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After Forty Years
on July 14, 2004
This story considers the evolving, somewhat troubled psyche of a German youth, Sinclair, as he matures during the decade prior to WWI. The analysis of Sinclair's turmoil purportedly reflects the European or German moral malaise at the time.
As a prepubescent boy, Sinclair recognizes the realm of good and light, symbolized by his God fearing parents and innocent younger sisters, as separate from the realm of evil and dark, symbolized by Franz Kromer, an older, opportunist who extorts Sinclair into fibbing and petty thievery. Another older boy, Demian, rescues Sinclair from Kromer's clutches, and then sows a new perception of the light and dark realms with an inverted interpretation of the parable of Cain and Abel. Demian perceives the mark on Cain's forehead not as a curse, but as a badge of courage, character and power.
Tainted by his experience with Kromer, Sinclair cannot entirely reject Demian's heroic characterization of Cain, and Demian nurtures this upset of clarity, muddling Sinclair's once clear distinction between the realms of good and evil. Demian then plants the alternative perception that the individual must delve into the self to discover his peculiar fate and destiny, a unique purpose apart from the mundane consensus, the mores of the hoard. Hesse then projects Sinclair's turmoil into a characterization of, or perhaps a reflection of, the mass psyche of prewar Europe.
I first read "Demian" forty years ago, shortly after years of total immersion in university studies. Then younger and perhaps arrogant with intelligence, I felt armed and charged for the uncertain challenges ahead.
For some reason I saved "Demian," packed it away along with my complete set of Ayn Rand's novels, trig tables and "100 Master Games of Modern Chess." "Demian" moved with me around the States, to Asia, and then to Latin America, getting old, wrinkled and as shelf-worn as I. Whenever I packed or unpacked my stuff "Demian" was there, although Ayn Rand and my trig tables had wandered away.
I forgot, long ago, why I saved "Demian," why I did not shuck it off along with my other old skins. I remember only that I intended to read it again. Now older and perhaps humbled by ignorance, I finally did, but I didn't discover precisely why I kept "Demian." The half-dozen marginal marks I made forty years ago do not score insightful premonitions of my life as I remember it. Still, I cannot argue with Hesse's pretended muddle of good and evil, or with the notion of Cain in light rather than dark. Looking back, whatever I saw in "Demian" forty years ago is not too far from how it played out.