DEMIAN: THE STORY OF EMIL SINCLAIR'S YOUTH
Chapter 5: "The Bird Fights Its Way Out of the Egg"
My PAINTED DREAM BIRD was on its way searching for my friend. In what seemed the strangest possible manner a reply reached me.
In my classroom, on my desk, after a break between two lessons I found a note tucked in my book. It was folded exactly the same as notes classmates of mine secretly slipped each other during class. I was only surprised to receive such a note at all, for I had never had that sort of relationship with any student. I thought it would turn out to be an invitation to some prank in which I would not participate anyway -- I put the note unread in the front of my book. I came on it again only during the lesson.
Playing with the note I unfolded it carelessly and noticed a few words written on it. One glance was sufficient. One word stopped me cold; in panic I read on while cold fear contracted my heart: "The bird fights its way out of the egg. The egg is the world. Who would be born must first destroy a world. The bird flies to God. That God's name is Abraxas."
After reading over these lines a number of times, I sank into a deep reverie. There could be no doubt about it, this was Demian's reply. No one else could know about my painting. He had grasped its meaning and was helping me interpret it. But how did all of this fit together? And -- this oppressed me most of all -- what did Abraxas signify? I had never heard nor read the word. "That God's name is Abraxas."
The lesson went on without my taking in a word of it. The next began, the last that morning. It was taught by a young assistant, a Dr. Follens, who had just completed his university studies, whom we liked simply because he was young and unpretentious.
Dr. Follens was guiding us through Herodotus -- one of the few subjects that held any interest for me. But today not even Herodotus could hold my attention. I opened the book mechanically but did not follow the translation and remained sunk deep in my own thoughts. Besides, I had frequently confirmed what Demian had told me once during our Confirmation classes: you can achieve anything you desire passionately enough. If I happened to be involved with my own thoughts during a lesson I did not have to worry that the teacher would call on me. If I was distracted or listless, then he would suddenly appear beside me. That had already happened to me. But if I really concentrated, completely wrapped up in a thought of my own, then I was protected. I had also experimented with the trick of staring a person down and had found that it worked. When still with Demian, I had not succeeded in this; now I often felt that a good deal could be accomplished by a sharp glance, and thought.
I was at present nowhere near Herodotus or school. Suddenly the teacher's voice shot like lightning into my consciousness and I awoke terrified. I heard his voice, he practically stood next to me, I even thought he had called my name. But he was not looking at me. I relaxed.
Then I heard his voice again. Loudly it pronounced the word "Abraxas."
In the course of a long explanation, whose beginning I had missed, Dr. Follens went on: "We ought not consider the opinions of those sects and mystical societies as naive as they appear from the rationalist point of view. Science as we know it today was unknown to antiquity. Instead there existed a preoccupation with philosophical and mystical truths which was highly developed. What grew out of this preoccupation was to some extent merely pedestrian magic and frivolity; perhaps it frequently led to deceptions and crimes, but this magic, too, had noble antecedents in a profound philosophy. As, for instance, the teachings concerning Abraxas which I cited a moment ago. This name occurs in connection with Greek magical formulas and is frequently considered the name of some magician's helper such as certain uncivilized tribes believe in even at present. But it appears that Abraxas has a much deeper significance. We may conceive of the name as that of a godhead whose symbolic task is the uniting of godly and devilish elements."
The learned little man spoke with intelligence and eagerness but no one paid much attention, and as the name Abraxas did not recur, my thoughts turned back to my own affairs.
"Uniting of godly and devilish elements" resounded within me. Here was something for my thoughts to cling to. This idea was familiar to me from conversations with Demian. During the last period of our friendship he had said that we had been given a god to worship who represented only one arbitrarily separated half of the world (it was the official, sanctioned, luminous world), but that we ought to be able to worship the whole world; this meant that we would either have to have a god who was also a devil or institute a cult of the devil alongside the cult of god. And now Abraxas was the god who was both god and devil.
