Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Demian by Hermann Hesse

Schizophrenic in style and misguided in message
Demian, first published in 1919, is a coming-of-age novel by Nobel Prize-winning German author Hermann Hesse. It is narrated by Emil Sinclair, who recalls events from his youth and adolescence. At the age of ten, Sinclair tries to impress some older, rougher boys by claiming that he once stole some apples from a local miller. The bully of the group, Franz Kromer, threatens to report Sinclair’s theft for a reward, unless Sinclair finds some other way of financially compensating him. Thus Sinclair finds himself blackmailed for a crime that never happened, and he becomes a slave to Kromer. This stressful ordeal is psychologically devastating to Sinclair. The deceptions and petty thefts he must engage in to satisfy Kromer cause him to fall prey to self-loathing and to distance himself from his family. He begins to see his universe as being divided into two separate worlds: the world of illusion that has occupied his youth, in which all is good, loving, and harmonious; and the world of reality, in which all is dark, selfish, and evil. The deeper Sinclair becomes involved with Kromer, the more he peels back the veil that hides this dark underworld. This first part of the book, consisting of roughly the first three chapters, is really quite excellent. Hesse proves himself an incredibly perceptive interpreter of the youthful mind. He vividly captures the vital moment at which a young boy makes the harsh realization that he’s more than just the son of his parents and must take responsibility for his own life.

Sinclair then meets a classmate named Max Demian—an older boy, very intelligent, a loner and a nonconformist. Demian opens Sinclair’s eyes to new ways of thinking and mentors him through the painful transition from childhood to adulthood. Here Hesse begins to introduce themes and imagery from the world of Jungian psychoanalysis, and the book becomes preoccupied with dreams and mystical visions. As Sinclair begins to forge his own path in life, he encounters, through Demian, a secret society of like-minded nonconformists who engage in thoughts and ceremonies outside the restrictive traditions and norms of conventional society.

Unfortunately, the more Hesse departs from the realistic tone of the opening chapters the less compelling the book becomes. The trippy imagery influenced by psychoanalysis is material that he wields to far better effect in his later novel Steppenwolf; here it feels a little half-baked. Demian unfortunately acts not only as a mentor and guide to Sinclair, but also as a savior, in effect rescuing him from much of the trials and tribulations of growing up, thus rendering the coming-of-age story a bit irrelevant. There’s something juvenile about the idea that for those who feel like they don’t belong there is a secret brotherhood of misfits out there just waiting to accept them. Sinclair feels that he and his comrades wear a mark of distinction upon their heads that signifies they are somehow better, smarter, more enlightened than “the herd” of society. This sort of elitism comes across as rather narcissistic and immature. One could easily imagine that the conservatives, warmongers, and xenophobes who don’t share Sinclair’s (or Hesse’s) views might also see themselves, no matter how misguided or repulsive their ideals, as “above the herd”.

In the final chapter there is another shift in tone as the characters are confronted by World War I. Here Hesse really has some profound things to say about how war brings out the worst in mankind, yet also creates an opportunity for humanity to rise to new heights and evolve as a society. Unfortunately the middle portion of the book, the Jungian section, is by far the longest and the least satisfying. The novel suffers overall from its inconsistency, and also comes across as a bit pretentious. Demian was no doubt a ground breaking novel for its time, but it pales in comparison to Hesse’s later masterpieces Siddhartha, Steppenwolf, and The Glass Bead Game.

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