Demian is a story about a different kind whose intellect is brighter and whose vision is uncanny. Demian is the name of the intriguing character in this Hermann Hesse novel. Sinclair is the storyteller who, “cannot tell (his) story without reaching a long way back.” Those words open the prologue of the story from a man whose current age we never learn, but the story tracks Sinclair’s coming into a rare kind of adulthood, as Hesse’s novels often do. Anyone who has read Siddhartha, Narcissus and Goldmund, and even, in a strange way, Steppenwolf, can recognize Hesse’s style that people like me eat up. I don’t know exactly what a person “like me” would be, but for the sake of the review, we’ll call us searchers, an awfully wide-ranging term, I know, but this style proves wide-ranging in popularity, so I guess I’ve just helped to identify the genius of Hesse, as has been done many times before.
The Nobel prize-winning Hesse first saw this book printed in 1919 but the U.S. didn’t experience the shortened title of Demian until 1948, two years following the reception of his award.
In Chapter 2, entitled “Cain”, Hesse brings Sinclair and the child prodigy Demian together. The two discuss Sinclair’s house and a particular decoration adorning it. Demian identifies it to Sinclair: “There’s something odd above the doorway – it interested me at once.”
Around this point in the story, Demian becomes interesting. I suppose in part because we already know he’s the title character of the book, but what further interests is the fact that he is identifying parts of Sinclair’s home which Sinclair himself wasn’t fully aware of.
Sinclair is reticent in discussion at first with the impressive Demian and his mysterious family but will eventually seek out the duo of Demian and mother. In the early chapters, one might say Demian was the addicting salt. After years between encounters, the soul-searching Sinclair craves Demian and obsesses over Demian, but it is Demian’s observant and mind-reading nature (and it is his nature) which draws Sinclair in. Sinclair is relatively weak at the book’s beginning; he’s a self-conscious child, after all, one who seeks his friends’ approval, but yet is burning with independence.
In what I would describe as unusual, storyteller Sinclair occasionally breaks the movie playing in our minds as the story unfolds and places us at his feet as he rocks in a comfortable chair, older and most definitely wiser. He says, “My memory fails me and I cannot be sure whether what I have described has not to some extent been drawn from later impressions.” These are strange but necessary departures from the tales of Demian and Sinclair’s meetings. They are purposeful because the humaneness which the statement possesses. Sinclair is clearly not some god who is all knowing. Sinclair is empowered by Demian, who is like his recruiter, but Sinclair is surely an emerging being, one who embraces fault openly after having experienced much torment from the harassments of bullies, but mostly his torment came from within himself. Sinclair’s inner drives – bringing us conveniently back to the story’s relatability factor – are what propel him. His visions are really his saving graces, his guide to making sense, where he is without rest but yet brimming with passion. Hesse tells us time and time again that passion, not outward success, is life.
Sinclair’s passage to self-realization, if we are to believe that self-realization is at the heart of this story, is riddled with suffering, and not an unusual suffering like a unique disease or of the most unfortunate tragedy. No, Hesse’s Sinclair character is brought to himself via nights drinking among pseudo-friends who never become enemies but who lack essential friendship qualities, as Sinclair defines friendship. Of the almost continual suffering, Sinclair tells us, “I can still remember tears springing to my eyes when I saw children playing in the street on Sunday morning as I emerged from a bar, children with freshly combed hair and dressed in their Sunday best.” The oppositional elements are lively in the above statement. Sinclair presents a portrait of himself which doesn’t allow for a vivid mental picture. His story tells little of his physical attributes, but this could possibly serve as an “insert self here” moment, whereby the reader doesn’t have to morph into a physical image not his own, but rather can see himself exiting bars and waking sweaty, and painting, and doing everything the narrator does. Hesse, largely, keeps his story familiar.
Music, and art in general, is present in Hesse’s stories, particularly Demian, Narcissus and Goldmund, and especially Steppenwolf. In Demian, not only is Sinclair a painter, albeit not vocationally, but recreationally still counts as an impetus for further life exploration. Sinclair paints from his subconscious which works for him while causing him much strife. The subconscious, as most people who’ve existed within it will tell you, is not always the easiest territory in which to explore. Sinclair is yet another victim of its dark alleyways, which ultimately, because of his resilience, led to a presumably better place.
But, musicians also populate Hesse’s tales and Demian has the organist who Sinclair stalked as an admirer. The organist’s organ cry’s touched the deeply sensitive Sinclair to a point which seems to have mesmerized. Mesmerization or not, Sinclair undoubtedly was transfixed by what he heard from the street during one of his many therapeutic walks. Hesse writes, “I waited until the music ceased and then paced back and forth until I saw the organist leave the church.” I feel desperation was running deep in Sinclair but yet doubt was desperation’s running mate, which is so often the case.
The characters within Demian play interesting parts in Sinclair’s life, as characters traditionally do. But, what makes the characters in Demian so unique is they could be serving any number of services to drive the story along. Take the character Knauer, for example. Knauer looks to Sinclair for guidance, making Sinclair for the first time the sought-after as opposed to his more typical role as the seeker. Knauer doesn’t seem to play as pivotal a role in this book as those like the bully, Pistorius the organist rebel, or more obviously title character Demian. Hesse comments on Knauer, “Later Knauer slipped unnoticed out of my life.” This is well after Knauer has empowered Sinclair and maybe even flattered Sinclair by telling Sinclair that he was some sort of miracle in the style of Demian, one who is beyond the status quo and one to whom others are attracted should the person being attracted also be one of the seers, or perhaps superior intellect is the better descriptor. Either way, Sinclair is in contact with various unusual, mysterious people whose roles are sometimes almost random. But, Hesse has the reader ask, “What is random?”
The fearless apocalypse. But fearless is merely reserved for those, as Sinclair writes, bearing “the mark.” This mark is reserved for few and reaches beyond most people’s comprehension. For Sinclair, his mark, though I suppose was always with him, went unnoticed by himself as if it were a hard-to-find freckle. So much strength is exuded from the non-confident Sinclair who was a bit of an average person up until his desolate experience with the strange Demian brood, consisting in location only of Demian himself as well as Demian’s mother, who identifies to few as Frau Eva. Sinclair is among the few by the story’s conclusion but his arrival there took him approximately 20 years. This group in which the three belong is necessarily limited; without a small enrollment, the conflict disappears and so the tiny group would have no normalcy to stand out against, or surprisingly blend in with.
‘Live and let live’ is perhaps at the conclusion of the book. Hesse comments as Sinclair: “All of these faiths and teachings seemed to us already dead and useless.” This shows faith in what is to come. While others sit fearful, the small mark-bearers sit refreshed.
Read Demian if life seems strange to you.