Narcissus and Goldmund



Caravaggio’s “Narcissus” c. 1597-1599

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.

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Community and money

Towards the end of his Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts, in a section titled “The Power of Money in Bourgeois Society,” Marx writes about the corrupting influence of money on individual moral development. In capitalism money — or it’s lack — becomes the primary arbiter of social existence:

The difference between effective demand based on money and ineffective demand based on my need, my passion, my wish, etc., is the difference between being and thinking, between the imagined which exists merely within me and the imagined as it is for me outside me as a real object.

If you don’t have money, the you-ness of you effectively doesn’t exist. Your human essence remains merely an internal flicker of imagination and therefore, from the standpoint of Marx’s materialism, unrealized, like a seed that rots in the ground. Financial barriers to practical activity warp the proper, natural development of human community and individuality. The delicate and deeply personal kinds of relationship that sustain a robust community life — reciprocity, guidance, affection, commitment — can all too easily be disregarded by the person with money as antiquated encumbrances to his free movement about the social world. He has a power that, in it’s generality and omnipotence, trumps these frail human bonds. This power disrupts the normal functioning of a moral order; it turns “the world upside-down”.

I think of the supposed mantra of the service industry, “the customer is always right”. I’ve never actually heard someone who works in service say this, but its general thrust is borne out in the countless daily interactions that occur between customer and servers. While most customers are decent, amiable people who just want to get their cup of coffee, everyone has encountered the occasional nasty who blows a small mistake or delay entirely out of proportion, maybe verbally abusing the server in response. While perhaps a disgruntled minority, the behavior of these individuals drives home Marx’s point with particular force: because money is the prime mover, the “galvano-chemical power of Society,” and these customers are wielding it, social behavior that in a well-ordered community would be regarded as unacceptable or grounds for conscientious intervention is met with a clearly false smile and mild acquiescence: “I apologize sir, let me remake that latte for you – 2% milk this time.” We go on with our days.

I, in my character as an individual, am lame, but money furnishes me with twenty-four feet.

In the section’s final paragraph, Marx describes the contrary, more truly human state of affairs wherein there is a more rigorous understanding of ethical integrity that informs human relationships:

Assume man to be man and his relationship to the world to be a human one: then you can exchange love only for love, trust for trust, etc. If you want to enjoy art, you must become an artistically-cultivated person; if you want to exercise influence over other people, you must be a person with a stimulating and encouraging effect on other people. Every one of your relations to man and to nature must be a specific expression, corresponding to the object of your will, of your real individual life.

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Spring chickens

Spring is the headiest of seasons. The others have their pleasures — the burning stickiness of summer, the melancholy of fall, the crisp silence of winter — but spring is the most straightforwardly and unabashedly ebullient. It is a season of plan-making, promise, and aspiration, undergirded by happy naïveté. The sheer fertility of new growth can be exhilarating. It is very youthful. Indeed, the metaphor of age strikes me as so particularly apt this time of the year that it is difficult not to dwell on it. Being myself somewhere between the “spring” and “summer” of my life, the cusp of 22, the present juncture in time is potent.

In the past I’ve reflected on this metaphor through lens provided by gardening and agriculture. If springtime is when the farmer dwells in the ideal — creates plans, calculates budgets, and plants seed in the bare soil — summer is time to contend with empirical, worldly forces. The lush carpet of lambs-quarter appears between the carrot sprouts; the torrential downpour scours the exposed earth; the crop of spinach is aborted by the deer. The changing limits of the human body shape the possibilities of each day. The idealism of spring is muted, chastened, and turned inside-out (but hopefully not obliterated) by earthly contingencies. In my own experiences working on farms and in gardens, there has been relief, sometimes preceded by desperation, accompanying the first killing frost. The end of new growth means the end of aching mornings picking kale, tedious afternoons hoeing, and forearms stained with the black, itching tar of tomato vines. It is time to retire, to be afforded the opportunity to sit again with the ideals that, after another growing season, have new depths and new wounds.

The span of a life can also be likened to a day. I’m struck by how reliably mornings induce a feeling of calm and hope in me. This is one reason why breakfast is my favorite meal: every bite is preparation, an ordinary ode to the day’s possibilities. At 22, I’m still enjoying my breakfast. Yet one way that a life is unlike a day is that we have only one life. Days and seasons seem to repeat without end, affording time to grow and learn from one’s past. But a life as a whole stands alone, unforgiving in its finality. This finality is what, for example, adds poignancy to the final scene in Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel Remains of the Day: the middle-aged protagonist has come to seriously question the value of his life’s ambitions so far, leading him to reflect:

…[F]or a great many people, the evening is the most enjoyable part of the day. Perhaps, then, there is something to his advice that I should cease looking back so much, that I should adopt a more positive outlook and try to make the best of what remains of my day.

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