For a time I pursued this thought eagerly but without making any headway. I even pored over a whole library-ful of books seeking a mention of Abraxas. However, my nature had never been disposed to this kind of direct and conscious investigation where at first one finds only truths that are so much dead weight in one's hand.
The figure of Beatrice with which I had occupied myself so intimately and fervently gradually became submerged or, rather, was slowly receding, approaching the horizon more and more, becoming more shadowy and remote, paler. She no longer satisfied the longings of my soul.
In the peculiar self-made isolation in which I existed like a sleepwalker, a new growth began to take shape within me. The longing for life grew -- or rather the longing for love. My sexual drive, which I had sublimated for a time in the veneration of Beatrice, demanded new images and objects. But my desires remained unfulfilled and it was more impossible than ever for me to deceive my longings and hope for something from the women with whom my comrades tried their luck. I dreamed vividly again, more in fact by day than at night. Images, pictures, desires arose freely within me, drew me away from the outside world so that I had a more substantial and livelier relationship with the world of my own creation, with these images and dreams and shadows, than with the actual world around me.
A certain dream, or fantasy, that kept recurring gained in meaning for me. The dream, the most important and enduringly significant of my life, went something like this: I was returning to my father's house -- above the entrance glowed the heraldic bird, yellow on a blue background; in the house itself my mother was coming toward me -- but as I entered and wanted to embrace her, it was not she but 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 ecstasy and horror -- the embrace was at once an act of divine worship and a crime. Too many associations with my mother and friend commingled with this figure embracing me. Its embrace violated all sense of reverence, yet it was bliss. Sometimes I awoke from this dream with a feeling of profound ecstasy, at others in mortal fear and with a racked conscience as though I had committed some terrible crime.
Only gradually and unconsciously did this very intimate image become linked with the hint about the God I was to search for, the hint that had come to me from the outside. The link grew closer and more intimate and I began to sense that I was calling on Abraxas particularly in this dreamed presentiment. Delight and horror, man and woman commingled, the holiest and most shocking were intertwined, deep guilt flashing through most delicate innocence: that was the appearance of my love-dream image and Abraxas, too. Love had ceased to be the dark animalistic drive I had experienced at first with fright, nor was it any longer the devout transfiguration I had offered to Beatrice. It was both, and yet much more. It was the image of an angel and Satan, man and woman in one flesh, man and beast, the highest good and the worst evil. It seemed that I was destined to live in this fashion, this seemed my preordained fate. I yearned for it but feared it at the same time. It was ever-present, hovering constantly above me.
The following spring I was to leave the preparatory school and enter a university. I was still undecided, however, as to where and what I was to study. I had grown a thin mustache, I was a full-grown man, and yet I was completely helpless and without a goal in life. Only one thing was certain: the voice within me, the dream image. I felt the duty to follow this voice blindly wherever it might lead me. But it was difficult and each day I rebelled against it anew. Perhaps I was mad, as I thought at moments; perhaps I was not like other men? But I was able to do the same things the others did; with a little effort and industry I could read Plato, was able to solve problems in trigonometry or follow a chemical analysis. There was only one thing I could not do: wrest the dark secret goal from myself and keep it before me as others did who knew exactly what they wanted to be -- professors, lawyers, doctors, artists, however long this would take them and whatever difficulties and advantages this decision would bear in its wake. This I could not do. Perhaps I would become something similar, but how was I to know? Perhaps I would have to continue my search for years on end and would not become anything, and would not reach a goal. Perhaps I would reach this goal but it would turn out to be an evil, dangerous, horrible one?
I wanted only to try to live in accord with the promptings which came from my true self. Why was that so very difficult?
I made frequent attempts to paint the mighty love apparition of my dream. I never succeeded. If I had I would have sent the painting to Demian. Where he was I had no idea. I only knew that we were linked. When would we meet again?
