on April 2, 2002
Hermann Hesse's "Narcissus and Goldmund" is, in Nietzschean terms, a study of the conflict between the Apollonian (form, order, restraint, the world of ideas) and the Dionysian (passion, frivolity, lust, the world of images), without favoring one or the other. In fact, it seems to suggest that the highest state of humanity is a result of the peaceful coexistence of ideas and images.
The novel takes place in Germany, evidently some time in the late Middle Ages. Narcissus (the Apollonian) is a stoic young monk who teaches at a cloister called Mariabronn. One day a very handsome boy named Goldmund (the Dionysian) is dropped off at Mariabronn by his father to get a religious upbringing. Goldmund is artistic and takes his studies seriously enough, but he is obsessed with thoughts of his departed mother, an issue over which he and Narcissus become close friends. As he grows older, Goldmund realizes that he does not have much use for a monastic life, especially when he discovers the carnal pleasures of the opposite sex. With Narcissus's reluctant approval, he decides to run away from the cloister and blindly follow his passions.
Goldmund wanders around the countryside for many years as a vagrant. A regular Lothario, he survives by pleasuring the various women and girls he meets in every village and homestead. Although living this way makes him tough, even enough to kill a man when provoked, he retains his religious and artistic sensibilities and a certain compassion for the defenseless and the innocent. Impressed by a wooden madonna he sees in a church one day, he seeks out the sculptor who created it and requests to study under him. Goldmund eventually develops into a skillful artist himself, and, eventually returning to Mariabronn, he uses his skill to create wonderful wood carvings and statues for the cloister.
It would appear that Goldmund's life comes full circle by the end of the novel, but his years of wandering permanently alter the convictions he developed as a youth. He tells Narcissus that he can never take religious vows because, while he can accept poverty, he can't abide chastity or obedience. His belief that God has made the world "badly" stems from his experiences during the Black Plague that lays waste to the population: Stopping in a church once, he addresses God with a question that must have been on the minds of many people back then: "...Are you completely disgusted with your creation, do you want us all to perish?"
More lucid and coherent than Hesse's more popular opus "Steppenwolf," "Narcissus and Goldmund" is a great soul-searching type of novel, one that allows a reader, especially a young one, to confront questions about his or her own life. If we consider that Narcissus and Goldmund represent the two extremes of humanity -- Narcissus, the "perfect" Apollonian, and Goldmund, the "perfect" Dionysian (although admittedly there are even more extreme forms of passion than what Goldmund exhibits) -- we might be able to recognize that most of us fall somewhere in the middle; our satisfaction in life lies in finding out where in the middle we are most comfortable.
on January 30, 2002
_Narcissus and Goldmund_ by Hermann Hesse is the story of two men: one an ascetic scholar, the other a passionate student of life. The book chronicles their fateful meeting, Goldmund's pursuit of truth and beauty, and a final reunion of the two friends late in life. It is quite simply the best book I've read thus far. In it, I find artfully and poignantly demonstrated the central conflict of my life, perhaps of all life: the struggle between the intellect and the emotions. The book is best read as a juxtaposition of both of these motivators in our lives. Narcissus represents pure intellect and reason, while Goldmund represents pure emotion and passion. Neither one could truly exist in the world, but Hesse creates them as archetypes of these two motivators in all humans. The struggles they encounter in understanding each other, and the struggles Goldmund encounters in making sense of the world, help us to better understand these two sides of our own character. The struggle teaches us of the beauty that aches, and friendship that knows no bounds. In this conflict one can ultimately find the beauty of truth, and the truth of beauty.
on August 9, 2001
Growing up on the edge of a forest in Siberia; suffering a religous crisis; running away to a faith healer; attempting suicide; getting expelled from school; visiting the East; undergoing analysis with Jung; being hospitalized in a sanatorium; acheiving sudden fame; winning the Nobel Prize; and, finally, living in seclusion in Switzerland for the remainder of his life. Hesse lived an epic life. And this is his most epic book. A common Hesse motif -- two lifelong friends meet, form a special bond, then go their seperate ways. Much happens. The Black Plague comes and goes. The two friends meet again. Both much older. They have a long conversation that will keep you enthralled. This is one of Hesse's specialities -- long, non colloquial conversations that go on for pages. If you appreciate this about Hesse, and especially if you have any interest in Jung or Jungian Psychology, you may want to check out, CG Jung and Hermann Hesse: A Record of Two Friendships, by Miguel Serrano, a Chilean writer who developed relationships with the two men in their old age.
on March 28, 2001
I live quite close to Calw, Germany, where Hesse grew up, and even nearer to Maulbronn, whose cloister is a World Heritage Site and the setting for Mariabronn, where Narcissus and Goldmund meet. If you visit Maulbronn today, the cloister looks amazing like it is described in the opening scenes of Narcissus and Goldmund.
