Demian, the Catcher in the Rye, and Neon Genesis Evangelion

Hisashi Saito's

Hisashi Saito 1980, from Space Teriyaki 2

“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.”

― Hermann Hesse, Demian

I think the quote above summarize the coming-of-age stories pretty nicely. In every story, we have a protagonist who is trying to overcome a barrier that prevents him or her from becoming an adult by obtaining wisdom that would destroy what was believed to be true. The story is generally about that journey, the rite of passage, before the bird breaks the egg shell and flies to the master of its soul.

It is also the core of all the three distinct stories from three different cultures I stated in the title: Demian, the Catcher in the Rye, and  Neon Genesis Evangelion.

Most people in the English speaking world would have heard of the Cather in the Rye either because they have to read it in school, because they have heard that it is a classic, or because of its notoriety. I am thankfully in the middle group and, therefore, have no business interpreting the story to appease any teacher or worry about any ill-effect on the youth. While a lot of people say that the Catcher in the Rye is about losing innocence, I really cannot see the story that way — unless you describe being an irresponsible, obnoxious sixteen-year-old as being innocent — but I’ll get to that later. I think we have to first define what it is to be a child, what it is we have to lose to become an adult.

Or rather, what we gain when we become an adult.

People are generally nostalgic about childhood. It is the time of one’s life where one is simple, carefree, and secure. All things are good, beautiful, and treasured. The world, you can say, is very clean and unambiguous.

The cover of the book Demian by Hermann Hesse.

The cover of the book Demian by Hermann Hesse. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

That is most clearly represented in Demian. Written by Hermann Hesse and published in 1919 in German, the reception from the youth in that era is said to be instantaneous. Demain describes the inner life of puberty when not only the body changes but the person in that body also changes.

The story starts with the protagonist Emil Sinclair describing the beginning of the end of his childhood. Sinclair associates childhood with innocence, purity, and righteousness in what he calls the ‘world of light’. He is forcibly ejected from that world due to his association with a particular vicious bully. The event also leads to his association with a peculiar boy named Max Demian who seems to be an adult in a child’s body. Sinclair is fascinated to the point of being obsessive with Demian or, more correctly, obsessed with becoming Demian.

Demian reads almost like a journey to enlightenment. By what I know of Hesse’s interest into Buddhism and Eastern philosophy, I am not surprised that he wrote it that way. Becoming an adult, in Hesse’s view, is about growing within oneself and not by defining oneself with other external measure. It is about seeing the self and the potential of the self for what it really is. That is why there is little going on in the story until close to the end where the First World War starts. By that time, Sinclair has a strong self and is ready for the challenge of facing the world as a adult.

That is, of course, not the kind of coming-of-age story you will get if the author works under a different set of philosophy. The Catcher in the Rye (1951, United State) is the complete opposite of Demian, especially in the narration, in the sense that it doesn’t talk about self at all. Even the narration is apathetic to the person Holden Caulfield is — and that says a lot when Caulfield is actually the narrator. This is a person coming from a place that looks at external things rather than the internal ones. Therefore, he was on the search for an answer to a question he doesn’t know he has internally asked from somebody else who generally doesn’t care about him because they are just as preoccupied with external things as he is (i.e. being ‘phony’).

The Catcher in the Rye

The Catcher in the Rye (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Catcher in the Rye also looks at the coming of age from a different angle, the one that involves more of the external factor than Demian does. Childhood from Caulfield’s perspective is about innocence, and he, like Sinclair in the middle of Demian, also wants to preserve that innocence. However, I don’t think that is the childhood J.D. Salinger shows in the book. What Caulfield has been the entire book is being irresponsible and careless. He has a clear lack of commitment to any decision he makes. He wants to phone Jane, the girl who seems to be his first love, but won’t go through with it. He makes plans, all of which takes him away from his current situation — that is being expelled from school for the forth time and has to face his parents about it — but none of them comes to past.  He even thinks of hitchhiking out West and pretending to be deaf and mute so he doesn’t have to talk to anybody for the rest of his life which clearly shows that he just wants to float through life and not living it, not taking charge or responsibility of himself, like he has always done.

And that is being a child. Children don’t have responsibilities. They answer to nobody. They are taken care of by their parents. They are not fully held accountable for any bad things they did. The ability to embrace all those things readily is an ability of an adult. That is also what Caulfield finally does. He makes a promise to his sister that he will not run away and come home, a promise that he actually keeps. For the first time in the book, Caulfield sticks to his decision although he seems to have done it to appease somebody.

Actually, the fact that he makes that decision because of his sister shows us that he finally comes to realize that his decision or indecision also affects others, and he can make a decision not just for himself but for them. He may not tell us anything beyond this point, but I think at the end of the book relationship starts to matter to him by his remark at the end that he misses the people he mentions in the story no matter how many bad things he has said about them.

The Catcher in the Rye doesn’t talk about relationship, but it does hint that it is an important next step. And there is no other coming-of-age story I have come across that concerns itself with relationship more than Neon Genesis Evangelion.

