Classes have begun two weeks ago, so I couldn’t find time to sweep through this relatively small volume until now. Maybe I haven’t navigated the Toronto bookstores far and wide enough, that I have this feeling that the Nobel-Prize-winning Hermann Hesse’s works are relatively less considered in the “Bestsellers” or “Recommended” shelves than those of other American, British or Canadian authors . So imagine my delight to discover the black-covered edition of Demian in the “Great Reads” section on the BMV Bookstore on Bathurst and Spadina.
It’s not the first time I read Demian, originally published as The Story of Emil Sinclair’s Youth (which I think is more appropriate title). Demian never omits itself in the Must-Read booklists for high schoolers and university students in South Korea, but hardly any youngster has found it enjoyable, mostly because of its serious and preachy tone. My household has reserved a copy of this beloved classic in the old bookshelf which I have admired growing up. As a teenager, I made a series of unsuccessful attempts to grab it and get myself absorbed in the opening pages, but always ended up frustrated in my limited understanding. Shortly after turning twenty, I made another attempt and surprisingly, it was successful. I didn’t expect the opening passages can be ever read so smoothly, and naturally it led me through the end of the novel.
Hesse’s forewords in Demian is perhaps the most appealing and illuminating introduction of a novel that genuinely touches readers’ heart on why they should read this story. At the same time, I was simply overwhelmed by Hesse’s effortless writing that fully articulates highly abstract ideas into clear, gentle, and persuasive voice:
…every man is more than just himself; he also represents the unique, the very special and always significant and remarkable point at which the world’s phenomena intersect, only once in this way and never again. That is why every man’s story is important, eternal, sacred; that is why every man, as long as he lives and fulfils the will of nature, is wondrous, and worthy of every consideration.
The protagonist is Emil Sinclair, the innocent son of a comfortable, wealthy, and Christian family. The novel starts off with his unhappy interaction with Franz Kromer, a cold-hearted bully who first introduces Sinclair the world of darkness–crime, misery, oppression, pain, poverty, and so forth. Amidst the destructive loneliness that nobody was there for him, Sinclair is finally rescued by his classmate, Max Demian, who impressed him with enlightening and heretical thoughts. Through his friendship with Demian, Sinclair becomes aware that morality taught in school and church isn’t everything about the world. From that point onward, he tries every means to break free from it. As he begins to develop sexual desires, his sheltered childhood becomes more distant yet again. In the part where Sinclair realizes his caring and loving parents are no longer helpful for his troubles, Hesse delivers the chillingly precise portrayal of the growing-up disillusionment:
Everyone goes through this crisis. For the average person this is the point when the demands of his own life come into the sharpest conflict with his environment, when the way forward has to be sought with the bitterest means at his command…Their childhood becomes hollow and gradually collapses, everything they love abandons them and they suddenly feel surrounded by the loneliness and mortal cold of the universe. Very many are caught forever in this impasse, and for the rest of their lives cling painfully to an irrevocable past, the dream of the lost paradise–which is the worst and most ruthless of dreams. (p. 41)
The last words of this passage simply amazed me because they reminded me of many adults who are still struggling with their everyday lives. I have seen it in my most intimate persons who had undergone fairly difficult times to support their family. They must have burning secrets that cannot be told about their childhood dreams that have been shattered and sweet memories from the past that have long become irrelevant to their crushing reality.
Sinclair had it in his teens, but my own “conflict with environment” has begun only recently, in my mid-twenties. Many decades have passed since the time of Sinclair, so the ‘mental development’ has also undergone a slight age adjustment, but the sense of defiance remains same. I got into a good university as my parents wished, but the decision was never mine. During that whole years, I was blindly obsessed in completing my studies, without much thinking about what was ahead of me. Even if I didn’t wholly agree with their decisions, I followed them anyway as a well-disciplined child. As soon as I was done, they no longer have any plans or ideas for their fully grown daughter. They were increasingly restless while I needed to have some time to think for myself. All I wished was to get out of here, this stuffy apartment and business place beneath. I wanted to find a new meaning in life as badly as Sinclair. I knew I had power and creativity to do that, even when I was vainly seeking fruitless guidance from others. When Sinclair eventually outgrows his religious mentor, Pistorius, I was reminded of the dreary chat with my parish pastor. When I asked him about God, he only spoke of the Catholic rules from which I could no more derive any constructive meaning. Maybe that feeling of disillusionment was something resembling Hesse’s own experience in Christianity.
Demian is autobiographical in many ways. Just like Sinclair, Hesse was born and raised in a family of a Christian missionary. He had a very difficult transition from adolescence to adulthood, mostly out of rebellion against the authority and dogma of the religious education he received. There were times I found comfort in religion, but I’m not so sure any more. I have come to develop distinct desires and dreams, but religion seems so unrelated and far away from these. Just like Sinclair and Hesse, I have to break away from all that I have known. I have to be on my own prior to find a new life. In such state of mind, the most notable passage of Demian could not be more agreeable than ever before:
The bird fights its way out of the egg. The egg is the world. Who would be born must first destroy a world. The bird flies to God. That God’s name is Abraxas. (p.78)