On Being Max Demian—Notes on My Favorite Novel

I recently came across a useful bit of advice: in essence, to highlight often when reading an ebook, and then to revisit those highlights in order to gain not only the gist of a text, but perhaps to see what attracted your attention the most.

Nowadays I mostly read ebooks—PDF, epub, Kindle, etc.—partly because of visual impairments (I can read print books just fine, but I can enlarge ebooks to my heart’s content). But a happy byproduct of my preference for ebooks is that, as mentioned in the advice above, they make it easier to extract and compile notes taken and highlights made. I’ve been thinking about this bit of advice for some time, and, as an experiment, I ended up reaching back for one of my favorite novels, Hermann Hesse’s Demian: The Story of Emil Sinclair’s Youth.

For this post, I’ve taken the highlights that have attracted my attention most, and I plan to share both these highlights and the thoughts they evoke from me at present. I first started reading this book at the end of September, 2016 and finished it shortly thereafter—it’s come to mind frequently ever since. Considering how different my thinking is today than it was even a year and a half ago, I thought it might be fruitful to compare notes between my present self and the older version of myself who took interest in particular snippets upon his first encounter with Emil Sinclair and Max Demian.



Hermann Hesse wrote Demian under the pseudonym of Emil Sinclair. By this time he was a published author, and perhaps his push for anonymity was out of an anxiety over what this latest offering might evoke in readers. In any event, Demian was quite popular, award-winning even (though Hesse had to later give up that award when the book’s true author was discovered; it was an award for first-time novelists).

Written around the time of World War I, Hesse seemed to use Demian as an opportunity to explore what it meant to be a young person in a Europe that was no longer a bastion of culture and stability. Europe was certainly no stranger to violence or pedantry, either, but the Great War (not yet trumped by the even more egregious Second World War) was another beast altogether, a kind of tearing-asunder that left Europe, naturally, in pieces. Including its youth—perhaps most especially its youth.

As for myself, I’m American and so the closest event I’ve ever come to national devastation was perhaps the attacks of 9/11. I was only in second grade at the time, and I lived in Texas, but I can remember faintly the news broadcasts and discussion. The effect didn’t quite reach me until I was much older, of course, but I think it was similar (if only in kind, not necessarily degree) to the feeling that soaked deep into Hermann Hesse and the youth of his country.

I believe Hesse understood and articulated this feeling well in Demian, so I’ll refrain from outlining it too much here.

Suffice it to say, we may consider it like this: on both individual and communal scales, we establish something like an order, an understanding of the world around us and systems by which we put it to use—by which we tame and domesticate it. On occasion, however, an anomalous event or datum enters that otherwise neat, algorithmic system of inputs and outputs, something that system knows not how to handle—and suddenly the machine grinds to a halt. Or perhaps it blows to pieces. The scale can vary, anything from a sudden breakup or a stubbed toe to commercial airliners flown into buildings or an entire continent descending into war, but the result is much the same: a feeling of being adrift, of being a dead leaf on the blustering winds of a hurricane. This system, this order, was constructed for the purpose of keeping one safe, stable, sustained—and to lose it… Well, that’s the definition of devastation, it seems. The question at that moment for anyone is the same posed to the US after 11 September 2001 and to Europe after the outbreak of the First World War: what now? How is one to live after being tossed into what Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek refers to as “the desert of the Real”?

Hermann Hesse was understandably interested in helping his fellow human beings, especially his country’s youth, navigate that question. Emil Sinclair, a young boy growing into adulthood in Britain on the eve of WWI, must ask himself this question early and persistently—and his guide is Max Demian.


Chapter 1: Two Worlds

Emil begins life as the youngest boy of a well-off British family, upper-middle to higher class, brother to two elder sisters. And like any child, his home is his sanctuary, his father and mother the gods of the sacred garden that preserves him from a tightly delineated evil beyond their home.

Like most children, Emil grows up distinguishing quite tersely between good and evil, two categories that might easily be mapped onto what he considers familiar and unfamiliar. He seems to be aware of trouble in the world, but it’s held at bay, mostly by his parents and the home they’ve carved out for their children. And all that need be in order to sustain this sacred shelter is to follow the rules. A breach of rules earns the wrath of his father and the disappointment of his mother, Emil knows, but only because rules sustain the tight distinction between good and evil, order and chaos—and he knows he would much rather be nested in order than tossed about on the seas of chaos.

This order is harshly interrupted when he first meets Franz Kromer, a classmate and local no-good-nick, the typical kid from the “wrong side of the tracks.” Kromer is charming and shrewd, yet resentful and contemptuous as well—and he sets his sights on Emil early on. When he and a handful of other schoolboys are out at play, they begin to brag about their adventures; wishing to fit in, though having little to bring to such a daring table, Emil claims that he is in fact the one who has stolen apples from a local orchard. He earns the other boys’ oohs and awes—and Kromer’s attention.

In private, Kromer tells Emil he knows the owner of the orchard, and that the owner has offered good money (at least in the eyes of a schoolboy, a poor one at that) for the thief stealing his apples. Instantly Emil is caught in the tight bind between confessing his lie to Kromer (and thus to the other boys) and being turned in for a crime he did not commit. Out of supposed mercy, Kromer offers him a third option—after all, what need would he have for the orchard-owner’s reward money if someone else were to pay him instead?

From then on, Emil Sinclair becomes Franz Kromer’s slave, all in an effort to pay for Kromer’s silence.

Franz Kromer is the personification of the first real breach of chaos into the order of Emil’s life. Though Kromer may seem an innocuous bully to more mature individuals, to a relatively untouched boy like Emil (a prelapsarian Adam, shall we say?), this could be the end of the world itself. Lost and therefore helpless, Emil is not only tyrannized by an authoritarian older boy, but terrorized by progressively escalating and even arbitrary demands. At least a slave has firm earth upon which to rest his shackles; Emil is adrift in the air, tossed by winds that whisper no real rhyme or reason.

