Do you bear the Mark of Cain? (Demian, Part III: Behind the scenes, legacy, reception)

Hermann Hesse wrote Demian over three very fruitful weeks in September and October 1917. The pseudonym Emil Sinclair, also the narrator’s name, was chosen in homage to writer and diplomat Isaac von Sinclair (1775-1815). Hesse’s five previous novels hadn’t sold as well as he’d hoped for, and he didn’t want “to scare off the young by the well-known name of an old uncle.” He also wanted readers to believe “he who wrote this poetry…was not Hesse, the author of so and so many books, but another person who had experienced something new and was approaching something new.”

In autumn 1917, Hesse contacted publisher Samuel Fischer and pretended Demian had been written by a terminally ill young writer who wanted to stay anonymous. Thus, Emil Sinclair was a pseudonym twice over.

Hesse had previously used the name for some of his anti war essays, and later used it again for the 1918 essay Eigensinn (Self-Will or Obstinancy). With this pen name, he wanted to signify the start of a new life for himself.

Editor Oskar Loerke liked the manuscript very much, and Fischer agreed to publish it. From February to April 1919, Demian made its début in the literary magazine Die Neue Rundschau, and came out as a book in June.

Copies were flying off the shelves, and printers could barely keep pace with the wild demand. Its popularity and wide critical acclaim won Hesse the Fontane Prize for a first novel. An entire generation of people shocked and traumatized by World War One and the resulting social upheavals deeply connected to this story, in a way they perhaps wouldn’t have had they known it was written by a 40-year-old.

This ruse couldn’t last forever, however. Samuel Fischer’s wife Hedwig was among the first people to guess the author’s true identity, and she repeatedly asked him to confide the truth to her friend Toni Flake, wife of writer Otto Flake. Hesse also privately told his psychotherapist Josef Lang, Samuel Fisher, and a few friends.

Hesse additionally told Lang, “I would prefer to publish every new work under a new pseudonym. I’m not Hesse, but was Sinclair, was Klingsor, was Klein, etc., and will be many things in future.”

On 4 July 1920, Otto Flake and literary critic Eduard Korrodi published an open letter “To Hermann Hesse” in the journal Vivos Voco, proving he was the real author based upon style analyses and comparisons to Hesse’s known earlier works.

Once the truth was out, Hesse had no choice but to return the Fontane Prize. Demian was published under his name from the fourth edition forward.

Though Hesse’s writings were classified as undesirable by the Nazis in 1936, and Samuel Fischer was ordered to stop publishing his books in 1942, Hesse was never actually a formally banned writer. Some of his books even came out in new editions during the Nazi régime.

After the war, Hesse enjoyed a fresh wave of popularity, not just because he won the Nobel Prize in 1946, but because his stories, characters, and themes spoke so personally to this new generation also traumatized and forever changed by war, people who desperately wanted to find themselves.

In 1947, Thomas Mann wrote an introduction to the U.S. edition of Demian, which is included in many translations to this day.

Sadly, this new popularity was short-lived, and by 1950, Hesse was being derided as kitschy, average, ridiculously sensitive, sugar-romantic, and too full of self-doubt. This was due in part to Germany’s economic boom during the war recovery years, when, as in the U.S., mindless conformity was heavily championed and individualism seen as deeply suspect.

Hesse achieved yet another wave of popularity in the U.S. during the 1960s and 1970s, as his works spoke very profoundly to the countercultural movement and the latest generation awash in trauma, confusion, pain, and radical divorce from the old world. The Eastern philosophy he so loved was also very much in vogue. Demian was one of his most popular novels during this period.

Before long, Hesse’s American popularity translated back into Germany, and today Demian is considered one of the indispensable classics of German literature. To date, it’s been translated into at least 27 languages.

Surprisingly, the book has also become very popular in South Korea in recent years, particularly among the under-30 set, because the K-Pop boygroup BTS quoted it in a bunch of their songs and music videos.

Do you bear the Mark of Cain? (Demian, Part II: Plot summary)

On its face, Demian might seem like a very simple, lightweight novel, with only eight chapters, less than 150 pages, a very small cast, a rather episodic structure, and a plot that’s mostly about the journey through life and Emil Sinclair’s moral and spiritual development. But despite all of those things, the story truly shines as so much deeper and more profound.

