Narcissus and Goldmund by Herman Hesse tells the story of two companions, incredibly different from each other but nonetheless entirely complementary; between the two, no path goes unexplored, no way of life untested.
Narcissus lives a quiet, faithful, studious existence at the Mariabronn cloister. He devoutly studies the inner workings of logic and mathematics, Greek and Latin, and theology. Ultimately, he becomes the abbot of the monastery. Narcissus finds a permanent home in the sparse world of the mind.
Goldmund, on the other hand, leaves the monastery at a young age and travels for many years through medieval Germany. In the process, the reader is drawn into a spiraling whirlwind of color, texture and light.
Goldmund rides his horse through flowering meadows on spring mornings; he stumbles, in exhaustion and near death, through the bare pines of the cold winter forest. He watches freshwater carp, glinting gold in the sunlight as they swim upriver; he sees the crows picking at the bones of an unlucky traveler. He sees the men of the priesthood, decked in white robes. He sees the black-hooded men of the plague, pushing corpse-laden carts towards the pyre. He shares many a bedchamber or bale of hay with a countess or a peasant girl; in the women he meets, he witnesses the ecstasy of love, the pain of childbirth, the fear of sickness and looming death.
Through his travels Goldmund is inspired above all toward the world of art, because only through art can he transform his countless experiences with passion and pain, with the sensory and the transitory, into something lasting and permanent. This artifact can then inspire in its viewers for years to come the same wonder and awe once felt by its creator. In search of this permanence, Goldmund studies under an expert sculptor and learns the skill himself. After several years’ work, he creates one masterpiece: a sculpture of St. John, modeled after his friend Narcissus. However, even art is difficult for Goldmund since, by immortalizing memories, one cannot continue to create them. So, as soon as the St. John is done, Goldmund is compelled to begin wandering once more.
Ultimately, only after being rescued from the gallows following an attempted adultery gone-awry, a worn and weathered Goldmund finds himself back at Mariabronn, where he serves for some time as the monastery’s resident artist. The two friends are reunited. And Narcissus, who was always so confident in his pious, studious way of life, is shocked to the core by the realization that Goldmund can produce through his art a beauty that Narcissus could never replicate through his formulae. The abbot cannot help but wonder if his years of study were a waste. Goldmund, on the other hand, often looks with envy at Narcissus, so dignified and learned, the embodiment of a lifestyle that stands in great contrast with Goldmund’s sinful ways and squandered youth.
“That was precisely the subject of our frequent quarrels as young men; for you, the world was made of images, for me of ideas.” (277)
Which way of life is better, if any? Or can one simultaneously live both? I leave that to the reader to decide, but I’m afraid that the book itself won’t offer answers much clearer than mine. I do, however, offer certainty that the last page will leave an impression that remains stamped on the reader’s mind, and burning in his heart, long after the book has been placed back on the shelf.
- Narcissus and Goldmund (also published Death and the Lover) by Herman Hesse. Ursule Molinaro translation.