I first read Narcissus and Goldmund ten years ago this February – finishing it at 11:33pm on February 16th, 2004 (the inscription in the back cover tells me). It’s likely that I was at my house on Barbara Circle, in Little Rock, an idyllic three bedroom where I spent my senior year of college. It’s possible that I was traveling somewhere with our track team, laying in the back of a team bus taking us north to the indoor tracks of the midwest, or biding time in a hotel or at one of our early season meets.
The note in the back of the book only gives the date and time.
I’d already read some Hermann Hesse by then – Siddhartha and Steppenwolf, to be sure, perhaps even Demien (which I purchased at Little Rock’s fabulous Lorenzen & Co Booksellers). But after ten years, Narcissus and Goldmund has stuck out, somehow: there was something about this parable that effected the twenty-three year old me greatly. Delving into the passion at the heart of artistic expression, I recall the book presenting some sacred devotion to life, love and connection that however subtly contributed to the momentum of my post-collegiate years.
This past July, as I began thinking about these youthful books and first (re)read On the Road, I coupled Narcissus and Goldmund into a short list that I thought might capture the transformation that Literature had wrought on my young mind and life. The list included (or has grown to include):
- On the Road by Jack Kerouac
- Narcissus and Goldmund by Hermann Hesse
- Immortality by Milan Kundera
- Life after God by Douglas Coupland
- 100 Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Through On the Road I was heartened to discover in the text that neither of us had aged so terribly that the experience made me cringe. True, there was sadness where before I may have seen lust or excitement, fear where before there had been confidence. But alongside what Kerouac had to say to me at thirty two rang loud and clear the message he had for the younger Bryan, and it was a lesson I’m still grateful to have been taught.
With Hesse I had a similarly passionate relationship as a younger man, reading nearly everything I could get my hands on between the ages of twenty and twenty-five: Steppenwolf, Demien, Rosshalde, Siddhartha, Narcissus and Goldmund (The Glass Bead Game site on my shelf, a treat to myself for some future date when I can read a “new” book by a favourite long-deceased author). Each of them is dog-eared and wildly underlined; the’ve been lent to friends and frequently to students (especially a yellow and yellowing copy of Demien that is currently on a vacation with one of the TALONS alumni). Concerned as so many of his stories and characters are with discovering one’s passion, voice and place in the world, he is what I consider to be an essential voice for wandering youth.
But I’ve long held Narcissus and Goldmund somewhere above his other works – more profound, more lasting, or all encompassing. I’m not sure what, exactly, and so I sat down this February, somewhat coincidentally to see what all the fuss had been about all those years ago.
As in most of Hesse, there is the ring of a Jungian call to pursue one’s heroic calling in life that Narcissus presents his younger pupil Goldmund as he counsels him away from life at the seminary:
“Natures of your kind, with strong, delicate senses, the soul-oriented, the dreamers, poets, lovers are almost always superior to us creatures of the mind. You take your being from your mothers. You live fully; you were endowed with the strength of love, the ability to feel.”
Goldmund’s sensitivity is aesthetic, where Narcissus’ is logical, and the novel makes a case for the superiority of the former as we follow Goldmund away from school to bathe in the personal riddles of time and the nature of the self on a pilgrimage that may be characterized as spiritual without being religious.
There is an exaltation of mystery here that I no-doubt found inspiring as a fifth year senior looking ahead at graduation.
“Oh how incomprehensible everything was, and actually sad, although it was also beautiful. One knew nothing. One lived and ran about the earth and rode through forests, and certain things looked so challenging and promising and nostalgic: a star in the evening, a blue harebell, a reed-green pong, the eye of a person or of a cow. And sometimes it seemed that something never seen yet long desired was about to happen, that a veil would drop from it all; but then it passed, nothing happened, the riddle remained unsolved, the secret spell unbroken, and in the end one grew old and looked cunning like Father Anselm or wise like Abbot Daniel, and still one knew nothing perhaps, was still waiting and listening.”
In the spring of 2004, I was on the verge of graduating from university. I had lived in Arkansas for most of five years, beginning when I was scarcely 18, and the life I had established for myself in the south would soon be over and in many ways irretrievable. While this is true in some ways of all experience, leaving Little Rock brought with it the additional mourning that most of my friends from that time would be returning to their own home countries and cities across the States, and whether I was conscious of it at the time or not, I was comforted through Goldmund’s experience of death bringing his life into a crystalline focus:
“He thought that he, that all men, trickled away, changing constantly, until they finally dissolved, while their artist-created images remained unchangeably the same.