Emil Sinclair’s story begins about 1906, when he’s ten years old. All his life, he’s felt safe, comforted, well-ordered, and secure in his family’s shiny, happy, peaceful, calm, pious, wealthy home. However, this home also contains an entirely different second world, that of the servants, who talk of things like prison, ghosts, alcoholism, murder, robbery, suicide, wife-beating, evil spells, injured horses, arson, and cops. From a young age, he’s been inextricably drawn to this forbidden underworld and has felt his family’s world to be boring and depressing in comparison.

Sinclair’s life begins changing forever when Franz Kromer, a 13-year-old public school student and son of an alcoholic tailor, joins him and two of his friends as they’re exploring the town. To try to impress the others when they’re swapping stories about heroics and pranks, Sinclair makes up a windy about robbing gourmet apples from an orchard.

Kromer makes him swear by God that it really happened, and when Sinclair reaches home, the nightmare begins. It so turns out that this orchard really was robbed, and the owner has offered a reward of two marks to anyone who can name the thief. Since Kromer doesn’t come from money like Sinclair, he’s eager to claim this reward.

Sinclair only has 65 cents, which means he’s entirely in Kromer’s servitude until he can produce the full sum of two marks, always summoned by a sickening whistle. During this period, Sinclair does a lot of stealing, lying, and performing humiliating tasks demanded by Kromer, like hopping on one leg for ten minutes and sticking notes on people’s jackets. His health suffers horribly, and his parents know something very wrong is going on, but he can’t tell them the truth.

While these torments are going on, a new boy comes to school, a few years older than Sinclair, who recently lost his father. Like Sinclair, his family is also well-to-do. Max Demian seems so much older than his years, since he carries himself with such maturity. None of the other boys like him, since he keeps to himself, refuses to fight, and acts more like a man than a schoolboy. The only thing they like about him is “the firm and confident tone he took with the teacher.” He and his mother also never attend church, and rumors about his true religion swirl.

One day when they’re walking home together, Demian tells Sinclair a fascinating alternative interpretation of the Cain and Abel story. Cain wasn’t the villain, he was the forward-thinking hero who was already marked and feared because he was so different from other people.

The situation with Kromer intensifies, and Sinclair begins having horrific recurring nightmares, the worst of which involves him murdering his father. Kromer also demands he bring his older sister, which Sinclair refuses to do. But then, after a personal conversation about the matter with Demian, Kromer mysteriously vanishes, and when he encounters Sinclair a few times afterwards, he flees in terror. Sinclair never finds out just how Demian did this.

A few years later, Demian shows up in Sinclair’s confirmation class, since he wasn’t confirmed at the usual age. In a world without separation of church and state, his mother presumably felt being unconfirmed might cause problems for his future.

In this class, Demian’s seat changes several times, until he ends up next to Sinclair. He also introduces Sinclair to psychic games, like compelling the pastor to not call on them or make other boys do a certain gesture. Even more profoundly, thanks to the earlier Midrash about the Mark of Cain, Demian has caused Sinclair to begin interpreting Biblical stories in a more creative, less literal fashion. In confirmation class, Demian shares a new Midrash, about the unrepentant thief at the Crucifixion having the courage of his convictions, while the story of the weepy, repentant thief is “nothing but a sanctimonious fairytale, treacly and dishonest, insipid and sentimental and obviously didactic.”

During one class, Demian goes into a statue-like trance which Sinclair tries and fails to replicate at home.

The next year, Sinclair starts a boarding school in another city, where he feels like a total outsider and unwanted loser until he begins going to bars and getting drunk regularly. His grades plummet as a result, and his parents are quite displeased. But then he encounters a beautiful, intelligent-looking woman whom he names Beatrice, in homage to Dante, and everything immediately turns around. His grades improve and he regains the respect of his teachers and parents, though his old friends reject him with mockery.

Sinclair begins painting, in the hopes of capturing Beatrice’s face, but all his efforts fail. Finally, he creates an image which eerily calls to him, a face both male and female, ageless, dreamy, strong-willed. He hides it in his drawer so no one sees it and makes fun of him, but when he’s alone, he pins it up over his bed so he can constantly gaze upon it.

