I just finished reading Herman Hesse’s Narcissus and Goldmund, and found it to be one of the most engaging novels I’ve read since John Williams’ Stoner four or so years ago. It’s a story of two young men in medieval Europe: one, Narcissus, is a monk-in-training at a monastery and is accordingly committed to a life of intellect, religious observance, and withdrawal from the world. The other, Goldmund, arrives as a student at the monastery. Although initially drawn to a life of the mind, Goldmund is eventually convinced by Narcissus that his true vocation is a life devoted to feeling, art, and worldly sensuality.
Much of the novel details Goldmund’s travels after leaving the monastery. He seduces women, survives a plague, apprentices under a master wood carver, and kills a man. His life is rough and sweaty, full of insatiable desire that leads him nowhere in particular, expect for a profound understanding of the intertwined nature of death and life.
Goldmund eventually, much aged, returns to the monastery of his youth. While there he strives to materialize the knowledge and experience he has gained through his travels in the form of a sculpture to adorn the monastery. It is his gift to the world: not to the fallen world, a place, he maintains, full of ugliness and injustice, but to the world outside of the world that is the monastery. It is the only place where he feels some sense of home and groundedness. After completing his sculpture he leaves the monastery once more, restless and fearful that what remains of his youthful vigor is being suffocated by the rigidity and domesticity of the order. His second adventure does not last long, however. He soon realizes, after being sexually denied by a woman, Agnes, with whom he had had an intense tryst when he was younger, that he is an old man, no longer the beautiful, beguiling Goldmund of his youth. As if physically incapacitated by this realization, he soon falls of his horse into a stream, gravely injuring himself.
Rescued from the stream, he is brought back to the monastery for a final exchange with Goldmund. This last scene between them is heartbreaking. In it, an intensification of the dynamic occurring throughout the novel, Hesse realistically and empathetically fleshes out the different forms of life embodied by these two men: the life of the mind and the life of the heart. Both men are admirable and accomplished, but both also experience fundamental doubts and misgivings about their lives. Both know joys and pains. They both know deep loneliness and tragedy.
Narcissus and Goldmund embody extremes of human experience, and in this way the novel does not aim for realism in its depiction of them. They embody ideas. This allows Hesse to display their extremes and incongruities with a vividness and purity that would be lost in a more realistic portrayal. His language mirrors this approach. His prose is spare and matter-of-fact, but not in in a way that strives for empirical description: it is brimming with intimacy with its subject matter. The characters’ dialogue, too, has a straightforward, earnest, yet uncannily timeless quality. If they embody ideas, they also voice them. This may be an attempt to flesh out the very different, medieval world these men live in, but it nevertheless has the effect of casting these characters – their self-understandings, justifications, and desires – in a light that, while unrealistic, imparts uncommon clarity.
Narcissus and Goldmund is, among other things, a love story, not between Goldmund and any of the women he encounters in his travels but between the two principal characters. In the final scene between the men Narcissus divulges the deep, abiding affection he has felt for Goldmund since their first meeting. This love, filial with undertones of suppressed eroticism, carries a certain potency from its singularity in the experience of Narcissus. Living a cloistered, ascetic life among fellow men has largely deprived Narcissus of this emotion. In a reality that is, as he acknowledges, otherwise arid and coldly intellectual, this love becomes something near-divine and unspeakably precious.