Narcissus and Goldmund


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'One of his masterpieces . . . without doubt a great novel' Guardian One of Hermann Hesse's greatest novels, Narcissus and Goldmund is an extraordinary recreation of the Middle Ages, contrasting the careers of two friends, one of whom shuns life in a monastery and goes on the road, tangled in the extremes of life in a world dominated by sin, plague and war, the other staying in the monastery and struggling, with equal difficulty, to lead a life of spiritual denial. An superb feat of imagination, Narcissus and Goldmund can ...

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Nov 21, 2018

Rereading Narcissus and Goldmund

This past Fourth Of July, I tried to think of an American book which expressed something of our country in a fresh way. I settled on Kerouac's "On The Road", a book I have read several times and reviewed some time ago. A wonderfully kind and intelligent friend praised the choice and suggested parallels between Kerouac's book and my reading of it and Herman Hesse's 1930 novel, "Narcissus and Goldmund". Since reading Hesse in my college years of fifty years ago I have tended to avoid him (with the exception of rereading "Steppenwolf"). Hesse reminded me too much of the turbulence of the 1960s, when he became popular with American readers and of the influence of these years which remain with us, mostly for the worse in my view. Still, my friend's reminding me of "Narcissus and Goldmund" struck a nerve and I wanted to revisit the book. The sins of American counterculture are not to be laid at the door of Hesse.

I remembered little beyond the bare outlines of "Narcissus and Goldmund" from my reading of years ago. The book indeed has its similarities to "On The Road" in that it tells the story of two friends with markedly different outlooks on life, portrays the life of wandering from place to place (with one protagonist but not both), and deals with dualities and with searches for the meaning of one's life. These themes have a strong appeal to students and young people. They tend to be covered up and rejected as people get older and settled into ways of living and earning a living. I think that is in some ways necessary but it also is a pity. People still have to deal with themselves even if the exigences of the day sometimes make them feel, unjustifiably, that they have resolved youthful questions by settled living.

Hesse's novel is set in medieval Europe in the mid-14th century and tells the story of the friendship of its two title characters. Narcissus is a young highly intellectual person which a disciplined mind and a degree of intellectual arrogance. He teaches Greek and grammar in the cloister and in later years becomes the Abbot. He befriends the slightly younger Goldmund who is abruptly left at the cloister by his father. Goldmund has an artistic, sensual and sexual nature, far removed from the analytical mind of his friend. The story of the book takes place over many years and opens and closes in the cloister. The book also includes scenes of Goldmund wandering for years on the road as a wastrel and meeting danger, sex, and the gruesome reality of the Black Death. Goldmund also lives for some years in a large medieval city and learns the skills to be a sculptor and artist.

The book contrasts the life of the mind with the life of the flesh. The characters are types in this book but also come alive as individuals. The two friends have many discussions about mind and heart and live out their different natures in the course of the book. The dualities are more sharply drawn than would be the case in the lives of most individuals, but that fact does not lessen the value of recognizing and understanding them. Many readers will find strong echoes of Jung, Freud and Nietzsche in the pages of this novel. The strongest influence remains that of Plato. It is a Plato of reason and the mind but a Plato fully aware of the power of art and the senses. Late in the book, Narcissus says to his friend:

"The thinker tries to determine and to represent the nature of the world through logic. He knows that reason and its tool, logic, are incomplete -- the way an intelligent artist knows full well that his brushes or chisels will never be able to express perfectly the radiant nature of an angel or a saint. Still they both try, the thinker as well as the artist, each in his own way. They cannot and may not do otherwise. because when a man tries to realize himself through the gifts with which nature has endowed him, he does the best and only meaningful thing he can do. That's why, in former days, I often said to you: don't try to imitate the thinker or the ascetic man, but be yourself, try to realize yourself."

Hesse's book is moving and penetrating in its portrayal of the life of the mind and of the life of the heart and of the forces of human sexuality. There is much to be loved in the book and much contemporary American readers may relearn about sexuality and male-female relationships. I was glad to have the opportunity to read "Narcissus and Goldmund" again after a lifetime and to reflect again about broad questions of philosophy and art which can be buried sometimes but which never go away.

Robin Friedman


May 27, 2009

The Dissatisfaction of Wandering

Narcissus and Goldmund are two men who represent two perspectives of life: the intellectual and the physical. Both characters are set in a medieval monastery, and both conceive of the spiritual; but even the spiritual is largely intellectual for Narcissus, and physical for Goldmund. The two ? Narcissus the young teacher, and Goldmund the exceptional student ? are friends, though they have contradictions. Narcissus, by mental discipline, chooses the ascetic lifestyle of the monastery. Goldmund, upon reaching the age of consent, chooses to leave on a sensual journey to find where his divine vision of his deceased mother leads him.

The story is interesting for Hesse?s study of those ideals to which men devote themselves ? religion, beauty, art. But I am as dissatisfied with the character of Goldmund as much as he is dissatisfied with everything else. To read of a character?s angst for three hundred pages is far too long; far too indulgent of the author. If the character has matured, if he is a convert, he is that kind of convert who speaks so highly and so much of the former decadent life that the reader questions if there has been any change.


Aug 19, 2008

Duality and Energy

Narcissus and Goldmund is a prime example of why Hesse won the Nobel Prize. Like several of his other works, (Siddhartha, Steppenwolf, Demian, Magister Ludi), the story telling is compelling enough, and this work, like the others, will transport the the reader through an energetic journey of duality and consciousness. Reading Hesse, in particular this novel, is like delving deeply into your own psychology and coming out the other end with a spiritual or at least psychological awakening about self, as well as, an ever increasing appreciation for humanity. Must READ for all who consider themsleves "thinkers," or "dreamers," or "doers," or "humanist".


Apr 18, 2008


We've all faced and/or witnessed the human struggle between good and evil, right and wrong, and righteousness versus iniquity. Narcissus and Goldmund are the epitome of such characteristics. What's most fascinating is the realization that they are essentially two sides of the same man. Wanting to live a morally sound life and finding oneself drawn to the fulfillment of fleshly desire is an enigma that we must all face. No other story captures the innocence of youth, the freedom of exploring oneself from the inside out and the realization that a life lived pure, is not necessarily superior or exceptional when compare to a life lived fully and freely.

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