It dawns on Sinclair that this is Demian’s face, though the features aren’t quite identical. Later, rain smudges the painting, and when it dries between heavy blotting paper, the mouth becomes exactly like Demian’s.

Sinclair’s next artistic mission is to paint the sparrow hawk on top of the coat of arms over his family’s front door, which Demian was very drawn to. He sends the painting to Demian, and in response finds a cryptic note in the pages of a textbook:

“The bird fights its way out of the egg. The egg is the world. Who would be born must first destroy a world. The bird flies to God. That god’s name is Abraxas.”

In that very lecture, the teacher discusses Abraxas, “a deity whose symbolic task is to unite the Divine and the Satanic.”

The winter before graduation, Sinclair is entranced by beautiful organ music from a small church, music that sounds like a prayer and with a great deal of personal expressiveness. He eventually tracks down the organist at a bar, and it turns out this fellow also knows about Abraxas.

Sinclair and Pistorius become fast friends, and spend much time together at Pistorius’s house, mostly lying on their stomachs and staring into the fireplace as the embers, smoke, and flames form pictures, shapes, and letters. However, Sinclair later feels himself growing apart from Pistorius. While Sinclair wants to find his own unique path to wisdom and enlightenment, Pistorius looks entirely to the past and other people’s ideas.

During Sinclair’s first semester at university, he finally encounters Demian again, after not seeing him since a brief meeting during Sinclair’s drunk phase. Demian and his mother Eva, whom Sinclair discovers in shock is the true face he painted and the woman in the recurring sexual dreams he’s had for years, have gathered a group of people who bear the Mark of Cain like they do. For the first time in his life, Sinclair feels like he belongs somewhere and is encouraged to find his own unique destiny and truth.

And then World War One breaks out, and nothing or no one will ever be the same again.

Do you bear the Mark of Cain? (Demian, Part I: My personal relationship with the novel)

Published in 1919 under the pseudonym Emil Sinclair (the name of the narrator), Demian was Hermann Hesse’s long-awaited breakthrough novel. He felt compelled to publish it under a pen name because he was at such a moment of personal crisis, and also wanted a fresh slate after his five previous books hadn’t done as well as he wanted.

I cannot say enough about how very much this special book changed and influenced my entire life. It drew my attention in the summer of 1994, perhaps because of the cover. Many of my father’s old books were kept in my closet, and since my parents never believed in screening my books and forbidding me from reading certain things (except an adult book about the Shoah my mother found me reading at age eight), I had free rein to dive in immediately.

Though I always read about four grade levels up and have never been a slow or reluctant reader, I nevertheless didn’t finish reading it until February 1995. All these years later, I couldn’t begin to tell you what my reading schedule was or why I took about seven months to read a book with only eight chapters and less than 150 pages. Perhaps I just wanted to savour this special grownup book, the very first adult book I read on my own instead of for a school assignment, and the indescribably otherworldly mood it wrapped me in.

Many nights I read Demian in bed after my lights were supposed to be out, which increased the feeling of being right there with Emil Sinclair as he has all these esoteric, spiritual, supernatural experiences. I wouldn’t go so far as to describe it like astral projection, but I did truly feel myself transported into the pages of this novel in a very eerie, indescribable, suprarational way.

Almost as if to make up for my longago slow reading, I reread the book in a single day when I was twenty-four.

Demian is one of those books where every time is like the first time all over again, and a book that speaks to you in new and different ways on the journey through life. Different details pop out; symbolism and literary references resonate more clearly; bits you overlooked now shine very prominently; personal experiences you’ve had since the last time make you relate even more strongly to those aspects of Sinclair’s life.

At fourteen and fifteen, Demian opened my mind to another dimension, with things like Abraxas (a half-good, half-evil deity) and the Midrash about the Mark of Cain being the mark of a nonconformist unafraid to go against the crowd. At twenty-four, the Mark of Cain theme shone even more prominently and personally. At forty-two, I understood how closely it parallels Hesse’s own life and immediately connected to prominent symbolism and cultural references, such as how Sinclair names his ideal of unrequited love Beatrice.

