hesse: demian

I’ve been fond of Hermann Hesse since I read Steppenwolf 15 years ago. It never really occurred to me that Hesse was, by some, considered a kind of spiritual writer. To me, he was a great writer, period. Not long ago I read Demian, and suddenly, with the perspective I have now, I realized why people might think this. It’s just that I never had a definition of spiritual; as a matter of fact, I still don’t. It could signify anything and everything. Some people use it for phenomena they enjoy. I wouldn’t ever have done that. Spiritual left a bad taste in my mouth. I realize that, going by some people’s definitions, my bookshelves have always been filled with what I suppose some people would designate as spiritual literature; it’s just that I never defined it as such, I never saw it like that, I never wanted it to be like that. To me, these books are down-to-earth, they are life, they’re not about supersensible levels or higher worlds. I don’t indulge in fantasies about what’s not there, what’s not real, what’s not real to the mind. I don’t call things that have meaning spiritual. The word spirituality is empty. Hesse, in Demian:

‘Einen Wissenden darf ich mich nicht nennen. Ich war ein Suchender und ich bin es noch, aber ich suche nicht mer auf den Sternen und in den Büchern, ich beginne die Lehren zu hören, die mein Blut in mir rauscht. Meine Geshcichte ist nicht angenehm, sie ist nicht Süß und harmonisch wie die erfundenen Geschichten, sie schmeckt nach Unsinn und Verwirrung, nach Wahnsinn und Traum wie das Leben aller Menschen, die sich nicht mehr belügen wollen.

‘Das Leben jedes Menschen ist ein Weg zu sich selber hin, der Versuch eines Weges, die Andeutung eines Pfades. Kein Mensch ist jemals ganz und gar er selbst gewesen; jeder strebt dennoch, es zu werden, einer dumpf, einer lichter, jeder wie er kann. Jeder trägt Reste von seiner Geburt, Schleim und Eischalen einer Urwelt, bis zum Ende mit sich hin. Mancher wird niemals Mensch, bleibt Frosch, bleibt Eidechse, bleibt Ameise. Mancher ist oben Mensch und unten Fisch. Aber jeder is ein Wurf der Natur nach dem Menschen hin. Uns allen sind die Herkünfte gemeinsam, die Mütter, wie wir allen kommen aus demselben Schlunde; aber jeder strebt, ein Versuch und Wurf aus dem Tiefen, seinem eigenen Ziele zu. Wir können einander verstehen; aber deuten kann jeder nur sich selbst.’

‘In mir trafen diese Worte das Rätsel meiner ganzen Knabenjahren, das ich jede Stunde in mir trug und von dem ich nie jemandem ein Wort gesagt hatte. Was Demian da über Gott und Teufel, über die göttlich-offizielle und die totgeshwiegene Welt gesagt hatte, das war ja genau meine eigener Gedanke, mein eigener Mythus, der Gedanke von den beiden Welten oder Welthälften — der lichten und der dunklen. Die Einsicht, daß mein Problem ein Problem aller Menschen, ein Problem alles Lebens und Denkens sei, überflog mich plötzlich wie ein heiliger Schatten, und Angst und Ehrfurcht überkam mich, als ich sah und plötzlich fühlte, wie tief mein eigenstes, persönliches Leben und Meinen am ewigen Strom der großen Ideen teilhatte. Die Einsich war nicht freudig, obwohl irgendwie bestätigend und beglückend. Sie war hart und schmeckte rauh, weil ein Klang von Verantwortlichkeit in ihr lag, von Nichtmehrkindseindürfen, von Alleinsein.’

8 thoughts on “hesse: demian

  1. Demain is an amazing and very unusual book. Somehow it does not surprise me to find that you were moved by it (and by Hesse’s other writings – Mr Dog clearly has something wolfish in him, maybe you too are a lone wolf of the Steppes!)

    I offer here an english translation ( not my own), of the first two passages –

    ‘I do not consider myself less ignorant than most people, 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. My story is not a pleasant one; it is neither sweet nor harmonious, as invented stories are; it has the taste of nonsense and chaos, of madness and dreams – like the lives of all who stop deceiving themselves.
    Each person’s life represents a road to their self, an attempt at such a road, the intimation of a path. No one has ever been entirely and completely themself. Yet each one strives to become that – one in an awkward, the other in a more intelligent way, each as best they can. Each one carries the vestiges of their birth – the slime and eggshells of their primeval past – with them to the end of their days. Some never become human, remaining frog, lizard, ant.
    Some are human above the waist, fish below. Each represents a gamble on the part of nature in creation of the human. 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 – strives towards their own destiny. We can understand one another; but each of us is able to interpret his or her self to themselves alone.’

    You say, ” To me, these books are down-to-earth, they are life, they’re not about supersensible levels or higher worlds.”
    When Harry Haller distances himself from the conventional bourgeois life he takes a step towards something ‘higher’, the possibility of a more authentic existence, similarily with Emil Sinclair.

    Hesse’s books ARE about life. But they are also about people who in one way or another seek to transcend the limitations of the life and social order they were born into. So you could argue they are about something ‘higher’.
    As regards ‘super-sensible levels, I have the feeling most people who talk about such things are just parroting a certain jargon and don’t know what they are talking about.

  2. Falk — yes, mr Dog is, of course, a wolf. At least he howls like a wolf. Not now, because he’s tired and taking a nap, not very fiercely wolf-like at the moment.

    Translations — brilliant! (I had to remove the page numbers for my quotes though — oddly I never thought to include info about relevant edition, which makes page numbers less useful as there are hundreds of different editions…)

    ‘As regards ‘super-sensible levels, I have the feeling most people who talk about such things are just parroting a certain jargon and don’t know what they are talking about.’

    Well, the allure of initiate status makes people do the oddest things. I think that’s what that is about. They talk about certain things in certain ways as they want to appear as though they know things which are not available to the general nobody. It’s an easy trap to fall into, I suppose.

  3. I don’t know who ‘The Red Queen’ is, but she seems to incline to the splenetic, I advise camomile tea.

  4. But the most beautiful passage in this section of text is the one that begins, “Jeder Mensch is nicht nur er selber…”

    I spent years trying to capture the poetry of those remarks in translation, and struggled greatly to do it.

    I’m an atheist, but if anyone ever expressed the ineffably remarkable meaning of what it is to be alive as well as Hesse did in the few following sentences, I have yet to hear of it.

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