“The bird struggles out of the egg. The egg is the world. Whoever wants to be born, must first destroy a world. The bird flies to God. That God’s name is Abraxas.”
These lines are what led me to Herman Hesse’s first major novel, Demian, subtitled The Story of Emil Sinclair’s Youth, published in 1919, and as the back matter of my edition informs me, a major influence on youth culture in the American 1960’s. The strange thing, for me, about Demian is that, despite its fame, I knew of the lines long before I knew of the book itself. Word for word, this strange and esoteric prayer to the god Abraxas, a major symbol in Demian, appears in the famous and equally esoteric Japanese anime Revolutionary Girl Utena, uttered in many episodes by its ostensible villains. I watched Utena as an older teenager, and its strangeness and depth of character and theme has stuck with me over many years and after a complete disenchantment with anime and its fandom. When I discovered the origin of this quote, and that Utena had been inspired partly by Hesse’s work, including a heavy use of Jungian archetypes, I was set to find this piece of fiction.
The sole change in Utena is to replace Abraxas with an equally mythical call to revolution, otherwise, the general meaning remains the same: a call for transcendence through transgression, or to skip the academic jargon, and quote right from the book: “…the life of the hedonist is the best preparation for becoming a mystic. People like St. Augustine are always the ones that become visionaries. He, too, was first a sensualist and a man of the world…”
This is the voice of Demian, the eponymous character whose appearances are exceedingly rare in the text, but whose shadow looms very large indeed over the novel. His first appearance is as an odd, confident and aggressive “too superior and detached” young man who saves the, at the time, school boy protagonist, Emil Sinclair, from a agonising moral dilemma caused by Kromer, a young tough who uses a fictional crime concocted by Sinclair to blackmail him. In Sinclair’s words, Demian allows him “see the world again bright and joyful before me, and no longer succumbed to fits of suffocating fear”; Demian gives Sinclair the courage to confess to his parents the moral trauma he had suffered. Thus in both a literal and a metaphorical sense Demian, appearing periodically throughout Sinclair’s early life to utter cryptic lessons and approbations, from the beginning of the novel offers the opportunity of liberation, of the courage to break free of the circumstances imposed from without.
Demian offers to Sinclair, liberation.
But what kind of liberation? Utena replaced Abraxas with Revolution, which suggests one interpretation, and one that is easily applied to Demian. Demian mocks religion, the state, ministers and priests as oppressive and tired remnants of cowards; Sinclair himself sees his choice in chapter four, p. 57, as between becoming “a good son and a useful citizen” or going in an “altogether different direction.” To mistake Revolution and Liberation with only activism, or criminality in Hesse’s case would be to misunderstand, however. Liberation in Demian is not external, materialist or Marxist but internal, and spiritual, like the crisis of Stapledon’s Star Maker. And therefore sometimes descends into vacuousness.
Sinclair’s chooses ‘the altogether different direction’ which leads to an “utter indifference of the outside world,” to “Voices within…inner streams, the forbidden dark streams.” In boarding school he becomes a notorious drunk and storyteller, blaspheming God, the family and all false duties; after a chance encounter with his romantic ideal, and with Demian, he becomes an extraordinary introvert and ascetic, painting obsessively and ignoring all else. Demian identifies Sinclair as a man marked specially, like Cain, who like all “people with courage and character always seem sinister to the rest.” Cain is here a hero of the first order, reviled because the sanctimonious and righteous “did not interpret [Cain’s] ‘sign’ for what it was – a mark of distinction – but its opposite.” For Demian, it is personal will power, determination and character that are the key to a fulfilling life: “if a man would concentrate all his will power on a certain end, he would achieve it. That’s all.” And nothing, no morality, no church or state, no false ethics should stand in the way of this certain end. Very uplifting, that, very hopeful, just will it and it will be so, almost like that nonsensical scam The Secret, but with a good dose of Nietzchean philosophy thrown in for good measure.
This is the meaning of the god Abraxas. Pistorius, an organist who becomes Sinclair’s mentor, tells the young man that Abraxas is both “God and Satan and he contains both the luminous and the dark worlds. Abraxas does not take any exception to your thoughts, any of your dreams…he will only leave you once you’ve become blameless and normal.” The unique, the creative and the outcast, artists, poets, oddballs, eccentrics are natural students of Abraxas, for in Demian’s formulation (and Hesse’s) they can only ever be restrained, broken, tamed by the morality of the outside world and its spineless inhabitants, the Last Men, as Nietzche called them in Thus Spake Zarathustra. Abraxas is not a limited being in the same way as the Christian God, in Hesse’s conception, who encourages docility, fear and restrictions. Abraxas offers spiritual and creative fulfilment not through fear and worship but through the breach of our moribund civilization.
