Hermann Hesse “Narcissus and Goldmund”

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I found this book on the pavement. Twice. Two copies by two different publishing houses with the same fate. That surprised me a little bit, especially because I liked his works ‘Steppenwolf’ and ‘the Glass Bead Game’. Who would throw away a good book?

My bewilderment only grew after reading reviews on the back of one of the editions:

Oedipal situations, homosexuality, hermaphroditism, and necrophilia lurk skin-deep under the pages, but Hesse lifts the contrapuntal play of conflicting forces into a plane as close to music as words will come.

Joseph Bauke, Saturday Review

Wow. Hesse and hermaphroditism and necrophilia? Probably I had read a different Hesse. But after finishing the book, I can say that it has nothing to do with the review, and this is just another example of why I don’t trust the reviews from magazines. They sell scandal and not the truth. Probably this deception is why those books were thrown away. People were expecting some Chuck Palahniuk and instead they got a complicated poetic philosophy book full of metaphors and allegories.

All Hesse’s works are very intimate and autobiographical. They are full of facts from the author’s life, his child impressions and reactions to the society. Each of them is a meditation and a reflection of problems that were important to him. Morals, freedom, man’s place in society, the search for the meaning of life and a way to enlightenment. Narcissus and Goldmund is a contemplation on Nietzsche’s philosophy of Dionysian and Apollonian duality in art. The two main characters of the novel represent two different worlds, the world of senses and the world of mind and abstractions.

Hesse sets his story into medieval times without specifying place or a year. There we meet a bright student, Goldmund, whose father has brought him to the cloister to atone for the sins of his mother and become a monk. A young man doesn’t remember anything about his mother and knows only the fact that she brought shame to their house by leaving his father for other delights.

Goldmund becomes friends with his teacher Narcissus, who has a talent in seeing people’s true nature. Goldmund is attracted by the great mind and intelligence of his teacher. Narcissus sees an opposite, passionate and sensual nature of his student. This friendship helps Goldmund to realize that the life of a monk is not for him. Goldmund thinks:

One knew nothing. One lived and ran about the earth and rode through forests, and certain things looked so challenging and promising and nostalgic: a star in the evening, a blue harebell, a reed-green pond, the eye of a person or a cow. And sometimes it seemed that something never seen yet long desired was about to happen, that a veil would drop from it all, but then it passed, nothing happened, the riddle remained unsolved, the secret spell unbroken, and in the end one grew old and looked cunning . . . or wise . . . and still one knew nothing perhaps, was still waiting and listening

To find that ‘something’ hidden, that escaping truth and meaning of life, he starts his wandering through the world. The world of books and abstractions is not for him; he wants to feel and experience it fully on his own.

Here,  like an experienced surgeon Hesse dissects the world of senses and, along with the reader, tries to investigate it. The biggest part of the story is Goldmund’s travels and personal development from a young, wild, passionate, selfish and maximalist boy into gifted artist satiated and disillusioned by life. As he speaks about it at the and of the book:

“Saying farewell, escaping, being forgotten; finding himself alone again, with empty hands and frozen hart”.

Narcissus appears only at the beginning and the end of the book. At the beginning he, world of mind and ideas, shows Goldmund the path to match his true nature. At the end, when the two worlds finally meet again, he completes Goldmund wanderings and helps him finally shape his answers. Hesse doesn’t try to study this world of mind as carefully in this book. He’s going to do it later in one of his greatest works, “The Bead Glass Game”.

The only issue I had with this book was Hesse’s image of women. When Goldmund talks about his mother, he hallucinates the feminine, elemental beginning of every man:

She is everywhere. She was Lise, the gypsy; she was Master Niklaus’ beautiful madonna; she was life, love, ecstasy. She was also fear, hunger, instinct. Now she is death; she has her fingers in my chest.”

 

All the women in this book are just background for the main character. They don’t seem to have any of the existential problems which perturb Goldmund; they are just frivolous creatures from the world of senses which are only waiting to give their love to anybody.

Here is an example of the author’s final thought, presented in Goldmund’s monologue:

All existence seemed to be based on duality, on contrast. Either one was a man or one was a woman, either a wanderer or sedentary burgher, either a thinking person or a feeling person-no one could breathe in at the same time as he breathed out, be a man as well as a woman, experience freedom as well as order, combine instinct and mind. One always had to pay for one with the loss of the other, and one thing was always just as important and desirable as the other.

Sounds very promising. But immediately after:

Perhaps women had it easier in this respect. Nature had created them in such a way that desire bore its fruit automatically, that the bliss of love became a child. For a man, eternal longing replaced this simple fertility.

So, as a simple woman, with my bliss and freedom from any existential problems, I want to say no to chauvinism and yes to other parts of this book.

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