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Poster of Rebuild of Evangelion: 2.0, the teen cast

Actually, I think Evangelion (1995, Japan) talks about all three of them — the self, the responsibility, and the relationship — just sort of backward and overlapping. Starting out being a sci-fi action series, it doesn’t lend itself to the inner brooding of Demian. Shinji Ikari, much like Caulfield, doesn’t have a good sense of self or a direction. He was pulled into the war zone between aliens and humans by his estranged father to pilot the most advance weapon system created by human and, essentially, try to save the world.

Shinji is fourteen.

Before we become absolutely appalled by the absurdity of the situation, let’s sit back and consider it a bit. Shinji is not the first teenage pilot in manga or anime. We have the infamous Amuro Ray of the original Gundam series, a lot of Gundam Maestros thereafter, a lot of pilots from the Macross universe, up to the recent Simon of Earth from the most absurd mecha series ever created Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann. They are teenagers because their stories have a lot to do with growing up, becoming a hero, and learning to ‘take shit, get hit’. Shinji has more reason to be in the story than being the channel for teenagers (I am not going to tell you, though). Moreover, he never become heroic like many leads in the genre. He is consistently a boy who struggle to form relationships, to commit to his responsibility, and to find himself. That is why I think he fits more with Caulfield and Sinclair than he does with his fellow pilots.

What he has more than both Caulfield and Sinclair is the responsibility of preventing world’s end, which is pretty terrible for someone who doesn’t even know how to save himself from misery. Shinji is known to throw tantrums and run away when something offends his delicate sensibility. He may take the responsibility of saving mankind and understand to some degree the consequence of that decision, but it is not really his decision in the beginning. Shinji takes the position of the pilot because he thinks it is expected of him. He doesn’t take control of his life because he is still a child and that has strained his relationship with Misato Katsuragi, his commanding officer and guardian who cares rather deeply about his well-being. Misato knows that making life-changing decisions from external influence is unhealthy — as we all know — but Shinji doesn’t care because he hasn’t develop internally enough to take charge of himself.

Relationships and responsibilities, however, changes Shinji but in a very subtle way. Problem is this developments are built on hollow ground. Shinji still looks outward for confirmation of his being and his value pretty much like Caulfield does. When the ties are severed towards the end of the series, Shinji regresses because he is not strong enough to live without those confirmations just yet.

And that is when the story turns to the self.

The most amazing thing about Evangelion, at least to me, is that the series wasn’t planned. Hideaki Anno, the director, just made one episode after another. Somehow, he managed to twist the story around from the end of the external world to the end of the internal world. Shinji at the end of episode 24 is pretty much in mental catatonia. He is at odd with himself because his love and his duty is conflicted. He is at odd with Misato because he is in clear conflict with her principles and can no longer look to her for guidance. He is at odd with the world in general because it doesn’t care, not about him or anyone who is important to him.

With that state of mind, he accidentally triggers the end of the world, and life as we know it disintegrates.

The world that ends there, I think, is the world that the bird has lived in. The bird is clearly discontent and makes the decision to destroy it. What happens next in episode 25, 26 and the later portion of the feature film The End of Evangelion is the story of whether the bird will fly to its god or lie down and wither away.

It is hard to say what exactly does Shinji learn in the end. Unlike both the Catcher in the Rye and Demian, Evangelion does not offer a conclusion in that part. Anno pretty much breaks the forth wall and invites the audience into the process. The infamous ending of Evangelion isn’t really about Shinji Ikari but about us — ourselves, our relationships, our responsibilities to one another. Evangelion isn’t typical in term of storytelling because the ending relies on us. Only when we come-of-age in all three counts can the story truly be completed.

I am one of those people who is not nostalgic about childhood, not because it wasn’t a good time but because I think we gain more and are able to do more once we grow up. To me, childhood is about ignorance, of curling in an egg shell — safe, but also unknowing. Being an adult is risky and complicated, but it also gives us perspectives. In some philosophy (I believe I found it in one of the zen book I read ages ago), innocence can be restored when the mind becomes, once again, simple and free, not because of ignorance but because wisdom gained through experience. Arriving at adulthood can be viewed as the shattering of ignorance and the start on the path to true innocence.

That will also be one hell of a journey.

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2 thoughts on “Demian, the Catcher in the Rye, and Neon Genesis Evangelion

  1. and it may make little difference which we choose to envision. Perhaps the storyteller in me abhors a vacuum – an anonymous placeholder – so I assemble and expand the few clues that can be found in the drama into a plausible history for the real-world Shinji, whom I call Shinji-1. Once created, Shinji-1 fades into invisibility, only to reappear at the end as the student and beneficiary of the hard lessons about the fragility of life and love that Evangelion has taught, and the irrelevance of technology in securing them. The significance of a continuing Shinji-1 is in rescuing Evangelion’s Shinji – and us – from a nihilistic world in which mankind is forever trapped in an endlessly repeating tape loop of transgression and apocalypse. He is the bearer of our hopes, our bridge to the future.

  2. Childhood is for our psyches to adjust again to this reality, a soul takes time to go from absolute knowledge and freedom to the illusion of separation again. I see it as a decompression chamber until we can focus on this level of reality again and restart the growth process

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