This is heady stuff for a young man to read, and I can understand the appeal as much as the youth of the 1960s and 1970s did. After all, it was written in 1919, another period of enormous disenchantment (look at the rise of spirit mediums attempting to contact fallen soldiers for bereaved families…or Oswald Spengler for that matter). In short, deep malaise at the state of society, and a feeling, like nudists in 1919 or hippies in 1969, that something had to change, if only through drugs, hedonism and tantrism. In his essay “The Disenchanted Turn to Hesse” from 1972, Esther C. Gropper argues with little effort and originality that youth find Herman Hesse so appealing because the characters of his novels and the philosophies that they, and he, preach “urge us to question accepted values, to rebel against the system that humiliates us, to challenge existing institutions in the light of higher ideas.” Gropper wrote in response to the popularity of Hesse’s last novel, from 1943, Magister Ludi, or The Glass-Bead Game, which was much more directly concerned with a call to action against the status quo. I myself doubt that Demian is as concerned with the same things that Gropper identities, but still, the message is vaguely similar through most of Hesse’s novels: the olds ways are stultifying and repressive, we will never be truly whole or fulfilled unless they are done away with, much as Nietzche recommended in the Genealogy of Morals.
This is both complete claptrap and insightful discussion. The New Age and hippies, who to this day love Hesse for short-handing their deep discontent with modern life and sometimes narcissistic commitment to internal, spiritual reform, originally put me off from Hesse.. Hesse’s path to some kind of spiritual and moral liberation was and is deeply appealing to people who find the current arrangement of life to be boring and useless, and therefore dangerous, rubbish. The same kind of energy that propelled punk music (before Sum 41 and Blink 182 became ‘punk’; they are as close to punk as Stalin was to Marx): their call: raze it all! Get rid of it! This ain’t no country for old men, to paraphrase William Butler Yeats. For someone convinced that outward signs of property, class, wealth or decorum were vapid and meaningless, that maybe University and education was not the highest end of my life, and that any traditional notions of relationships, of traditions, dates, flowers and capital-R romance brought into a real relationships will lead to disaster, Demian was a confirmation of my embryonic beliefs and source of strength; finally, someone many years ago had laid out a manifesto, much more eloquently and intelligently then I ever could, on how to lead a life that would open the broadest horizons of the spirit and the intellect; true, honest happiness, and unleashed creativity, in an authentic sense and not in a vulgar materialist Capitalist sense, would finally be possible.
Then, naturally enough, I had to be presented with an opportunity to test out this theory, by violating precepts that I was beginning to chafe under and risk everything for the culmination and achievement of something that promised to be more important then anything else I had ever experienced. Through the prism of a work of great art my own tawdry and narcissistic passions would unfold.
Hesse, throughout his career, was highly interested in the ways in which a creative and unique individual is held back and stifled by their surroundings and culture. In Steppenwolf, the hero is a scholar who has never truly lived, far too concerned by moral and intellectual arguments about dead old men to realise the live he had lost and missed through that focus; the book advocated the balance and understanding that a human being has many facets and many diverse attitudes that cannot be held by the narrowness of Western civilisation and morality. Drinking and dancing in a pub can be as satisfying as reading a good book, and in one particularly memorable scene, in a dream, the Steppenwolf confronts his hero Geothe, not the stern abstraction of scholarship, but young, vital, alive with energy and laughter, a reminder that our culture was made by men who had beaten back the mediocre and dull of bourgeois society. In Magister Ludi, the hero Knecht likewise calls upon his narrow-minded scholarly associates to stop devoting their lives to abstract and limited points and try and live free, without restraint, fear or stupidity. Journey to the East and Siddharta, though relying heavily on Buddhist and Brahamanic ideas, are likewise telling the reader the same message: live, damn you, live, and stop worrying about the scuffs, your collar, those tax receipts and petty disputes.
I cannot overstate the influence this book had on me, read as it was successively alongside several of the novels I just mentioned. A friend of mine was reading them as well, and her lifestyle, free, joyful, energetic and brimming with creative force, offered a tantalising hint of what was possible. Of course I was attracted to her, but she was a genuinely nice, but genuinely flaky hippy, so it went nowhere. Some people talk about how books change their lives; I didn’t believe it until I had read Demian. I fell into, as so many other youth have, no doubt, taking Hesse’s books for a blueprint. Abraxas seemed like a saviour, its message clear.