In the course of his indentured servitude, Emil is forced to make payments to Kromer, who makes a habit of calling his new lapdog by whistle. First Emil must pay from his relatively small allowance; when this is not enough, he is forced to steal from his own mother and father. Adding to the chaos of his slavery, Emil experiences profound shame in relation to his parents, to the point of illness. It is at this time that the devastation is complete, when chaos is not simply an outside adversity but one that takes form and enters his own home—the one place he thought would be safe. It is no simple thing that Franz Kromer enters Emil’s home first, without permission, resting his heavy arm over the younger boy’s shoulder, to whisper to Emil that he is either a liar or a criminal.

For the first time I tasted death, and death tastes bitter because it is birth, it is anxiety and terror in the face of a frightening innovation.

Also quite fitting is that we should see Emil’s first real bout with chaos in his earliest years. Such an early struggle shows not only that such breaches are common to human being (not only adulthood or childhood, but life), it also seems to show us precisely what the breach is—it reveals its true nature.

Anxiety is a fitting word here. Clinically and colloquially it can be an umbrella term for many varying conditions and experiences, but there seem to be some common themes among most cases. Let’s consider social anxiety for a moment: socializing with one, maybe two people, is fine and even enjoyable, but in groups of more people than that, anxiety erupts. And what does one do? Looks away, turns their attention to their phone, try to find an escape route. Such an experience and that which Emil experiences at the hands of Franz Kromer are in fact similar, having to do with the difference between anxiety and calm.

To address situations, our brains and nervous systems create response patterns. Patterns are more effective than simply deciding freshly every time the same situation appears what to do; patterns cost far less energy than having to adapt in the same ways to the same situation all over again—and again, and again, and again. Our minds save these patterns and bring them forward whenever the proper requirements present themselves; for example, when interacting with X number of people, Y pattern is produced. Anxiety seems to occur either in 1) the altogether absence of this pattern (perhaps a person was not properly socialized as a child, perhaps they are often isolated from others), or 2) when an anomalous situation for which the pattern was not prepared enters in (maybe a person in the group says something unexpectedly disagreeable, or an arbitrarily violent event occurs). There’s a common through-line here, but it can take seemingly different forms.

The bottom line is that patterns help us know what to focus on in a given situation, and therefore what we may ignore; their absence or insufficiency means we no longer know what to focus on in a situation, and thus suddenly everything seems equally relevant. Of course, everything is entirely too much to take in, and so we become overwhelmed. There’s too much to keep up with, and so what was potentially known is now entirely unknown—and the unknown evokes fear in humans by nature. Evolutionary psychology shows our bias toward negativity. We are wired to presume the unknown holds threats more than opportunities; after all, it is more costly to miss a threat and lose one’s life than to miss an opportunity and potentially rediscover it the following day. (For an arguably better explanation of anxiety, social anxiety in particular, I recommend this short video clip of a lecture by Jordan Peterson.)

In Emil’s case, he was raised in effective patterns. His home life is stable, if a little overly sheltered—he’s well off. However, Kromer embodies the unknown, the anomalous, that which violates Emil’s present patterns and for which he has no other patterns to address.

It would seem that Emil himself, at least for the reader, embodies an uncomfortable reality: that this pattern of structure and breach is not only reserved for large-scale world wars or terrorist attacks, but exists even at the tender and mundane scale of childhood and the everyday.

It is of these experiences, invisible to everyone, that the inner, essential line of our destiny consists. That kind of rift and nick closes over again, it is healed and forgotten, but in the most secret chamber of the mind it continues to live and bleed.

Enter Max Demian. Another older boy, perhaps equally as charming and shrewd as Kromer, though not nearly so conniving or contemptuous. Demian is reserved, and thus another unknown, a blank spot the children fill with confused rumors. He lives with his widowed mother, and keeps to himself. Until he observes Emil at the hands of Kromer.

By this time Kromer’s demands have escalated, and Emil is at his wits end—Kromer has even demanded a meeting with one of Emil’s sisters. There’s no specific threat here, Kromer even seems to be gentler with Emil when making his demand, but the rotten air still lingers—and the odor reaches Demian.

Demian first approaches Emil, who is terrified to learn that another knows of his plight. Perhaps Emil is still scrambling for the control of established patterns, preferring the devil he is trying desperately to at least get to know over yet another devil he does not know. But Demian reassures him, though insisting that no person should hold power over another, before disappearing. Shortly thereafter, Demian visits with Franz Kromer. The reader never witnesses the exchange, though Demian apparently helps Kromer to understand that he should leave Emil Sinclair be, because after their meeting Franz Kromer makes no more demands of Emil—and even crosses the street whenever he sees Emil approach.

Coming down from the trauma of his plight, Emil is only grateful to Demian, even if a little confused as to how he managed to scare Kromer away. In any event, the two boys become friends, and Emil brings stability back to his home life. He confesses to his parents what had happened and the lengths to which he had needed to go to pay his captor, and peace once again persists between the Sinclairs.

Despite Emil’s attempts, however, he cannot return to his untouched, prelapsarian life. If Kromer personified the first real breach in Emil’s life, then Max Demian personifies the truth that the breaches will never cease—what now?

Though this opening was a bit lengthy, I wanted to take time to set the stage, as it were. Hesse’s novel is, in a way, the raising of a question and the extended attempt to explore it through narrative. Chapter 1, “Two Worlds,” very much sets the stage and thus poses that question of what must come after Edenic structure is devastated by an anomalous breach. It may be best to focus this much attention on the first chapter, as opposed to those that follow, because chapter 1 establishes the pattern of Emil’s life, and thus our own—the fundamental, archetypal pattern Hesse seems most interested in.

Therefore, with that in mind, I will focus instead on the struggles and breakthroughs Emil encounters on his journey rather than the narrative itself. By this I hope to stay true to my original goal of distilling Demian by way of my highlights, and also to not rob anyone of the opportunity to read and experience the novel for themselves—as I very much suggest you do.


