Not long before moving from Los Angeles to Seoul, I went book-shopping with my Korean language exchange partner at The Last Bookstore downtown. Browsing the semi-organized upstairs stacks (often literal stacks, at least at that time), we came across a cache of Korean paperbacks from the 1990s. As I tried to find a book there that could teach me something more about Korean culture, it started to look like all of them were just Korean translations of Western literature, but my language partner thought I could fulfill my criterion nevertheless. “If you want to learn about Korea, you should read this,” she said, pulling down a Korean-language edition of Hermann Hesse’s Demian.
I knew the name. Like a fair few other American readers of my generation, I’d encountered Hesse on an English-class syllabus, but in the form of Siddhartha, his 1922 novel about of a young Nepalese man’s journey to enlightenment. Demian, his 1919 novel about a young German’s journey to self-realization, aided by his preternaturally wise friend of the title, never even came up, but here in Korea it has attained such cultural importance that critic Lee Dong-jin, host of the Red Book Room podcast, can make this pronouncement: “There are two kinds of people: those who read Demian, and those who don’t.”
Given the enduring presence of the book on their country’s school curricula, most Koreans fall into the former category. Siddhartha probably entered American middle- and high-school reading lists thanks to the enthusiasm of post-seeker English teachers, but why does an austere Swiss-German novelist like Hesse, even given his interest in what would’ve back then been called Oriental thought, have so much to say to Koreans? They certainly don’t hesitate to pay tribute to the man today. Hesse-themed cafés exist here (notably in Paju Book City), and references to his work appear in even the most mainstream media: the boy band BTS, for instance, claims to have based their song “Blood Sweat & Tears” (whose music video now nears 150 million views on Youtube) on Hesse’s teachings.
The 2015 Korean sitcom The Producers (프로듀사) revolves around a phenomenal but hardened pop star, stage name “Cindy,” all too aware of her own status as, in the words of the philosophy-and-Asian-TV-dramas blog The A-Philosopher’s Chair, “a commercial image that can be readily replicated and churned out in mass numbers at the whim of her talent agency.” Possessed of “a world-weariness incompatible with her age,” Cindy “finds her feelings echoed in a book penned nearly a century ago: Demian.” The blog summarizes the novel as follows:
A chronicle of how a young man’s intellectual outlook was transformed by a series of mentors and other acquaintances, Demian decries unquestioning conformity to familiar schools of thought, advocating, instead, independent thinking unrestrained by authorities, precedents, herd mentality and even mentors. In doing so, Hesse believed we could discover our inner selves and fulfill our purposes in life. That is not some type of hedonistic exercise indulged by those intimidated by responsibilities and ordinary challenges. On the contrary, it exposes one to pain and fear, as he detaches himself, with great effort, from mechanisms and structures that have offered him predictability and social affirmation thus far, and ventures alone into the unknown.
Writing in the Korea Times, a college student by the name of Shin Seul-ki importunes the reader to “follow your heart,” opening with a “thought-provoking passage” from Demian, in fact the novel’s own opening sentences: “I wanted only to try to live in accord with the promptings which came from my true self. Why was that so very difficult?” She answers that question with an accusatory finger pointed toward the Korean education system, which “requires students to spend nearly every waking hour figuring out not what they want to do but just studying for their college entrance exam. School doesn’t offer students a chance to find their true calling. School just pushes them into an ‘education arms race’ before finding their vision. Students study something hard for their bright future; however, paradoxically they don’t know what makes their futures brilliant.”
Korean education — along with Korean social hierarchies, Korean corporate culture, the Korean political sphere, and so on — has certainly stifled more than a few true selves, but under Shin’s argument lies a common Korean misperception: that Westerners somehow have the whole calling, vision, and future thing figured out, having long since cast off mere “routine” in favor of genuine “life.” She ends her article with a reference to Steve Jobs, the subject of a national obsession due to his vivid embodiment of the very creativity, nonconformism, effectiveness, and sheer wealth many Koreans still see their country as lacking. Walter Isaacson’s biography Steve Jobs must not rank far below Demian (maybe somewhere near the strange, much-abridged localization of the Talmud) as a holy Western text to which Koreans, frustrated and frightened by their lives for reasons they can’t quite pin down, have flocked for answers.
In response to a Quora thread entitled “What’s the deal with South Koreans and Herman Hesse?”, a longtime Korea-resident Westerner named Gord Sellar describes the novel as “about someone who (transgressively, but in a way celebrated by the novel) moves beyond the world of appearances towards the world of the self,” touching on the theme of people who bear a “Mark of Cain’ that prevents their fulfillment “by ‘normal’ social interactions.” And “for those having grown up in South Korea — a place where appearance and form are often conventionally prioritized over essence or content — this particular theme probably has a special appeal.” As does the kind of 19th-century European setting with “parents objecting to love marriages or forbidding relationships or marriages, women seeking out husbands on the basis of their career potential or income, and people (often women) ending up in desperate trouble or in penury because of a cruel parent or a tragic family accident.”
Any story of “old Europe struggling with modernity” will resonate with a Korea doing plenty of modernity-grappling of its own. Demian in particular, Sellar writes, also taps inadvertently into the particular Korean storytelling sensibility: “They are much more enamored of sad endings, and they tend to be much more patient with stories that unfold in such a way that the protagonists never had a real hope of changing the outcome.” This has introduced certain difficulties into the marketing of Korean literature to Westerners, who “have little patience for stories that feature characters who can’t take some hand in their fate” and “tend to be less patient with melodramatically sad turns of plot,” but it means certain strains of anguish-oriented German fiction, best exemplified by Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther (from the object of whose unrequited passion one of Korea’s biggest conglomerates took its name), have grown popular indeed here.
