A man has absolutely no other duty than this: To seek himself, to grope his own way forward, no matter whither it leads. That thought impressed itself deeply on me; that was the fruit of this new event for me. Often had I pictured the future. I had dreamed of filling roles which might be destined for me, as poet perhaps or as prophet, as painter, or some such role. All that was of no account. I was not here to write, to preach, to paint, neither I nor anyone else was here for that purpose. All that was secondary. The true vocation for everyone was only to attain to self-realization.
Hermann Karl Hesse (1877–1962) was a German-born Swiss poet, novelist, and painter who received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1946. He found early popularity as an author in his native Germany but was soon embroiled in public controversy following the publication of an essay that appealed to his fellow countrymen regarding their role in the First World War. This personal crisis was quickly followed by the death of his father, the serious illness of a son, and his wife’s deteriorating mental health, leading to a great turning point in his life when he emigrated to Switzerland and sought refuge in psychoanalysis with a disciple of Carl Jung.
The first influences of that analysis bore Demian: a novel so radically different from his earlier work that even his friend, the renowned author Thomas Mann, could not believe Hesse wrote it. Initially published under the pseudonym Emil Sinclair, and replete with both Jungian archetypes and Jungian symbolism, it tells the coming-of-age story of troubled adolescent Emil and his quest for self-discovery and spiritual awakening with his friend, Max Demian, as guide.
"Hesse was bent on self-quest, obsessed by life’s dichotomy, and absorbed by its complexity of polarities.”
Hermann Hesse knew that path well and, lucky for us, he marked his trail along the way with extraordinary novels such as Siddhartha (1922) and Steppenwolf (1927). Books surprisingly short in length, yet teeming and overflowing with wisdom and answers for those among us in the thick of it, searching, feeling our own way. But, I believe it was here, with Demian (1919), that Hesse’s journey took a deep and deeply profound turn. Thomas Mann wasn’t wrong when, in his Foreword for the 1948 printing of Demian, he said, “It is often books of small size that exert the greatest dynamic power.” For it is that dynamic power that — as I sit here staring at a blinking cursor at the end of each sentence — leaves me with all too much to say about Demian, yet not nearly enough. Our edition clocks in at a brisk 164 pages, yet the wisdom imparted makes it feel as if you have consumed 164 volumes. In large part, I believe, because Hesse took the teachings of Carl Jung and ran with them, and anyone familiar with Jung’s work knows that it’s like rocketing through the exosphere and diving into the Marianas Trench simultaneously. And reading Demian is no different because it’s working on so many levels concurrently: theology, mythology, symbology, psychology, ontology — give me enough time and I could likely add two dozen more ology words to that list. But that’s the point: Hesse only came to the answers he sought by plumbing the depths and trawling the vastness of those subjects as they were mirrored and contrasted within the vagaries of his own life — sussing out the universal puzzle pieces and identifying the repeated patterns helped him make sense of his own greater whole. And, as any good mentor should, he is passing those learned lessons on to us, his students, here, with Demian (and each novel after).
And I’m so thankful he did, for as you discover the answers you seek — as you make tangible the intangible, as you make known the unknown, as you manifest and reformulate that which has previously been manifested and formulated — you bring to those questions and add to those answers your own perceptions and interpretations, translating and remixing them into your own language of expression, therefore making it your duty to transmit back into the universe that which you have discovered and ascertained — to mark your own trail — because you have no idea who follows behind you grasping at those same concepts, asking those same questions, yearning to receive them in the exact way that you have decoded them.
I say that because after going through a particularly dark period in my own recent past, I was grasping at a certain universal concept that I couldn’t quite articulate in a way that fully expressed, exactly, that which I was trying to express, and as I began to read Demian for the very first time, there it was — the exact concept I was grasping at — on the very first page, stated so sublimely and so succinctly that I was moved to tears:
But each man is not only himself, he is also the unique, quite special, and in every case the important and remarkable point where the world’s phenomena converge, in a certain manner, never again to be repeated. For that reason the history of everyone is important, eternal, divine.
And in that moment I realized that I had not found Demian — no, very much like the protagonist of this story, Demian had found me — and if that was page one, then how many more decoded puzzle pieces lie in wait beyond?
The answer astounded me.
