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[The following contains spoilers.]

I have never read the writings of Karl Jung. Indeed I am still today – after everything I have learned about life since encountering The Interpretation of Dreams at age seventeen – Freudian enough to dismiss Jung out of hand, as an ingrate and a distraction. For me to review Hermann Hesse’s radiant Jungian novella Demian (1919) might be therefore like somebody who has never dipped a toe in the ocean trying to critique Moby Dick. But my review is not going to deny the importance of Jung to understanding Demian. It will instead pursue another, additional line of inquiry, just to see where it goes.

For readers with a transatlanticist vantage point rather than with any grounding in German literature, Demian might feel surprisingly familiar. It is the Gothic confessional narrative, the memoir of a wretched young man whose lonely path in life gets crossed with that of a more powerful brother figure. With his own brother figure, Max Demian, Hesse appears to pocket the demon Gil-Martin from James Hogg’s The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner (1824); whilst his wretched young man, Emil Sinclair, conceivably harks back to the narrator of Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “William Wilson” (1839). In Hogg and Poe’s stories, the unearthly lustre of the doppelgänger pierces the murk of an otherwise barren personal memoir. Likewise with Demian.

Yet if Hesse demonstrates any conscious affinity with these texts, it is a bluff. The reader never has any cause to believe that Sinclair is on the same road to a soaring, cathedralesque damnation as Hogg and Poe’s narrators are. It is more that the idealism of Demian will stand out strikingly from within the unravelling Gothic costume that it has been wrongly dressed in. Or rather, “William Wilson” might here match with that egg that the questing sparrowhawk hatches from, and discards, during Demian’s prophetic dream.

Yes, let us stick with “William Wilson” for now. Demian appears to forge a far closer and more self-conscious relationship with this story than it does with any other literary precursor. Indeed, Hesse’s novella can be thought of as putting forward a superior double to Poe’s short story, in the same way that Poe’s narrator is himself coupled with a more conscientious and upstanding doppelgänger.

Early on in Demian the theatrics of Poe’s narrator, as he gnashes his teeth over his “unspeakable misery, and unpardonable crime,” have found a ready understudy in the young Sinclair. When bullied into thieving from his family by Franz Kromer, a senior schoolboy, Sinclair develops “the horrible certainty that I was treading the downhill path that led into darkness.” The point of divergence comes when each character is approached later at school. Poe’s narrator is repulsed by the potentially helpful Wilson’s “vulgar airs of patronage and protection.” Sinclair, by contrast, is grateful when Demian exhibits these same qualities.

In “William Wilson” there are two William Wilsons, which are also pseudonyms, with the two identically-named boys getting bunched into a four-in-one with their fake names. The two William Wilsons are “singularly alike in general contour of person and outline of feature,” whilst Demian is neither Sinclair’s namesake nor his immediate doppelgänger. Instead, Sinclair is first attracted by the young Demian’s difference to himself, namely his intellectual maturity and social confidence.

[Incidentally, Poe’s narrator and Sinclair are both set apart from the societies in which they are educated. The schooldays in “William Wilson” are based on Poe’s own childhood experiences as an American in Stoke Newington, England, after 1817. Despite his English or French surname, Sinclair is apparently growing up in a German town and he will presumably fight against British and French troops in the First World War. Sinclair’s name has another shade of a meaning, however, in that the French sans claire suggests murkiness and his unenlightened state.]

During their university years, both Poe’s narrator and Sinclair topple into drunkenness. There is a desperation on the part of Poe’s narrator to give his shadow the slip or to outfox his reflection in the mirror. He will never escape his conscience whereas Sinclair will grow into his own ideal self-image and come to increasingly identify with it:

… gradually a feeling came over me that it was neither Beatrice nor Demian but myself. Not that the picture was like me – I did not feel it should be – but the face somehow expressed my life, it was my inner self, my fate or my daimon.

Long, long ago, the daimon had been described by Plato. In the estimation of Diotima of Mantineia, which is cited in Plato’s Symposium (385 BC-), there exists:

a great spirit (daimon), and like all spirits he is intermediate between the divine and the mortal… He interpretsbetween gods and men, conveying and taking across to the gods the prayers and sacrifices of men, and to men the commands and replies of the gods; he is the mediator who spans the chasm which divides them, and therefore in him all is bound together…

This messenger not only sounds like the human conscience. It could be a description of Freud’s “superego,” the ideal self that quests for perfection and that is always an intruder in the world of selfhood on the ground. It also sounds a little like William Wilson.