At forty-two, I also appreciated the details of the Mark of Cain Midrash and the concept of Abraxas in greater depth. Abraxas isn’t just a god who’s half-good, half-evil; he’s “a deity whose symbolic task is to unite the Divine and the Satanic.” This very much reminds me of the Jewish teaching that without the yetzer hara (evil inclination), no one would ever marry, have children, build a house, or go into business. It’s just a matter of channelling it in the right direction and having the proper motivation.

Likewise, the Mark of Cain was already there before he killed Abel, and may not even have been a physical mark. People were afraid of him either because he looked different or carried himself differently, a proud black sheep in a world of white sheep, one in a million instead of one of a million. Cain challenged their uncomplicated, conformist beliefs, and they started a story that he and his descendants were dangerous, sinister, immoral.

Also at forty-two, the constant references to Sinclair’s awakening sexual feelings, his recurring sexual dream involving a woman whom he eventually meets and discovers is Demian’s mother, and his frustration at having no outlet for these perfectly natural feelings were impossible to miss or brush aside as a minor plot point. Believe it or not, when I reread the book at twenty-four, I was still 100% virgin myself and believed I would be so until I found a husband. That only changed when I was twenty-eight. I wasn’t asexual; I just had no opportunities to experience sexual desire, and thus didn’t think I was missing anything.

And so many other interpretations, references, symbols, and details that didn’t pop out earlier, like how Demian isn’t just Sinclair’s dear friend, but his guiding daemon, and the very realistic depiction of childhood bullying and what draws certain types of children to be bullies.

I need to stop putting so many years between my rereading of this wonderful book! For over 100 years, it’s spoken so very deeply to so many people around the world.

Hermann Hesse Month, Part IV (Ranking Hermann Hesse’s novels)

Because 9 August 2022 is the 60th Jahrzeit (death anniversary) of my next-fave writer, Hermann Hesse, I’m showcasing his life and works this month. Let’s continue with my personal ranking of his novels. If you feel differently about some of them, leave a comment explaining why you love a book I disliked or found unmemorable, or why you hate or don’t care for a book I adore.

Hesse’s 1919 breakthrough Demian will always be my #1. I first read it from the summer of 1994 to February 1995, and it had such a huge impact on my life. Demian was also the first adult novel I read independently of school assignments. Everything about this book is absolutely perfect, and it speaks so deeply to the human condition. Particularly meaningful to me are Hesse’s Midrash about the Mark of Cain being something positive, the mark of a nonconformist unafraid to go against the crowd, and the concept of Abraxas, a half-good, half-evil deity.

Narcissus and Goldmund, published in 1930, is another book that’s had a huge impact on my life. I’m not alone in considering it Hesse’s very finest. Many times through life, I’ve thought about Goldmund’s discovery of the close linking of agony and ecstasy. I also love that it’s set during the Middle Ages and includes the Black Plague. It also features the conflict between religious and secular life, without judging or heavily favoring either.

Steppenwolf, published in 1927, is the third of Hesse’s books which most changed my life. I connected so much with Harry, who has such a one-tracked intellectual life of the mind he doesn’t even know how to laugh or dance, and looks poorly on people who aren’t as serious and intellectual as he is. The Magic Theatre which appears in the famous finale also inspired the name of my old Angelfire site and current main blog, only I use the spelling Magick as a nod to ritual, supernatural, esoteric magic. I also love the concept of an inner wolf in all of us, analogous to the id, ego, and superego, and the reptilian brain. My only complaint is that the treatise on the Steppenwolf feels a bit boring at times.

Rosshalde, published in 1914, is my favorite of Hesse’s early novels, and one of his books I read in a single day. It’s a beautiful, emotional, touching, gripping story about a marriage falling apart (similar to Hesse’s own first marriage), a visit from an old friend, a father’s difficult relationship with his older son and his clear strong preference for his younger son, said younger son’s serious illness over the summer, and the life of a painter. Rosshalde (Roßhalde in German) is the name of the family’s mansion.

