Written and published initially under the pseudonym of Emil Sinclair – also the name of the narrator in ‘Demian’ – “The Story of Emil Sinclair’s Youth” is a bright, bold and bewitching saga of soul searching and self realization. Written during a tumultuous phase when the world was plunged in chaos and destruction as a result of the catastrophic World War I. Herman Hesse captured the imagination of a young and restless generation of youth who were struggling to come to grips with misplaced priorities and missing confidence.
There are traces of Neitszche, Goethe and even Marx in the narrative of Hesse. Emil Sinclair is an unobtrusive, ordinary and unassuming young child brought up in a family bearing a strict allegiance to the tenets of Christian ethics. The stereotypical life of Sinclair is turned upside down when a simple lie uttered to impress a local bully Franz Kromer, comes back to bite Sinclair with a vengeance. A series of blackmails, emotional traumas and stress takes its toll on the tender mind of Sinclair until he has a chance encounter with Max Demian. Demian is an imposing, intimidating and inspiring personality whose reputation is alternatively infamous and awe inspiring. Living with his mother in a spacious accommodation, Demian is admitted into the same school as Emil Sinclair. A fleeting albeit scarring Biblical conversation about the despicable deed committed meted out to Cain and the consequent mark on his forehead that Demian has with Cain, changes both the outlook and perspective of Sinclair. When Franz Kromer suddenly stops tormenting Emil and vanishes from his life, Emil is drawn to Max Demian in a way he never would have expected even in his wildest imagination.
Hal Heger suggests that the relationship between Emil Sinclair and Max Demian approximates to a great extent, the friendship between Herman Hesse and the great French philosopher Romain Rolland. Both pacifists and opposed to armed human conflicts, Hesse and Rolland prepared tracts, and brochures condemning World War I and were also involved with the Organization for the Prisoners Of War. This attitude of abhorrence is reflected in this work of Hesse, especially in those passages where Demian has portentous forebodings and tidings about the onset of a great and terrible war. “Around what remains of us, around those of us who survive”, says Max Demian, “the will of the future will gather”. Demian also reminds Sinclair that, “there will be war….But you will see Sinclair, that this is just the beginning. Perhaps it will become a great war, a very great war. But even that is just the beginning. The new is beginning and for those who cling to the old, the new will be horrible. What will you do?”
“Max Demian” is a revolutionary work of literary brilliance. Dark in its monstrosity, yet bright in its brilliant hope, this book lends ample testimony to the prowess of Herman Hesse as one of the most formidable literary giants of our time. As Thomas Mann, a close friend of Hesse rightly points, “Demian called forth grateful raptures from a whole youthful generation who believed that an interpreter of their innermost life had risen from their own midst”.
Those raptures still reverberate and echo even today!