Returning to Hesse’s Demian

My painted dream-bird was on its way in search of my friend. In what seemed a miraculous fashion a reply had reached me.

—Hermann Hesse, Demian, tr. W.J. Strachan

When I was twelve or thirteen, reading one Hesse novel after another, adults used to tell me, “You’ll outgrow Hesse when you get older.” Not only did this not happen—I have returned to Hesse’s work repeatedly over the years—but I now see that both they and I misunderstood his writing in different ways. I will focus here on Demian. (If you have not read it but intend to, please hold off on reading this post.)

“I wanted only to try to live in accord with the promptings which came from my true self. Why was that so very difficult?” This quote from the fifth chapter, which often also appears at the beginning of the book, has a complex meaning. The adults probably saw the concept of self-searching as immature; for my part, I probably took the characters of Demian and Eva, and the magic of the book as a whole, too literally. On my last reading, completed today, I understood much more.

In 2017 or 2018, when I had not been living in Hungary for long, I purchased a copy of Demian in Hungarian translation. Because of my beginner-level Hungarian, it was slow going (even with such a familiar text), so I set it aside for another time.

That time came last week, when the Poket edition came out—with a wonderful preface by Gergely Balla, who was to be interviewed and play his music at a Poket event in Budapest, on November 10. I wanted badly to attend the event but had to supervise a physics competition from 6 to 7 p.m. So, in the afternoon before my supervision duty, and during the hour itself (I just had to be in the room keeping an eye on things), I read the first three chapters from the Poket edition. Today I finished the book. It took a while for the Hungarian to resonate with me; my memories were bound to the English phrases and rhythms. But by the fifth chapter or so, the text was singing in my mind. Here, though, I am quoting from several English editions and translations.

The adults in my teenage years probably thought that “self-searching” loses importance when you grow up and have to take care of others. But Emil Sinclair’s self-searching in Demian is not solipsistic or narcissistic. The book’s philosophical refrains play against the changing, moving life of a young man in the world, so that with each repetition (about breaking out of the egg, or differing from the herd, or bearing a sign on your forehead), a new nuance is added. Moreover, the book moves continually through paradox. Seeking your true self requires the recognition that this is impossible; that there is something inside you that moves, acts, and knows but that does not reach the rational mind. It is through painting that Sinclair starts to find out who he is—but it is not only himself that he finds there.

Early on, through a conversation with Max Demian and through his own thoughts, he discovers that he must leave falsity behind: false oppositions (between “good” and “bad,” for instance), false morals, false education, false company, false occupations—or, in contrast, to accept them all as true, insofar as they accompany him a part of the way.

But Sinclair’s struggle goes farther and deeper. He asks Demian, and later his mentor Pistorius, whether following your fate means you are allowed (and even obligated) to kill people whenever you feel the urge to do so. Neither one gives a full answer, but both suggest that this is not the case. Being true to the self does not mean following every urge or feeling. Pistorius suggests that when you feel an urge to kill a person, it’s actually the person’s mask that you want to kill, because the human below the mask is like you. But even this thought remains unfinished, for Sinclair to work out on his own.

As a teenager, I misconstrued Demian himself. (He is an intense, reflective boy, a few years Sinclair’s elder, who befriends Sinclair and shares with him what seems like uncanny, otherworldly wisdom.) I took him too literally; I thought I would find a Demian in my own life and was disappointed when it turned out that no one, no matter how exceptional or caring, could live up to the role. Today I see Demian as a metaphor, or maybe a perfection and elongation of certain encounters that do happen.

In contrast, Pistorius, the organist and mystic, seems to be of flesh and bone. His relationship with Sinclair reminds me of many I have had in my life (whether I was the mentor or the one being mentored). My favorite passage in the book is where Sinclair breaks with him without meaning to, by saying a word that hurts him. The passage is tender and vivid—but also a metaphor in its own way, since our lives are filled with teachers and students, formal and informal, with whom we must make a break at some point, or who must break with us. In fact, this may be the essence of education itself: reaching the point where you break away.

For a long time we stayed in front of the dying fire, in which each glowing shape, each writing twig reminded me of our rich hours and increased the guilty awarness of my indebtedness to Pistorius. Finally I could bear it no longer. I got up and left. I stood a long time in front of the door to his room, a long time on the dark stairway, and even longer outside his house waiting to hear if he would follow me. Then I turned to go and walked for hours through the town: its suburbs, parks, and woods, until evening. During that walk I felt for the first time the mark of Cain on my forehead.

