'Narziss and Goldmund' by Hermann Hesse (1930)

Narcissus and Goldmund - Hermann Hesse, Ursule Molinaro

Hermann Hesse, Narziss and Goldmund (Harmondsworth: Penguin Classics, 1987), 301pp. Translated by Geoffrey Dunlop.


Having loved Hermann Hesse's Siddhartha, I picked up Narziss and Goldmund with great confidence. I had read it described as his most accessible work, the one easiest to read and with the most universal message. Unfortunately, none of those turned out to be true for me. Whilst it had quite a few good lines, it was, in my opinion, unnecessarily slow and its central philosophical message rather muddled. There are some brief flashes of inspiration regarding the dichotomy between the spiritual and the rational, between the man and the woman, the mother and father, and so on, but unlike Siddhartha, these concepts are not made easier to grasp by being rendered in novel form.

Hesse holds that the world is "built on opposites, on division. Man or woman, vagabond or citizen, lover or thinker - no breath could be both in and out, none could be man and wife, free and yet orderly, knowing the urge of life and the joy of intellect. Always the one paid for the other, though each was equally precious and essential." He seems to maintain that our lives only have meaning "if both these goods could be achieved, and life herself had not been cleft by the barren division of alternatives." (both quotes from page 238). In other words, it is only through unification, rather than pursuing one single road (i.e. a life of intellect, or a life of passion) that one finds fulfilment. There is a nice conflict going on within Goldmund throughout the novel as he tries to align the two within himself, and a similar conflict to a lesser extent with Narziss. Indeed, it is Narziss who, towards the end of the book, muses: "Were men really made to live an ordered life, its virtues and duties set to the ringing of a bell?... Had not God made man with lusts and pride in him, with blood and darkness in his heart, with the freedom to sin, love and despair?" (pg. 287).

Hesse seems to advocate a sort of spiritual compromise, wherein people can pursue one road (i.e. a life of passion, for Goldmund) as long as they perceive and appreciate in others evidence of another road (i.e. intellect, in Narziss). "It is not our task to come together," Narziss says, "as little as it would be the task of sun and moon, of sea and land... Our destiny is not to become one. It is to behold each other for what we are, each perceiving and honouring it in his opposite; each finding his fulfilment and completion." (pp 43-44). Yet Hesse seems to undermine this theme of unification with Goldmund's final words of the book, wherein he asserts that Narziss, who has dedicated himself to a life of learning, is incomplete because he is beholden only to the father and "knows no mother", even though Narziss recognises and values that quality in Goldmund. As I say, it seems a very muddled philosophy Hesse is presenting, and I finished the book feeling rather dissatisfied.

Indeed, this dissatisfaction was enhanced by the negative reaction I had to the character of Goldmund. Arrogant, conceited and disparaging towards women, Goldmund is one of the most unlikeable protagonists I have ever encountered. A large chunk of the book consists of Goldmund on his vagabond travels, sleeping with many women (who often inexplicably fall into bed with him at the drop of a hat); usually these women are the wife or daughter of the man whose hospitality, shelter and food he is enjoying. He frequently speaks of "mastering" these "wenches", including shamelessly trying to court a grieving Jewish girl whose father has just been murdered and burned by an angry mob. He sees only beautiful women as his "equals" (he has no time for one woman, Maria, as she is rather plain and has a limp, even though she is consistently kind to him) and whenever he continues on his travels, he never feels the need to say goodbye to any of them ("It was not worth the trouble of taking seriously, so he said farewell to none but his landlord." (pg. 184)). It is hinted at early in the book that some of these women are beaten by their husbands for straying, though Goldmund is unmoved by this. Despite this behaviour, we are clearly intended by the author to see Goldmund as devoted, in his way, to all these women - "truer than the best of husbands" (pg. 289) - as after all he is searching for the spiritual "mother" to complement the "father". We are supposed to see him as this thoughtful, spiritual seeker of life's truths. But, in trying to find out the meaning of his life, he shamelessly wrecks many others' lives in his wake, particularly those women. In the end I didn't really give a shit about his selfish spiritual fulfilment.

With the preceding paragraph you may think I'm missing the point; criticising the characters of what is essentially a philosophical treatise in novel form, but it was all rather unpleasant for me and so I could not fully engage with the philosophising. Even when I could, though occasionally agreeable, I did not think the philosophical message was coherent or interesting enough to warrant the effort the book required me to put in. I'll continue to read Hesse's books, as I still remember how much I loved Siddhartha, but I'll be much less confident next time around.