Chapter 2: Cain

Emil soon learns that he cannot return to the way things were—perhaps the state of perfect order he once enjoyed was itself only an illusion, or even a delusion on his part. Given how early in his life it was breached, perhaps it only seemed eternal because his few years had seen little else; perhaps this illusion can only be seen through from the perspective of an older boy, such as Emil now is. There is, too, a difference between illusion and delusion, a matter of epicenter: an illusion is centered outside oneself, as a sleight of hand or a trick of mirrors; but a delusion is centered in oneself, a misperception or self-deception. Illusions can be corrected by intervention in the external world, but a delusion requires one to turn inward and put their own house in order—a house with which they may be entirely unfamiliar, being as it is shrouded in unconsciousness and thus the unknown.

Max Demian in fact introduces Emil to the possibility of collective delusion, of the possibility that not only can people misperceive on their own part or even willfully deceive themselves, but that they may collude with one another to maintain these misperceptions and self-deceptions—at any cost. If a breach of order was Emil’s first obstacle, then the temptation to sustain phantasmal semblances of order—to pretend altogether that the breaches cannot occur or even to more forcefully shut them out through tougher structures—is his next challenge.

Emil himself slips into the temptation, choosing instead to focus on being the good son of his parents and the good brother of his sisters—to return to the way things were before Franz Kromer. He does this at the expense of avoiding Demian, the boy who reminds Emil that all his efforts to return to the way things once were are in fact delusional.

Because Demian would have demanded more of me than my parents demanded, much more; by means of inducements and admonitions, sarcasm and irony, he would have tried to make me more self-reliant. Oh, I know it today: nothing in the world is more repugnant to a man than following the path that leads him to himself!

And so in most furtively attempting to escape into delusion, Emil sees what it takes to overcome both breach and delusion; yet, like staring at the sun, though it’s obvious, he can barely stand to look at it directly—the fact that his only way forward is self-realization.

Emil and Demian find this illustrated by the story of Cain and Abel in their classes. The teacher tells them the traditional story, but in passing, after class, Demian suggests to Emil that perhaps Cain was not evil after all. Perhaps what marked Cain was not a curse but something like a grand presence, like that strange aura one feels in the presence of a powerful person—perhaps Cain was not a criminal, only an individual, and those who then told the story were themselves wrong.

As one may expect, Emil is bashful at the thought, and when he shares it with his father, he is told it is even blasphemous. But Demian raises an interesting point in even questioning the validity of the story as handed down; he doesn’t question its historicity, so much as its point of view. And in doing so he illustrates the temptation to delusion, and what collectives may do to individuals who threaten their attempts to keep breaches out. The fact is that collective delusion is meant to keep breaches out, even by willful self-deception if necessary, but individuals threaten to bring the breaches back—and what a breach killing one's own brother makes! Presuming Demian is correct and Cain is not simply evil, the problem is not alleviated but revealed—individuality, the kind of self-realization Emil is challenged to undergo, cannot be tolerated.

Perhaps Emil’s father referring to Demian’s edit as “blasphemy” is not merely happenstance but the collision between the authority figure of the collective and the very embodiment of individuation.

By analogy, scientists at the University of Calgary and UC Davis made an intriguing discovery concerning zebras relatively recently. Conventional wisdom once suggested that zebras evolved to have stripes for reasons of camouflage, but such an explanation cannot hold much water; black and white stripes don’t blend in with any surroundings, and they even seem to stand out well enough at night. Zoologists have proposed another theory, however: the stripes are not to camouflage the zebra against its surroundings, but against other zebras. A single zebra against the backdrop of its environment sticks out like a sore thumb, but one quickly loses sight of that zebra if it enters the herd. I can’t seem to find a source for this, but I remember once hearing that zoologists who marked individual zebras for tracking purposes would often find that same zebra caught and eaten by a predator.

Zebra stripes and the collective delusion I’ve mentioned thus far may be much the same. Delusions may be willfully developed, but the stripes of a zebra were favored by natural selection—not will per se but necessity. They exist because they help zebras survive their predators, at least sufficiently to breed in large enough numbers. Perhaps collective delusions reflect something similar—which is why it is altogether critical that Emil learns that he cannot hide from chaotic breaches. Delusions may be a nostalgic wish to apply an earlier fix to another problem, but the fix won’t stick; even zebra stripes can’t save every zebra, the predator still breaches the ordered herd. Collective delusion may somehow sustain collectives, but they can’t save individuals; some zebras meet the lion, some individuals are sacrificed to sustain the collective.

But it need not be this way. Not according to Demian.


Chapter 3: The Thief on the Cross

The question seems to then turn to what an individual must become. If one must escape herd mentality and collective delusion by way of self-realization—following the path that leads him to himself”—what is the next station on the way?

In their next theological lesson, Demian and Emil are taught the crucifixion of Jesus, specifically the moment when Jesus meets the two thieves on the cross. As the story goes, one thief repents of his sins and is promised paradise after his death on his cross; the other, however, reviles Jesus still. The teacher, naturally as tradition dictates, informs the students of the evil intent of the latter thief on the cross. But, as one may expect now, Demian finds this too narrow a view. Rather than wicked, Demian finds the unrepentant thief honest—and there must be something redemptive there. He is true to himself, but there’s more than this.

This chapter is one of many instances, and contains one of many themes which are strongly influenced by the work of the Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung. Jung took an avid interest in the psychology of Christianity (and religion in general), and had much to say about Christ as the archetypal hero figure of the West—as well as a symbol of the self and development of consciousness. He remarks in Aion: Researches into the Phenomenology of the Self (1951) that artistic depictions, and even the scriptural telling of the stories of the two thieves on the cross on either side of Jesus, convey in symbolic fashion “that the progressive development and differentiation of consciousness leads to an ever more menacing awareness of the conflict and involves nothing less than a crucifixion of the ego, its agonizing suspension between irreconcilable opposites.”

