Summer Book Project: Narcissus & Goldmund

Image courtesy of Solomon Says

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 Steppenwolfto 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 RoadI 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):

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.”

On Jack’s 92nd Birthday

Jack Kerouac would be ninety-two today (March 12th), a birthday the New Republic has celebrated with a Reconsideration originally published in December of 1972. Noting a recent change in fashion that “left Kerouac’s work inert and his legend inactive,” William Crawford Woods set out to devour the scope of the author’s “one vast book” of a life in literature, discovering (in Dharma Bums)

Kerouac’s special grace—which is, at his best, to shower mindful tenderness on the crummy specifics of the day-to-day. It’s a grace given no- where more freely than in this book, where the writer’s later bleaker vision (“Why else should we live but to dis- cuss . . . the horror and terror of all this life . . .”) is crowded off the page by animal enjoyment. The uniform celebration of food, sex, art and exercise that is the core of the book suggests the intellectual sensuality that was the core of the Beat esthetic: poems and women, both to be made.

This past summer I made a point of rereading On the Road more than ten years since I discovered it as an undergraduate, and was struck with the same sense of energy:

Like Wordsworth, Kerouac’s work is not so much craft as it is a beatific exaltation of This Moment in Life, spoken plainly in the language of the people. Not to say this wasn’t also Hemingway’s concern; but one gets the sense that for him or Fitzgerald, there is an intellectual factor at work. In Kerouac, the mind is an obstacle to be overcome in deference to the Now, and the image Kerouac creates of Dean and their mutual quest is a story of saints engaging in communion with the people and the land  West, where the Beats introduce the transcendentalism of Thoreau and Emerson to the American Night.

Woods points out that Jack’s legacy is rightly obscured by rising tide that drowned modernity’s brief infatuation with “spontaneous prose,” noting that:

Kerouac, by subscribing to so strict a program, had made himself into the one thing he professed himself to be at war with: an academic from the start. Another novelist might discover his materials and methods painfully from book to book, but Kerouac came with a design that only genius could save from formula, and I think we will see that that salvation was not forthcoming. For what the author did was write the same book eight, 10, a dozen times, and in the end his “spontaneous prose” was shuffled from volume to volume in an unspontaneous manner.

But as I discovered this summer, “I could have had worse idols than Jack Kerouac, who told me all about the pitfalls of the wandering life all the while extolling the virtues of the truly beatific moments their could be exchanged for.” He is, Woods reminds us today on what would be Jack’s 92nd birthday, “the kind of unanonymous writer to whom some of us have a specific special debt.”

On dipping a toe…

Reading...

Part of my summer plans to reread a few formative books of my university years. 

It’s been ten years almost since I consciously “outgrew” Jack Kerouac’s singular influence on my young mind. Having long exhausted myself of his optimistic early work, I petered out through Desolation Angels and Big Sur as Jack faded into alcoholism and a sense that, in repetition, the bliss of beat lost its lustre. I grew to think that perhaps this lack of depth was the cautionary tale of the Beats: that a slavish devotion to the sanctity of the Moment can blind us to exploring our future potential.

By the end of university (and since), I was looking for more in my life that Kerouac seemed to hold the blueprints to, and I haven’t looked back on him or the Beats (with the exception of Alan Ginsberg who, by living, has aged along with his work, a lot better) since.

So I might have approached On the Road with some skepticism that what had enraptured my twenty year old mind would convince my accumulated years (rest assured, I hear more judgement of myself here than of Kerouac). But I was immediately swept up in the warm weather freewheeling of the writing, and the fluidity of the early scenes.

Kerouac meets Neal Cassidy, and steels himself for the earliest of his ventures west with $100 in his pocket. From there we are in transport trucks’ cabs, the beds of pickups with nomadic labourers, and sleeping out in the open air on the high plains. It is 1947 and Kerouac and the characters populating these pages are huddled at the hearth of an energy that will come to set America aflame.

Mad Ones

Because even if it will prove eventually fatal, the romanticism, the reverance and revolutionary energy dripping from Kerouac’s descriptions in the early passages has taken me in a way I’m not even sure it did in my early twenties. To reread On the Road all these years later brings with it the expanded awareness of what the book’s ideas wrought in the larger culture, but also a more intimate sense of what notions and self I took from it, and having been running with ever since.

