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Narcissus and Goldmund
By Hermann Hesse

The Author

Hermann Hesse’s literary career was long and distinguished. His first published works were poems and short stories, written shortly before the turn of the century, which he followed with four early novels – Peter Camenzind (1904), Beneath the Wheel (1906), Gertrude (1910), and Rosshalde (1914). All of these stories dealt, in one way or another, with the unreconcilable struggles men face in their lives: intellect versus emotion, art versus family, spirit versus self. These books received some critical success, launching Hesse into a career as a freelance writer.

The 1910s were a life-changing decade for Hesse. In 1911 he travelled to India, where he developed what would become a lifelong fascination with Eastern philosophies. Also during this time, he underwent psychoanalysis under a disciple of Carl Jung’s, which would also play a role in much of his fiction. Finally, in 1919 he published Demian, a portrait of a young man struggling for “self-awareness” in his life, which proved to be Hesse’s breakthrough novel, and was especially popular among recent World War I veterans. Hesse followed this success with several important novels in the 1920s and ‘30s. Siddharta (1922) combined elements of Eastern philosophy with Jungian psychology; it eventually became a hallmark of 1950s Beat culture after its translation into English. Steppenwolf (1927), like many of Hesse’s novels, had elements of autobiography within it, describing the spiritual struggles of an aging intellectual in the late 1920s. Its protagonist, Harry Haller, is isolated from society by the internal division between man and wolf he senses within himself, until he meets a doppelgänger-self in the person of a strange woman, Hermine. Finally, in 1930 Hesse published Narcissus and Goldmund, a medieval novel about two men’s disparate paths – spiritual and sensual, intellectual and artistic – toward fulfillment and the “Great Mother.”

From 1931-43, Hesse composed his masterpiece, Das Glasperlenspiel (“The Glass Bead Game,” later published in English as Magister Ludi), for which he won a Nobel Prize. This novel told of a futuristic society in which the intellectual elite live a life separate and apart from the rest of society, passing on their wisdom through a mysterious Glass Bead Game. The book takes the form of a biography, whose “subject,” Joseph Knecht, rises up to become Master of the Game. Following receipt of the Nobel Prize, Hesse published no major works, but continued to write essays and short fiction until his death in 1962.

The Plot

Narcissus and Goldmund concerns two medieval men, both educated at a cloister called Mariabronn, but whose lives take dramatically different paths. Narcissus is a gifted scholar, who avidly embraces asceticism and monkhood, going on to become Abbot of Mariabronn. In contrast, Goldmund discovers early on that he is not, by nature, a scholar. The two become friends, and Narcissus helps Goldmund to discover his own nature by assisting him in recalling his long-repressed memory of his mother. While Narcissus finishes his novitiate and becomes a monk, Goldmund soon leaves the cloister and sets out to make his fortune, surviving by his wits and his ability to make any woman fall madly in love with him. Eventually he is drawn to a career as an artist, and discovers his true calling. After working for many years and fashioning his masterpiece – a sculpture of St. John modelled after Narcissus – Goldmund returns to the monastary in his waning years. There he discovers the great prestige to which his boyhood friend has risen. The two men are both greatly moved by their reunion, and by the wonderous contrast between their lives that is now evident. After going on one last expedition – unsuccessfully – and doing some artistic pieces for the cloister, Goldmund falls ill and dies, leaving Narcissus to contemplate his fate.

Goldmund's adventures merit some more detail exposition. After a few years of random trysts, Goldmund’s first real “adventure” comes when he stays at the house of a nobleman, only to fall in love with both of the lord’s two teenaged daughters (Julie, a young temptress, and Lydia, whom Goldmund truly loves). Working as a tutor, Goldmund endures this complex situation for a while, until the lord finds out and gets angry, and chases him off.