The paradox of Poe’s story is that a universal experience and one that contributes to making us human – having a conscience – appears to be transformed into a startlingly unique crisis. Of course, the doppelgänger may have no objective existence. If somebody was telling Poe’s story from outside the narrator’s ken, then we might see a man who endlessly confesses to his own crimes and misdemeanours, before stabbing himself out of self-remorse. The narrator’s history is thus simultaneously humdrum (in that he battles with his own conscience, just as everybody else does) and unprecedented (in that his conscience haunts him in the guise of a separate and autonomous being).

Demian commandeers the second, unprecedented feature of Poe’s story as a vehicle for its idealism. The “mirror” that stands gaping at the climax of “William Wilson” will be itself duplicated in Sinclair’s final words:

 … on the many such occasions I find the key and look deep down into myself… I only need to bend my head over the black mirror to see my own image which now wholly resembles him, my friend and leader.

Demian is never a hallucination. Sinclair insists that he is “a real, live, unique being” but his power is also explained through a somewhat lawyerly usage of the word “unique.” For Sinclair, each human being is “a valuable, unique experiment on the part of nature” even as “every man is not only himself.” Demian inhabits the point where selfhood grows fluid and washes over the borders that normally separate individuals.

The Cainites, the second-century Gnostic sect that Demian channels approvingly, had discerned a similar fluidity up in the heavens. Their system had posited a Demiurge, a lowlier Creator God, and a Supreme God, with the Creator backing Abel and with the Supreme throwing His weight behind Cain (this is, it goes without saying, a heresy). Yet the relationship between these deities never mirrors that between Sinclair and Demian, since both boys are apparently set aside from the masses by “the sign of Cain.” Hesse’s story grows irritating here. His image of “men of courage and character” sounds dynamic and empowering until we apprehend the steep drop into spiritual snobbery.

In Demian, conscience is no longer a fiendish tormenter but a charismatic guide. Poe’s turbocharging of Shakespearean clichés about damned spots and a mind full of scorpions has given way to Demian’s marvellous originality as a spiritual leader. But the permanence or practical relevance of Hesse’s vision becomes endangered when Demian alternates to the opposite extreme of Wilson’s torments, rather than shying away at a more realistic angle. Demian is always too good to be true. He continues to gleam phosphorescently with the kind of supernatural allure that Poe’s narrator had once beheld in Wilson.

The world that Hesse imagines in Demian is not unique and it in fact fits comfortably into the zeitgeist of the period. Across Europe in the years up to and somewhat after the First World War, the Judeo-Christian tradition had grown so shoogly that an unprecedented variety of mystical intellectuals with colourful alternatives were writing, philosophising and generally agitating. Hesse concedes that Demian and his mother are aloofly caught up in this rag-tag:

… many seekers of a very varied kind were closely or in a more general way attached to our circle. Many of them followed particular paths, had chosen special aims, put their faith in specific ideas and duties. They included astrologers, cabbalists and a disciple of Count Tolstoy and all manner of sensitive, shy, vulnerable men, members of new sects, devotees of Indian practices, vegetarians and so forth… 

Beyond Poe, I am reminded the most here of the English “weird” writer Algernon Blackwood, a contemporary of Hesse’s. As occurs in Demian, Blackwood’s stories often select a recognisable scenario from horror fiction, only to consequently allow a strategic malfunction and for the given supernatural disturbance to be flooded with wonder. The literary critic S.T. Joshi has questioned why Blackwood “even attempted to convey fright in some of his tales, as his predominant message is optimistic in regard to human beings, their souls, and their place in the cosmos.” The reader is really meant to feel awe when the Wendigo rampages through Blackwood’s otherwise spooky forest tale (of 1910); in his later stories the place that is occupied by the Wendigo would be instead filled by more explicitly glorious and angelic beings. 