 

One of the things I remember being enamoured with as a young writer – to my benefit and detriment in equal measure, I think –  was Kerouac’s fervent devotion to the creation of a beautiful spontaneous phrase.

 

Kerouac's Rules for Spontaneous Prose

Following America’s Lost Generation authors, Kerouac and the Beats are actors in the literary folk tradition of Walt Whitman and Woody Guthrie – little wonder On the Road had such a profound effect on Bob Dylan. Like Wordsworth, Kerouac’s work is not so much craft as it is a beatific exaltation of This Moment in Life, spoken plainly in the language of the people. Not to say this wasn’t also Hemingway’s concern; but one gets the sense that for him or Fitzgerald, there is an intellectual factor at work. In Kerouac, the mind is an obstacle to be overcome in deference to the Now, and the image Kerouac creates of Dean and their mutual quest is a story of saints engaging in communion with the people and the land  West, where the Beats introduce the transcendentalism of Thoreau and Emerson to the American Night.

Prophet

And while it might be easy to write off such sentiments as the definition of youthful idealistic hyperbole, I am still struck with how intoxicating it all is. That I remember reading good chunks of On the Road in the back of a charter bus taking my track team to Iowa lays my own experience on top of Kerouac’s descriptions:

As in a Dream

I forget sometimes that for five years of my life, I existed in a pretty solitary world. True, I was often surrounded by people; but in flying back and forth, bussing across the south and prairie states, running races and finding my way in school an life so far from home, my experience was mine alone and I was writing it in my own mind. With all that such an opportunity afforded me, I could have had wore idols than Jack Kerouac, who told me all about the pitfalls of the wandering life, all the while extolling the virtues of the truly beatific moments their could be exchanged for.

How many times in those years would Kerouac, if not able to offer advice, be able to say he’d been there?

 

I suddenly found myself in the street with no money. My last dollar war gone.” 

“It was sad to see them go, and I realized that I would never see any of them again, but that’s the way it was.” 

And yet how many times would I learn to know what he had been chasing: “The great blazing stars came out, the far-receding sand hills got dim. I felt like an arrow that could shoot out all the way”

Having met him again after so many years during these last few days in the first week of summer, it’s a joyful reunion.

Nowhere Everywhere

The Summer Book Project

Jack Kerouac Manuscript Photo in San Francisco Magazine

Photo by Thomas Hawk (click image to read the interesting history of this photograph)

For a formative period in my youth, I was made of books and words. Half a continent from home at the end of my adolescence, I filled the blank slate of my life in Arkansas with the stories and poetry of the literary zeitgeist of people like Jack Kerouac, Jim Morrison or Douglas Coupland.

Such was the impact and guidance of these written voices, I set out at twenty to contribute to the world the verbose favour my idols had given to me. I changed my major – from Biology to English – and began a journey inward, striving to explore and give name to that singular storm of experience and mind that was mine alone, and make something of the intangible mystery of life.

I wrote, and wrote. And wrote.

Journals, essays, stories, poems. Novels, nonfiction, songs and sharpie-scribbled graffiti on fliers and scraps of paper around my campus.

The arc of those years – from leaving home at eighteen for Arkansas, and returning home more than five years later – is plotted in ragged journals, floppy disks, printed pages and the highlighted passages of a few hundred books. And while I’m still very much the young man who worshipped Kerouac and Kundera, and Kafka, I’m more and more aware of the tuning of new pages into a different sense of adulthood than I’ve yet known.

I wonder what the thirty-two year old me would see in the self of ten years ago, and have been toying with an idea that might give some sense of an introduction between them: over the next ten weeks, I’m planning to go back through a few of those seminal texts, see if I can dig up my own corresponding writings of when I was reading them, and reflect on what the intervening years have wrought.

To keep the project focused and attainable, I’ve picked three books to re-read this summer, all of which lent considerable influence to my young mind:

I read On the Road during Christmas Break at home in the year 2000, Immortality while working at a Boy Scout Summer Camp in the Ozark Mountains in 2003, and One Hundred Years of Solitude sometime toward the end of 2004. Roughly coinciding with my time in university (1999-2004), I’m excited at the prospect of using at least some of my vacation time this summer looking back on those years when my reality was written in my own words, and the words of others.