Reading Demian again after a year and a half living in Korea, I could get a sense of what my language partner meant right from the first chapter, when the book’s narrator Emil Sinclair, recalling his childhood in the Germany of the late nineteenth century, speaks of the two “realms” of his personal reality: “My parents’ house made up one realm, yet its boundaries were even narrower, actually embracing only my parents themselves.” Many a young Korean reader would recognize this highly comprehensible, highly suffocating space of “mother and father, love and strictness, model behavior, and school” where “straight lines and paths led into the future: there were duty and guilt, bad conscience and confession, forgiveness and good resolutions, love, reverence, wisdom and” — in this country where Christianity has penetrated deeper than anywhere else in east Asia — “the words of the Bible.”
Yet they might well also recognize Emil’s second realm of “servant girls and workmen, ghost stories, rumors of scandal,” one dominated by “a loud mixture of horrendous, intriguing, frightful, mysterious things, including slaughterhouses and prisons, drunkards and screeching fishwives, calving cows, horses sinking to their death, tales of robberies, murders, and suicides.” Indeed, Hesse might as well be describing the at once agricultural and aggressively industrial developing Korea of the middle twentieth century — or the more troubled corners of the Korea of our current century — when he writes of “policemen and tramps, drunkards who beat their wives, droves of young girls pouring out of factories at night, old women who put the hex on you so that you fell ill, thieves hiding in the forest, arsonists nabbed by country police.”
Ask a Korean about Demian, and of the many who’ve read it (just this morning I had a conversation about Abraxas, the Gnostic “god who was both god and devil” Hesse has Emil discover as he comes of age, with the lady who cuts my hair), most will add that they first did so in their teens. At that time they may well have clearly perceived, as Emil does, that their “destiny was to become like mother and father, as clear-sighted and unspoiled, as orderly and superior as they.” But they may have also sensed that to reach this distant goal meant “attending endless schools, studying, passing tests and examinations, and this way led past and through the other, darker realm,” even as they live out what can look to Westerners like a ludicrously prolonged childhood of utter dependence on their parents, financial and otherwise, that might have last up to and beyond their own marriage, never daring to strike at the columns of this childhood “which every individual must destroy before he can become himself.”
Perhaps, like Emil, they go away to school and find themselves plunged into a social group-driven binge-drinking culture. “It was all as if I were somehow under a compulsion to do these things,” confesses Emil of his own time as a teenage barfly. “I simply did what I had to do, because I had no idea what to do with myself otherwise. I was afraid of being alone for long, was afraid of the many tender and chaste moods that would overcome me, was afraid of the thoughts of love surging up in me.” He describes the self that emerges from this period of self-destructiveness as “an unusual young man of eighteen, precocious in a hundred ways, in a hundred others immature and helpless,” a description that, to a Westerner, might perfectly describe the youth of Korea, who come off as at once so much more and so much less mature than that of America and Europe.
But above all, a young Korean reader might take from Demian a Catcher in the Rye-style indictment of the generations above. “People are afraid because they have never owned up to themselves,” says Demian, throughout the novel a fount of guidance — “my brother, my master,” two roles that in Korea often overlap — to the wayward Emil. “A whole society composed of men afraid of the unknown within them! They all sense that the rules they live by are no longer valid, that they live according to archaic laws — neither their religion nor their morality is in any way suited to the needs of the present.” He then accuses Europe of, for over a century, doing “nothing but study and build factories,” a fair description of how Korea spent its decades of unprecedentedly rapid development after the Korean War.
When Emil thinks of those “worthy old gentlemen who clung to the memories of their drunken university days as to keepsakes from paradise and fashioned a cult of their ‘vanished’ student years as poets or other romantics fashion their childhood,” looking for “’freedom’ and ‘luck’ in the past, out of sheer dread of their present responsibilities and future course,” a Korean reader will think of dozens of thwarted middle-aged countrymen of his acquaintance, still drinking their evenings away, scribbling verse in secret — or indeed of himself. For he and countless others, Demian continues to offer a kind of solace, a promise that one might someday live not to the end of “binding their opinions, ideals, duties, their lives and fortunes more and more closely to those of the herd” but of achieving “the individualism of the future,” a humanity “toward which all men were moving, whose image no one knew, whose laws were nowhere written down.”
Yet as most Koreans know, the story doesn’t end particularly well for Emil. Far from a new humanity, what ultimately arrives is the First World War, and Hesse has his narrator end his recollections by describing himself wounded on a military hospital bed, never again to receive the guidance of Demian, also sent to the front as a soldier. “Dressing the wound hurt,” Emil says. “Everything that has happened to me since has hurt.” That sentiment surely resonates in a culture that has until quite recently labored under the belief that life, from the ceaseless cramming of one’s schooldays to the traumatic and much-delayed separation from one’s parents to the constant agonies of personal and professional disappointment in adulthood, is supposed to hurt.
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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall hosts the Korean-language podcast 콜린의 한국 (Colin’s Korea) and is at work on a book called The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles. You can follow him at his web site, on Twitter @colinmarshall, or on Facebook.