Death and the Lover

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.

LRBrain.jpg

The left brain/right brain distinction is probably largely without substance. However, if we were to take this distinction seriously, Narcissus would probably be more left-brained, while Goldmund would be more right-brained. 

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.

References:

  1. Narcissus and Goldmund (also published Death and the Lover) by Herman Hesse. Ursule Molinaro translation.
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4 comments on “Death and the Lover

  1. Ben says:

    And what’s this particular writer’s opinion on the superior lifestyle?

    • Josh says:

      Easy: produce like Narcissus; adventure like Goldmund. Next!

      In all seriousness, though, Hesse makes a strong case that this “best of both worlds” approach is impossible. Certainly, we all hoped that Goldmund would accept a permanent position in Niklaus’s workshop, join the sculptor’s guild, and marry Lisbeth. At the very least, he should have taken a permanent post as Mariabronn’s resident artist upon his return to the cloister! He could have lived out his old age in the quiet monastic tradition, with Narcissus by his side. But no; every time he seems to have found peace, Goldmund is compelled to once again begin wandering.

      It doesn’t seem to be as simple as “enjoy life until you’ve experienced enough, and then use that experience to produce.” It appears that one who has dashed through life is unable to pause in it. So we’re forced to choose one or the other.

      I’d guess that your response would be: find a course of study; pursue it like Narcissus; and if this study is fulfilling enough, you will ultimately enjoy it like Goldmund. I like this possibility too. Hesse, however, doesn’t seem to be convinced of this either. Narcissus clearly took pride and satisfaction from his studies; still, Goldmund left him in want. Hesse prompts us to ask: after having lived each lifestyle, how will one feel on his deathbed?

      Ultimately, though, the point may be moot. Hesse’s message seems to be that each man is born into one life or the other, and this course, set by fate, is irreversible. God knows Goldmund wanted nothing more than to follow Narcissus at the monastery, but Narcissus knew that Goldmund was born for a worldly life; in fact, only Narcissus could make him realize that. So, why deliberate over which life is better? It doesn’t matter how much we like the idea of being a Narcissus; if we’re born a Goldmund, this must come to be. And vice versa.

  2. Richard says:

    From reading these blog posts and comments, I suspect that, if asked, Ben would identify more with Narcissus and Josh more so with Goldmund. I’m now at the stage where I can predict more often than not who is the author of a piece on this blog, just by looking at the title. Obviously, since I know one is studying maths and the other medicine that makes it a bit easy in some cases, but in the rest, I find myself picking up certain trends.

    • Josh says:

      Haha, great call man. I think this is very true.

      Weirdly enough, my best friend in college and I both read Narcissus and Goldmund at around the same time, so that was interesting. And, between the two of us, I thought of myself as more of a Narcissus and he a Goldmund. He was a bit more free-spirited than me, and closer to nature. He was also more of a loose cannon. One night, he was drunk and depressed, and tried to hurl himself out of the 2nd story window of our house. I was in the top bunk so I couldn’t do anything. Ironically, the guy who grabbed him and potentially saved his life was a gay guy; my roommate had homophobic tendencies and had just been in the process of screaming slurs at him. The next morning, my roommate and I walked with a girl friend to go get breakfast. We passed a mural painted in the style of the Mexican Day of the Dead, with the text, “It’s not death that’s tragic, but rather, the times we die when we’re alive.”

      Anyway, interesting that someone could be Goldmund in one relationship and Narcissus in the other.

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