Like Jung, Demian sees this “crucifixion of the ego” as entirely necessary to “the progressive development and differentiation of consciousness”—to a person’s self-realization, their individuation. And crucifixion indeed it is! As there is a reason for collective delusion, there too is a reason for what collectives guard behind city walls and what they cast out into the wilderness. Demian states as much:

“Here is one of the places where the shortcomings in this religion can be seen very clearly. The fact is that this whole God, both in the Old and the New Testament, may be an outstanding figure, but He’s not what He should really represent. He is goodness, nobility, the Father, beauty and also loftiness, sentimentality—all fine! But the world is made up of other things, too. And all that is simply ascribed to the Devil, and this whole part of the world, an entire half, is swept under the table and buried in silence.”

One may balk at Demian here, considering his rereading of Cain boyishly adventurous but his deconstruction of the divine naïve. And one may be right to hesitate here, at least if one is proceeding with the wrong idea. God represents that which is highest in life, that which is best—and, of course, as far as Demian’s concerned that’s “all fine!” But the Devil also symbolizes that which is lowest and most wretched about life—immorality, decay, destruction—breach. Why ever would one not take this “entire half” and leave it “swept under the table and buried in silence”?

It would seem that Demian is after much the same thing as Jung. The issue is not at all that one rightly fears breach—or, shall we say here, all that the Devil personifies. It is that one fears the breach so thoroughly that they refuse even to acknowledge it. This is the issue of collective delusion, and why it must still make sacrifices of some of its individuals (as in the case of some zebras to the lion, or some individuals to chaos to sustain order): delusion refuses to acknowledge that even sacrifice must take place to sustain its brittle structure.

Emil hears Demian put the issue in these terms, describing the state of Europe in the days before the Great War, in chapter 7:

He spoke about the European spirit and the keynote of the era. Everywhere, he said, togetherness and the herd instinct were prevalent, but freedom and love were nowhere to be found. All that sense of community, from student societies and glee clubs all the way up to national states, was a compulsive form, it was a community based on anxiety, on fear, on confusion, and was inwardly rotten, old, and close to collapse.

When referring to delusion here, one is not referring to valuation as such (murder is still wrong, charity is still admirable), but to what Friederich Nietzsche (in a note published in Book 1 of The Will to Power [1910]) refers to as a “sentencing” of existence itself under the guise of “morality.” Even when one speaks of “morals” in service of the collective delusion, all they really mean is to put a part of existence itself to death. And in doing so, Demian continues, some supposed criminals are wrongly sentenced as well.

“In the same way, they praise God as the Father of all life, but when it comes to sex life, on which life after all depends, they simply bury it in silence and as much as possible declare it to be sinful, the work of the Devil! I have nothing against honoring this God Jehovah, not in the least. But my opinion is that we should honor everything and hold it sacred, the whole world, not just this artificially detached, official half!”

Once more, this is not a suspension of valuation as such—at no point does Max Demian become a truly wicked person. He simply suggests what Nietzsche himself suggests: a “re-valuation of all values,” by way of granting propriety to existence—to Truth—over anything we might say about it—including delusions and sentences to death.

In The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World (2009), Iain McGilchrist shares neurological research on the different functions between the right and left hemispheres of the human brain—and how these differences in fact show up quite concretely in human culture and experience. After blowing away the trite, widespread myths and misconceptions about the differences between the two hemispheres and their functions, McGilchrist delivers the reality of the matter: the right hemisphere (heavier, denser than the left) is the site of bare sensory perception; and the left hemisphere (lighter, less dense than the right) is where one encodes their behavioral patterns, tools, goals, memories. One might say the right hemisphere is a mirror and the left a sketchpad; the mirror’s sole function is to reflect its surroundings, and the sketchpad draws what it sees in the mirror. The sketchpad, however, cannot produce perfect, 1:1 copies of reflections in the mirror, and so must focus on particular patterns and details (as we discussed earlier concerning anxiety). Some principles governing this focus are biological predispositions or gained from personal experience, but they can never fully retain the reflection in the mirror. Our brain must necessarily dissect what it perceives; as Alan Watts once put it (and I’m paraphrasing): in order to be eaten and properly metabolized, a whole chicken must be cut to pieces and eaten piecemeal. We need this function in order to act and thrive in the world. But, like all things, it can become pathological, septic.

McGilchrist seems to see much the same problem as Demian does: namely, a privileging of the left hemisphere in the human experience. One prefers sketches to reflections, photos to sights, notes to experiences themselves. This is the “halving” Demian refers to, this privileging of the left hemisphere at the expense of the right hemisphere. McGilchrist went so far as to refer to the right and left hemispheres as “the master and his emissary,” respectively, to denote that the left hemisphere is designed to serve the right hemisphere; the two must work in conjunction, but one must be prioritized over the other. Halving, sentencing, and delusion result from prioritizing the left hemisphere over the rightful other. It is in this spirit that Demian describes what it may be to prioritize the “master” over the “emissary”:

“And so, alongside the divine service for God, we must also have a service for the Devil. I think that would be proper. Or else, people would have to create some new God, who would also include the Devil within Himself, one in whose presence we wouldn’t have to shut our eyes when the most natural things in the world take place.”


Chapter 4: Beatrice

By now Emil Sinclair is a good deal older than he was upon his first encounter with Kromer, boarding-school bound and away from home. Now a young man, he has a chance encounter at a distance with a young woman. They don’t speak, nor do they meet, but Emil is captivated by the mere sight of her. It’s an instinctual response for Emil, arguably one of the first distinct experiences he has of losing himself to his own unconscious. His mind dwells on the young woman for some time, and he finds himself somewhat obsessed, in a way. To be sure, unlike Franz Kromer’s lust for his slave’s elder sister, there seems to be nothing in Emil’s obsession tinctured with any questionable desire—he himself seems more confused by the persistence of these thoughts and feelings than anything else.