Beneath the Wheel, published in 1906, was Hesse’s second novel. Like so many of his other books, it’s heavily autobiographical, this time drawing from his difficulties at school. The protagonist, Hans, is an academic prodigy, but his education focused solely upon the acquisition of knowledge and an interior life of the mind. Thus, he has a hard time making friends in the real world and forming personal connections to other people when he returns to his village after being expelled from school for bad grades and a mental crackup. Though he likes his work as a mechanic’s apprentice well enough, he never fully adjusts to this life outside of the ivory tower.

Peter Camenzind, published in 1904, was Hesse’s début novel. I love this sweet, simple story of a young man leaving his home to find his own path in life and discover who he is. One of the most touching aspects of the novel is Peter’s friendship with the old cripple Boppi, whom he was initially physically repelled by but later became best friends with. During a visit to the zoo, they realize in delight that they switched from Sie to Du without being aware of it.

Siddhartha, celebrating its 100th anniversary in 2022, remains Hesse’s best-known novel, sometimes the only one non-fans have read or know about.  Though it was published in 1922, it only came to the U.S. in translation in 1951. It’s the story of a young man in Ancient Nepal who leaves his home in the hopes of finding spiritual fulfillment and happiness (a common theme among Hesse’s novels!). His best friend Govinda joins him, though they later part ways when Govinda joins Buddha’s religious order and Siddhartha chooses to find his own unique path. If you love Buddhism and Eastern philosophy, you’ll probably enjoy this book.

Gertrude, published in 1910, was the second Hesse novel I read, back in the spring of 1995. It’s the story of a musician who suffers a paralyzing injury from a tobogganing accident and rises to become a successful composer. He also passionately loves Gertrud, whom he believes could never desire him in return on account of his crippledness. A lovely, moving story about unrequited love and the power of music.

Journey to the East, published in 1932, is one of Hesse’s most forgettable novels for me. It’s about a pilgrimage to the East by some members of a group called The League (which includes some of Hesse’s own characters, like Goldmund, Klingsor, and Vasudeva, as well as real people like Picasso, Paul Klee, Don Quixote, and Mozart). During their journey, a servant named Leo disappears, and the group dissolves into bickering and anxiety. Years later, the narrator tries to write about this journey, but fails at this endeavor. Then Leo reappears and tells him he has to appear before the High Throne to be judged by The League.

Knulp, published in 1915, consists of three stories written between 1907–14. It follows a vagrant, Knulp, who merrily flits all over the towns he passes through on his happy-go-lucky travels. The only thing I remember about this book is how it ends! However, at least I enjoyed reading it.

Hesse’s final novel, The Glass Bead Game, published in 1943, was the only book of his I found a boring chore and slog instead of a page-turning joy. At least he redeemed himself at the end with the Three Lives stories and the poems, and I loved Joseph Knecht’s friendships with the old Music Master and Plinio Designori. I’m far from the only reader who still had no idea by the end how this Glass Bead Game is actually played, and feel like Hesse chose the ending he did because he was out of his league with a book of this length and decided to just pull the plug in media res before it ballooned even more. Hesse was far more effective with short novels.

An adolescence spent running all over Europe

Note: This is edited down from a 1,774-word book review I originally wrote for my old Angelfire site around 2004–06.

This memoir by Maia Wojciechowska is the story of how she, her mother, and her two brothers spent the first half of WWII going from country to country, while her father was with the Army as a pilot and waiting for the safest moment to join them. Several scenes inspired things in my books, like their escape on the train on the first day of the invasion of Poland, and when they’re smuggled over a border in potato sacks in a truck.

On 1 September 1939, Maia hears and sees planes flying overhead, and thinks one of them may be her father. She’s happily running along with her new Doberman puppy and is heartbroken when her dog is suddenly felled by a bomb. This makes her very angry at the Nazis, a hatred which lasts the entire rest of the war.

Maia’s mother decides to leave for France (where her husband has already left for) with her three children—Zbyszek (Zbigniew), Maia, and obnoxious little Krzys (Kryzsztof). But the train, one of the last few allowed to leave Poland, is constantly being stopped because of the incessant bombs. Outside, large groups of people are fleeing on foot. Zbyszek and Maia laugh about how much the train will stink if it’s hit by a bomb, since the last thing a person does before dying is defecate.

