Demian by Hermann Hesse
When ‘Demian: The Story of Emil Sinclair’s Youth’ was first published in 1919, it was done so under the protagonist’s name, Emil Sinclair and its author, Hermann Hesse, didn’t use his own until its 10th edition. Told in the first person, ‘Demian’ is a fine example of a writer rising quickly to the height of his powers, with a style uniquely his own.
The story follows two paths. The first is the linear growth of Sinclair’s age, where we follow his progression from a boy to a man. Where education and his home create a dual backdrop and the pains of adolescence creates an empathy with the reader.
The second path, however, is the breaking open of self-awareness against a world of multitude, in a non-linear, organic sense. The path most clearly introduces itself with what Demian, a mysterious boy who saves Sinclair from the torments of a petty-dictator, describes as the ‘mark of Cain’ – That which marks Sinclair out as worthy of the story.
At the heart of the novel is a duality between Cain and Abel; Demian makes the observation early in the book that the story can be read in many different ways, not just the a-typical Christian-taught one. Knowing that one must not be trapped by a single perspective is how the ‘mark of Cain’ arises. The concept of this mark is used to illustrate the characters who have a different perspective on life – An element of otherness.
Much of the narrative is made up of various meetings between Sinclair and those rare people who bear this mark. These people, like Demian, his mother and the church organist Pistorius, are portrayed as having an internal struggle that is wholly separate from the majority of people. Thus the novel is formed by the subjective struggle that goes on inside the thoughts and mind of its narrator and protagonist.
Friedrich Nietzsche, whose name is mentioned a number of times throughout, is a sort of axiom for understanding the nature of the mark. What the reader witnesses is the subjective experience of what Nietzsche described as the Übermensch, often translated (unfortunately) as the superman. And, in this case, is what Hesse calls the ‘mark of Cain’.
For Nietzsche, the Übermensch is the affirmation of various individuals who rise up against a tide of global nihilism; who stand apart from the masses in their understanding of the world and who will affirm a new moral order – The re-evaluation of all values, as Nietzsche might have said. Hesse, however, uses the concept as a method of exploring the spirituality of the individual.
The following is written toward the end of ‘Demian’: “We (those marked) were aware or in the process of becoming aware and our striving was directed toward achieving a more and more complete state of awareness, while the striving of the others was a quest aimed at binding their opinions, ideals, duties, their lives and fortunes more and more closely to those of the herd.”
Whereas the angry subjectivity of Nietzsche was aimed at an objective world, Hesse refers to the state of being as something more intrinsic, spiritual and inwardly volatile for the individual, perhaps even, less political. Nietzsche wrote about the external journey of the Übermensch; in ‘Demian’ you find Hesse concerned with the interior journey.
The talented but troubled organist Pistorius says the following to Sinclair: “Whether you and I and a few others will renew the world someday remains to be seen. But within ourselves we must renew it each day, otherwise we just aren’t serious.” It is as if Hesse is continuing the philosophical enquiry started by Nietzsche some fifty years before; only his enquiry has the spiritual underpinning of ‘being’ rather than a call to arms and an examination of discourse.
In essence ‘Demian’ is a course of spiritual enlightenment; this is most clearly depicted in the idea of abraxas, which Hesse comes back to repeatedly throughout. Perhaps most famously used in Gnostic texts, Hesse uses the term more metaphorically to represent a spiritual unity of opposites.
Wherein one instance you have Heaven, you must also have Hell. A duality of equal importance as opposed to the Christian celebration of only Heaven. Abraxas is the God who represents all the various perspectives and does not close any off. This is precisely the second path of the novel, the spiritual journey of Sinclair built as his understanding grows; a unity in the spiritual understanding of his individuality.
There is a beautiful singularity of thought, which continues unabated throughout the narrative and perfectly demonstrates the subjective novel. When you read over the words, it is as if the single perspective (or ’being’) of Sinclair is in itself an infinite self-reflection of his growth. “Whoever wants to be born, must first destroy a world.” The depth of a single thought and a journey through the sublime. A wonderful book.