The tranquility of the weeks and months of my Beatrice period had long since passed. At that time I felt I had reached a safe harbor, an island of peace. But as always, as soon as I had become accustomed to my condition, as soon as a dream had given me hope, it wilted and became useless. It was futile to sorrow after the loss. I now lived within a fire of unsatisfied longing, of tense expectancy that often drove me completely wild. I often saw the beloved apparition of my dream with a clarity greater than life, more distinct than my own hand, spoke with it, wept before it, cursed it. I called it mother and knelt down in front of it in tears. I called it my beloved and had a premonition of its ripe all-fulfilling kiss. I called it devil and whore, vampire and murderer. It enticed me to the gentlest love-dreams and to devastating shamelessness, nothing was too good and precious, nothing was too wicked and low for it.
I experienced the whole of that winter as one unending inner turbulence, which I find difficult to describe. I had long since become used to my loneliness -- that did not oppress me: I lived with Demian, the sparrow hawk, with the mighty apparition of my dream that was both my fate and my beloved. This was enough to sustain me, for everything pointed toward vastness and space -- it all pointed toward Abraxas. But none of these dreams, none of these thoughts obeyed me, none were at my beck and call, I could color none of them as I pleased. They came and took me, I was ruled by them, was their vessel.
However, I was well armed against the outside world. I was no longer afraid of people; even my fellow students had come to know this and treated me with a secret respect that often brought a smile to my lips. If I wanted to I could see through most of them and startled them occasionally. Only I rarely or never tried. I was always preoccupied with myself. And I longed desperately to really live for once, to give something of myself to the world, to enter into a relationship and battle with it. Sometimes when I ran through the streets in the evening, unable to return before midnight because I was so restless, I felt that now at this very moment I would have to meet my beloved -- as she walked past me at the next street corner, called to me from the nearest window. At other times all of this seemed unbearably painful and I was prepared to commit suicide.
Just then I found a strange refuge -- "by chance," as they say -- though I believe there is no such thing. If you need something desperately and find it, this is not an accident; your own craving and compulsion leads you to it.
Twice or three times during my walks I had heard organ music coming from a small church at the edge of town. I had not stopped to listen. The next time I passed this church I heard the music again and recognized Bach. I went to the door, found it locked, and because the street was almost deserted I sat down on a curbstone next to the church, turned up my coat collar, and listened. It was not a big organ but it had good tone. It was being played with a strange, highly personal expression of purpose and tenacity that gave the impression of prayer. I felt that the organist knew the treasures hidden in the music, that he was wooing, hammering at the gate, wrestling for this treasure as for his life. My knowledge of music is technically very limited but from childhood on I have had an intuitive grasp, have sensed music as something self-evident within me.
The organist also played something more modern -- it could have been Max Reger. The church was almost completely dark, only a very thin beam of light penetrated the window closest to me. I waited until the music ceased and then paced back and forth until I saw the organist leave the church. He was still young, though older than I, square-shouldered and squat, and he moved off rapidly with vigorous yet seemingly reluctant strides.
From then on I occasionally sat outside the church or paced up and down before it during the evening hours. Once I even found the door open and sat for half an hour in a pew, shivering against the cold, yet happy as long as the organist played in the loft. I not only distinguished his personality in the music he played -- every piece he performed also had affinity with the next, a secret connection. Everything he played was full of faith, surrender, and devotion. Yet not devout after the fashion of churchgoers and pastors, devout the way pilgrims and mendicants were in the Middle Ages, devout with that unconditional surrender to a universal feeling that transcends all confessions. He also played music composed prior to Bach, and the old Italians. And all this music said the same thing, all of it expressed what was in the musician's soul: longing, a most intimate atonement with the world and a violent wrenching loose, a burning hearkening to one's own dark soul, an intoxicating surrender and deep curiosity about the miraculous.
Once when I shadowed the organist after he left the church, I saw him enter a small tavern on the edge of town. I could not resist following him in. For the first time I could see him clearly. He sat at a table in the far corner of the small room. He wore a black felt hat. A jug of wine stood before him. His face looked as I suspected it would. He was ugly and a little wild, inquisitive and pigheaded, capricious and determined, yet his mouth had a soft childlike quality. All his masculinity and strength were concentrated in eyes and forehead, while the lower part of the face was sensitive and immature, uncontrolled and somehow very soft. The irresolute, boyish chin appeared to contradict the forehead and eyes -- which I liked, those dark-brown eyes, full of pride and hostility.
