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Hesse’s Demian

One night during a discussion between some friends, including my girlfriend, Hermann Hesse’s book Demian came up. One of the things I like about our relationship is that while neither of us simply runs out to read books that the other has read, we sometimes do recommend books to one another and eventually talk about them.


She said that she liked the book Demian, although, as I recall, she prefers Kafka to Hesse. For very good reason, she is well-versed in German literature, while I am a neophyte in that area… my forte is English literature, with a smattering of French in translation. (Still-unread French-language copies of Fontaine and Casanova nonwithstanding, I have only read French literature in translation.)
I think, after having read Hesse, why my girlfriend enjoyed Kafka more… and also why she enjoyed Camus, one of the authors I recommended to her.
Even in Demian, where Hesse’s character doesn’t fully achieve a wondrous enlightenment, there is still an element of mystical salvation that is achieved. In Demian, it is articulated by cryptic use of the language of psychoanalysis, particularly Jungian analysis. Yet salvation is still is.
Camus is quoted as having said that Kafka’s The Trial encapsulated man’s absurd condition “perfectly”. Camus had issue with Kafka, of course; the French author’s The Myth of Sisyphus, for example, castigates the kind of suicide that Kafka’s character passively commits at the end of that novel. But the disagreement is one of response to the problem, not in definition of the problem itself. It seems to me that Hesse lives in a world quite different from the one that is commonly inhabited by Camus and Kafka.
Hesse’s world is one where story proceeds sensibly, as a story should. It does not tell the story of the world so much as the story of storytelling. The character Demian shows up time and time again, decants some mystical mumbo jumbo, and then retreats from the scene. The central character wanders about through his life, from city to city and experience to experience, with the same thing at the centre: the truth, or hunger for it which is sated, bit by bit, by the world, until it is finally achieved. This is the story of Hesse’s Siddhartha, anyway, and the story of Demian as well.
What, in contrast, is the world inhabited by Camus and Kafka? One moving description can be found in Camus’s Nobel Prize Speech (found, oddly enough, among the pages of a Sikh webzine):
For more than twenty years of an insane history, hopelessly lost like all the men of my generation in the convulsions of time, I have been supported by one thing: by the hidden feeling that to write today was an honour because this activity was a commitment – and a commitment not only to write. Specifically, in view of my powers and my state of being, it was a commitment to bear, together with all those who were living through the same history, the misery and the hope we shared.
These men, who were born at the beginning of the First World War, who were twenty when Hitler came to power and the first revolutionary trials were beginning, who were then confronted as a completion of their education with the Spanish Civil War, the Second World War, the world of concentration camps, a Europe of torture and prisons – these men must today rear their sons and create their works in a world threatened by nuclear destruction.

The world is a goddamned mess, here. People are small and fragile and to some degree effectively irrelevant except to themselves; they live not so much in a world as in history. For, after all, to live in a world is to live within a space with meaningful spatial connections the crossing of which is equated as a journey; the analogy between journey and learning, education, and life is inescapable in most human languages, after all. But the universe of Camus and Kafka is much more dominated by history, the passage of time, the great march of hours and days and years that is occasionally punctuated by small, fleeting pleasures and by huge, terrifying things like wars and genocides.
There is, of course, validity to both of these worldviews… both sets of concerns face us: the outer world of history and what it can do to us, and the need to find some sort of peace and, if not salvation, then at least happiness internally, regardless of the outer world.
However, I happen to think that of the two views, it is Camus and Kafka’s that is more worthwhile. The Hesse is interesting, to be sure; it makes one feel good. The punctual reapperances of Max Demian make us look at life and wish people only would turn up that way. But resolution of those questions is not the be all and the end all of life. Hesse’s character speaks much more about how he feels inside, how he returns to the wonderful salvific meaning of his unity with Demian and his love of the boy’s mother Eva Demian. The war is a backdrop, and to some degree is even glorified, described as essentially being something other than a horrible, avoidable destructive mess. (Which is what I believe it, and most wars, actually are.)
Camus, and I believe Kafka, would not make such naive claims about the Spirit of Europe being reborn in the destruction of war. Such a Hegelian proposition is too horrifyingly peripheral. People can only say that about war when they have not themselves experienced it, or when they have (through whatever means) banished the memories of it so far than they can buy into some slogan about the true meaning of a war.
For Camus and Kafka, I think, the fact is that history is full of such stupid, absurd messes, and one must find a way through them, yes, but that one does not do this by transforming the absurd into a mystically sensible necessity, or rejecting the particularity of the experience in favor of the stories we tell about it. Of course the stories that Camus and Kafka tell are as much about the absurd as Hesse’s is about enlightenment. But somehow they seem more honest, more willing to confront the craziness of the real world without a cushion of fantasy, poetic transfiguration, and restructuring of history.
For me, it seems that both Camus and Kafka live in the real world, whatever that is, in a way that Hesse was never willing to do… or, never willing to make his characters do, at any rate.

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