“He thought that fear of death was perhaps the root of all art, perhaps also of all things of the mind. We fear death, we shudder at life’s instability, we grieve to see the flowers wilt again and again, and the leaves fall, and in our hearts we know that we, too, are transitory and will soon disappear. When artists create pictures and thinkers search for laws and formulate thoughts, it is in order to salvage something from the great dance of death, to make something that lasts longer than we do.”
Indeed, a journal entry from the afternoon of February 12th, 2004 – that was written on a charter bus taking our track and field team north to compete at an indoor meet the University of Iowa – is freckled with Hesse quotes, and captures a purely preserved expression of my mind at the time:
“We are in a western-looking saddle of the country, with sparse snow around the trees that flank farmers’ fields. It feels like Wyoming, the sun-bleached yellow terrain, mountainous as we run down the ancient Ozarks. Dirt roads and barns abound, as do the hawks riding updrafts against the dusty foothills, bullet holes against the blue sky.
“It is a place that lends itself to a trip through one’s mental landscape, and easy to become lost in your thoughts up here, and as we ascend a ridge-winding two-lane highway and climb above a soil-rich rolling valley – Marshall Welcomes You, the sign says – something says to me, Merritt, BC, and in a flash I see British Columbia. It is fleeting though and only a moment before the small-town churches and Missouri mom-and-pops begin to dominate the scenery, and Canada is an infinite ride away into the North.
“Home is both a million miles away and yet somehow coming closer than I care to have it. Anyone who cares to read these words will traipse through these last few dozen pages and tire of the time I have devoted to the loss and remorse the idea of leaving Arkansas has brought me. But it is something which weighs mightily upon me.”
As with Kerouac earlier this year, I am happy to find in the rereading of Narcissus and Goldmund that my younger self was fortunate to encounter an author and a companion such as Hesse. Goldmund confronts his own existential nausea with a devotion to applying his aesthetic sensitivities – as both the cause of Goldmund’s inspiration as much as it is his torment – to art that was able to capture “the solemn feeling of a rare and great experience which he might perhaps know one more time in the course of his life or which might remain unique.”
With so many of my own life experiences nearing an end, my anxiety was given solace in attempting to live with what Hesse called:
“A deep reverence, a great earnestness, and at the time a secret fear of the moment when this high, unique experience would be over, classified, swallowed by the routine of days.”
Reverence alone, Goldmund realizes, is not enough, however.
“In order to create a work like this, one had not only to carry images in one’s soul; one also had to have inexpressibly trained, practiced hands. Perhaps it was after all worthwhile to place one’s entire life at the service of art, at the expense of freedom and broad experience, if only in order to be able once to make something this beautiful, something that had not only been experienced and envisioned and received in love, but also executed to the last detail with absolute mastery. It was an important question.”
It is, and it’s one of many pieces of the book that struck me in 2014 as much as in 2004. Almost thirty three, I’m no longer looking out on adulthood as the Void Beyond University so much as I am poised between the path I’ve created of it thus far, and the possibilities it holds into the future. Ten years on from both Hesse and graduation, I have accumulated a good many of the life moments and experiences that will have cumulatively determined who I was in this life. And while my interpretation of the wrestling with that question may have shifted, it feels central to feelings about my self and life today as much as ever.
Like Goldmund, I have remained “in his dreams or his thought-filled moments of rest, overlooking a flowering or wilting valley, [...] all eyes an artist.” With him I have “longed desperately to halt the gracefully drifting nonsense of life with [my] mind and transform it into sense,” though of late this has taken on a more intellectual aim than artistic.
Toward the end of the book, Narcissus directs me to consider the merits of complementing this pursuit with more art, and heart:
“Our thinking is a constant process of converting things to abstractions, a looking away from the sensory, an attempt to construct a purely spiritual world. Whereas you take the least constant, the most mortal things to your heart, and in their very mortality show the meaning of the world. You don’t look away from the world; you give yourself to it, and by your sacrifice to it raise it to the highest, a parable of eternity. We thinkers try to come closer to God by pulling the mask away from His face. You come closer to Him by loving His creation and re-creating it. Both are human endeavors, and necessarily imperfect, but art is more innocent.”
Because just as the more academic or reflective posts on this site are records of ideas and expressions of an evolving self, there are emotions and realizations captured in these aged books of both Hermann Hesse and my own ink that light the way to an understanding that yet eludes meaning, an exaltation of
“How mysterious this life [is,] how deep and muddy its waters [run], yet how clear and noble what emerge[s] from them.”