I sat down opposite him without saying a word. We were the only two guests in the tavern. He gave me a look as though he wanted to shoo me away. But I did not budge, and stared back unmoved until he grumbled morosely: "What on earth are you staring at? Is there something you want?"
"No, I don't want anything from you," I said. "You've given me a great deal already."
He knitted his brows.
"So, you're a music lover. I find it nauseating to be crazy about music."
I did not let him intimidate me.
"I have listened to you often, back there in the church," I said. "But I don't want to trouble you. I thought I might find something, something special; I really don't know what. But don't pay any attention to me. I can listen to you in church."
"But I always lock it."
"Not very long ago you forgot and I sat inside. Usually I stand outside or sit on the curb."
"Really? Next time you can come inside, it's warmer. All you have to do is knock at the door. But you have to bang hard and not while I'm playing. Go ahead now -- what did you want to tell me? You're quite young yet, probably a student of some sort. Are you a musician?"
"No. I like listening to music, but only the kind you play, completely unreserved music, the kind that makes you feel that a man is shaking heaven and hell. I believe I love that kind of music because it is amoral. Everything else is so moral that I'm looking for something that isn't. Morality has always seemed to me insufferable. I can't express it very well. -- Do you know that there must be a god who is both god and devil at one and the same time? There is supposed to have been one once. I heard about it."
The musician pushed his wide hat back a little and shook the hair out of his eyes, all the while peering at me. He lowered his face across the table.
Softly and expectantly he asked: "What's the name of the god you mentioned?"
"Unfortunately I know next to nothing about him, actually only his name. He is called Abraxas."
The musician blinked suspiciously around him as though someone might be eavesdropping. Then he moved closer to me and said in a whisper: "That's what I thought. Who are you?"
"A student at the prep school."
"How did you happen to hear about Abraxas?"
He struck the table so that wine spilled out of his glass. "By accident! Don't talk shit, young fellow! One doesn't hear about Abraxas by accident, and don't you forget it. I will tell you more about him. I know a little."
He fell silent and moved his chair back. When I looked at him full of expectation, he made a face.
"Not here. Some other time. There, take these."
He reached in his coat, which he had not taken off, and drew out a few roasted chestnuts and threw them to me.
I said nothing, took them, ate and felt content.
"All right," he whispered after a moment. "Where did you find out about -- Him?"
I did not hesitate to tell him.
"I was alone and desperate at one time," I began. "Then I remembered a friend I had had several years back who I felt knew much more than I did. I had painted something, a bird struggling out of the globe. I sent him this painting. After a time I found a piece of paper with the following words written on it: "The bird fights its way out of the egg. The egg is the world. Who would be born must first destroy a world. The bird flies to God. That God's name is Abraxas.' "
He made no reply. We shelled our chestnuts and drank our wine.
"Another glass?" he asked.
"No, thanks. I don't like drinking."
He laughed, a little disappointed.
"As you like. It's different with me. I'll stay but you can run along if you want."
When I joined him the next time, after he had played the organ, he was not very communicative. He led me down an alley and through an old and impressive house and up to a large, somewhat dark and neglected room. Except for a piano, nothing in it gave a hint of his being a musician -- but a large bookcase and a desk gave the room an almost scholarly air.
"How many books you have'" I exclaimed.
"Part of them are from my father's library -- in whose house I live. Yes, young man, I'm living with my parents but I can't introduce you to them. My acquaintances aren't regarded very favorably in this house. I'm the black sheep. My father is fabulously respectable and an important pastor and preacher in this town. And I, so that you know the score at once, am his talented and promising son who has gone astray and, to some extent, even mad. I was a theology student but shortly before my state exams I left this very respectable department; that is, not entirely, not in so far as it concerns my private studies, for I'm still most interested to see what kinds of gods people have devised for themselves. Otherwise, I'm a musician at present and it looks as though I will receive a small post as an organist somewhere. Then I'll be back in the employ of the church again."
