Written by Eamon Kiernan. August, 2022.
There are religious persons for whom God is the centre of their lives, but who spend their time at odds with Him or Her. One of the archtypal presentations of their predicament is the Old Testament story of Jacob’s struggle with the angel. Among those who have looked to this story for guidance and inspiration are the German reformer, Martin Luther, the Danish philosopher, Sören Kierkegaard, the American poet, Emily Dickinson, and the German poet and novelist, Hermann Hesse.
Perhaps the most striking of Hesse’s references to Jacob’s struggle is found in Demian. The Bible story provides the heading for the crucial chapter, Jakob’s Kampf. Careful structural allusions and a direct quotation from the relevant passage in the Bible play a significant role in the narration.
Here is the original story, as told in the Book of Genesis:
The same night [Jacob] got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had. Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” Then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him. So Jacob called the place Penuel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip. Therefore to this day the Israelites do not eat the thigh muscle that is on the hip socket, because he struck Jacob on the hip socket at the thigh muscle.
(Gen. 32:22–32. New Revised Standard Version).
The Hebrew Patriarch, Jacob, the son of Isaac and the grandson of Abraham, is regarded as the progenitor of the Twelve Tribes of the Jewish people. Using trickery, Jacob had acquired for himself the birthright of his older brother, Esau, and had been forced to flee into exile. After seven years in foreign lands, Jacob decided to return to Canaan. Hoping for a reconciliation with his brother, he sent messengers and gifts ahead, but Esau set out against him with an army. The struggle with the angel at the ford of the Jabbok marks a significant turning point for Jacob. Afterwards, Jacob is renamed ‘Israel’ by the angel, a name which means ‘one who strives with God’ or ‘God strives’. This name is subsequently applied to the whole of the Chosen People. The ford of the Jabbok is named ‘Penuel’ by Jacob, meaning ‘face of God’, and comes to play a role in the subsequent history of the Jews. Jacob is reconciled unexpectedly with Esau and settles again in Canaan. However, lasting peace and prosperity remain out of reach. The wound to his thigh does not heal. The fruits of his labours are squandered by his descendants.
The Biblical story contains anomalies as curious as they are profound. One can only guess why Jacob sent his household onwards into Canaan and chose to spend the night alone by the river. It is conceivable, though it takes us beyond the given Biblical words, that the encounter with the angel was not a complete surprise to him and had been anticipated in some material way. The identification of the wrestling opponent as an ‘angel’ is not at all certain. The designation comes not from Genesis but from a reference in Hosea 12:4. The Hebrew text of Genesis describes Jacob’s adversary as a ‘man’, whom Jacob, on his own interpretive authority, associates with God (Elohim). It is not textually certain that Jacob believes that his wrestling opponent is God. It is just as likely that he draws a wider hermeneutic arc and sees the encounter with his adversary as paradigmatic for his life as a whole, whose essential characteristic is precisely the unequal fight with obstacles placed in his way by God. Jacob’s wrestling bout seems to be the sole reason for the new place-name for the ford. One can only guess whether he bestowed the new name in a spirit of grateful humility, as would become a loser who had been granted mercy, or out of the proud self-assertion of someone who imagines himself to be the victor in a spiritual battle.
Tempting though it is to see Jacob as victorious in his struggle, it can be noted that the future patriarch failed in his attempt to learn the angel’s name and that he refrained, no doubt wisely, from imposing on the angel a name of his own. His challenge to his adversary not to let him go until he blesses him has two direct results: firstly, a new name which will resound in the history of Salvation, and secondly, a serious and incurable wound to the thigh. One is reminded of Amfortas, the enigmatic Fisher King of the medieval romances of the Holy Grail. Amfortas, too, bears a wound to the thigh or the genitals, and his dominions, like Jacob’s, fail to prosper. Despite his unfitness, Amfortas became the sacred guardian of that mysterious store of Grace known as the Grail. Despite his high task and his proximity to the Grail, Amfortas derives from the Grace it stores little more than bare survival. This is hardly recognisable as a blessing. Jacob’s victory, if victory it is, shares a comparable limitation. It consists solely in coming out of the wrestling match alive and remaining capable of reduced further action.
Hesse uses the Bible story of Jacob and the angel to establish a sacral interpretive frame for a central event in Demian, the ritualised orgiastic encounter of the protagonist, Emil Sinclair, with the androgynous figure in the painting he refers to as his love-dream (Liebestraumbild). To associate this transgressive event with the wrestling scene in the Bible, Hesse has Sinclair hear Jacob’s words from Genesis: “I will not let you go until you bless me”. As the reworked struggle flows from Hesse’s pen, the profound Biblical anomalies vanish, and Sinclair, Hesse’s latter-day Jacob, emerges as a victor.
