This year I have read several works of fiction set in the years approaching the Great War more than a century ago. There was Pynchon’s Against the Day and Buchan’s The 49 Steps. More than either of those, Hesse’s Demian is known as a defining work of that time–and yet my appreciation for it is set well outside of its historical framing.
There’s no question that Demian has esoteric dimensions. The mental powers and Cainite heresy of Max and the deviant Gnostic hieraticism of Pistorius–even the pathetic asceticism of Knauer–are redolent of occult initiation. But more particularly Max Demian and Eva Demian are the embodiments of the protagonist Emil’s two critical tasks in coming to himself: embracing his genius and overcoming his personality.
I first read the opening chapter of Demian in German when I was doing language study in high school. I have an initiate’s guidance to thank for my return to it some forty-four years later, after I have subsequently read Hesse’s later major novels. It is as compelling and significant as they are, and on many counts, more accessible.