of the sparrowhawk breaking out of the world egg. At this point, Beatrice has faded from view.
It is my contention that the disappearance of Beatrice at the pen of Hesse amounts to her symbolic murder.
The moral force which can emerge in erotic attraction has been much praised by the poets. Perhaps its most elaborate expression is found in Dante Alighieri. In his La Vita Nuova and La Divina Commedia, Beatrice appears as a causal agent of personal transformation and as a reliable guide to the soul on its way to God.
In Demian, Hesse tells it differently. Sinclair is not on the way to God, but on the way to himself. The image he makes of Beatrice diverges more and more from her reality, and the cultic practice of making the image becomes an end in itself. Eventually, Sinclair gives himself over to the unconscious, and accepts whatever image spontaneously arises. Though the beloved is still recognisable in the emergent figure, the features of Max Demian are present in it just as much, as is the vague entity Sinclair refers to as his ‘self’. Now, whenever Sinclair sees Beatrice in the park or on the streets of the town, the strong erotic attraction he used to feel for her has been replaced by ‘a gentle accord’ (ein sanftes Übereinstimmen). The artist’s brush has taken the place of the phallus and artistic creation is substituted for love. The body of Beatrice vanishes from Sinclair’s story while her image comes to dwell in him as his destiny and his soul.
Evidently, Sinclair’s adoration of Beatrice has been diverted from its natural course and directed towards the acquisition of an inner image. This is not at all innocent. To go by his highlighting of the ‘gentle accord’, Hesse, through Sinclair, felt the need to suggest that Beatrice had consented to his treatment of her. However, in consenting to the acquisition of her image, Beatrice would have consented to her effacement and consumption by Sinclair. This is best seen from the incidents surrounding Sinclair’s dream of his heraldic bird, the sparrowhawk. In this dream, which will be discussed in greater detail below, Sinclair is commanded by Max Demian to eat the heraldic bird. He awakes to find that his painting of Beatrice has suffered water damage and that the features of Beatrice are no longer recognisable. A parallel is thus set up between Sinclair’s consumption of the heraldic bird and the effacement of Beatrice. Significantly, the image of the beloved enters Sinclair to become part of his soul, just as if it were she who had been consumed. Far from being a person with a life of her own, Beatrice is nourishment for Sinclair, and nothing more. When Sinclair paints again, it does not occur to him to make a new portrait of Beatrice to replace the damaged one. He has a new subject: the sparrowhawk.
The alert reader will take note of a scene which occurs before the dream and the water damage when Sinclair stands for the first time before his portrait of Beatrice. Well pleased with his work, he decides that it needs a name. As was mentioned, Sinclair did not know the real name of Beatrice. We see here that he would not have cared what her name was, no more than he cared about her features when he painted her. In naming the portrait, Sinclair does not choose any kind of personal name, not even the name of Beatrice. Instead, he chooses an obscure and portentuous motto from the canon of high culture: Schicksal und Gemüt sind Namen eines Begriffs. Slyly, Hesse allows his protaganist to claim a sudden flash of insight into its meaning, but to renege on an explanation. He also allows him to misattribute its source. Already complicit in the assumed consent of Beatrice to Sinclair’s acquisition of her image, we readers are made complicit once more, this time in Sinclair’s grandiose and dangerous ignorance.
To some extent, we can clear up the obfuscation. The motto Sinclair chooses for the painting is a quotation from Heinrich von Ofterdingen, an unfinished novel by the German Romantic poet, Novalis. In the 1842 Owens translation, it is rendered as: “fate and mind are but names of one idea”.  Though not incorrect, this translation does not convey the fullness of meaning. For his concept of ‘Gemüt’, Novalis drew on the German mystics, whose writings Hesse, too, knew well. In the usage of Meister Eckart, ‘Gemüt’ signified the whole inner world of the person, the place where reason, feeling and will come together. Novalis then distinguished ‘Gemüt’ from reason and feeling in order to open up deeper areas of the inward self. In Heinrich von Ofterdingen, ‘Gemüt’ came to designate a fundamental spiritual sense or organ through which the living of life is brought before the creative moral judgment.  ‘Heart’, understood in the poetic sense, is perhaps the most useful translation. For Novalis, though perhaps not for Hesse, the lucid stirrings of the heart could unite a person with God.
Further evidence of what Hesse had in mind is provided by the essay, Eigensinn, which was first published in 1919, the same year as Demian. Here, Hesse makes use of the same Novalis quotation when he assigns the status of a moral virtue to one’s sense of oneself (Eigensinn). He goes on to argue that the sense of oneself should be made into one’s destiny, but that it requires the courage of a hero to do it.  For Hesse, then, the ‘Gemüt’ of Novalis is to be equated with the sense of oneself. His understanding of ‘Gemüt’ is primarily self-referential, much more so than that of Novalis.
In Demian, the heart of the protagonist and his destiny are intended to mirror each other. Unfortunately, the meaning of the word ‘destiny’ in Demian is not at all clear. Often equated with the inner self Sinclair is seeking, and which he could presumably refuse to seek, destiny also appears as an external, all-determining power which lies outside the range of free choice. Though declaredly individual, and demanding painful solitude from the seeker, destiny also takes on a collective guise, especially towards the end of the novel. As was mentioned, the Beatrice episode marks a turning point in the narration. After Beatrice, the location of Sinclair’s quest for himself is shifted inwards, and his experiences are constituted almost wholly by the images which awaken in the self-referential heart. At the same time, in a counter-movement, destiny begins to show itself unmistakably as an irresistible force external to the heart. This is seen most clearly when Sinclair’s story completes itself in the apocalyptic destruction of war. The lack of coherence in the presentation of destiny may be due to an inconclusive grappling with Stoic and Taoist insights on Hesse’s part. The paradox of the individual’s free submission to a pre-existing natural necessity, which is found in Stoicism and Taoism, certainly figures in some of Hesse’s later novels, and with less confusion.
