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Sometimes we seek a book that's revolutionary--something that makes us think about the state of the world, about ourselves, about growing up and getting old, about who we are as a people and as individuals, and what we may become.
When Hermann Hesse wrote "Demian," he was still undergoing trauma. It was 1917. The United States declared war on Germany that year, though the Great War had already been going on for three horrifying years. The world seemed to be in a state of utter madness and chaos. Hesse was in Switzerland at the time, and he'd been active for years: writing antiwar tracts and petitions, organizing demonstrations, editing two newspapers for German prisoners of war, and publishing a series of books for prisoners.

The trauma that affected Hesse that year was much closer to home, though; and much of it was tied up in a series of personal events: his father's death in 1916, his son's serious illness, and his wife's mental breakdown. As Hal Heger writes in the notes, "In some respect Hesses's writing this novel was a way of dealing with despondency and anxiety during a particularly difficult period of his life."
Bildungsroman: Seeking Destiny

As Heger says, "Certainly the novel is to some extent autobiographical, in that Emil Sinclair's troubles at home, at school, and at the university reflect Hesse's own difficulties as an excitable and rebellious youth." The book really is a coming-of-age story, in the great tradition of the Bildungsroman. And Hesse originally published the book under the pseudonym "Sinclair" (it would take some time before the real identity of the author would be discovered).

Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote: "No facts are to me sacred; none are profane; I simply experiment, an endless seeker with no Past at my back." In "Demian," Sinclair has an invisible mark on him, like Cain, that indicates that he's a seeker. As he says, "I have been and still am a seeker, but I have ceased to question stars and books; I have begun to listen to the teachings my blood whispers to me."
He carries with him the attempt at being and becoming something more: a man conscious of where he is going. Sinclair says, "We all share the same origin, our mothers; all of us come in at the same door. But each of us--experiments of the depths--strive toward his own destiny. We can understand one another; but each of us is able to interpret himself to himself alone."

Madman Spouting Ideas

Sinclair meets Max Demian when he's ten, and this young man starts him on the road to self-discovery. But, Sinclair also finds Pistorius, a eccentric pianist and would-be pastor, who turned away from his vocation, because he didn't believe. Pistorius says, "A madman can spout ideas that remind you of Plato..." That's not recognition or true understanding. "But as soon as the first spark of recognition dawns within him he is a human being."

And, then, there's the endless path ahead. "An enlightened man had but one duty--to seek the way to himself, to reach inner certainty, to grope his way forward, no matter where it led."
The Voice and the Influence

In his "Introduction," Thomas Mann writes, "The electrifying influence exercised on a whole generation just after the First World War by 'Demian'... is unforgettable. 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 from their own midst."

They identified with Emily Sinclair not only because of his vision of finding himself, but also because of the disillusionment and the outlook. Max Demian tells Sinclair: "Perhaps it will be a very big war, a war on a gigantic scale. But that, too, will only be the beginning. The new world has begun and the new world will be terrible for those clinging to the old."

Is this the new world that Hesse envisioned? Hesse wrote about some of the carnage: that something horrible and deadly this way comes... full of blood, of bullets and disaster. Young men fall, show courage, even find themselves amid the chaos.

In the end, Sinclair say, "sometimes when I find the key and climb deep into myself where the images of fate lie aslumber in the dark mirror, I need only bend over that dark mirror to behold my own image..."

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