As much as the feeble light from the small table lamp permitted, I glanced along the spines of the books and noticed Greek, Latin, and Hebrew titles. Meanwhile my acquaintance had lain down on the floor and was busying himself with something.
"Come," he called after a moment, "we want to practice a bit of philosophy. That means: keep your mouth shut, lie on your stomach, and meditate."
He struck a match and lit paper and wood in the fireplace in front of which he sprawled. The flames leapt high, he stirred and fed them with the greatest care. I lay down beside him on the worn-out carpet. For about an hour we lay on our stomachs silent before the shimmering wood, watching the flames shoot up and roar, sink down and double over, flicker and twitch, and in the end brood quietly on sunken embers.
"Fire worship was by no means the most foolish thing ever invented," he murmured to himself at one point. Otherwise neither of us said a word. I stared fixedly into the flames, lost myself in dreams and stillness, recognized figures in the smoke and pictures in the ashes. Once I was startled. My companion threw a piece of resin into the embers: a slim flame shot up and I recognized the bird with the yellow sparrow hawk's head. In the dying embers, red and gold threads ran together into nets, letters of the alphabet appeared, memories of faces, animals, plants, worms, and snakes. As I emerged from my reveries I looked at my companion, his chin resting on his fists, staring fanatically into the ashes with complete surrender.
"I have to go now," I said softly.
"Go ahead then. Good-by."
He did not get up. The lamp had gone out: I groped my way through the dark rooms and hallways of the bewitched old house. Once outside, I stopped and looked up along its facade. Every window was dark. A small brass plate on the front door gleamed in the light from a street lamp. On it I read the words: "Pistorius, pastor primarius."
Not until I was at home and sat in my little room after supper did it occur to me that I had not heard anything about either Abraxas or Pistorius -- we'd exchanged hardly a dozen words. But I was very satisfied with my visit. And for our next meeting he had promised to play an exquisite piece of old music, an organ passacaglia by Buxtehude.
Without my being entirely aware of it, the organist Pistorius had given me my first lesson when we were sprawled on the floor before the fire in his depressing hermit's room. Staring into the blaze had been a tonic for me, confirming tendencies that I had always had but never cultivated. Gradually some of them were becoming comprehensible to me.
Even as a young boy I had been in the habit of gazing at bizarre natural phenomena, not so much observing them as surrendering to their magic, their confused, deep language. Long gnarled tree roots, colored veins in rocks, patches of oil floating on water, light-refracting flaws in glass -- all these things had held great magic for me at one time: water and fire particularly, smoke, clouds, and dust, but most of all the swirling specks of color that swam before my eyes the minute I closed them. I began to remember all this in the days after my visit to Pistorius, for I noticed that a certain strength and joy, an intensification of my self-awareness that I had felt since that evening, I owed exclusively to this prolonged staring into the fire. It was remarkably comforting and rewarding.
To the few experiences which helped me along the way toward my life's true goal I added this new one: the observation of such configurations. The surrender to Nature's irrational, strangely confused formations produces in us a feeling of inner harmony with the force responsible for these phenomena. We soon fall prey to the temptation of thinking of them as being our own moods, our own creations, and see the boundaries separating us from Nature begin to quiver and dissolve. We become acquainted with that state of mind in which we are unable to decide whether the images on our retina are the result of impressions coming from without or from within. Nowhere as in this exercise can we discover so easily and simply to what extent we are creative, to what extent our soul partakes of the constant creation of the world. For it is the same indivisible divinity that is active through us and in Nature, and if the outside world were to be destroyed, a single one of us would be capable of rebuilding it: mountain and stream, tree and leaf, root and flower, yes, every natural form is latent within us, originates in the soul whose essence is eternity, whose essence we cannot know but which most often intimates itself to us as the power to love and create.
