Analysis of Hermann Hesse’s Demian

The intense psychoanalytical novel Demian was published by the German Swiss novelist Hermann Hesse (1877–1962) in 1919. It was translated into English in 1923 under an English pseudonym (Emil Sinclair), at first in a series hosted by the cultural review The Neue Rundschau and immediately afterward as an autonomous book published by S. Fischer. It came out almost simultaneously with Zarathustra’s Return. A Word to the German Youth (Zarathustra’s Widerkehr. Ein Wort an die Deutsche Jugend), a rather short but flamboyant manifesto through which Hesse saluted the ending of World War I and expressed his ardent belief in the emergence of a new, spiritual era, rising like the phoenix from its own ashes.

Both works enjoyed great popular success, although the author of Demian remained unknown for a time both to the public and to literary specialists. Hermann Hesse later said that he had borrowed his pseudonym from the name of one of his deceased relatives, but also in order to express his intention of internationalizing the novel’s ideology by taking it out of its strictly German, postwar context. Thomas Mann, who was highly enthusiastic about Demian (he even compared its author to James Joyce), contacted Samuel Fischer, the editor, in order to learn its author’s identity. His inquiry marked the beginning of a strong friendship with Hesse, articulated in their vast correspondence; in Mann’s family visit to Montagnola (southern Switzerland, where Hesse had settled with his second wife, Ruth Wenger); and finally in Mann’s strenuous lobbying efforts, which eventually led to his friend being awarded the Nobel Prize in literature in 1946.

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In the novel the protagonist, Max Demian, whose name obviously recalls an ancient daimon, or demon, has the role of a guiding angel who helps the narrator, Emil Sinclair, to actualize the elementary, Faustian energies of his personality. The hero of the novel, depicted from his early boyhood up to his adulthood, is a typical doppelgänger figure, since he is torn apart, even from his earliest childhood, by the antithetical forces of light and darkness, which vie over his personality. Away from his family, who had provided him with a serene childhood, and removed from the presence of his tranquil sisters, Sinclair feels that his antisocial behavior is determined by some sort of metaphysical damnation. Max Demian, his more mature but peculiar classmate, helps him to act out the tormented energies of his soul, convincing him that he bears the “sign” of a demoniac elite whose roots can be traced back to Cain, the first prominent dark figure of the Bible.

The plot’s motivation was determined by the complex existential and psychological turmoil that Hesse experienced at the dawn of World War I. In 1915 he published the novel Knulp. Its protagonist is a luminous social outcast and wanderer whose role as a paradoxical “anti-Christ” figure (in Nietzsche’s terms) is to relieve people from the burden of their everyday life by helping them to act out their personality through play, joy, and artistry. In 1916, however, Hesse himself suffered a nervous breakdown, which was rooted, beyond his general psychic fragility, in three immediate causes: the war itself, experienced by Hesse as a German outcast, exiled to Switzerland; then the sudden death of the writer’s father, Johannes Hesse (on March 8, 1916); and, finally, the prolonged recovery of his four-year-old son, Martin, from a severe bout of meningitis.

All this entailed Hesse’s confinement to a mental sanatorium, Sommat bei Luzern, where he met Dr. J. B. Lang, who introduced him to the depths of Freudian and especially Jungian psychoanalysis. Hesse would later praise Lang for performing miracles by the new technique of analyzing the inner symbols of a tormented psyche. Hesse left the hospital within less than two months, apparently fully recovered. The cure had opened his interest in the relatively new discipline of psychoanalysis, which would produce deep imprints on his future literary work.

As a consequence, Hesse’s character and style gradually changed and diversified. This was demonstrated in the Faustian, elementary darkness of the novel Demian (1919), articulated on the binary personality structure of the split man or double figure (doppelgänger), another theme derived from Nietzsche. The cataclysm of World War I and the relief that accompanied its conclusion drew Hesse into the frantic conviction that great historical anomalies can be avoided only if humanity generates a superior spiritual elite, comprising thinkers and artists who can represent a standard for the others and relegate malignity beyond the margins of a balanced, mutual social understanding. Hesse considered that each person should realize his individuation (opening up one’s unconsciousness) by integrating the dark energies of his personality, rather than fighting against them, and by transforming the inner completion of his soul into a socially accepted moral norm. Light and darkness, considered as the intertwined parts of a split soul, would mark Hesse’s spiritual formula well beyond the novels Steppenwolf and Narcissus and Goldmund. They would become associated with another complementary dichotomy: the antithetical formative influence of the father and the mother, which was typical of the expressionist categories in Hesse’s style at that time.

