Hermann Hesse wrote in Demian of something that has obsessed me for a long time. It is the same idea proclaimed by Dostoyevsky, Solzhenitsyn, Nietzsche and Carl Jung and all those other nineteenth–century Europeans who knew a thing or two about inferno. It is about evil, about the darkness and the damned and about how these things exist in each and every one of us, no matter how precious and agreeable we all would like our hearts to be.
“The awful thing is that beauty is mysterious as well as terrible” Dostoyevsky wrote in his 1880 novel of internal moral struggle. “God and the devil are fighting there and the battlefield is the heart of man.” Eighty years later, Solzhenitsyn followed up. “[T]he line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”
Demian is about a boy who bears a mark that makes him stand out before the rest. It is a branding on his brow that only those who carry it themselves are able to detect. It is a mark that means he is blessed and cursed with the potential for enlightenment.
The boy grows up within a home of solemn light–drenched peace and bliss. As he enters the world outside, however, he discovers the reality of evil, darkness, suffering and injustice. His youth is marked by a battle between these worlds, at once within the world of light and then again cast out into its darkness. He falls into the depths of despair only to ascend the heights of elation. But neither is a place of permanence. Something within him understands that neither is the truth, neither is enough. How could it be, for a person bearing the burden of awareness?
There is a reason the maxim ignorance is bliss is so widely accepted and prevailed. If enlightenment was simple, everyone would get there. The reason it is not is because to get there one must face the devil. One must face all that is wrong within the world. Including all that is wrong within oneself.
And people don’t. Of course they don’t. Who wants to admit to their deepest flaws? It is so much simpler to live one’s life pretending all is perfect. We all like to think we would be the person hiding refugees up in our attics rather than inform upon our neighbours just to save ourselves. Truth is, most of us would do the work of the informer. Who wants to entertain that fact about themselves?
So we live our lives in deep denial. We deny our failures, we deny our insignificance and irresponsibilities and the fact that we are weak and faulty to our cores. We deny the shadow that harbours deep within our souls. But suppressing the shadow only makes it grow, and one day it will come back to haunt us.
“Unfortunately there can be no doubt that man is, on the whole, less good than he imagines himself or wants to be” Carl Jung wrote in 1938. “Everyone carries a shadow, and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is.” The only road to fulfilment is understanding one’s shadow and incorporating it within one’s life and being. Failure and you are no more than a ticking time bomb.
Good and evil, the known and the unknown, darkness and light, chaos and order, yin and yang, left and right, progressive and conservative, whatever. These dualities exist and always will. The proper mode of being lies nowhere on the peripheries, ignoring and condemning whatever lurks hidden on the other side. The proper mode of being recognises both and successfully incorporates them, balancing on the fragile tension somewhere in–between.
That is art. That is music. It is travel, love and friendship. It is all you stay alive for.
This is not a new idea. It has existed for millennia. “Virtue…is a mean between two vices, that which depends on excess and that which depends on defect” Aristotle wrote two thousand years ago, and it has been relevant ever since. But perhaps today, right now, with the political gap seemingly growing wider all over the world, it is useful to remind oneself of its importance.
The depths of the far right is no place we want to inhabit. We have seen its woes. We have read the books and seen the chambers and piles of mangled gauntly bodies. We are not going back. It is not a place in which we want to dwell.
But neither is the deep far left. We have seen those chambers too. Its skeletons and body pits. Why do the fringes always culminate in death camps, anyway?
To understand the potential of both the evil and the beauty that exists within yourself you have to look within. You have to turn your gaze towards yourself by cultivating whatever makes you you. Whatever makes you an individual, apart from the masses and the hordes that make up ideological extremes. Only by doing this will you be able to truly serve the world in which you are so deeply intertwined. From within yourself. Yourself as as thinking, independent, individual being.
“Nothing in the world is more distasteful to a man than to follow the path that leads to himself” Hesse wrote. But it is of the utmost importance that you do. It is the only way to justify your existence as a member of this fragile realm. “I live in my dreams — that's what you sense. Other people live in dreams, but not in their own. That's the difference.” That is the mark, the mark on the brow of the people awake enough to understand their own significance and duty. And by cultivating this understanding, you will be justified to serve the world.