My overall thought on the book (aka my review on Goodreads): Reading Demian was surprisingly taxing despite the length, the simple plot, and relatively straightforward philosophy. I had to stop for a bit after each chapter, and could only do two chapters in one sitting, because it’s such an emotionally, intellectually loaded text that I physically couldn’t keep on reading it for an extended period of time. Sometimes I dreaded returning to the book out of sheer fear of asphyxiation. Nevertheless, I persisted, managed to finish it, and am glad that I did. It’s sort of your regular coming-of-age story, with an ordinary protagonist who struggles to be himself amidst a world that tries to mold him out of a predetermined figure of a “respectable participant of society” (read: capitalism), but the package also comes with a twist. An intricate, philosophical, poetic exploration of developmental psychology, with an emphasis on adolescence and discovering and maintaining the self, Demian tries to reach the most profound root of this inner conflict, and has perhaps succeeded in transcribing the inner war many young people face when growing up, to the point where it got too real, too raw at times I had to put down the book. I’ve never suffered in such a way while reading a book before, but I guess it’s all good, since I truly enjoyed Demian.
(somewhat) More detailed commentary below (expect spoilers) (also I wrote a major part of this at 12am so there might be places of vague or downright nonsensical language):
Reading non-contemporary books is always interesting to me, because nowadays I don’t see a lot of books that get deep and lecture straight in your face anymore, but through dropping hints via the settings, characters’ gestures, dialogue, etc. I’m not sure if I prefer one over another, as in, prefer being involuntarily enrolled in a philosophy class over racking my brain trying to figure out what exactly this character’s repeated action of cleaning the house means.
On another note, even though I said Demian is intellectually loaded, it’s still an easy read, as the major themes are directly communicated to the reader. It’s clearly a coming-of-age story revolving around the decision to submit or to revolt, to be what society expects you to be or to be what you want to be. An overarching theme in the beginning is good vs. evil, two terms embodied by society and personal will, respectively. As someone who’s raised in such a family, it’s no wonder Sinclair measures society as the standard of goodness, and his own desires as manifestations of evil, because social norms have always been taught to him as the right thing to do. This leads to a period of identity confusion for Sinclair, who doesn’t know which side to go to, swings back and forth between “good” and “evil,” until he discovers Abraxas, the god who supposedly encompasses both good and evil. I don’t remember if there was an explicit moment, but I believe the acknowledgement of Abraxas definitely marks a considerable step towards maturity for Sinclair, who finally accepts to be himself, does what he does, is what he is.
Sinclair’s relationship with mother figures is also a case worth investigating, in the way that he seems to shun/become detached from his own mother, but grows incredibly invested, emotionally, romantically, with Lady Eve, who, I think, questionably returns his feelings as well. I got some Lacan/Freud vibes while reading “Lady Eve,” although whether Hesse wrote Demian with psychoanalysis in mind is arguable. I’m not sure if Sinclair’s case counts as an Oedipal complex, or it’s just the fact that Lady Eve is presented as a mother and Sinclair is nevertheless interested in her that screams Freud to me, but there’s really no substance to it, or at least no evidence I can think of off the top of my head. But the Lacan vibes are definitely present, as Sinclair discusses a lot about being oneself, living as oneself, traveling on the road to discover oneself, etc., as if it’s a destination, which I see as the Ideal-I after which he’s chasing. However, at the end of the story, it doesn’t seem like Sinclair has achieved that Ideal-I; in fact, his holy journey is cut short by the draft/social duty, and here we see society inserting itself to interrupt Sinclair’s attempt to live as himself, indicating that no matter how much you try, society is still going to control you, not letting you live as you please. And this fits well with the Lacanian idea that the Ideal-I is illusory and unattainable, as you can never be as whole as you once thought you and your mother shared a special, unbreakable, fused together bond. Sinclair gradually drifts apart from his mother as the story progresses because he’s realized his mother isn’t exactly of the same heart and mind with him anymore, and he tries to fulfill this hole by chasing after an Ideal-I.
In addition, the ideology that Demian, Sinclair, and Lady Eve work with is very interesting. Even though they kind of worship Abraxas, there’s a strong sense of not exactly individualism, but nihilism and existentialism in their philosophy, which I dig a lot. I think it adds a modern feel to the book, since I think at least existentialism is on the rise haha. And the bit about music in either “The Bird Fights Its Way Out of the Egg” or “Jacob’s Fight with the Angel” is intriguing as in how Pistorius describes music as something that isn’t “moralist” because it has no words. In other words, wordless art has no words and hence pure, which insinuates that things have words are polluted with moralism, and that language is inherently tainted. Not that I disagree, but it’s just a bit ironic because Sinclair is able to grow up and experience all the turmoil in the process is thanks to Demian’s cryptic words, so in a way, Pistorius’s philosophy can very easily knock Demian off Sinclair’s list of people to worship, because language isn’t all that virtuous, and neither are Demian’s words of wisdom that reliable, but merely another form of propaganda. I’ll probably have to think more about this, but a very compelling book, indeed.