It’s around this time that he begins reading widely, and in his course he discovers a quote attributed to Nietzsche that grabs his attention: “A man’s fate and his character are two names for the same concept.” This thought seems to dovetail nicely with another from Jung: “Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.” Emil first thinks of his encounter with the young woman, or at least his subsequent investment in thinking of her, to be “fate,” as it were; however, coming to realize that this may be in fact an expression of his own unconscious character does little to clarify things for him. In fact, this realization only raises more questions—perhaps the most difficult: what about the sight of this young woman evoked this response? Or, put another way, what did the sight of her touch in him? In order to sort his own thoughts out, Emil thinks to take up painting. Having little skill in this field, he begins by attempting to paint the face of the young woman.

Near the end of his efforts, Emil ends up visiting his old hometown and running into Demian after some time of separation. The two visit a local tavern and attempt to catch up, but Emil is awkward and uncomfortable, finding it difficult to relate to his old friend whom he simply presumes is also attending school somewhere. The visit haunts Emil somewhat, all the way back to boarding school, until he recalls something Demian had told him after Emil had expressed his struggles to him in the tavern:

“It’s so good to know that inside us there’s a self that knows everything!”

This seems to me to be the organizing principle that puts Emil’s unconscious desires into context. It’s also, unsurprisingly, quite Jungian. One can trust their own unconscious, their self, and must therefore listen to the contents of their own self rather than simply filter or vet. Jungian psychologist Anthony Stevens, in The Two Million-Year-Old Self (1993), goes so far as to say that all psychopathologies derive from when the self’s normally well-adapted modules are either forced to work too much or too little.

Emil’s attention is drawn to the young woman in the park; he never meets her, but names her “Beatrice” (the long-lost lover Dante ends up chasing from Inferno to Paradise in The Divine Comedy) and dwells on the sight of her for some time. She evokes something in Emil, which I can only compare to the Jungian concept of the anima/animus. According to Jung, there’s a sub-personality in every person (generally called anima in men, animus in women; he also had some thoughts on how gay and lesbian individuals related to these sub-personalities) that in essence contains the uncultivated aspects of the overall Self in question—in the case of the anima/animus, these are the uncultivated gendered components of a person. Emil, being straight, male, and generally masculine, would therefore have an anima very feminine. Jung further insisted that one often projects their anima/animus onto others, especially their lovers, unconsciously recognizing in them what they themselves are missing (for instance, an especially masculine man or woman may be attracted to an equally feminine man or woman). (Jung outlines this in depth in Aion, but for those who may be encountering Jungian psychology for the first time, I recommend Anthony Stevens’ Jung: A Very Short Introduction.)

To be precise, I define sex as having to do with one being male or female (leaving room for the minority of intersex and transgender individuals) and gender as the emergent patterns that a particular sex may produce, ostensibly masculine and feminine. We see this in our closest genetic cousins, the chimpanzees: female chimps tend to exhibit ostensibly feminine patterns while males demonstrate masculine ones; for example, young male chimps on average prefer toys that are tool- or vehicle-based, while young female chimps on average prefer toys like dolls, representations of other chimps. Older chimps seem to exhibit similar patterns, females generally being more social and males generally being more goal- and object-oriented.

We also see this in Homo sapiens, human beings—but it may be a mistake to leave the conversation there, at least for a Jungian, and especially if one wishes to understand what is happening to Emil. Humans and chimps are genetically quite close, and humans evolved from relatively much more animalistic ancestors who have left their patterns imprinted on the subterranean strata of our psyches as they have for our chimpanzee cousins—but humans possess a meta-cognitive level that chimps do not. To illustrate, a chimpanzee, with some concerted training, can learn to recognize itself in the mirror; a human infant can learn to do this instinctually as early as approximately 16 months. Human beings possess a greater sense of overall Self (and thus self-awareness and capacities for self-realization and self-overcoming) than our chimpanzee cousins. If gendered behavioral patterns emerging from a particular sex are a cognitive process, then the human sense of self may be said to be a meta-cognitive process capable of redirecting or even overriding these lower cognitive processes. Put simply, for the chimp gendered behavioral patterns are hardwiring, but for the human they’re only predispositions before experience—after experience, humans can alter themselves. (For a quick outline of the development of infants’ capacity to recognize themselves in their reflection, see this blog post.)

Jung took a rather interesting stance on sex and gender, which I believe Hesse carries on to Emil. The very presence of the anima/animus speaks to not only our need for balance (including in gender and attendant behavioral patterns), but one's capacity to achieve that balance in oneself. This was one of the key features of marriage Jung admired: the possibility to find in the other a guide to developing what one is missing but may develop. The anima/animus is not just a lover-shaped hole in the psyche, but something like an atrophied muscle one can learn to flex, build, and bring into balance with other more well-developed muscles.

Emil sees the femininity he himself lacks reflected in Beatrice, but even that is not the end of it. For when upon his conversation with Demian in the tavern, in recalling his statement—“It’s so good to know that inside us there’s a self that knows everything!”—he turns to his painting, which has gradually changed from draft to draft, and realizes it is not Beatrice. It’s Demian. Seeing Demian in his painting is not a sexual impulse, however; Emil demonstrates here and further into the novel that he is indeed attracted to women more than men. However, there’s something else more interesting going on.

As evidenced by a thought Emil has later on, in chapter 6, we may find our clue as to why he sees Demian in his latest painting of Beatrice. He describes his “dream of love,” and a woman he embraces, whom he first believes to be his mother, yet who instead becomes the subject of his painting, “that tall woman who was half-masculine and half-maternal; I was afraid of her and yet I was drawn to her by the most burning desire.” Perhaps a little jumbled, as many dreams can be, Emil sees in this woman what he saw in Beatrice, his “dream of love,” yet also what he sees in Demian—not another lover, but the ideal human being: “half-masculine and half maternal.”

