Nutshell: dude goes to school, grover-dills around town with various people, and finally goes off to war, either WWI or a predicted WWII.
Along the way, some amusing readings of biblical events, delivered by Demian, the obscure object of desire in the story, regarding Golgotha (51) and Cain (23-24), the latter of which notes that "the first element of the story, its actual beginning, is the mark." The "Mark of Cain" is a metaphor that stays with the narrator the entire story, though it's not obvious what the point happens to be, though the narrator believes that he felt it for the first time (110) after committing a "trival and careless act of brutality" (109).
The story presents juveniles in a non-patronizing way, and the narrator notes that "some people will not believe that a child of little more than ten years is capable of having such feelings" (29). Zizek, in The Sublime Object of Ideology
, explains that "a crucial feature of [Chaplin's] burlesques [is] a vicious, sadistic, humiliating attitude towards children: in Chaplin's films, children are not treated with the usual sweetness: they are teased, mocked, laughed at for their failures, food is scattered for them as if they were chickens, and so on. The question to ask here, however, is from which point must we look at children so that they appear to us as objects of teasing and mocking, not gentle creatures needing protection? The answer, of course, is the gaze of the children themselves" (118-19).
So, if we agree with Zizek as to the principle, it's easy to read this as a serious bildungsroman
in the tradition of Goethe's Werther
, which is how Mann reads it, in his introduction to the volume.
On the other hand, however, the eponymous character is presented as superhuman; he practices the "art known as thought reading" (31), through which, e.g., "his face tells me he's a first-rate bastard," regarding a third character (32). (This is likely a key text, therefore, behind R. Scott Bakker's writings, from which he has apparently lifted the semiotics of face on which his narrative relies so heavily.)
The superhuman friend appears to dispute human freedom (46) and suggests the "poverty of religion" (52), all without ceasing to believe in the power of the will or in religion. It's an odd combination of reason and unreason.
The text becomes moderately interesting only when the narrator becomes fixated on a passing woman, whom he designates as Beatrice
, after Dante. He likes the "boyishness in her face" and the "boyish figure which I loved" (68). It's not hard to see where this is going, I suppose.
In order to stop jerking off so much ("no more tortured nights, no excitement before lascivious pictures, no eavesdropping at forbidden doors" (69)--creepy, that last), the narrator takes up painting (I know, right?) and begins arting out his frustrated libidinal energy. The result is a "dream face," which "looked more like a boy's face than a girl's" (70). After staring at "the close brown hair, the half-feminine mouth, the pronounced forehead with strange brightness" in the portrait, he realizes that "it was Demian's face" (71). We are not surprised. The portrait becomes something like Schroedinger's Canvas, showing either "Beatrice or Demian"--though "I began to sense that this was neither Beatrice nor Demian but myself"--so WTF? (72).
After that, narrator has a recurring dream, "the most important and enduringly significant of my life," involving "a form I had never set eyes on before, tall and strong, resembling Max Demian and the picture I had painted; yet different, for despite its strength it was completely feminine. This form drew me to itself and enveloped me in a deep tremulous embrace. I felt a mixture of ecstacy and horror" (81). That the figure also was "my mother" should not shock the freudianized reader.
The erotic gears shift again, however, when narrator meets Demian's mother, who is "my dream image" (114). It moves into the territory of The Graduate
quickly enough, with Demian's momma encouraging the narrator to take her roughly from behind (phrased more in a rhetoric of German Romanticism, rather than British low comedy), though he doesn't appear to go that route, preferring instead to regard her as "a metaphor of my inner self" (131). Definitely not Hoffman-Bancroft at the motel, this crew.
Lots of mumbojumbo about "Abraxas," likely lifted from Jung. Lots of self-obsessed bullshit, as in Steppenwolf
. Lots of overt nietzschean influence. Too much nauseating adolescent sex drama. Too much overt freudianisms. Too much this "represented a further step on the road toward myself" (94). FFS. Barf.
This is not Lovecraft's universe, either: "The surrender to Nature's irrational, strangely confused formations produces in us a feeling of inner harmony with force responsible for these phenomena" (90). It's too far in the opposite direction, but I'm not sure if it's worse.
I realize that Hesse was anti-war and anti-fascist, but some of the ideas that appear to be presented positively by this narrative are manifestly fascist bullshit: "You wouldn't consider all the bipeds you pass on the street human beings simply because they walk upright" (92). Or: "a new birth amid the collapse of this present world was imminent" (127), an "approaching conflict" that "will reveal the bankruptcy of present-day ideals" (119). Those ideals are summarized as a nietzschean "herd instinct," in which "men fly into each other's arms because they are afraid of each other--the owners are for the themselves, the workers for themselves" (118), commentary that suggests sympathy with Mussolini's promise to liquidate class conflict through corporatist statism.
Needless to say, those "who bore the mark felt no anxiety about the shape the future was to take" (127), knowing that "with prodigious efforts mighty new weapons had been created for mankind [sic!] but the end was flagrant, deep desolation of the spirit. Europe had conquered the whole world only to lose her own soul" (id.). In the end, "something dreadful" must happen because "the world wants to renew itself. There's a smell of death in the air. Nothing can be born without first dying" (136). These little fascists get their wish because war with Russia starts up: "of course it's not going to be any fun to fire on living beings, but that will be incidental" (140). Incidental to my quest to find myself in portraits of myself that represent myself as superimposed on my mother/best friend/lover/lover's mother/Dante's guide through paradise/&c! I've already barfed in this review, so I don't know what the appropriate visceral response is here.
Recommended for serious gender critics, proto-fascist neo-gnostics, and those filled with the lust to rage and kill, annihilate and die so that they might be born anew.