Finally, a short commentary on the connection between Demian and the WINGS short films/members’ solos:
I’ve done some analyzing of the connection between “Spring Day” and Omelas on my own, and after finishing Demian, I sense a pattern in which BTS is using these works, i.e., they pick out details from the texts that speak to their experiences, and go from there to demonstrate whatever it is that they want to demonstrate. In other words, they’re having the texts as springboards for their own ways of artistic expression, which, I think, is why the films confuse a lot of people because the members’ stories (or just the overall narrative for WINGS) don’t necessarily line up with the texts on which the videos are supposed to be based.
Honestly speaking, I’m still trying to pick up the pieces of WINGS to form a moderately coherent interpretation, although I don’t believe that there’s a single comprehensive narrative and that WINGS is one story with a single plot, but more of a representation of BTS as one group (one album) with seven individuals (at least seven stories that are tied together by a common theme). So I won’t be able to go into details, but here are some things I picked up while reading Demian that help illustrate what I was talking about above:
- Jungkook’s BEGIN:
A strong allusion here is the painting of a man’s face that seems to be that of any member, just like how Sinclair’s portrait resembles himself, Demian, and also Lady Eve. As Demian and Lady Eve act as guides for Sinclair, it’s likely that Jungkook is experiencing a crisis in which he’s growing up but doesn’t know which member to pick as a role model, so he decides to fuse everyone.
Another evident symbolism/allusion to Demian is the bird/ sparrowhawk, which, in Demian, is tied with the imagery of trying to fight its way out of the egg: being the youngest, Jungkook represents someonewho’s still growing, still trying to spread his (very huge) wings, and he finally succeeds in the end with the shadow of a pair of wings and not real wings, which implies that this is only the beginning as he’s still the maknae, still growing, still learning, and the wings signify his potential. When he steps into the world they will gradually solidify and take shape.
- Jimin’s LIE:
Again, a very strong symbolism/allusion is the apples that Sinclair lies (ah-ha) that he stole, trying to impress Kromer, but Jimin takes it to another level and calmly eats an apple, indicating that lying to impress is as normal a thing as eating a fruit for him now. This also ties in with his switching personalities on and off camera, like Sinclair who pretends to be someone else when he’s with certain people.
He’s also taking Sinclair’s constantly restless, disturbed sleep to illustrate his state of mind, as the empty room and bed represent how empty he feels because of the persistent urge to live as someone else.
- Tae’s STIGMA:
This film references Sinclair’s rebel phase and sudden discovery of art to rediscover himself, but like other members, Tae demonstrates this rebel phase in his own way, by doing graffiti – a different art form from Sinclair’s paintings, and getting into trouble because of that – the phase in Sinclair’s life when he becomes the problematic student.
Tae’s interaction with the puppy can be read in various ways. One, it parallels with Sinclair’s brief return to the “good” side, as Tae is shown finally content with a white puppy that symbolizes innocence or goodness. Two, the puppy is illustrative of Tae’s own way of relieving stress/coping, while for Sinclair it’s painting. Either way, Tae is telling his own story through Sinclair’s story, incorporating details that are particular to him and only him, such as the roots of his pain (domestic violence) and his coping methods (illegal form of art/animals).
- Yoongi’s FIRST LOVE:
This one is one of the more self-explanatory and obvious references, as the two of them experience some sort of epiphanic encounter related to music or the piano. However, while Sinclair merely has a soft spot for music and nothing more, Yoongi is deeply invested in the piano. Yoongi emphasizes this intense pull towards music through that sequence where he breaks into a shop in the middle of the night just to play the piano and inevitably returns to it in the end, in contrast with Sinclair’s passive listening. Yoongi’s existence is centered on the piano that has caused him pain, given him joy, provided him with protection from his younger years to throughout his adolescent, and finally become a permanent entity in his life as an adult.
- Namjoon’s REFLECTION:
His tattoo of the bird is a strong allusion to Sinclair’s portrait of the sparrowhawk, although it haunts him in a different way. He has the picture of the bird like Sinclair has his painting of the bird.
What captures my attention is that Namjoon treats the bird picture the way Sinclair treats the Beatrice portrait in his dream – he burns it, and swallows the ashes. I’m not sure if Namjoon is interpreting the two paintings as symbolic of the same concept, but that’s what I noticed and wanted to put it out there.