Hesse was mightily unhappy when he was sent to school at Maulbronn; he translated that misery into the restlessness of the student Goldmund in this novel.
Goldmund has no mother (presumably she died giving birth to him--or maybe she ran off. We can't be sure.) His distant and cold father leaves Goldmund at the monastery to be educated. Now in the Middle Ages, there was nothing unusual in that; monasteries were the schools, seats of learning, medical centers and scientific research institutes.
Goldmund meets Narcissus, a handsome, ascetic young novice monk who is well suited for the monastic life and is an ideal monk and incredible scholar. Goldmund, who is the complete opposite from Narcissus (worldly, sexual, sensual) develops a strong friendship with Narcissus, who senses something is very wrong with Goldmund and tries to help him.
Goldmund's subsequent wanderings take him on fantastic adventures and ultimately to finding himself. Narcissus, too, must discover himself, but not in the way he had expected.
This is by far Hesse's most beautiful novel, and an exciting story, too. This is a very good translation; I've read the original German and this translation preserves some of the rhythm of the language that is naturally lost when brought into English.
on February 15, 2001
Over a background of symbolism, the story of Narcissus and Goldmund ("mouth of gold") develops: thinking and feeling; abstraction and concretion; ideas and feelings; intellectual and sensual pleasures.
Goldmund is a student at a Medieval monastery where Narcissus is a teacher. Narcissus opens Goldmund's eyes, revealing to him that the life of the convent is not for him, that he must go out to the world and experience it. So does Goldmund: he wanders around Europe for years, seducing countless women, knowing every pleasure and every misery. He becomes the apprentice of a sculptor, Master Nicholas, with whom he lives for years. Once again he wanders around during the years of the Plague, getting to experience all its horrors. He kills, sins and sees people die. When he seduces the wife of a Count, he gets imprisoned, but Narcissus saves him and takes him back to the monastery, where he lives as an artist, in quiet peace. But he will feel again the need to live in the world, to plunge in the life of the senses...
It may be said that Narcissus and Goldmund symbolize the duality of life, the binarity that consumes us endlessly, the constant switch of feelings and ideas, the eternal search for the meaning of life, that which can not be found only in thought nor only in senses. I can't think of any other book that has revealed so much to me (and so many have revealed much). It is, probably, the real adventure of life that is shown here in all its grandiosity and humbleness. This book can be reread several times, finding new meanings and ideas every time.
on December 5, 2000
I believe I need not include the details of the book here.
As I read the book my thoughts went through some changes. At first, I took Goldmund for a demon-possessed, forsaken child. So when Narcissus, who devoted his life to piety, tried to expose that demon-quality, which came with the image of his mother, within him, I felt that Narcissus was wrong to send him out intot the world, that the life in the cloister was the only way that he could heal the child, by showing him the eternal joy of God. As Goldmund came back to the cloister after the near-death experience in the count¡¯s castle, and began to live a life of an artist, and especially when he felt calm when he was exhorted to pray and sing canticles, I believed him to be on the right track.
However, as I continued see the big picture, I found many parts that made my idea rather less plausible. So I came up with a new idea. Perhaps the two characters implied the difference between Law and Grace? Surely, both character's renewing of struggle everyday resembles the struggle of faith. This new thought had to come to end when Goldmund himself said that he didn¡¯t have any inclination toward God.
But looking back, my idea hardly seems to be the intent of the author. I decided not to involve Christianity and its ideals in this. I believe Hesse was trying to explain that when it comes to how one finds meaning of life (not spiritual atonement), one probably is leading a life between the two very different characters, one seeking it through intellectual thoughts, the other searching it within sensuality, wandering and the inspiration which comes from them.
