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.
Here is the story, as told in the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible:
Two others also, who were criminals, were led away to be put to death with him. When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” And they cast lots to divide his clothing. And the people stood by watching, but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!” The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.”
One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come in your kingdom.” He replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.” (Lk 23: 32-43)
The crucifixion of two condemned men together with Jesus is mentioned by each of the Synoptic Gospels, but it is absent from the Gospel of John. The Gospels of Matthew and Mark describe the condemned men as ‘thieves’, while Luke refers to them in more general terms as ‘criminals’ or ‘malefactors’. It is likely, given their sentence of Crucifixion, that the ‘thieves’ were punished as insurrectionists against the rule of Rome.
The Gospel of Luke alone makes a difference made between a Bad Thief and a Good Thief. According to Matthew (27: 44) and Mark (15: 27, 32) both thieves joined with the onlookers in mocking Jesus with his Messianic claims. According to Luke, the Bad Thief was rebuked by the other, who set himself against the prevailing powers and declared for Jesus. Faced with these discrepancies, the Early Church opted to view Luke’s account of the Crucifixion as the more complete one. Ever since, the Good Thief has provided the Church with a resonant example of conversion in the face of death and of salvation through faith in Jesus, as well as an illustration of different smaller points of Christian faith and morality.
Again, Hesse gives the retelling of the story to Max Demian. The occasion is again the formal religious instruction at the local school, this time, the Confirmation class. A cohort of boys is being prepared by a clergyman for the solemn commitment to the Christian Faith which will place them among the ranks of the elect. The topic of instruction is the Crucifixion. The clergyman’s teaching is questioned by many of the boys on account of its seeming irrelevance. Emil Sinclair and Max Demian, however, show a more serious interest. Sinclair has genuine Christian Faith, as handed down to him through his Protestant tradition. Ever since his childhood, the Crucifixion, the central event of the Christian narrative, has left a deep impression on him. Max Demian, does not have Christian Faith, and he has come to the Confirmation class out of a worldly concern for social advancement. What separates him from the religious indifference of most of his schoolmates is the suggestion of outlandish and unorthodox beliefs and practices, which he is rumoured to engage in with his mysterious mother.
In Demian’s reinterpretation, the story of the Good and Bad Thieves turns on the question of trustworthiness of character, and the Good Thief is replaced as the hero by the Bad Thief. Demian discounts the possibility of a genuine conversion in the face of death. Because the Good Thief tries to disown his deeds when they go wrong for him, he cannot be trusted. The Bad Thief, by contrast, refuses to convert, and goes the way he has chosen to the bitter end. This makes him trustworthy. Failing to convince Sinclair at first, Demian strengthens his argument with a more general critique of Biblical religion. The God of the Old and New Testaments represents only good, that is, the officially approved portion of reality. A true representation would have to encompass both good and evil. Demian offers an analogy with moral perceptions of sexuality. In trying to obey God, people close their eyes to much of sexual reality, and natural attractions and their fulfilment wrongly come to be rejected as evil.
The example of sexuality opens Sinclair’s eyes, and he begins to be ‘converted’ to Demian’s view of a God who encompasses both good and evil. The problem of the light and dark world of his childhood together with the more recent problem of his sexual awakening are reframed as a general human problem, with a considerable payout for Sinclair: he is elevated by his unresolved traumas to a new and privileged position at the very centre of the great historical stream of moral development. Crucial to this conversion process is Demian’s repeated appeal to a state of knowledge and maturity that Sinclair does not yet possess. In this way, Sinclair’s eminently sensible objections to Demian’s morality are allowed to be stated, but are never answered. When Demian concludes that one must let go of conventional truth and become one’s own judge of morality, his friend’s objections have been no more than cleverly fielded. Demian’s conclusion acquires a narrative validity through the avoidance of verification.
What is most striking in Demian’s interpretation is the complete absence of Jesus Christ. The central figure of the original biblical story is made to disappear by Hesse without any narrative comment whatever. A Christian believer, indeed, anyone who takes the integrity of the source text seriously, will wonder at the liberties Hesse takes.
The immediate outcome of this process of ‘conversion’ is a change for the protagonist in the meaning of the Rite of Confirmation. Sinclair’s aspiration to fully participate in the community of the elect remains genuine, but a transference of object takes place. The elect are no longer represented by the believers of the Christian tradition in which he is taking instruction. Instead, Sinclair dreams of an imagined ‘Order of Thought and Personality’ of which Max Demian is the perfect representative. At the same time, Sinclair perseveres with his Confirmation as a Christian. He avails of the established formulae of Confirmation to celebrate his own private and subjective Rite of Admission. The insincerity of the act is masked by Hesse’s narration, which presents it as a step towards greater sincerity
Perhaps unintentionally, Hesse alludes here to a time-honoured subterfuge of Christian heretics of different persuasions, from Cathars to Rosicrucians, and beyond. Orthodox formulae receive a new and secret set of meanings and can then be confessed in all sincerity by the heretic. In any case, it is in keeping with Hesse’s purpose that the heretical allusion should receive no narrative marking. Sinclair’s destiny would not make of him a heretic, it would take him outside the institutions of religion and beyond the possibilities of orthodoxy and heresy.
As the novel progresses, Sinclair’s idea of the ‘elect’ is divested of any lingering Christian connotation and comes to be associated with those who bear the mark of Cain and with the esoteric community of seekers headed by Demian’s mother, Frau Eva.