Unlike Sinclair who has Demian, Namjoon has no one to talk to, but he nevertheless feels that the liberation this bird symbolizes is meaningful enough for him to tattoo it on his body as an attempt to make himself the bird who has fought its way out of the egg, the bird who has obtained freedom. Namjoon’s isolation is powerfully conveyed in the scene where he tries to break into a phone booth as he’s desperate for communication, almost like Sinclair longs to seek for Demian to consult about his seemingly inexplicable dreams. I can take this further and draw a parallel between Sinclair’s inability to talk to anybody about the bird and Namjoon’s unvoiced burden as a leader, especially with the word “LIAR” painted on the phone booth, but this is a whole new level of assuming things about people whom I don’t know personally, so I’m going to draw the line here.
- Hobi’s MAMA:
This film is… a case of great complexion and confusion to me, because it’s so loosely and vaguely based on Demian that I feel like I’m not going to be able to present too strong of a case for MAMA. But anyway… I think the detail of Demian that Hobi is picking out and responding to is Sinclair’s progressively detached relationship with his mother. Just as Sinclair doesn’t want to trouble his mother when he first “sins” with the Kromer business and chooses to suffer on his own, Hobi doesn’t want to worry his mother and keeps his worries and stress to himself as well. He takes a colossal amount of pills, and even though I don’t think it’s been clearly indicated what those pills are, I can’t help but think of Vyvanse and Adderall, known to treat ADHD. And the acid trip Hobi takes us through is a poignant demonstration of his excessive use of those pills, whose side effects include shaking, seizures, mood swings, and so on. (Similar concept with Jimin’s LIE.)
The Snickers bar is also a likely reference to the piece of chocolate Sinclair’s mom gives him when he does something good, only that in Hobi’s case, he’s taking on the task himself, perhaps thinking he’s making his mother proud by not troubling her with his problems, despite the fact that it’s synonymous to drug abuse with its unpleasant, mentally damaging consequences.
- Jin’s AWAKE:
This is also an interesting case in the same way it is for Hobi, but it can also be my mere lack of comprehension of the short films haha. Jin’s apple, I think, is a nice move on the filmmakers’ part to reiterate the connection between the films and Demian after Hobi’s MAMA, as at the end, Demian mentions the Kromer incident again to illustrate a point.
Jin’s dropping the apple to the ground can be an act of letting go of the past, or letting go of an ancient business to move forward. Then, Jin’s polaroid can mean two things: a loose reference to the camera in Jimin’s LIE, and to Tae’s choice of art as his coping mechanism – for Jin, it’s photography.
The lighter is from Yoongi’s film.
The unease on the bed from Hobi’s/Jimin’s.
The shadow of a bird from Jungkook’s.
Interestingly, the bird’s shadow is flying across a window with bars like a prison window, which looks eerily like the background when Namjoon’s running in REFLECTION.
Finally, we come back to another Demian reference, the mirror-touching scene. However, Sinclair needs only to look at the mirror and see Demian, his guide, in him, and things will be alright for him, while Jin is reaching out to touch the mirror ever so gently, as if trying to connect with the figure in the mirror, trying to find his guide, his own Demian. The fact that the mirror shivers at his touch to form a small puddle of water can also symbolize his unstable image of self, which fits very nicely with his lyrics for AWAKE.
And so with AWAKE we get quite a comprehensive “retelling” of Demian, BTS style and from Jin’s perspective. It begins with the apple and ends with the mirror as in Demian, but the rest is Jin’s own story. This is how I interpret it: as the oldest and the last, Jin has experienced everything the members have been through, or at least he has such a strong connection with them that he physically feels their pain and suffering. His coping method is through art, more precisely, photography, recording moments of his fellow members and experiencing a sense of relief through those polaroids. And because of the nature of this act, you may feel like he’s the self-assured, wise figure of the group as he only needs to observe the members to alleviate his stress. But at the end of the day, he’s as uncertain of himself as the rest, his reflection in the mirror vulnerable to the slightest touch.
What BTS has done is not new, or at least I don’t think so, but the way they adapt Demian to fit their stories and execute their poetry is awe-strikingly fascinating. I’m more used to analyze texts under the death of the author principle, but in BTS’s case, you can’t just separate the art from the artist, not with a group who dares to be as personal and raw as they do. It’s incredibly eye-opening and inspiring to go in depth about their artistic process, the how rather than the what of their works. Since this is meant to be a brief commentary only, it certainly doesn’t exhaust the profound richness in the short films, and likely isn’t consistent with parts of the films that I didn’t discuss. But to attempt to make sense of and string together every single detail is, to me, an impossible feat. These films make use of various symbols, objects, gestures, etc. that don’t necessarily overlap, and there are seven members, meaning at least seven ways to tackle the overarching theme of WINGS. The members insert themselves in their works, and hence I don’t expect everything to fuse together to form a single story. The complexity and ambiguity frustrate me a lot, but that’s also the charming point that enables the each short film to be the member’s artistic articulation of the self.
(And on another note, there are definitely details in the WINGS that harken back to MVs in the HYYH era, but I’ll leave it to the theorists as I’m terrible with theories and understanding complicated stories. Q_Q)
(Also, happy 4th birthday BTS~ ^o^)