Blackwood, as Joshi perceives, had really created a personal religion all of his own. Or rather, what he had created had had the magnificence of a religion, with the proviso that it was only ever longingly divulged in stories that are significantly more fictional than Jesus’s parables had been. The same can be said of the worldviews of the author Arthur Machen and the occultist Aleister Crowley, both of whom were, like Blackwood, members of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, an esoteric private members club with several “temples” around the UK and in Paris. I would go further and weave even figures such as the “psychic detective” Harry Price, the Catholic author Evelyn Waugh and the modernist D.H. Lawrence into this vague, unsettled movement. Each had devised a flamboyant belief system in which their own personality was the lynchpin and the dead centre.

The peril for all of these writers is that their loneliness renders their belief systems unbearably fragile. Additionally, one has to ask why Crowley or Price are usually dismissed as being charlatans, whilst Lawrence is – or else was for a long time – viewed as intellectually reputable. The answer is, it seems, mostly one of literary skill.

Demian is a case in point here. For example, after falling under Demian’s spell, Sinclair keeps re-encountering him as he grows up, in successive coincidences or contrivances. Sinclair spends his university days chasing after Demian’s mother and aspiring to lose his virginity to her, and this only irks Demian (and his mother) because it might not be philosophically serious enough. And then there is Sinclair’s mind-boggling discovery that he and Demian are psychically conjoined or that he has been since extrapolated from Demian’s psyche.

Had Crowley written this story, in Crowley’s own prose, then there would be probably a critical consensus that it was risible. Had Blackwood been the author then it would be no doubt a fairer read but there would be still a loss of control. Hesse succeeds not only due to his scrupulous rejection of supernaturalism and the cold water that he pours on mysticism. There is always an extraordinary cleanness to his prose; nothing is hurried and there is none of Blackwood’s rambling and Poe’s shrieking. Each detail of the story is selected alertly and it is placed into the narrative with the eerie precision of those items that are fixed onto Giorgio de Chirico’s dream landscapes.

The emphasis upon personal contemplation is a natural point for this story to arrive at, given its constant avowals of Demian’s harmlessness. The sign of Cain is always as small-scale and socially significant as membership of a Masonic Lodge. Demian is never a leader of men, as Adolf Hitler would be, and there is not the same absorption of the superegos of millions of people as had occurred, in the Freudian analysis, under Nazism. Instead, Demian is lost in the same war that Hitler had emerged from. Moreover, his personal perfection turns out to be superfluous once it is discovered ticking away within Sinclair’s own psyche.

Another avowal of harmlessness is issued with the description of the godhead Abraxas. In accordance with the characteristic narrative pattern of Demian, we begin with the allure of “black magic” and a consequent de-horrification of it. We are reassured that ancient sorcery “had also noble antecedents” and that Abraxas “symbolises the reconciliation of the godly and the satanic.” Without any further assistance from the mysticism that Blackwood would have provided here – complete with chanting and incantations – it is hard to see how this reconciliation differs from the clear-eyed understanding of reality that any rationalist would obtain. Is Abraxas merely mundane, nuanced and complex, as reality itself is?

Once Sinclair is shot of the “antiquarian” occultist Pistorius, Abraxas is lost or forgotten, as Demian will later be. Thomas Mann would state of Demian that “with uncanny accuracy this poetic work struck the nerve of the times and called forth grateful rapture from a whole youthful generation who believed that an interpreter of their innermost life had risen…” Be that as it may, Demian is always making good on the bad bargain of having launched itself from a horror narrative. And having successfully freed itself from horror and mysticism and even from the influence of its own guru, the story finds itself at something of a loose end.

Maybe it is that Sinclair’s life as an adult can only finally begin once Demian is gone. This breaks for good with “William Wilson,” which had ended with news reaching the narrator that he is “dead to the World.” More problematically, the cleansing of Sinclair’s spiritual palate cannot wash away all taste of politics. Demian will celebrate the First World War for its blind, societal desire for “something akin to a new humanity.” Sinclair takes a passive stance towards the destruction whilst cultivating an appreciation of the “dignity” of his fellow soldiers.

The existential crisis within “William Wilson” would have been dwarfed, of course, had its narrator ever been plunged into a continental battlefield. Demian is unable to organise any convincing reconciliation between Sinclair’s spiritual calm and the social chaos of the First World War. Having stripped down all of its horror, Hesse’s wonderstruck story is unprepared for the reality of the trenches.

[Previously on Tychy:Book Review: Catch-22.”]