(Tr. Michael Roloff and Michael Lebeck.)

This time, rereading the book, I took in every detail of Sinclair’s relationship with Pistorius: the way it begins (with Sinclair secretly listening to Pistorius playing the organ, first from outside, then from within the church), the things they talk about, the idea of Abraxas, the break with its guilt and acceptance, the memories of Pistorius long afterward.

What sets Sinclair apart, even from Demian, are not only the breaks he has to make with others, but his hesitations, pauses, misgivings along the way. Profoundly attracted to Eva, Demian’s beautiful, hauntingly androgynous mother, he does not know what to do with his desire, but it finds its own form, which has to do with the tender respect between them, his dreams at night, his painting, and the changes in the world that will soon force him to go his own way. Eva, like Demian, seems more god than human, but also part of Sinclair himself, even before he meets her.

The world itself does not stay still in Demian. At the end, a war is breaking out; a sadness and worry sets over things. Demian speaks at length about the dark times ahead. Sinclair has to say goodbye to Demian and Eva (but also learns how to find them) and give himself over to a duty that troubles and heartens him at the same time. The possible optimism (thoughts of a new world coming into being) are offset by the painful last kiss and Sinclair’s statement that everything since then has hurt.

But back to the search for self: Hesse may be hinting, throughout Demian, that while each person has a singular fate, unlike anyone else’s and not governable by social morals and rules, the self is not discrete but instead bound up with others; that we call out to others, even in silence, and they answer. In this sense and others, self-knowledge and self-loss may join together. This unity requires courage and brings loneliness and uncertainty. As Eva tells Sinclair, there are no everlasting dreams; one dream replaces another, and we can’t cling to a single one. If we could, though, would paintings, music, and literature exist? Would we? Don’t we depend on dreams’ coming and going?

The Benefits of Complex Mindsets

hesse-steppenwolfIn a 2015 commentary in Education Week, Carol Dweck acknowledges that she and her colleagues may have oversimplified “growth mindset” and ignored the mixtures of mindset in all of  us:

My colleagues and I are taking a growth-mindset stance toward our message to educators. Maybe we originally put too much emphasis on sheer effort. Maybe we made the development of a growth mindset sound too easy. Maybe we talked too much about people having one mindset or the other, rather than portraying people as mixtures. We are on a growth-mindset journey, too.

I commend her for this acknowledgment and would take it a step further. I suggest that the concept of “growth mindset” is inherently limiting: that while we benefit from the awareness that we can improve, we actually employ, in all our work, a mixture of fixity and growth. Growth mindset does not exist as a discrete phenomenon, nor would we be better off if it did.

Before explaining this, let me clarify that I am not dismissing the importance of openness to improvement in oneself and others. When we see humans as fixed, we are likelier to demean or overpraise them. So-and-so is “so amazing” or utterly beyond hope. I know what it’s like to have someone latch onto something I said in a difficult moment, and remind me of it again and again over the years, as though that utterance encapsulated me. I also know what it means to expect myself to perform brilliantly–not just well, but brilliantly–and to disparage myself when I do not.

But as soon as I look beyond those extreme examples, I see a more complex picture. In particular, I see how a degree of “fixity,” mixed with “growth” and other attitudes, could help a person accomplish good things. Moreover, there is some fixity inherent in any growth.

First, from elementary school onward, we decide where to direct our efforts. Yes, we all have to do our schoolwork, but beyond that, when faced with many possibilities, which ones do we select? Some–not all–of our decisions will take our abilities into account. If I must choose between gymnastics and a musical instrument, and if I love both but am much better at one, I will probably choose it.

Now, I might choose to continue pursuing both, or to fight my limitations and pursue the less “natural” course–but even there, I will take my abilities into account. No matter what the ultimate choice, it involves a degree of “fixed mindset”: the acknowledgment that we have more ease with certain pursuits than with others. (This does not mean that, in choosing them, we avoid challenge; to the contrary, we may open ourselves to higher levels of challenge.)