Emil’s paintings change from draft to draft, drifting from Beatrice the Feminine to Demian the Whole. Demian represents a Jungian wholeness which possesses in its individual self both well-cultivated masculinity and femininity, no longer in opposition but complementary to one another. Demian symbolizes for Emil both what he is and what he must cultivate in himself, evoking in him a sense of familiarity and unfamiliarity—at once “afraid of her and yet … drawn to her by the most burning desire.” Spending the rest of the night dredging up every memory he can of his childhood friend Demian, Emil is also attempting to excavate the young man he admired most, his role model—the way by which he might find wholeness himself.


Chapter 5: The Bird Fights Its Way Out of the Egg

Alight with this new realization, this deep longing for wholeness Emil awakens to, he begins a new painting—one depicting the crest above his childhood home, which Demian had taken interest in from the moment he first saw it as a boy. The image, faded even then, had likely come from when Emil’s home was part of the local monastery; when Demian had seen it, he believed it to be a sparrowhawk. Demian leaves the topic there, however, and proceeds to talk to Emil about his views on Cain.

Having finished his painting, Emil sends it to the last-known address he has for Demian. Sometime later he receives a response: the painting, returned, with a message on the back from Demian:

“The bird is fighting its way out of the egg. The egg is the world. Whoever wishes to be born must destroy a world. The bird is flying to God. The god is named Abraxas.”

Though somewhat perplexed by the response, Emil is overjoyed and relieved that Demian has seen his painting. However, the name Abraxas raises questions in him—questions shortly, oddly answered. In a lecture shortly thereafter, Emil’s teacher Dr. Follen describes an ancient god worshipped long ago—one named Abraxas:

“We mustn’t imagine that the views of those sects and mystic associations of antiquity were as naive as they seem from the standpoint of rationalistic examination. The ancients were altogether unacquainted with science in our sense of the word. Instead they were concerned with philosophical and mystical truths to a highly developed degree. One result of this was magic and tomfoolery that, to be sure, frequently led to swindling and crime. But magic, too, had noble origins and profound thoughts. For example, the doctrine of Abraxas, which I cited earlier. Scholars speak that name in connection with Greek magical formulas, and many consider it to be the name of some devil associated with magic, such as primitive peoples still worship today. But it seems that Abraxas has a much greater significance. We may look upon the name as that of a deity who had the symbolic task of combining the godlike and the devilish.”

Naturally, Abraxas, a god with “the symbolic task of combining the godlike and the devilish” reminds Emil not only of Demian’s most recent message, but of their previous discussion after Sunday school. Rather than creating “a service for the Devil” to go “alongside the divine service for God,” it would seem Demian had in fact gone further and found “some new God, … one in whose presence [he] wouldn’t have to shut [his] eyes when the most natural things in the world take place.”

It seems only fitting that when Emil’s self cries most passionately for completion that he should need to revisit Demian’s old theology of a Devil-God, a symbol of that Jungian “crucifixion of the ego.” Perhaps crucifixion and devil are still apt terms to describe this symbol of the ideal balance in existence, including oneself, for they seem to not come without difficulty, even suffering. Emil finds a hint in all this for his next step forward, but the path is not yet apparent, nor is it smooth.

All I really wanted was to try and live the life that was spontaneously welling up within me. Why was that so very difficult?

It’s at this time that Emil meets another companion, an organist he finds playing alone one night in a local church, an eccentric named Pistorius. Though somewhat abrasive and difficult to grasp, Pistorius is in fact another fellow worshiper of Abraxas. He also has a forceful message for Emil, who is only now beginning his journey from his shell and to the god Abraxas:

“No one hears about Abraxas by accident, make a note of that!”

There’s much to say about this statement, especially in conjunction to Demian’s message to Emil. For the moment I’ll focus on the former, however.

Encountering Abraxas being no accident seems significant, as if one must encounter Abraxas at some point. Much of Demian is about the development of a healthy ego, an authentic sense of self, but this implies there is something outside oneself which calls for an encounter with wholeness. In other words, one does not simply will the desire for wholeness, as one might will the desire for a fashionable outfit or the latest piece of tech; rather, it emerges out of necessity. You need wholeness—it would seem delusion, collective and individual, serves only to protect oneself from a truth that is always hammering at the door. Perhaps the point is not that Abraxas only hammers on occasion, but that only now and then one even hears the god pounding at the door from the outside—from the site of “the most natural things in the world.”


Chapter 6: Jacob’s Fight with the Angel

Further seeking Abraxas, Emil spends more time with Pistorius, developing a tentative relationship with the admittedly rather disagreeable man. Despite his harsh manner, however, Pistorius ends up as Emil’s next needed guide—guardian, as it were, to the next threshold he must cross. Already a very Jungian character, Pistorius serves to remind Emil that while Abraxas may knock, responsibility is entirely on Emil himself to let the god in and make him a seat.

“You told me,” [Pistorius] said, “that you love music because it’s not moralistic. All right. But you yourself mustn’t be a moralist, either! You shouldn’t compare yourself with others; and if nature has made you a bat, you shouldn’t try to turn yourself into an ostrich. You sometimes think you’re peculiar, you reproach yourself for going other ways than most people. You’ve got to get that out of your head. Look into the fire, look into the clouds, and as soon as your presentiments come and the voices in your soul begin to speak, surrender yourself to them and don’t start off by asking whether that suits or pleases your teacher, your father, or some God or other! If you do that, you’ll ruin yourself. That way you get on the sidewalk and you become a fossil.”

As Demian said in his message, there is an eggshell binding the bird of the self, which must be broken and left behind to reach Abraxas. Abraxas seems clearly to be a symbol for the whole self, the final product of the individuation process in Jungian psychology, but what does it mean to say that the eggshell the bird must break and destroy is a world?

