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One of the great writers of the 20th century tells the dramatic story of a young man's awakening to selfhood.
My friend Demian
I remember reading Demian for the first time. It was the beginning of summer, I had turned nineteen in April, and I was working at a café on the UCLA campus, selling deli sandwiches, microwaved pizza, cheap Mexican hash, and glistening Chinese. I had spent the previous school year studying English literature but had recently taken the plunge into the raging sea of film acting and was freshly making my way through the tide pools of acting school. I had not auditioned for the UCLA theater program and thus had been forced to take classes in the Valley, and just before the spring quarter at UCLA had ended I decided to devote myself full time to acting. My parents didn’t object, saying only that they would support me as long as I studied at the university, but if I wanted to be an artist I had to find my own way.
Working at the north campus eatery, I was serving the students who once had been my classmates. My boss was a graduate student with a shaved head except in two spots that he dyed red and gelled into six-inch horns. I’ll call him Bill. I remember liking Bill if only because he was closer to my age than any boss I’d ever had, but he was still a boss. I was working to support my dream (one of a few) to become a film actor, and my employer looked like the devil.
On my breaks I read plays by O’Neill, Tennessee Williams, Shaw, Ibsen, Chekhov, and anyone else who might help me understand my chosen profession. It turned out that the grinding aspect of the job was not Bill’s constant watch as I loaded meat and mustard on sandwiches or scooped chili rellenos from the tin, depending on the day of the week; it was the boredom. I know now that I learned much about responsibility, dedication, and service from that humble job, but back then I had dreams of grandeur. I had left school in order to become the best actor in the world, and here I was, back on campus serving the very people who had been inviting me to frat parties a few months prior. I seemed to have taken five steps backwards, and the fact that I had left a top-rated university to join an army of hopefuls trying to break into a famously competitive industry often seemed like a fool’s quest.
On the wall next to the pizza service section was a framed photo of an elderly Marlon Brando being led by a man in a suit and a football helmet through a throng of photographers and gawkers. I’m pretty sure it was taken around the time of Brando’s son’s murder trial, but it inspired me as I served the slop: Brando was the pinnacle of film acting, and his picture was a reminder of the great tradition I hoped to be a part of.
After a couple months I started reading Demian. I’m not sure if there was a connection, but one day, without warning, I hung up my apron and walked out the back, never to return. I had planned to work that day, so once taking my exit I didn’t know where to go. With Demian folded in my pocket, I headed into Westwood, full of the passion of what I had done. On the edge of campus I ran into one of my former classmates, a girl I once had flirted with, sunning herself on the grass. I told her what had happened, but it didn’t seem to register. I felt like I had taken another step away from a conformist life and another step toward artistic freedom, but, talking to her, I sounded to myself like I was an immature kid who had quit his job.
At a café I jumped back into Demian, and I felt like I was understood again. Emil Sinclair, the narrator, is also on a search. His vacillation between good and bad, between expected pursuits and his own artistic path, seemed to mirror mine. Like so many young people in the ninety years since its publication, I felt like Hermann Hesse was describing my own interior and exterior struggles. Sinclair had Demian to help guide him, but I had yet to find my artistic mentor. Instead I had the book.
Demian became my Demian, a voice I could listen to and contemplate as I tried to find my way from childhood to adulthood and into the world of art. Of course there were many turns in the road ahead—I would get a job at McDonald’s, get work as an actor, grow to hate much of the work I did, expand my artistic horizons (Hesse became not just a writer but also a celebrated painter)—but reading Demian was an important step in the direction of a life that resonated with my ideals.
Writing in the existential tradition of Nietzsche and Dostoevsky and drawing on the teachings of Carl Jung, and upon his own experiences as a child and adolescent, Hesse presents a compelling portrait of an individual who finds within himself the means to resolve anxiety and inner conflicts and to perceive in the turmoil of his world the promise of a new, enlightened order. Hesse's classic novel has transfixed generations of readers with its dynamicvision of individual and social transformation.Discussion Topics
2. What characterizes the two realms that Sinclair identifies at the novel's beginning--the realm of light and the forbidden realm? How do the two realms interact throughout the novel, in terms of Sinclair's experience of them and in terms of what we learn about them? How does Sinclair's relationship to each change?
3. What is Max Demian's relationship with each of the two realms? In what ways does he embody elements of both?
4. Sinclair insists that "my interest centers on the steps that I took to reach myself." What are those "steps"? What specific incidents and stages mark Sinclair's movement from innocent childhood to self-aware adulthood?
5. What is the importance of the biblical story of Cain and the mark of Cain? How would you describe the repeatedly cited "sign" that is so important to Demian and his mother? What endows Sinclair with that sign?
6. What function do Sinclair's dreams serve? How does each relate to the stage of personal development during which it occurs?
7. What is "the dream of the lost paradise" to which Sinclair refers in Chapter 3 ("Among Thieves")? Why does he call it "the worst and most ruthless of dreams"?
8. What are the most important lessons that Sinclair learns from Demian? How do they affect his character and his life? Are all of the lessons learned beneficial? How relevant are they to living in today's world?
9. What is Pistorius's role in Sinclair's progress? What are the similarities and differences between his influence on Sinclair and Demian's influence? Why does Pistorius's influence come to an end while Demian's continues?
10. What is the importance of Sinclair's three paintings of the heraldic bird, "Beatrice," and Frau Eva? What purposes and consequences are associated with each? What is the significance of the fact that they seem to contain opposites (male and female, for example)?
11. What are the implications of Pistorius's statement to Sinclair that "You aren't allowed to be afraid of anything, you can't consider prohibited anything that the soul desires"? How does this reinforce advice received from Demian? Is such a guide for individual behavior workable in everyday life?
12. After his break with Pistorius, Sinclair experiences the "sharp realization" that "each man has his 'function' but none which he can choose himself, define, or perform as he pleases. . . . Each man had only one genuine vocation--to find the way to himself. . . . His task was to discover his own destiny . . . and live it out wholly and resolutely within himself." To what extent is the novel a dramatization of this realization?
13. What are the rewards and costs of discovering one's "own destiny" and living that destiny?
14. What is Frau Eva's role in the novel? Why do Sinclair and we meet her only near the end of the novel, even though she is mentioned much earlier? How would you explain Sinclair's attraction to her?
15.The novel ends with Sinclair looking into "the dark mirror" and beholding his image as "completely resembling" Demian--"my brother, my master." Does this indicate Sinclair's success in achieving a realization of his own self or his ultimate submersion in a more powerful personality?
Written by Hal Hager, Hal Hager & Associates, Somerville, NJ.About the Author
"Hesse is not a traditional teller of tales but a novelist of ideas and a moralist of a high order... . The autobiographical undercurrent gives Demian an Existentialist intensity and a depth of understanding that are rare in contemporary fiction."Hermann Hesse was born in 1877 in Calw, on the edge of the Black Forest. In 1919 he moved to Switzerland, where he lived until his death in 1962. He is the author of many highly successful novels, including Siddhartha, Steppenwolf, Narcissus and Goldmund, Journey to the East, and Magister Ludi, for which he won the Nobel Prize in 1946.
Posted May 14, 2014
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