Tuesday, June 16, 2009

On Demian

The bird fights its way out of the egg. The egg is the world. Who would be born must destroy a world. The bird flies to God. That God's name is Abraxas.

Though ostensibly a personal bildungsroman, Demian, written by Hermann Hesse (1877-1962) in 1917, is about the uniqueness and individual potential found within every human being. There's an image meme that's been floating around the Intertubes for awhile which informs us that "You're unique - Just like everyone else." It's a great (if old) take on those kitschy motivational posters, but it also expresses (albeit sarcastically) Demian's primary theme: that the mass of humanity, despite leading lives of quiet desperation is capable of new and greater heights, if only each singular member were to make the difficult journey to Selfhood that protagonist Emil Sinclair achieves. Loosely based on Hesse's own youth, Demian is told as a fictionalized autobiography or memoir, a genre innately celebratory of the individual life.

Demian follows Sinclair from the time he is ten, when he meets the character Demian, to his service on the front as a German doughboy in World War I. The motif of duality is apparent from the outset: Sinclair's home and family are an artificial sanctuary of "light" that contrasts with an outside world where bad things happen and working class toughs like Franz Komer threaten and extort money. There is contradiction at the core of this perception, however; one that threatens its very foundations. Light cannot exist if there is not darkness for it to illuminate or ward off. Light and dark may seem like polar absolutes, but is this really a legitimate metaphor for human society? Ask yourself, Demian says to Sinclair, ask yourself who decides what is "safe" and "conventional." The God of the Old and New Testaments is certainly an impressive figure in the strictly literary sense, Demian goes on -
"He is all that is good, noble, fatherly, beautiful, elevated, sentimental - true! But the world consists of something else besides. And what is left over is ascribed ot the devil, this entire slice of world, this entire half is suppressed and shut up. In exactly the same way they praise God as the father of all life but simply refuse to say a word about our sexual life on which it's all based, describing it whenever possible as sinful, the work of the devil. I have no objection to worshiping this God Jehovah, far from it. But I mean we ought to consider everything sacred, not merely this artificially separated half!"
The union of two opposing forces - such as God and Satan, male and female, guilt and innocence - is eventually established as Abraxas, who is simultaneously a god, a radical concept of unification, and a psychological merger of id and ego. It is a strikingly pagan creed that seems to take the form of self-worship, especially as Sinclair learns to use his very will to influence the behavior of others. There is also a troubling degree of narcissism involved which Hesse, through Sinclair, never addresses, and not to mention an alarming amount of self-overconfidence. As Germany began to lose the Great War still raging in 1917, Hesse, carrying out pacifist campaigns in Switzerland, has his characters Demian and Pistorius urge complete personal liberation and prophetize the collapse of the stagnant and rotting social order that had led to the current catacalysm. But despite some surface similarities, this is not quite the same type of ideology sixties counterculturalists would later proclaim.

Both Hesse and Sinclair were fond of Nietzsche, who developed the idea of the √úbermensch, a new "race" of transcendent, exalted, but very much flesh-and-blood individuals whose living, breathing, tangible humanity stands in diametric opposition to the neo-Platonic Christian ideal of an otherworldly "City of God" (think of St. Augustine). When Nietzsche declared that "God is dead," what he meant was that God and Christianity are no longer the sole sources of value in human life. Any subsequent nihilism can be avoided, however, through the √úbermenschs' efforts to create new values rooted in a love of life and the here-and-now. In Demian it is explicitly stated that they - Sinclair, Demian, Frau Eva and others who have allegedly achieved an inner strength and awareness rare among men - will be the messiahs who will rise from the ashes of barb wire and trenches. Says Demian:
"What will come is beyond imagining. The soul of Europe is a beast that has lain fettered for an infinitely long time. . . Then our day will come, then we will be needed. Not as leaders and lawgivers - we won't be there to see the new laws - but rather as those who are willing, as men who are ready to go forth and stand prepared wherever fate may lead them. . . The few of us who will be ready at that time and who will go forth - will be us. That is why we are marked - as Cain was [Demian is fond of Cain] - to arouse fear and hatred and drive men out of a confined idyl and into more dangerous reaches. All men who have had an effect on the course of human history, all of them without exception, were capable and effective only because they were ready to accept the inevitable. It is true of Moses and Buddha, of Napoleon and Bismarck."
Much as I enjoyed Demian, I could not help but hear alarm bells as I read this German book, published in 1919, proclaiming the superiority of a new race of men. (It is unknown if Hitler ever actually read Nietzsche, but many Nazis were fond of him.) On the other hand, the disillusionment with old, empty catchphrases like fatherland and honor and sacrifice and bravery were universal among Western culture following the horrors of the Great War.

This is the dead land
This is cactus land
Here the stone images
Are raised, here they receive
The supplication of a dead man's hand
Under the twinkle of a fading star.

Is it like this
In death's other kingdom
Waking alone
At the hour when we are
Trembling with tenderness
Lips that would kiss
Form prayers to broken stone.

Hermann Hesse may have been a pacifist who steadfastly opposed the Third Reich, but still, when one considers the social malaise felt by the victors of World War I, one must also wonder what the losers experienced. Elsewhere, Fitzgerald and Hemingway wrote of Americans partying and living empty, amoral lives (The Great Gatsby, The Sun Also Rises), believing in nothing and seeking nothing. Germany, utterly crushed, did not have that luxury of aimless drinking and turned instead to a bold, charismatic individual who introduced what appeared to be fresh, hopeful ideas.

Things went steadily downhill from there.

Obviously, it is easy to note these developments in hindsight nearly a century later. Really all Hesse did was capture the current mood of his countrymen through a little story of one man's journey toward Self, away from staid conventionality and the mass numbness of the herd (ironically enough). Hesse spoke many truths about the individual's struggle to be free and Demian really is a beautiful novel. Still, in the context of history, it is also a disturbing one.

Gagh, this post didn't come out as I wanted - switches too abruptly to Nietzsche, probably makes more sense if you've actually read the book. Oh well. It's a blog post, not a paper for school or professional review.

That was T.S. Eliot's "The Hollow Men," by the way.


Life With Dogs said...

Don't be so hard on yourself, this is very well written, and your substantial knowledge is apparent. I once considered myself a voracious reader, until life got in the way. I miss digging in to piles of books and pulling all-nighters!

E. L. Fay said...

Thanks! Dogs are every bit as good as books!

Maura said...

I just started reading the book Demian and I am only on the second chapter. So far, it seems very evil to me. Demian strikes me as a really bad character who is willing to make Emil a bad character as well. It actually reminds me of a movie I saw over the summer where a character overpowered others, and convinced them to do horrible things to other people.

marie said...

I think this is well written! Good Job. I am on the last chapter of Demian. I think you summed the book up well and really grasped the meaning Herman Hesse was trying to get across.

TheGrassyNol said...

I like your summary and thoughts on this great bildungsroman. I disagree with Maura about the character Demian though. He seems like a very good character because of how much Emil looks up to him and the way he takes in life, not only from one side, but from both realms, light and dark. This novel starts getting a little creepy at the end, but I really enjoyed the twists. Good Job!

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