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Demian, Hermann Hesse

Die Geschichte von Emil Sinclairs Jugend, S. Fischer, 1919 (Germany)
Harper Classics, 1962, (US), Translated by Hilda Rosner

There exists an enchanting world of concrete slab where strip malls spread their wings in a never-ending, exploding sprawl of dull. Down the street from the Dominick’s is another Dominick’s, only nicer, newer (until a bad economy forces it to close). SUVs hug its freshly laid asphalt. They are adorned with patriotic bumper stickers purchased at CVS checkout lines by drivers wanting to proclaim support for anonymous troops who have or have not not yet been blown into the sky by distant, imaginary roadside bombs.

A disenchantment falsified and blunted my usual feelings and joys: the garden lacked fragrance, the woods held no attraction for me, the world stood around me like a clearance sale of last year’s secondhand goods, insipid, all its charm gone. Books were so much paper, music a grating noise. That is the way leaves fall around a tree in autumn, a tree unaware of the rain running down its sides, of the sun or the frost, and of life gradually retreating inward. The tree does not die. It waits.

Our summer sunburns begin to peel before they fade completely. It starts sometime around prom or an awkward first date or that first time we are forced to shower at school with our classmates. Questions percolate. Why is Corey so so hairy or why are Sara’s breasts so big when Sheila doesn’t even need a bra? Why is our school all white? Why am I not attracted to who I am supposed to be attracted to? Why do we have a used Buick Century when Johnny’s family has a four-car garage full of brand new Cadillacs? Differences that were once invisible begin to surface in the glow of the homecoming bonfire.

Gaze into the fire, into the clouds, and as soon as the inner voices begin to speak … surrender to them. Don’t ask first whether it’s permitted, or would please your teachers or father or some god. You will ruin yourself if you do that.

For those not quarterbacking the seniors to regionals or beyond, high school can prove to be anything but the best years of their lives. Worries about pimples paralyze more than a few on the eve of the dance. O’Neill’s Hairy Ape is left to wonder, at last, where in the world he belongs.

I wanted only to try to live my life in accord with the promptings which came from my true self.

Why was that so very difficult?

But it is in the search where we begin to find answers (even to questions we didn’t know we had). We say goodbye to old friends as we are saying hello to new ones. Grandpa dies at a time when we were not even aware of the concept of death. The resulting introductory course in mortality leaves us bewildered and alone as only death can. Terror is a prerequisite. We know this now. And within the shadows of this newfound awareness, it all begins to sink in, piece by mystifying piece. Life truly begins.

What invigorated me was the progress I had made in discovering my self, the increasing confidence in my own dreams, thoughts, and intimations, and the growing knowledge of a power I possessed within me.

One by one, secrets (good and bad) continue to be revealed. Looking back, it’s funny to think that maturation seemed to be such a painfully slow process. Somewhere along the way, time found a way to speed the hell up. How crazy it is now to ponder how much we invested in stressing about things like jobs and bosses, cars and condos, and whether to rent, lease, or own. All the senseless worry.

Each man had only one genuine vocation—to find the way to himself. He might end up as poet or madman, as prophet or criminal—that was not his affair, ultimately it was of no concern. His task was to discover his own destiny—not an arbitrary one—and live it out wholly and resolutely within himself. Everything else was only a would-be existence, an attempt at evasion, a flight back to the ideals of the masses, conformity and fear of one’s own inwardness.

And if you are lucky you might just uncover the most shocking secret of all. That so many answers were right under your nose all along.

I belong to my fate and to no one else.