Sunday, January 18, 2015

Hermann Hesse: Demian

Hermann Hesse
trans.  Michael Roloff and Michael Lebeck
Bantam Books edition 

In an earlier post, Baltasar Gracian suggested that we can't tell a book by its cover.  After reading Hermann Hesse's Demian,  I wonder if we can tell a book by its title.   While Demian is in the novel, and a significant character, I think the main character is really Emil Sinclair.   In fact, inside the book, the title page reads Demian: The Story of Emil Sinclair's Youth.  Well, enough quibbling, let's get to the story.

Those who have read several works by Hesse will probably recognize the basic themes of growth, the loneliness of the one who doesn't fit in, and the setbacks and obstacles along the never-ending path to enlightenment.  Beyond the mountain range, the hero of Hesse's works always finds another range to climb.  And, death seems to be the only resting place.  Those familiar with Steppenwolf, Magister Ludi, Siddhartha, and Peter Caminzind among others will recognize this work.

Various stages in Emil Sinclair's growth:

Innocence:  Sinclair's Edenic existence at home as a child

Rude Awakening: Sinclair's first sin

Rescue and the beginning of his journey: Demian and a new way of viewing the biblical story of Cain and Abel

Debauchery and Sin:  Sinclair goes to a boarding school and discovers sin and alcohol

Redemption:  Beatrice  (see Dante)

A new mentor:  Pistorius
The Return:  Demian reappears

Following is what I consider to be the core of the novel. At one point, Sinclair decides:

"I did not exist to write poems, to preach or to paint, neither I nor anyone else.  All of that was incidental.  Each man had only one genuine vocation--to find the way to himself.  He might end up as poet or madman, as prophet or criminal--that was not his affair, ultimately it was of no concern.  His task was to discover his own destiny--not an arbitrary one--and live it out wholly and resolutely within himself.  Everything else was only a would-be existence, an attempt at evasion, a flight back to the ideas of the masses, conformity and fear of one's own inwardness.  The new vision rose up before me, glimpsed a hundred times, possibly even expressed  before but now experienced for the first time by me.  I was an experiment on the part of Nature, a gamble within the unknown, perhaps for a new purpose, perhaps for nothing , and my only task was to allow this game on the part of primeval depths to takes its course, to feel its will within me and make it wholly mine. That or nothing!"

Eastern thought is very strong in this work, as, actually, it is in many, if not most, of Hesse's works.  While I'm far, impossibly far, from being an expert in Eastern thought, I do have one strong objection here.  I see nothing wrong in the struggle for self-enlightenment, but the part that disturbs me is the acceptance of what appears to be one's destiny--"my only task was to allow this game on the part of primeval depths to takes its course, to feel its will within me and make it wholly mine."  In other words, this seems to be saying that if one discovers one's destiny is to be a murderer, then one should accept this and become the best murderer one can be.

I'm guess I'm too much of a Westerner to accept this.  I do feel that I have responsibility for my actions.   I may have only a limited control over my environment and the things that fate has in store for me, but I do have considerable control over my actions.  Many times I do have choices, choices beyond that of resignation and acquiescence to fate.  Sometimes acceptance may be the best choice, but not always.

And your thoughts?

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