Where Jacob wrestled bodily with his adversary, Hesse’s protagonist relies more on language in order to engage with the imagined androgynous figure, the novel’s equivalent of the angel. In the course of the engagement, the figure is made into both the object and the victim of the protagonist’s self-oriented desire. Specifically, Sinclair uses the gestures of questioning, accusation, love-making, prayer, and, most significantly, multiple acts of naming. The imagined figure answers him by taking on different forms: ‘woman’, ‘man’, ‘girl’, ‘small child’, ‘formless spot’, and a rather vague ‘large and clear’. Instead of a name of its own, secret, or otherwise, the figure is called in turn ‘mother’, ‘beloved’, ‘whore’, and ‘slut’. Finally, in a complete departure from the Biblical story, Sinclair gives the androgynous figure a recognisable name, that of ‘Abraxas’, the presiding deity of the novel. Following a strong interior summons, Sinclair pictures the figure taking up residence inside him, where it unites fully with his sense of himself (lauter ich geworden).
Described here is the forced indwelling of a collective psychic entity brought about by invocation and voluntary submission. Hesse’s imprecise narration does not make clear whether it is the androgynous image that indwells, one of the other changing forms mentioned, or a process of metamorphosis or of shifting between forms. Settling on the name of Abraxas leads to a strong emphasis on the androgyny of the image as a ‘union’ or ‘co-existence’ of the opposites of male and female and good and evil. The forced indwelling is followed by a mystical experience which provides the protagonist with a new Gnostic insight. Sinclair becomes aware not only of his life from earliest childhood, but also of its belonging to a supra-individual pre-existence in a flow of becoming which includes the past and future of mankind. He awakens from this experience as from a dream, unable to remember most of it, and finds that the painting of the love-dream has disappeared. Sinclair suspects that he has burnt it and eaten its ashes, but he remains certain of the continuing indwelling of the figure he has now named Abraxas.
Where the Biblical Jacob transformed himself and his people by wrestling with the angel, while the blessing for him remained ambiguous, at best, Sinclair’s ritualised act of self-fusion with the imagined androgynous figure of his painted dream is marked by Hesse as a sacred, transformative achievement which is of unequivocal benefit to Sinclair’s project of becoming himself.
As I have pointed out elsewhere, Hesse’s prime source for his knowledge of Abraxas, C.G. Jung and his circle of collaborators, considered this Gnostic deity to stand principally for the Urlibido, specifically for the effectiveness of the unconscious flow of meaningful psychic imagery. Hesse, however, seemed content when writing Demian to use the deity merely as a cipher for the breaking up of moral conventions by the affirmation of their equally conventional opposites. Therefore, he remained bound up with the bourgeois norms he tried so hard to escape from. Hesse’s ‘union’ of opposites thus remained insubstantial. Sinclair’s embrace of androgyny in his ritual of orgiastic fusion, like his embrace of ‘evil’, does not gift him with a recognisable erotic fulfillment or with any widening or deepening of his person. It is true that the narration makes the forced indwelling of the Abraxas figure into the cause of the Gnostic insight described above. The value of this insight, however, as of the indwelling, must be seen as strongly qualified by the ultimate outcome of the chapter: Sinclair’s state of despair.
One might expect that an author whose narrative logic questions itself in this way must have an admirable concern for the truth. However, when confronted with outcomes which challenge the value of the project of self-becoming which is the grand theme of the novel, Hesse merely mystifies them. His love of truth does not go far enough.
As readers of Saint John the Evangelist and Saint Paul will know, the idea of the Indwelling of God in the human person has been central to Christian thought from its beginnings. In its more Neoplatonic manifestations, Christian thought has considered the Divine Indwelling in its relation to the sponsorship and validation of self-awareness. Literary Christians of the Renaissance could learn from Marsilio Ficino, who was following Proclus, that a man ascends to union with God by means of introversion to the unitas animae, that point of recollection at the centre of the soul on which God has imprinted his image, and in relation to which the powers of the soul go forth and return. In the work of Pico della Mirandola, the same Proclean concept appears at one and the same time as the foundation of the soul’s union with God and the source of human dignity and freedom.  Despite the undoubted value of much Renaissance thought, the stage is now set in human history for the cultivation of the unity of the powers of the soul without God, that is, by the abolition of God from the image of God, a quiet, unacknowledged Deicide.
Hesse’s Demian presents a literary example of a Deicidal process. Having turned aside from the moral and devotional pathways of Christian tradition, Hesse’s protagonist chooses to live in accordance with a particular kind of introversion. The love that flows naturally outwards from the self and, if formed by Christian practice, would be progressively divinised, is turned radically inwards on the sense of self. In this way, the protagonist potentiates himself with the libidinal energy of his attachments. The outcome is dreadful indeed: possession by a powerful collective psychic entity, to whom all potency accrues, leaving the human person to a debilitating despair.
Hesse’s obfuscating narration mystifies the Deicide and its outcome, disguising it as a new stage on a worthy spiritual ascent.
 Bernard McGinn. The Varieties of Vernacular Mysticism (1350-1550). The Presence of God: A History of Western Christian Mysticism Vol. 5. (New York, NY: Herder and Herder, 2012), 258, 274.