You see, as I read and edit each Heathen Edition, I have always at the ready a text file for pull-quotes (those bits of the story possessed of such presence that they practically leap off the page) because sometimes one sentence or paragraph from the book itself can encapsulate and characterize it better than any synopsis or review ever could. And the Demian pull-quote file is my longest by far. And I can’t help but believe it’s because of the degree of authenticity Hesse lent to this story. I believe he even left us clues. On page 114, you will find this thought from our protagonist:
I could not give advice which did not result from my own experience, advice the observance of which I did not yet feel myself equal to.
And again on page 141:
I, who had been isolated for so long, learned to what extent community of feeling is possible between people who have experienced complete loneliness.
I adore those passages, especially when married together but still nested within the context of the larger story, because, for me, it elevates Hesse from mere mentor to something more akin to guru. He knows you’re in the dark and he’s with you, shining his light, pointing out the tripping hazards, helping you make sense of the shadows, and, most importantly, he’s telling you that while, yes, you may be in the dark — you’re not alone. He’s been there, he’s marked his trail, and now he’s with you on yours — and if the world around you isn’t making sense, then (to loop this back to Jung) reach higher and dive deeper.
This brings me to the final point that I would like to make (and then I will depart before I allow myself to spoil the entire story!): In my research of this book, I found reviews that spoke of its perceived homoerotic overtones, especially concerning its ending. To that, I will say this: Hesse spends the entirety of this novel asking you to look beyond the surface of your being, to explore the environs of your mind, and investigate the inner workings of your soul, and if the first conclusion you arrive at on the final page is one of homoeroticism, then I say that not only have you missed the point, but you have missed the point entirely.
Again, reach higher and dive deeper.
As for the text, we have used N.H. Priday’s 1923 English translation. It is my favorite translation because it possesses a lyricism that seems to be lacking in all subsequent translations. Based on my limited research, I believe that lyricism may have been a result of Priday’s role as a Second Lieutenant in the British Army during World War I. Considering Demian is bookended with scenes from the First World War (and circling back to authenticity), I believe Priday may have been able to connect with the material in a way that later translators simply couldn’t. I would love to know more about N.H. Priday and how he came to translate Demian, but, sadly, my research turned up very little. Perhaps someone else knows or can discover more about him?
Concerning editing, we have updated some hyphenated words to reflect their modern usage (to-day is now today, good-bye has become goodbye, and so on), and although Priday was English, there seemed to be scant British spellings in the text, possibly an artifact of editing for American publication. At any rate, we have chosen to use mostly American spellings throughout our edition. Additionally, Hesse was incredibly well-read and possessed an encyclopedic knowledge of German literature, so we’ve done extensive work on the footnotes to help clarify his references when needed.
Finally, I believe that if you are currently in possession of this book, then it’s likely not because you’ve found it, but because it has found you. And that makes me smile because it means that you have been posing some difficult questions to the universe and it has delivered this book to you in response. And I sincerely hope that you find some of the answers you seek in the pages ahead. . . .
“The significance of Hesse’s writing lies in its universality of application.” —Emily Schossberger, Chicago Sun
“Hesse’s vision is again reaching out to another generation searching for meaning in an age of anxiety and war.” —Ralph Freedman
“From Demian to Steppenwolf, Hesse was bent on self-quest, obsessed by life’s dichotomy, and absorbed by its complexity of polarities.” —Joseph Mileck, Hermann Hesse: Life and Art
“Hesse was a great writer in precisely the modern sense: complex, subtle, allusive; alive to the importance of play, to the desperate yet frolicsome game of writing.” —The New York Times Book Review
“Hesse’s young readers, then and now, were not wrong to feel that he was speaking directly to them. The stories he tells appeal to young people because they keep faith with the powerful emotions of adolescence, which most adults forget or outgrow—the woundedness, the exaltation, the enormous demands on life.” —The New Yorker
“A classic document of the revolt against the unreflected life. No other German writer has spoken out as passionately as Hesse. The autobiographical undercurrent gives Demian an existential intensity and a depth of understanding that are rare in contemporary fiction.” —Saturday Review
“The electrifying influence exercised on a whole generation after the First World War by Demian is unforgettable. With uncanny accuracy this poetic work struck the nerve of the times and called forth grateful rapture from a whole youthful generation who believed that an interpreter of their innermost life had risen from the midst . . . A small volume; but it is often books of small size that exert the greatest dynamic power.” —Thomas Mann
Published: May 1, 2021
Dimensions: 8.5 x 5.5 x 0.45 inches
Weight: 8.3 ounces
Cover: Matte Finish
Interior: Black & White on Cream Paper
Pages: 180 (+2 POD)
Annotations: 92 Footnotes
1923, N.H. Priday
May 1, 2021