Eventually, they have to get out and start walking too, since the tracks are destroyed by bombs. During one air raid, Maia gets in a lot of trouble because she stands right out in the open as a plane drops bullets and smaller bombs, and keeps flying right over her as she stands there calmly. After this, they board another train which also eventually gets stopped because of more bombed-out tracks, but when they reach Łódż on foot, they’re able to board a train that takes them to France, where they previously lived for a year.

They live in several places in France, both before and during the Nazi occupation. For awhile, the children play war with their new friends, also refugees from Poland, including twin boys. They have stockpiles of weapons, which they found abandoned by the French army, and pretend to die from being shot at, after they spend the more important parts of their meetings discussing how they’re going to exact revenge on Germany and France and how they’re going to save Poland. The twins like to pretend to die in one another’s arms.

When all the other Polish families are evacuated, Maia and Zbyszek sneak a machine gun and ammunition into their apartment to shoot the oncoming Germans and the traitorous French who are hugging them and giving them flowers, but their mother sees the gun and wrestles it away from them. Maia also gets into trouble at school, once when she beats a boy who tried to lift her dress and another time when she pretends to not understand French, till she gets the principal as her teacher, who knows from her mother that Maia knows and understands French quite well.

Maia barely goes to school at all, since she’s constantly playing hooky, staying home with colds, or being punished by being made to stand behind the blackboard or outside because she won’t talk. Several schools throw her out because she’s absent so much, and because she refuses to participate. Maia and Zbyszek swore an oath to never speak to a French person for the duration of the war, nor to speak French, and they’re keeping to it. Maia only breaks it when their mother is briefly arrested after they arrive in Vichy France, and she asks how long she’ll be in there.

During the time in France, they also live in the same hotel as a mysterious and somewhat creepy older woman, who tries to seduce the confused Zbyszek.

Maia has her share of unthinking moments too, like when they’re going to Spain and she’s entrusted with a hatbox containing a teddybear stuffed with money and jewels, totalling more than $4,000. The money and jewels are from fellow Poles in Lisbon, who want to send packages to their relatives back home. Everything is going according to plan, until she loses sight of her family at a train station and gets on the wrong train. It’s going to Madrid too, but won’t arrive at the same time, as Zbyszek tells her as he runs alongside the departing train. Maia begins talking to a man sitting next to her during the ride, and when she gets off and rejoins her family, her mother is angry and horrified that Maia somehow let him make off with the teddybear without her realising it. He opened the window so she could exit faster, and when she turned around to introduce this handsome stranger to them, he was gone.

Eventually, the family are leave France for Portugal. However, this is only temporary, and they soon fly to London. The father joins them at this point, and it’s hard getting used to him being back in their lives and to living in a strange new place, with new schools, new people, and a new language. Maia proudly tells anyone who tries to speak to her that she’s Polish and doesn’t wish to learn English. The moment she left France, Maia went back to speaking French. There’s no more reason to keep the pact outside of France, and she’s not speaking French to actual French citizens. However, she still doesn’t want to speak English, and settles on a Catholic boarding school where everything is taught in French.

On the ship to America, which takes off in November 1942 after a lengthy delay, Maia gets the idea to commit suicide romantically, since she’s in the midst of unrequited love, and decides she’ll die by the cold winds. She desperately loves a handsome young soldier, and the night before they’re to reach America, where her father has been assigned a post in Washington at the Polish Embassy, she goes on deck and ties herself to a post with her scarf. She would’ve taken her clothes off to be even more romantic, but she doesn’t like her body.

Zbyszek comes upon her standing on deck at dawn, having read her suicide note, and laughs at her plan. “Are you going to freeze your ass off?” Maia abandons the freezing to death suicide after he laughs at her and volunteers some information which deeply shocks her, and she goes back down to her private cabin. It’s coming up on five in the morning, when they’re due to dock, but she doesn’t want to be among all the other people coming up to see New York as they slowly come in for their landing. Just like everything else she’s done over the past three years, and her entire life before that, she wants to be different.

I really love Maia because she’s her own person and a tomboy, not a docile girly-girl who stays out of trouble. Like many tomboys through the ages, Maia wishes she were a boy, because of the freedom and increased opportunities available to boys. She doesn’t get along well with her mother either, which I also relate to.

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