Returning to the above notes on sex and gender, it may be easy to imagine that societies may produce gender roles that best fit their individual members. If males are on average predisposed to masculinity and females on average are predisposed to femininity, then their roles in society may differ. There may be wisdom in this: for instance, femininity rates more highly in agreeability and compassion than masculinity, being more people-oriented; such traits would be much needed in childcare or other people-oriented pursuits that may require patience and interest. That said, one can also easily see where these gender roles could easily become nothing more than “zebra stripes.” A society that predetermines gender roles based on sex will be woefully incapable of responding to women high in masculinity, men high in femininity, or—and perhaps most importantly—in challenging men and women to develop both their masculinity and femininity. Rather than cultivating wholeness, a “world” may simply box and “halve” individuals and thus its own society—ultimately “sentencing” it to death.

However, this shell in need of breaking is surely broader than gender. Emil clearly does not suffer from any arbitrary gender-based persecution, but he is boxed, as it were. Stuffed hastily into a predetermined educational course, he ends up floundering, having no real values he passionately strives for; instead, he falls into the casual and aimless playtime of his age group. This isn’t to say that play is inherently wrong (in fact it’s not at all), but the kind of play Emil slips into is frivolous and never-ending. It’s not because he’s a truly free and authentic person, but because he has “nothing better to do.” His “world” has given him no Value or values through which he may find fulfillment, and so he must break free from the sterile structure he has been given and ascend to what is most natural—to that which Abraxas symbolizes.

Pushed in the wrong direction, one may end up at the conclusion that there are no universals in human being, that each person is so thoroughly unique that they must of necessity demolish the cultures, traditions, and structures into which they are born and become something never before seen. Perhaps there’s truth here. But there are universals—such as Abraxas. Flight from “a world” to Abraxas is not a flight into fantasy and daydreams, but a return to “the most natural things in the world.” When universals become top-down, imposed upon individuals, they risk becoming stultifying; they are at their clearest when they are allowed to grow from the bottom-up, from the very soil.

“My friend Sinclair, our god is named Abraxas; he is God and Satan; both the bright world and the dark world are contained in him. Abraxas has no objections to any of your thoughts or any of your dreams. Never forget that. But he’ll abandon you if you ever become faultless and normal. Then he’ll abandon you and look for a new pot to cook his ideas in.”

Oddly, Abraxas seems to play the role of a healthy ego. One may think of Dzogchen in Tibetan Buddhism, wherein one is admonished to consider oneself nothing more than a mirror which reflects one’s surroundings and even one’s own thoughts and feeling; as the mirror is unaffected by that which it reflects, and that which it reflects always passes (so long as the ego as mirror allows), the mirror is free to simply observe and thus to contain “both the bright world and the dark world,” to have “no objections to any of your thoughts or any of your dreams.” In the spirit of McGilchrist’s work, this is a very right-hemisphere approach—perhaps an extreme attempt to shift the balance of propriety from the left hemisphere back to the right, where it belongs, from the mere emissary to the rightful master.

The quasi-Dzogchen spirit of Pistorius’ theology is especially clear in this following exchange:

Suddenly [Pistorius] slapped me on the shoulder, making me start. “My boy,” he said forcefully, “you, too, have mysteries. I know you must have dreams you don’t tell me about. I don’t want to know them. But I tell you: live out those dreams, play out your role in them, build altars to them! That still won’t be perfect, but it’s a way. It remains to be seen whether we, you and I and a few others, will renew the world. But within ourselves we must renew it daily, otherwise we’re meaningless. Think it over! You’re eighteen years old, Sinclair, you don’t chase after streetwalkers, you must have dreams of love, wishes for love. Perhaps they’re of such a kind that you’re afraid of them. Don’t be afraid! They’re the best thing you have! You can believe me. I lost a lot by doing violence to my dreams of love when I was your age. No one should do that. If a person knows about Abraxas, he must no longer do that. He should be afraid of nothing and consider nothing taboo that the soul within us desires.”

I was frightened and objected: “But a person can’t just do everything that comes into his head! For instance, you mustn’t kill someone because you can’t stand him.”

He moved closer to me.

“Under certain circumstances you can do even that. Only, it’s usually a mistake. And I don’t mean you should simply do anything that comes to mind. No, but those ideas, which make some good sense, shouldn’t be made harmful by chasing them away and moralizing about them. Instead of crucifying yourself or anyone else, you can drink wine from a chalice with solemn thoughts and conceive of that as the mystery of sacrifice while you’re doing it. Even without such formal proceedings you can treat your urges and so-called evil temptations with respect and love. Then they show their true sense, and they all make sense.—Whenever you next get some really wild or sinful idea, Sinclair, when you feel like killing someone or committing some terrifically obscene act, then remember for a moment that it’s Abraxas who is imagining that in your mind! The person you’d like to kill is never Mr. So-and-so, he’s definitely just a disguise. When we hate a person, what we hate in his image is something inside ourselves. Whatever isn’t inside us can’t excite us.”

Pistorius’ last points especially seem rather Eastern in spirit. In Advaita Vedanta, a school of Hindu philosophy, God is seen not in the typical Western terms of the top-down ruler, but of the bottom-up producer. Rather than creating out of nothing from outside the universe, in Vedanta God is said to create from out of himself as the universe, like an ocean creates waves from itself. Thus “the person you’d like to kill is never Mr. So-and-so, he’s definitely just a disguise”—because fundamentally all is God and the conventional sense of self is an illusion. There’s something to that, but Pistorius’ message may be more Buddhist in its leaning. When Pistorius says that “when we hate a person, what we hate in his image is something inside ourselves,” he may as well say that one can only see what is in one’s own mind—indeed, “whatever isn’t inside us can’t excite us.”

Intriguingly, for all his seeming contempt for others, Pistorius is a man who seems to believe that whatever negative emotion he may attach to others is ultimately rooted within himself—and thus his own responsibility. Similarly, there’s a line in Martin Scorsese's film Kundun that may express this well: the 14th Dalai Lama is speaking with a general from Mao's China who has been bombing and shooting his way through Tibet, all in order to "liberate" the Tibetans ("We are here to heal the people of Tibet. We are here to liberate you."); he's a man who believes he knows how to fix the follies of these others, and now he even has the power to assert that claim. The Dalai Lama obviously has none of it, and as the general leaves, he calls (in a good deal of frustration, admittedly): "You cannot liberate me, General Tan, I can only liberate myself."