Not until many years later did I find these observations of mine confirmed, in a book by Leonardo da Vinci, who describes at one point how good, how intensely interesting it is to look at a wall many people have spit on. Confronted with each stain on the wet wall, he must have felt the same as Pistorius and I felt before the fire.
The next time we were together, the organist gave me an explanation: "We always define the limits of our personality too narrowly. In general, we count as part of our personality only that which we can recognize as being an individual trait or as diverging from the norm. But we consist of everything the world consists of, each of us, and just as our body contains the genealogical table of evolution as far back as the fish and even much further, so we bear everything in our soul that once was alive in the soul of men. Every god and devil that ever existed, be it among the Greeks, Chinese, or Zulus, are within us, exist as latent possibilities, as wishes, as alternatives. If the human race were to vanish from the face of the earth save for one halfway talented child that had received no education, this child would rediscover the entire course of evolution, it would be capable of producing everything once more, gods and demons, paradises, commandments, the Old and New Testament."
"Yes, fine," I replied. "But what is the value of the individual in that case? Why do we continue striving if everything has been completed within us?"
"Stop!" exclaimed Pistorius. "There's an immense difference between simply carrying the world within us and being aware of it. A madman can spout ideas that remind you of Plato, and a pious little seminary student rethinks deep mythological correspondences found among the Gnostics or in Zoroaster. But he isn't aware of them. He is a tree or stone, at best an animal, as long as he is not conscious. But as soon as the first spark of recognition dawns within him he is a human being. You wouldn't consider all the bipeds you pass on the street human beings simply because they walk upright and carry their young in their bellies nine months! It is obvious how many of them are fish or sheep, worms or angels, how many are ants, how many are bees! Well, each one of them contains the possibility of becoming human, but only by having an intimation of these possibilities, partially even by learning to make himself conscious of them; only in this respect are these possibilities his."
This was the general drift of our conversations. They rarely confronted me with anything completely new, anything altogether astonishing. But everything, even the most ordinary matters, resembled gentle persistent hammer blows on the same spot within me; all of them helped me to form myself, all of them helped to peel off layers of skin, to break eggshells, and after each blow I lifted my head a little higher, a little more freely, until my yellow bird pushed its beautiful raptor's head out of the shattered shell of the terrestrial globe.
Frequently we also told each other our dreams. Pistorius knew how to interpret them. An example of this comes to mind just now. I dreamed I was able to fly, but in such a way that I seemed catapulted into the air and lost all control. The feeling of flying exhilarated me, but exhilaration turned to fear when I saw myself driven higher and higher, becoming more and more powerless. At that instant I made the saving discovery that I could regulate the rise or fall of my flight by holding or releasing my breath.
Pistorius' comment was: "The impetus that makes you fly is our great human possession. Everybody has it. It is the feeling of being linked with the roots of power, but one soon becomes afraid of this feeling. It's damned dangerous! That is why most people shed their wings and prefer to walk and obey the law. But not you. You go on flying. And look! You discover that you gradually begin to master your flight, that to the great general force that tears you upward there is added a delicate, small force of your own, an organ, a steering mechanism. How marvelous! Lacking that, you would be drawn up to the heights, powerless -- which is what happens to madmen. They possess deeper intimations than people who remain earthbound, but they have no key and no steering mechanism and roar off into infinity. But you, Sinclair, you are going about it the right way. How? You probably don't know yourself. You are doing it with a new organ, with something that regulates your breathing. And now you will realize how little 'individuality' your soul has in its deepest reaches. For it does not invent this regulator! It is not new! You've borrowed it: it has existed for thousands of years. It is the organ with which fish regulate their equilibrium -- the air bladder. And in fact among the fish there are still a few strange primeval genera where the air bladder functions as a kind of lung and can be used on occasion as a breathing mechanism. In other words, exactly like the lung which you in your dream use as a flying bladder."
He even brought out a zoology book and showed me the names and illustrations of these anachronistic fish. And with a peculiar shudder I felt that an organ from an earlier period of evolution was still alive within me.