Hermann Hesse is one of those writers that allows for one to be picky. He has enough great titles that of those great titles, certain ones rank better, or in this case greater than others. Narcissus and Goldmund is among his great titles, but it’s one of his lesser greats. Steppenwolf, Demian and Siddhartha are still stronger works overall, but Narcissus and Goldmund is not too far behind. A couple of things that keep me from ranking this as his best: 1) the prose is not as rich and complex as that which can be found in those other works and 2) perhaps this is just due to the translation by Ursule Molinaro, but there were several instances of clichés and a flatness within the prose (at times) that did not appear to be present in his best works.
Having said that, the novel poses interesting philosophical questions, this being the battle between hedonism and a life of the mind versus altruism and how it works with a life devoted to the spirit. The tale begins with Goldmund as a young man who is in awe of his older teacher, Narcissus. Narcissus is a monk who seeks to live his life for a power higher than himself, while Goldmund is a wandering, pleasure-seeking artist type. He is selfish and is all too commonly found among artsy types. He wants to live a life of pleasure, but then as he attempts to devote himself to art, he becomes despondent at the time and effort that must be sacrificed in exchange for the creation of it. He witnesses a myriad of things occurring to the body — from sensual pleasure, to eroticism, to dead bodies eaten alive by rats to imprisonment of his physical self. And in turn, what does such physical imprisonment (or limitation) have upon the pursuit of the mind? All of what Goldmund is experiencing is part of this larger metaphor. Most of the novel consists of Goldmund’s wanderings and it is only nearing the end that Narcissus once again returns.
Goldmund is fascinated by his friend’s spiritual dedication, but comes to realize the spiritual life is not for him, and so thus he begins on his own voyage of “self-discovery” where he engages in many of the acts mentioned above. He meets women, woos them, beds them, longs for them and then moves on. He witnesses atrocities that give him pause, and ponders the fear of death, which he then attributes to being the root of all art:
“He thought that the fear of death was perhaps the root of all art, perhaps also of all things of the mind. We fear death, we shudder at life’s instability, we grieve to see the flowers wilt again and again, and when the leaves fall, and in our hearts we know that we, too, are transitory and will soon disappear.”
The passage borders on melodrama despite the truth in what is being said. Art, at least quality art, is in effect an immortality — an imprint left behind after the flesh dies. Yet what is the cost of achieving it? What is the cost if one does not? These are some of the questions Goldmund poses and attempts to answer.
Eventually, the two reunite when Goldmund learns he is freed and will not be put to death. Their reunion is some of the most memorable parts to the book, as the conversation between the two is insightful, philosophical and profound. Narcissius believes that Goldmund’s life has been a life of images, while for Narcissus it has been one of ideas. “At the exact point where images stop, philosophy begins,” he states. Narcissus also believes that because Goldmund is not a thinker, this has only been a good thing, for had he been so, he would have likely created evil by becoming a mystic. Their exchange continues for several pages and as they discuss their differences, both men seem to have lived lives of extremes, and yet they are friends so much that even in death it is Goldmund who has the final word between the two of them. Yet here’s an example of bad prose, or at least, bad translation:
“That last two days Narcissus sat by his bed day and night, watching his life ebb away. Goldmund’s last words burned like a fire in his heart.”
It’s never a good thing to end any novel on such a trite cliché, much less one with as much merit as this. Yet this is a minor thing, for the philosophy overrides any quibble one might have with the prose.
A bit of what their relationship reminded me of was Natsume Soseki’s Kokoro, where Narcissus is the de facto “sensei” and Goldmund is the student in awe of his teacher. Of course, Kokoro is much different, and more about the young man learning that his sensei is not someone with a life much worth idealizing. And while readers are not witnessed to any death at the end (the book ends on a suicide note) readers are given a more definitive end in Narcissus and Goldmund.
Yet in addition to being qualitatively consistent, the one slightly negative thing about Hesse is that his lesser works are repetitive. (He actually wrote several variations of the same story before finally perfecting it with Demian.) Other lesser works of his play off similar themes within Narcissus and Goldmund as well, only they are not presented as insightfully. Having said that, Narcissus and Goldmund is a damn good novel. Is it a great one? Many would say so. I say so too, though I also have to acknowledge that this is not as great as some of his others. But don’t look at that as a bad thing — that’s actually a good thing, for it means Hesse succeeded in creating a number of great works. Any writer would be thrilled to have such a dilemma. It almost makes wandering in the woods for years worth it.