Similarly, in The Ego-Tunnel: The Science of the Mind and the Myth of the Self, Thomas Metzinger gives a succinct explanation of how our brains distill our saturated environments into something like a low-resolution simulation for us to experience. Developing patterns, our brains determine what to focus on (what to use in constructing this low-res simulation), and therefore what to toss away as irrelevant, much as one formulates behavioral patterns. However, in this case, the brain seems to manufacture its own suffering, projecting the blame thereafter onto that with which it associates the pain. Pistorius’ point seems to be that one cannot dive deep into oneself, one cannot explore the subterranean depths of their own soul, without coming to terms with the (at times mortifying) principles and patterns by which we ourselves cause the suffering we may often attribute to others.

“The things we see,” Pistorius said quietly, “are the same things that are in us. The only reality is the one we have in us. That’s why most people’s lives are so unreal, because they consider the external images to be real and don’t allow their own world within themselves to tell them anything. They can be happy that way. But when a person once knows the other way, he is no longer free to choose the path that most people follow. Sinclair, the path of the majority is easy, ours is hard.”

Pistorius’ theology may seem to place an extreme emphasis on the self, yet it may be something like an equal shift of the pendulum from the previous error of placing all emphasis on external structure—halving, collective delusion, sentencing existence to death, etc. However, to call Pistorius’ view self-centered is not at all to call it selfish or even shallow; rather, Pistorius simply aims to point the mirror of the right hemisphere inward at the notes of the left hemisphere—and even at itself. His is indeed a theology, and even a religion, but one which has no place for anything outside the task of disciplining that which is most readily on hand and fundamental to human experience—the mind.

“Our religion is practiced as if it weren’t one. It behaves as if it were entirely rational. In a pinch I could be a Catholic, but a Protestant clergyman—no! The handful of true believers—I know some—abide by the literal meaning; I couldn’t tell them, for example, that for me Christ is not an individual, but a hero, a myth, an enormous shadow in which mankind sees its own image cast onto the wall of eternity. And the rest, those who come to church to hear a wise saying, to fulfill a duty, to avoid being negligent, and so on, what was I supposed to tell them? Was I to convert them, you think? But I don’t want to. A priest isn’t out for conversions, he wants to live only among believers, people like himself; he wants to be the bearer and the spokesman of the emotion out of which we create our gods.”

This push to shove consciousness inward, to look unblinkingly into oneself, seems to affect Emil deeply. Shortly after one of his meetings with Pistorius, he encounters a rather nihilistic classmate named Knauer. By this point Emil has developed himself well enough to see the aimlessness of his frivolous schoolboy lifestyle, to realize he is not merely playing but bouncing from one pleasure to another with no real value to strive for. He sees this most clearly in his classmate Knauer, and as a result speaks most authentically from the depths of his own self—perhaps for the first time:

I led the boy [Knauer] by the arm for a stretch. A voice came from me, saying: “Now you’re going home and you won’t say a thing to anyone! You’ve been following the wrong path, the wrong path!”

Not only a nihilist but a pessimist, Knauer has a painfully low view of human being. But Emil seems to see through this also as a thin veneer meant only to cover the emptiness of Knauer’s own life, to shroud his own uncultivated, confusing, painfully unarticulated soul.

“And we’re not pigs, as you think. We’re human beings. We create gods and fight with them, and they bless us.”

For Emil, Abraxas the god is an ideal he has been struggling to grasp with Pistorius’ help. Abraxas may not exist as a genuine being, but he can still be fought with in the same way one may fight to discipline themselves into a genuine ideal; Abraxas is, however, not merely a hand-me-down from either Demian or Pistorius (hence why Demian and Pistorius may worship the same Abraxas, yet be such different individuals). The Abraxas Emil fights with is his own creation, the image of his own wholeness growing steadily clearer as they wrestle like Jacob and the angel—and for it all, Abraxas blesses him.

He sees this most clearly, it seems, when he shouts at Knauer—when he shouts at what might as well be his own self—that he too must create a god with which to fight, and by whom to be blessed.



Hermann Hesse’s Demian has affected me profoundly.

I first encountered it in a time of great transition in my life, when I was especially burdened by anxiety, resentment, and depression. Reading of Emil’s own life, I felt Hesse spoke my language in a way no one else could, and I began to see not only myself in Emil but who I wanted to be in characters like Max Demian. Today I see my present self in not only Emil but Pistorius and Knauer as well, and my desired self seems to resemble Demian a little less now. But I suppose that was much the point for Hesse.

Of course, I owe a heartfelt thanks to any reader who’s made it this far down—you deserve a medal for reading this 10,000-word heap. I can only hope it’s benefited you in some way, or at least made you interested in reading Demian for yourself. For that purpose, I’ve specifically refrained from sharing some quotations, and I’ve stopped my notes at chapter 6 of 8—not only to save you an egregiously longer blog, but to (hopefully) leave you wanting more.

Demian evokes a number of thoughts from me, as you can probably now tell, but there’s a fundamental ground to them. This novel came to me when I was at my lowest, but also when I was at the threshold of one of my greatest growth spurts. I’m not today the anxious, resentful, depressed young man I was in September of 2016; while I’m not precisely whole just yet, I know I’m more so now than I was then. I owe that to Hermann Hesse and his ensemble of characters.

I’ve gained a good deal from being able to revisit my highlights and write these notes, but one thing in particular seems especially appropriate to end on. It may as well have come from Carl Jung, but it’s in fact a quote from chapter 7. I believe it spells out the need for good discussion and, of course, good literature:

“…mankind’s entire treasury of ideals up to now has consisted of the dreams of the unconscious soul, dreams in which mankind has gropingly followed the premonitions of its future possibilities.”



Image credit: Tim Johnson on Unsplash