Monday, September 11, 2017

Narcissus and Goldmund by Hermann Hesse

The life of the mind, the life of the flesh
Set vaguely in the Middle Ages, Hermann Hesse’s 1930 novel Narcissus and Goldmund tells the story of the friendship between two monks who meet at a monastery. Narcissus, a young teacher at the school, is the model of a pious scholar, with a brilliant mind disposed toward logic and philosophy. Goldmund, a newly arrived student, is also very bright, but bears a reckless, lusty, artistic soul that ultimately leads him to depart the cloister for a life of wanderlust.

The book’s title and promotional copy lead one to believe it will depict a dichotomous conflict between these two characters and their opposing natures—“A raging battle between flesh and spirit,” as the cover of my paperback copy hyperbolically exclaims. Rather than giving equal time to both sides, however, the book is really about ninety percent Goldmund, ten percent Narcissus. The bulk of the narrative follows Goldmund on his travels as a wandering adventurer, and for the most part the reader is happy to accompany him on his journey. His spiritual quest resembles that of the title character of Hesse’s novel Siddhartha, but much more grounded in an earthly realism with which the modern reader can identify. As Hesse presents it, the vagabond life, free from responsibility, is quite seductive. Though Goldmund faces hardships along the way, he finds no shortage of offers of food and lodging, and women are constantly throwing themselves at him.

In other novels, such as Beneath the Wheel and The Glass Bead Game, Hesse paints an equally seductive and rather utopian picture of monastic life—the rewards of study, the joys of quiet contemplation, the brotherhood of scholars—while stressing that physical action and bodily pleasures are also essential to a happy and meaningful life. In this novel, he approaches this antithesis from the other side: Narcissus and his life of the mind are given the short shrift in order to concentrate on the earthly life and bodily pleasures personified by Goldmund. We see Narcissus praying, fasting, and conducting administrative duties at the monastery, but we learn nothing about his scholarly pursuits. He occasionally serves as a foil to Goldmund in friendly debates and brings out hidden qualities in the latter’s personality, inspiring him to thoughtful revelations. If there is a “battle between flesh and spirit” here, it takes place largely within Goldmund himself.

Hesse, with his interest in Jungian archetypes, makes an attempt to position Narcissus and Goldmund as personifications of the masculine and feminine sides of human nature. Goldmund’s wandering spirit and longing for freedom is attributed to his mother, who died when he was young yet still appears to him in visions. To be honest, women aren’t treated all that well in this book. They either serve as sexual partners for Goldmund or are deified as mother goddesses. Female characters have never been Hesse’s strong point; he’s definitely more at home in a monastery full of dudes. Even Hesse himself seems to grow tired of his halfhearted male/female dichotomy and lets it fall by the wayside in favor of a much more successful contrast between the two characters as embodiments of the differing intellectual natures of the artist and the philosopher.

Narcissus and Goldmund is one of Hesse’s best novels. I would put it in his top three, along with Steppenwolf and Siddhartha. Though the two monks of this novel may inhabit a time and place long past, their story nevertheless imparts valuable philosophical lessons relevant to modern life. As is often the case with Hesse’s works, this book inspires personal self-reflection and may change the way you look at your own life.
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