A first in a series (hopefully) of book responses. We start with a fairly old novel by Nobel Laureate Herman Hesse, one that came highly recommended (Thanks Feli).
Narcissus and Goldmund by Herman Hesse
The use of contrasts in literature isn’t an uncommon tactic to characterise the protagonists and to draw out the unique traits of those who are being contrasted. I expected a simple study of two men, one pious and another worldly, and how they differed in their relations with the world. I was wrong and I guess that’s why Herman Hesse won a Nobel prize for his writing. The book, written in an almost lyrical manner, was nothing but simple and even ventured into the realms of Plato’s theory of forms in its explanation of how people see things.
The first thing that struck me was the name of one of the protagonists. Narcissus the monk was as far from his Greek namesake as he can get. He was described to be a brilliant teacher whose character was unimpeachable and only had a touch of arrogance as his sole failing. While not the ultra-rational type teacher that we often associate with such characters, Narcissus represents the voice of reason, intellect and religious spirituality. It was he who ‘awakened’ Goldmund to his true nature not once but twice and was the foil for the latter’s development of his sensual and later artistic nature. One grows to like Narcissus for his forthrightness and deep spirituality that is slightly disturbing yet fascinating in its ability to see the true nature of others. Pity we didn’t see more of him but in such cases, the brevity of his appearances enhances his role.
The uneven characterisation of the two protagonists is evident when one realises about a third into the story that it’s the gradual awakening of Goldmund that’s going to take up the bulk of the narrative. Goldmund is the likeable rogue who, once awakened to his sensual nature, starts on quest for all the sensual delights of the world. In his wanderings, he discovers the delights of the carnal world, experiences cold and hunger and later has his artistic side awakened by an encounter with a particularly beautiful and evocative carving of Our Lady. He tries to apprentice with a sculptor who guides him in his artistic awakening only to get dissatisfied with this life and take on the wanderer’s life again.
Goldmund fornicates, kills, lies, cheats and takes advantage of his good looks to the greatest possibility. He also discovers more about his true nature in the process. More than just a simple awakening of the senses, Goldmund discovers himself and his true nature through his travels, something that Narcissus already hints at knowing and says so at the end of the book. The cliché about the journey being more than the destination rings true too. Goldmund finds that when he does achieve a goal, he’s bereft of purpose and goes off wandering again to find it. He represents a seeker who is always dissatisfied with what he finds and goes on to find something else. This restlessness resonates with most of us.
The theme of awakening and reawakening runs through the whole novel and even though one expects the already awakened Narcissus to be the constant one, he too changes. He too comes to a second awakening and something that we often do not realise about people – that being awakened to one’s innermost nature is one thing but what happens during this awakening process can also bring changes to one’s innermost nature. That happens to both and although one feels that the resolution was a quite sudden and a tad contrived, it did serve to show a small amount of conversion that occurred with both men that truly showed why their spirits were inextricably linked.
Narcissus says, in my favourite line of the book, “I call a man awake who knows in his conscious reason his innermost unreasonable force, drives and weaknesses and knows how to deal with them.” We often don’t see the need to awake from anything because we don’t see what drives ourselves. Problem is that we don’t realise that we can be somnambulating through much of our lives – we often don’t get the chance to wander as Goldmund did to discover this inner self. Maybe that’s what we’re all doing – trying to wake up and searching for the thing or moment that will do that. Hope we get that chance to. I know I am – and I guess that’s why my own wanderings brought me over here.