It is clear, though, that when Sinclair stands before his portrait of Beatrice and applies the motto from Novalis, he stands in the sign of a significant new accomplishment: his sense of himself made into his destiny. Because the essay Eigensinn insists on ascribing heroic qualities to this accomplishment, we can assume that in Demian, too, the difficulty and danger of the task and the recalcitrance of the setting are crucial for Hesse. This means that force is required. Symbolically to hand to suffer the impact of Sinclair’s exertion of force is Beatrice. As a result, her objective existence is subsumed into his and vanishes completely. At the same time, the image-making capacities of Sinclair’s soul are vitalised, and his quest for himself can take the decisive inward turn already referred to. By his worship of Beatrice, therefore, by the kind of worship he practised, Sinclair destroyed his beloved, and acquired for his own use the energy that had sustained her form in his imagination. He potentiated himself through her symbolic murder.
Emil Sinclair’s quest for himself is nothing other than a predation. This is confirmed by the dream of the sparrowhawk, which now takes a central place in the novel. Sinclair’s heraldic bird first appears much earlier in the novel when Max Demian draws his friend’s attention to the coat of arms on the lintel above the doorway of his home. At first, the figure is too indistinct to be made out. It is Demian, using higher intuitive knowledge, who declares it to be a sparrowhawk. A smaller breed of falcon, the sparrowhawk has sometimes figured in medieval courtly poetry. To take a prominent example, Hartmann von Aue’s Erec features a tournament whose prize is a sparrowhawk for the victorious knight to present as a trophy to his lady. A bird for women more than men, the sparrowhawk generally signified the rapprochement of the sexes through the courtly pastime of falconry. 
Hesse, who had a strong interest in medieval literarature, well knew that the heraldic bird he had given to Sinclair was also a literary motif, one whose predatory features are not strongly marked. However, when he has Sinclair paint the sparrowhawk, Hesse chooses to make the head of the bird ‘sharp’ and ‘bold’ (scharf, kühn) as it breaks from the world egg. Here, the predatory quality of the sparrowhawk is emphasised. The washed out figure on the coat of arms has become itself. What we see is not the disciplined companion of a courtly lady, but a rampant bird-of-prey, proudly alone, and eager for the kill.
Demian’s identification of the sparrowhawk takes place in the context of his retelling of the Biblical story of Cain and Abel. His interpretation is remarkable for its suspension of the reality of Abel’s murder. Cain’s responsibility for the death of his brother is declared an open question. Demian holds in focus only the strange sign by which Cain and his descendents are marked out by God as special, all of whom share in the outlaw charisma founded on the possibility of murder. The emergence of the sparrowhawk at the close of the Beatrice episode cannot but recall Demian’s retelling of the Biblical story and relate the nameless woman in the park to the fate of Abel, the rumoured victim of Cain. Therefore, it is through a framework of murder, cleverly disguised as inspiration, moral transformation and artistic expression, that the episode unfolds.
As was mentioned, the Beatrice episode in Demian acknowledges a debt to the English Pre-Raphaelites. Hesse’s most likely source for the figure of Beatrice was the painting Beata Beatrix by Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Again, we can go some way towards the clarification of Hesse’s purpose. Rossetti’s Beata Beatrix shows a Beatrice transfigured from within and wholly self-contained at the moment of death. She is surrounded by richly symbolic objects which cannot be seen with her eyes and remain mysterious. Rossetti follows the perception of the sacred by means of a female form and invites an erotic response to it, as does Hesse. But where Rossetti is concerned with, and achieves, a finished external form, Sinclair welcomes formlessness. For Rossetti, the erotic response to the sacred leads to a relatively stable anchor in the perception of the divine. For Hesse, it does not. His use of the pre-raphaelite masterpiece to elevate his protagonist serves both to hide and to valorise a fundamental incapacity for stable form.
Instead of venerating holiness, Emil Sinclair venerates himself. The erotic attraction to a woman becomes the erotic attraction to himself. A sterile narcissism, one might say. It is, in fact, much worse. That clouded mirror in which destiny and the sense of oneself reflect each other ad infinitum lights up with unnatural fertility through the desecration of a woman. To recall Dante’s Divine Comedy, Hesse would have us believe he is showing us the way to Paradise. But he does not take us further than Hell.
 Novalis. Henry of Ofterdingen. Cambridge, Mass: Owen, 1842, p. 216.
 H. Emmel/Red. “Gemüt”. Historisches Wörterbuch der Philosophie. Hrsg. Joachim Ritter. Band 3 G-H. Wisssenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft Darmstadt, 1974. Clms 260-261.
 Cf. “Der »Held« ist nicht der gehorsame, brave Bürger und Pflichterfüller. Heldisch kann nur der Einzelne sein, der seinen »eigenen Sinn«, seinen edlen, natürlichen Eigensinn zu seinem Schicksal gemacht hat. »Schicksal und Gemüt sind namen eines Begriffes«, hat Novalis gesagt, einer der tiefsten und unbekanntesten deutschen Geister. aber nur der Held ist es, der den Mut zu seinem Schicksal findet.”
Hesse, Hermann. “Eigensinn” in Entdecke dich selbst! Vom Reiz der Individuation. Herausgegeben von Volker Michels. Frankfurt am Main: Insel Verlag, 2016. 15-34. p. 20
 Heinig, Dorothea. Die Jagd im Parzival Wolframs von Eschenbach. Stellenkommentar und Untersuchungen. PhD thesis. University of Marburg, 2009, p. 58.