Second, even within a chosen field we employ “fixed mindset” when choosing direction. Suppose I am working on a poem, and it is not coming out right. I could try and try to improve it, or I could scrap it and start a new one. Both choices have a place. Sometimes a poem has some promising elements but needs work; sometimes it is flawed from the start. The ability to say “this is going nowhere”  actually allows me to try something else. Something similar could be said for a scientific theory or pedagogical approach. Giving up is not always wrong; it can allow for an opening.

Third, as I have mentioned before, a “fixed mindset” may come from a sharp vision of excellence. When we see ourselves falling short of it, we may question our work and withdraw for a while. Within measure, this can actually do good. I see where I am, and I see where I want to be; the gulf tempts me to give up. I think of giving up, wrestle a bit with the temptation, go to sleep, wake up, and continue onward. Everything is informed by the vision and the questioning. If I had not thought of giving up, if I had not struggled a little with the temptation, my continuation would have less meaning.

My point here is not to glorify “fixed mindset” (God forbid) but to suggest that we work with a mixture of growth and fixity and other things. The challenge is to find the right mixture. I remember a novel I loved as a teenager:  Hermann Hesse’s Steppenwolf. Here  the saxophonist Pablo is rearranging the pieces of Harry Haller’s (the protagonist and narrator’s) personality:

With the sure and silent touch of his clever fingers he took hold of my pieces, all the old men and young men and children and women, cheerful and sad, strong and weak, nimble and clumsy, and swiftly arranged them on his board for a game. At once they formed themselves into groups and families, games and battles, friendships and enmities, making a small world. For a while he let this lively and yet orderly world go through its evolutions before my enraptured eyes in play and strife, making treaties and fighting battles, wooing, marrying, and multiplying. It was indeed a crowded stage, a moving breathless drama.

Then he swiftly sweeps the pieces into a heap and starts over with a new formation.

Although somewhat quaint, the image of Pablo and the pieces evokes a wisdom that I miss: the wisdom that we are made of many elements, that we carry vast combinations, and that, instead of pushing ourselves into one “mindset” or another, we can make the most of the mixture.

Note: Please see my two previous posts on this topic: “The Fixed Mindset of ‘Growth Mindset’” and “Are Mindsets Really Packageable?

Missing the Mark

The other day, on the train to school, I overheard an extended conversation among three high school students (two girls and a boy) who were talking about their classes. They were bright, interested kids–and from their demeanor and journey it seemed that they attended a selective school in Manhattan. (I have a pretty good guess which school it is, but I don’t want to “out” them.)

They had to read Hermann Hesse’s Demian (or the first chapter) for English class. One of the girls had read it; she said it was very long. The boy began reading it on the train.

This was one of my favorite books when I was thirteen. I read and reread it. It influenced everything. I read as much Hesse as I could. The book stays with me; I have reread it several times as an adult and brought passages to my classes (In particular, the break  between Sinclair and Pistorius has come back to mind many times.) I often think back on the prefatory words:

“I wanted only to try to live in accord with the promptings which came from my true self. Why was that so very difficult?”

For a few minutes, the boy seemed absorbed in the reading. His copy was an worn hardcover with a brown canvas cover–maybe a library book. He stopped talking and just read and read. I imagined reading it too, and in doing so, I remembered phrases, cadences, details.

Then he looked up and asked one of his classmates, “What’s a mark?” (He was talking about the coin, not the “mark of Cain.”)

In the first chapter, Kromer,  a bully, tries to intimidate Emil Sinclair (the protagonist and narrator) into giving him two marks. Terrified, Sinclair breaks into his own piggybank on the sly and procures sixty-five pfennigs. Of course that doesn’t satisfy Kromer.

“I don’t know,” one of the girls answered. “I was confused about it too. I think a pfennig is like a penny, and a mark is like a dollar.”

“But they use euros in Germany,” the boy replied.

I held back from saying anything but was puzzled. First, how did they not realize that the book was written long before the adoption of the euro? Second, why did this particular detail stall them? Even if they weren’t sure what the mark was, couldn’t they “mark” that question and proceed?

Beyond that, why the attention to the mark and not to Sinclair’s struggle between two worlds? There is a dichotomy he can’t resolve: between the pure, innocent world of light and the sordid, crime-ridden, unspoken world of darkness. He wants something besides these two worlds but doesn’t know yet what it is. Isn’t that something most teenagers can recognize: the longing for way of life that they haven’t found yet?