While I reading the book, I had the chance of reading from Amazon¡¯s customer reviews, and I was amazed how people easily discovered the subject of this book. It did not seem to me so apparent that these characters symbolized anything. It may also be what the author is trying to convey in this novel, how life is; that one doesn¡¯t always recognize where one is heading, how complex it is, what colorful and different things lie in it.
It was not the first time I read the book. Few years ago, when I was around 12, I tried reading this book in my first-language, Korean. I had bought the book without realizing that I already had the English version, because the title had been translated as ¡°Intellect and Love¡±. I felt that this book embodied an easy theme. However, I grew tired of endless dialogue -- so it seemed to me at the time -- between Narcissus and Goldmund. Now that few years have passed, and my understanding of life somewhat grew richer, this book brought some new ideas into my mind. I found myself looking at the two main characters, whom I had seen as two opposing forces before, as linear beings, each heading for the same objective this time.
I believe my thought about the book will continue to evolve as I grow older, as I gain more experience in life.
Certainly a good read.
on May 1, 2000
I first read Narcissus and Goldmund when I was about 20. The conflicts between mind/heart, reason/passion, intellect/emotion were the fulcrum around which my personal voyage of self-discovery turned - at that age.
Now, at 42, I have reread this book. I never appreciated the first time 'round that Hess was describing a completed life. I was too fixated on Goldmund's emancipation through travel. But in the end, after his return to the cloister to create true art, Goldmund hit the road again. He tried in vain to recapture youth only to be spurned by Agnes, the woman he considered to be the most beautiful - and the most like himself. This was a classic description of what we now call the "mid-life crisis".
Neither Narcissus nor Goldmund ended up truly happy, I believe. But that is not the point at all. There was a mutual recognition of the richness in their separate lives. And there was a love and a respect for those differences.
As we all grow up it is these deeper lessons that Hess seeks to impart to us. I'm glad I picked up this excellent book once again and am not surprised to see other reviewers who have done the same with similar results.
A book for living dangerously, and fully.
on April 13, 2000
This is where Hermann Hesse is really at home, in the streets and villages and countryside of old Europe. One wonders what he must have been thinking as much of it was bombed into oblivion in the 1940s. It is certainly a very idyllic place, and one in which it might have been, under certain conditions, pleasant to live. Social politics is not Hesse's strong point; he is more concerned with the individual. In this novel Hesse takes us into the Europe of the Middle Ages to explore the relationship between student and master. I think it is really my favourite, but then, there are so many trying to lay claim to the title, it's hard to be sure. It is a book about youth, about enquiry and about travelling, all at once. Hesse's writing, or the very fine translation of it, has a poetic quality that is unsurpassed for me in modern literature. It seems to help the reader form a deeper impression of the very countryside through which this pair of travellers passes. At the same time, there is a landscape of the mind to which one wishes to return, time and again. For me, Narcissus and Goldmund is a voyage into a time lost, where the very air is somehow rarefied and the colours of grassy fields are at once, soft and vibrant. Tremendous writing; timeless literature.
on February 1, 1999
This has to be one of the best books I have read in my lifetime! It is a great story filled with so much desire, and passion, but interestingly enough it also served as a moral story to me identifying what really is of upmost importance in our lives. It is as much a love story as it is an interesting comparison between two almost opposite character's, them being Narcissus and Goldmund. Each of us have a choice in our lives, to live the role of the academic, or the one of the spirit. Any one of these paths requires total commitment, by the individual, and each takes you to a different destiny. Make the first choice! Buy the book! Then enjoy reading this masterpiece. This has to be one of Germany's best writings. It is so beautifully composed, and it tries to teach you something. You will not be dissapointed, simply a great read!
on March 21, 2000
I loved this book because my prespective of people changed. No longer do I look at people as one dimensional. Books have been written about the differences between races, genders, and classes. This book speaks to the profound and potentially divisive differences inside each of us. The book shows with passion and insight the very essence of man and how with love and respect these differences can be reconciled.
But most interesting to me is that by reading the comments of the readers it is easy to tell who is more Narcissus and who is more Goldmund. Each reader has demonstrated by his/her comments which side of the divide he/she prefers to show us.
Thus, the truth Hesse wrote about is borne out in the comments of his readers.