‘Demian’ is easily my favorite of the books I’ve read by Hermann Hesse. The story is about Sinclair, who is raised in a religious home and attends a religious school. He is childishly comfortable in what he has been taught, until he meets Demian, who encourages him to question his beliefs. As Sinclair soon finds out, doubt is not a comfortable state of mind, but it is immensely valuable; without it, a person will stagnate.
As Sinclair’s familiar and spoon-fed faith is challenged by Demian, he experiences an emotional dissonance to which it is all too easy for me to relate; what Sinclair actually thinks and feels is utterly at odds with the appearances that everyone around him—including himself—expects him to keep up. This disconnect follows him into boarding school, where, separated from Demian, Sinclair attempts to repress the doubts taking root in his mind. He binges on alcohol and gains the superficial approval of his peers, but inwardly suffers from alienation, loneliness, and despair.
Then Sinclair meets a girl. He forgets or does not learn from Demian’s conviction that “everyone must stand on his own feet.” Instead, in a further attempt at repression, he puts his from-afar-beloved Beatrice on a pedestal. The pendulum swings to the other extreme as she becomes his religion; for her he gives up his drinking and coarse jokes, denying himself pleasure in his quest for moral purity. He doesn’t find it.
After canning both his ideals and his idol, Sinclair finds himself aimless once again. In dreams over which Freud would wet himself, Sinclair sees a figure who is both his mother and Demian and whom he lusts after, hates, and reveres. This image serves as an ambiguous compass, hovering in the background of Sinclair’s mind as he interacts with others, mentoring some and being mentored by others. Admittedly, the end of the book gets a little New Age-y for my taste, what with dream interpretations and trances and an ask-the-universe-and-you-shall-receive philosophy (which I’m just as cynical about when it’s God folks are petitioning). But Hesse, after such a very introspective book, throws a surprisingly secular ending in and sends Sinclair and Demian off to war. Like any good mentor (Obi-Wan Kenobi, Dumbledore, and Gandalf come to mind), Demian dies having left an indelible mark on his protégé.
‘Demian’ is a short book, its simple plotline fleshed out with spiritual advice from the author, delivered through the mouths of his characters. The intriguing thing about Hesse’s work is that he seems to be writing half to himself, musing on his own spirituality and almost oblivious to the fact that he has an audience. Oh yeah—and two dudes kiss at the end.