The mark is important, of course; Sinclair thinks he has to get the money but has no way of doing so without stealing. The incident seems to push him out of his former world. It matters that the mark is much more than a pfennig and that two marks is about three times his piggybank savings (which he does not even consider his own to take). To overlook these details would be to miss a great deal. Yet the meaning exists beyond these details and gives them their proper place. If you understand what’s happening with Sinclair, then you figure out the significance of the mark, even if you don’t know German pre-Euro currency.

It would be wrong of me to blame what I saw and heard on the Common Core or “close reading.” I have no way of knowing whether it had anything to do with the students’ instruction. Also, it was good to pick up on the mark; it is an important detail, after all. Still, something was off. How could these students have difficulty with the first chapter of Demian? Why did it strike them as “long”?

This may speak to a larger cultural tendency: a weakened capacity to relate to (or even imagine) other times and places, unless they are presented in a way that matches us. Curiously, a number of seemingly opposite educational tendencies play into this. The Common Core is in some ways a response to the extremes of Balanced Literacy, which emphasized “reading strategies” and personal connections to the text. Under Balanced Literacy, students were encouraged to make “text-to-self” connections, which immediately removed them from the text (because the personal experience came first). The Common Core standards demand a focus on the text itself.

What’s curious is that students would even need help making connections between the texts and their lives.  When I was in school, that was the part that came easily. I could relate to just about anything I read, if it was good. The challenge lay in separating myself from the text–in seeing differences between the characters and myself, or between the text’s language and my own. The last thing I needed was practice in making a “text-to-self connection.”

But if I (and my peers) were too attached to what we read, too ready to find ourselves in it, today the tendency is toward detachment. (People read very little, or they read with quick and specific goals.) Like Balanced Literacy, the Common Core attempts to address this problem. But instead of encouraging students to connect the text to their own lives, the Core stresses the importance of reading and making sense of it. Find out what’s actually in it before you start connecting it with yourself. Both of these approaches have some basis but miss the point.

If people read with absorption and openness, then they would both take in the actual text and relate it (subtly, not crassly) to their own lives. They would need neither “text-to-self connections” nor laborious lessons in close reading. The reading would be the starting point; in class, they would discuss and probe the text further.

This requires more than an instructional shift; it requires a shift of thought. We are trapped in the lingo of the latest–of updates and takeaways. Students learn to view reading as a form of possession; they must “get something out of it” in order for it to be worth their time. There needs to be more allowance for things that come slowly, for meanings that reveal themselves over time, and for stories that do not match us at first glance but may offer lasting correspondences.

  • “Setting Poetry to Music,” 2022 ALSCW Conference, Yale University

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    Diana Senechal is the author of Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture and the 2011 winner of the Hiett Prize in the Humanities, awarded by the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture. Her second book, Mind over Memes: Passive Listening, Toxic Talk, and Other Modern Language Follies, was published by Rowman & Littlefield in October 2018. In April 2022, Deep Vellum published her translation of Gyula Jenei's 2018 poetry collection Mindig Más.

    Since November 2017, she has been teaching English, American civilization, and British civilization at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium in Szolnok, Hungary. From 2011 to 2016, she helped shape and teach the philosophy program at Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science & Engineering in New York City. In 2014, she and her students founded the philosophy journal CONTRARIWISE, which now has international participation and readership. In 2020, at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium, she and her students released the first issue of the online literary journal Folyosó.


    On April 26, 2016, Diana Senechal delivered her talk "Take Away the Takeaway (Including This One)" at TEDx Upper West Side.

    Here is a video from the Dallas Institute's 2015 Education Forum.  Also see the video "Hiett Prize Winners Discuss the Future of the Humanities." 

    On April 19–21, 2014, Diana Senechal took part in a discussion of solitude on BBC World Service's programme The Forum.  

    On February 22, 2013, Diana Senechal was interviewed by Leah Wescott, editor-in-chief of The Cronk of Higher Education. Here is the podcast.


    All blog contents are copyright © Diana Senechal. Anything on this blog may be quoted with proper attribution. Comments are welcome.

    On this blog, Take Away the Takeaway, I discuss literature, music, education, and other things. Some of the pieces are satirical and assigned (for clarity) to the satire category.

    When I revise a piece substantially after posting it, I note this at the end. Minor corrections (e.g., of punctuation and spelling) may go unannounced.

    Speaking of imperfection, my other blog, Megfogalmazások, abounds with imperfect Hungarian.

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