And then I was presented by the ultimate acid test of this seeming awakening: the possibility of, through the death of an old relationship, the birth of another, with someone who seemed to offer that very freedom and spirit that I found lacking and found bursting in her. Sinclair in Demian had painted the ideal woman in a dream fever, and pursued her despite her distance, the other suitors, and the awkwardness his chase might cause; so must I, I thought. What an awful thing it led to, which in retrospect my moral anguish and continuing regret proves that Hesse’s lesson never fully sunk in, that the morality of my life cannot so easily be shattered, and that doing what you will without regard has no totally positive function in society. I did it anyway; I took the risk, caused the pain and suffered the anguish.
Do I regret it?
But Hesse was never one to pretend that a price wouldn’t be paid. In Steppenwolf the hero ends with his hand covered in blood, his beloved dead at his feet, to suffer and die for that phoenix rebirth. In Magister Ludi, Knecht ends up dead, drowned because the ambition he realised for himself went beyond his abilities. Failure is always a possibility; when Demian suggests that the marked are the truly special, those who must transgress to transcend, he was suggesting elitism, yes, but also a basic truth of life; for every creative, unique person who will fight for his ‘freedom’, then dozens other will never escape and never amount to anything; to borrow an image from Nietzche and Thus Spake Zarathustra a third time, the liberated man will ride the masses like a boat upon a stream, rising ever upward while they sink.
I spoke of the tremendous influence Demian had upon me three summers ago, and the ways in which failure are an implicit part of the attempt to escape from our ‘mediocrity’. If Abraxas is both good and evil, and that becoming a more fulfilled person involves breaking taboos and shattering all those old precepts, then I have spoken very highly of activity that the majority of humanity will not approve of. My own small attempt to live life in the freer and more honest way advocated in Demian caused serious emotional and social problems; and as pompous as it would be to call everyone else who was hurt by my actions “blameless and normal” or “narrow and foolish”, I cannot. The basic truth is that I did wrong to do good, but hardly for a greater cause; I cannot abide by what Trotsky said: “The end may justify the means as long as there is something that justifies the end.” Does a more attractive, experienced and activist partner really count as an end worth justifying?
It is a not a pretty moral situation, but here I am again, judging by standards rejected by the very characters and stories I thought had changed me so. Demian is Hesse’s first major novel, and the solutions it entails are far more certain then his later works. By the conclusion, they are also far far more distressing in hindsight then they may at first appear, or his hippy readers may have realised. The ending of the novel is of particular interest in this case, because it is deeply disturbing in some of its implications, and feels something like a slap in the face. For all the all talk of positive ends to be gained by will power and transcendence, the way forward for the narcissist is not contemplative, but at the front, amongst the storm of steel.
By the end of the novel, set in Germany, Sinclair switches his school uniform for a military uniform, and joins the army as the Weltkrieg gets started. Sinclair glories in the excitement and violence of battle, the whizzing of bullets and the sounds of death. He remarks in the young men going to the front: “on many faces I saw a sign [the same as his] beautiful, dignified sign that meant love and death…Intoxication made them [sign up]…but this intoxication was sacred, for it was the result of their having thrown that brief and terribly disquieting glance into the eyes of their fate.” Despite the regimentation and shallow mentality of the military, Sinclair seems to see the possibility of death and the honest look at fate, and the shared community and homogenity of the rank and file to be a moment more enrapturing, more intoxicating, more enlightening then any of the petty violations that had come before. A sure sign he was nowhere near a battlefield when the war happened, and sure indicator of why his ‘plea’ was often so vague and so internal; a soldier like Henri Marcusse, who wrote the horrific war novel Le Feu, became a communist and committed to a much more active solution.
What Hesse describes is the creation of a new consciousness and new way of doing things, not through being creative and unattached to pathetic old moralities, but through a total submission to violence, to death and to fate. That Nietzche obviously had influence on Demian would be hard to dispute, and hardly a commendation given that, despite misunderstanding, Nietzche still came off in 1919 as a chauvinist and general monster. If Hesse used and believed Jung, then his ending is full of Freud and the death drive; and if he believed in the artist and the poet as being supremely able to reach fulfilment, then it is through the vainglorious dreams of war, and the messy palpitations of the brutal military men just then, (in 1919) murdering Communists in the streets of Berlin, that his ending suggests can fully free us. Hesse was no fascist, of course, just the accidental similarities are there, and the elitism as well; it isn’t hard to see why Hesse was and remains popular with a significant chunk of dissolute youth, especially in University, for whom rebellion against constraint is naturalised, expected and as directionless and insubstantial as Abraxas. Fucking who I want, when I want may be part of the solution, but it can’t be the whole. Sid Vicious said never trust a hippy; I don’t trust Demian.