Hesse, Hermann: Narcissus and Goldmund

woodstock2First Published 1930 (translated from the German by Leila Vennewitz, published by Peter Owen, London).

Who was Hermann Hesse? He was born in Germany in 1877 and he died in 1963. He was a seminarist, thinker, intellectual, drinker, smoker, gambler, poet, painter and pacifist. Above all, he was a seeker. He suffered mental health problems. He received the Nobel Prize for literature in 1945.

A lot of Hesse’s life has gone into this book. At the age of 15 he was sent to Maulbronn seminary to complete his education, but he fled after his failed suicide attempt. The story opens with a vivid description of the entrance to Mariabronn monastery, a fictional representation of his own Maulbronn, just thinly disguised.

At first sight, it is a simple story, a parable set in medieval Germany. Goldmund is the favourite pupil of the monk and scholar Narcissus. But Goldmund is not the scholastic type, he is passionate, sensual and artistic. He discovers this side of himself, when, with other boys, he creeps out of the monastery in the night to find village girls. He is obsessed by one in particular, and awakened to the possibilities offered by the outside world, he leaves the monastery to search for….what?…he isn’t sure. He leads a hedonistic life with many sexual adventures, and he becomes a sculptor. But he gets himself into deep trouble and is sentenced to death. However, he is finally rescued, forgiven and reconciled by Narcissus. We see how his character develops through education and experience, and we learn something of forgiveness and despair.

The proposer explained that he first read the book in the sixties, a time when young people were searching for meaning and understanding in their lives, and turning to dope, mysticism and psychedelic music. The book enjoyed popularity then, along with the birth of a powerful and iconoclastic popular culture. Likewise the 1920s, a period that may have shaped the young Hesse, was a time of decadence, promiscuity and jazz. The world may be quite different now, but the book is still a great read and has wide appeal.

There are a number of themes. The dichotomy between artist and thinker, described as Dionysian versus Apollonian after the names of the two sons of Zeus, is a central theme in this book and in other German literature, notably linked to Nietzsche‘s The Birth of Tragedy. To some extent, we all have this dualism within us, and so: is the novel really a metaphorical essay about the human psyche, inspired perhaps by Hesse’s reading of Jung and Freud?

Another theme is the mother figure. Goldmund never knew his mother, but we learn she was a dancer (a mother to be ashamed of, he is led to believe) and yet he seems to have a supernatural knowledge of her, and craves for her, perhaps because he thinks he has inherited her artistic attributes. Does she represent the Eve mother, part of the eternal story of the tortuous passage from birth to death? Much of the book is about Goldmund’s relationships with women, and the way his women are both a joy and an inspiration for great works of art, for example his sculpture, the Lydia-Madonna. As Goldmund dies he utters:

‘Without a mother one cannot love

Without a mother one cannot die’

Certainly, the sensual love of women plays a large part of Goldmund’s life and contrasts starkly with the monastic discipline.

‘… he learned many of the arts and ways of love, and absorbed the experiences of many lovers, learning to see, feel, touch and smell women in all their diversity’…’to be driven from one woman to the next so he might learn, and practice, ever more subtly in ever greater variety and depth, the skills of knowing and distinguishing’.

Sensual details here reminded us of the novels of DH Lawrence. At this point our proposer fondly recalled the average student party of the early 1970s, and a discussion ensued about when the swinging sixties started and ended, and what we all read and got up to in those heady days, and what we have become now. Yes, each one of us has a bit of Goldmund inside. But have we lost the spirit of self-inquiry, have we given up the search?

Certainly, we were touched by Goldmund’s abrupt decline as he grows older. There comes a time when he fails to score with women. They still find him amusing company, but his hair is going grey and they don’t want him any more. Oh dear, this part was a bit too close to the bone for most of us!

Death is another theme. We have a powerful portrayal of the Black Death, perhaps one of the most poignant and moving that has ever been written. We were reminded by one of our group that 40-60% of the population of Europe died. And we have plenty of murder in this book; in fact, Goldmund himself murders twice, and there are many reflections on death:

‘…the world is full of death, squatting on every fence, standing behind every tree, and it is useless for you to build walls and dormitories and chapels and churches. Death looks through the window and laughs’.

But death can be cheated through art, because art confers a kind of immortality on its creator:

‘from the farce and death-dance of human life, something remained and survived, works of art’… although …’even they perish … but they outlast many a human lifetime’…’it is spiritual’ … ’in this hour, Goldmund felt as if his life had acquired a meaning..’

What had been happening to Narcissus, the scholar and mentor, during the long period of Goldmund’s absence from the monastery? He had been living the spotless monastic life and now he was the abbot, but he always had been thinking of Goldmund. But even this godly man has had his moments of self-doubt. Narcissus wonders whether man really was created to study Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas, and whether it has been proper to shut himself away from the maelstrom of the world and the cruel currents that had beset his friend and pupil Goldmund.  But we learn rather little of the detail of Narcissus’s life. In the end he serves as the mouthpiece for Hesse’s philosophy. He speaks for example of the nature of the thinking process, the conceptual abstractions of the Apollonian versus the mental images of the Dionysian. Also, he ponders on the contrasting nature of men and women. For example, of women he says:

‘Nature had so created them that desire automatically bore its own fruit, and the harvest of love was a child. In the man’s case, instead of this simple fertility there was eternal desire’.

Some of our group considered the philosophical parts were not so good, preferring the writer to ‘show not tell’. But Hesse saw himself as a teacher. He turned his back on Germany as early as 1912, and went to Berne in Switzerland where he established a prisoner-of-war welfare centre. Between 2014 and 2018 he published about 20 essays criticizing the war in German-language newspapers. He strongly opposed the rise of nationalism. He was one of the few German intellectuals not to be swayed by the general enthusiasm for the war. He became involved in writing after the War in order to rebuild Germany by educating its youth. In this book, for example, written in that period, he touches on anti-semitism, apparently anticipating, and warning against, the rise of Nazism. He relinquished his German citizenship in 1923. In World War II he became disillusioned, withdrew from the public and denounced the barbarity from afar.

We agreed that this book was a good choice. It’s a serious book and a thought-provoking story, and most of us found words of wisdom on its pages.