Demian tells of the disintegration of bourgeois identity, represented by the narrator, Emil Sinclair, and his accession to a new intellectual and spiritual elite, helped by his schoolmate, the strange and powerful Max Demian. Demian is the son of a somewhat mysterious aristocratic woman, Frau Eva. In the introductory part of the novel, the schoolboy Sinclair is depicted as the rebellious offspring of a humble bourgeois family. He is torn apart by the gap between the calm order provided by his parents and sisters and the call of the savage outside world, composed of villains, wrongdoers, and other attractive violent forces. Sinclair feels that he does not entirely belong to the strict milieu of his bourgeois order, as his propensity toward adventure, evil, and wandering exceed the serene wisdom of his ancestors. He also feels—rather hazily at the beginning, and more and more acutely as he progresses in life—that he bears a special existential “mark,” identified by his schoolmate Max Demian as the “sign of Cain.” Demian does not interpret Cain as a figure of damnation, as in the Bible, but as a hero whose metaphysical predestination—his “election”—entitles him to surpass his humble condition as a farmer, and to “go beyond,” into the special order of the few who are allowed to act out of pure power, beyond restrictions and morality.

Demian teaches Sinclair that those who are marked by the sign should “go beyond” and become superior beings, rejoicing in the exuberant integrity of their existence, which is a combination of luminous and dark forces. “Going beyond,” Demian explains, means living off-limits, beyond good and evil (as Nietzsche also argues), and experiencing liberty as a totalizing cosmic eruption, in which God and Devil come together.

Critics correctly argue that Demian is Hesse’s first work in which the writer speaks about the energetic attraction of a universal, collective spiritual elite, while earlier writings as Peter Camenzind and Knulp had presented individualistic existential solutions. According to the classical psychoanalytical teachings, Max Demian also reveals to his disciple that the forces of transgression are not outside man but deeply rooted in the crevasses of his personality. Those few who are “elected” act out the inner forces of their spirit by merging evil and good into a complex integrity of power, not by turning the good half of their psyche against the bad one, as the great majority of the humanity does. It is the fervor of creating a “new religion,” embraced by strong, solitary persons who march on their way toward human and cosmic completeness, that unites Demian and Sinclair. Although their social paths separate them for a while, they nevertheless share the belief that each person should find a spiritual twin who may help him to act out the repressed side of his personality.

The urge that each “selected” person should serve as a demonic catalyst for the others, helping them to act out the repressed cosmic light within their earthly bodies, is specifically Gnostic. Max Demian also suggests that those who enter the new “brotherhood” (or Bund, in German) should embrace a new religion, which goes beyond the split between good and evil promoted by the Bible. The word Abraxas, marking the god of the new religion, also sends us back to the ancient Gnostics. Another Gnostic theme is the ambivalence of the “two Eves.” One of them is, of course, the biblical Eve, who brought into the world the bitter sorrows of the fall and temptation. The other is Frau Eva, Max Demian’s mother, the spiritual double of the biblical character, who also recalls the Gnostic Sophia, the embodiment of cosmic and earthly wisdom. The author suggests that the adepts of the new, intellectual order should reunite under the spiritual guidance of a new Eve, against the larger resurrection background of the new mankind and civilization made possible by World War I. In this respect, the exclusive ideological message of the novel meets the topic of collective spiritual rejuvenation, as proclaimed by Hesse in Zarathustra’s Return. Freud, Jung, Nietzsche, and even Max Scheler, with his powerful proclamation of the Genius des Krieges (The Genius of War (1915), highly prized by Hesse at the time of its printing) happily meet in the positive, energetic program of Demian, still praised by its readers as the spiritual manifesto of a new era.

Psychological Novels and Novelists

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Categories: German Literature, Literature, Novel Analysis, Psychological Novels

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