In his subsequent wanderings, he meets a vagrant named Viktor and travels with him a while; eventually, Viktor attempts to rob him, and Goldmund slays him in self-defense. Later, while staying at a cloister, Goldmund sees a beautiful madonna statue and – moved by the amazing artistry of its creator – resolves to become an artist himself. He travels to a nearby town, where he apprentices himself to the madonna’s sculpter, one Master Niklaus. After years of hard work, Goldmund has become a master sculptor and has produced his own masterpiece – St. John in Narcissus’ image. However, his insatiable wanderlust resurfaces and he leaves behind his career as Niklaus’ partner in scultping.

His second period of wandering is marked by living through the Plague years in a small cottage on the outskirts of a town, along with his wife Lene and a companion, Robert. (One noteworthy incident during this period occurs when Goldmund encounters a young Jewish girl, Rebekkah, whose family had been persecuted as scapegoats for the plague. This is interesting in the historical context of burgeoning jingoism and anti-Semitism in Germany at the time the novel was written.) After several years, Lene dies and Goldmund resolves to return to his artistic pursuits and craft his life-defining work: a madonna in the image of his mother.

Again seeking out Master Niklaus, he returns to the city to find the Master dead and his formerly beautiful daughter a withered spinster. Resettling himself, he soon falls in love with and seduces a beautiful woman – Agnes, who is, by chance, the mistress of the city’s Count. This ends badly, when the count discovers Goldmund in her chambers and sentences him to be hanged as a thief. While waiting for his death, Goldmund is miraculously saved by Narcissus, now the Abbot John of the Mariabronn monastary, who just happened to be passing by. With Narcissus, Goldmund returns to Mariabronn, where he spends his waning years. He ultimately crafts his madonna there in the image of Lydia, his first (and only?) true love; he then dies, essentially at peace.

Some Analysis

The Gender of God:
Masculinity, Femininity, and Religion in Narcissus and Goldmund

One of the most striking features of Hermann Hesse’s fiction is the author’s ability to isolate and accentuate the divergent instincts and influences that act upon every human being. In his medieval romance Narcissus and Goldmund, Hesse explores one of the most fundamental such conflicts man faces: the diametrically opposed forces of masculinity and femininity that respectively dominate the various spheres of life.

Narcissus and Goldmund is a philosophically weighty tale of two good friends whose lives take dramatically different paths. While Narcissus devotes his life to “masculine” pursuits of scholarship and asceticism, eventually rising to become abbot of the cloister, he recognizes early on that his counterpart Goldmund’s nature is very different. With the help of Narcissus, Goldmund rediscovers his long lost memories of his mother, after which he leaves the cloister to seek his fortune – as a wandering rogue and a lover of beautiful women.

Goldmund eventually finds his true calling as a sculptor, crafting magnificent works of art, but he finds that he cannot settle down to a craftsman’s life. Returning to the road, he wanders once again, and lives through the Plague, until an ill-fated romantic tryst leaves him abandoned by friends and sentenced to be hung. By miraculous chance, Narcissus happens by in his capacity as abbot and rescues Goldmund from his fate, whence the artist returns to the cloister with his old friend, to live out the remaining few years of his life. Goldmund perishes never having realized his ultimate artistic goal: to sculpt an image of the Universal Mother who is his fundamental inspiration and spiritual foundation.

Such a storyline makes clear the extraordinary differences between what Hesse describes as the masculine and feminine spheres of life. However, like Hesse’s other novels, the story of Narcissus and Goldmund ultimately reveals beneath this apparent dichotomy a certain synthesis – in this case, centering on religion. Although Hesse contrasts the masculinity of Narcissus’s intellectual worship in the Church with the femininity of Goldmund’s sensual “worship” of pleasure, Narcissus and Goldmund characterizes art as an ultimate expression of spirituality that encompasses both masculinity and femininity. In this way, Hesse presents religion as transcending the barriers between the spiritual spheres of man and woman.

Despite Goldmund’s apparent divergence from the path of religion, in fact his “feminine” approach to life expresses its own, distinct form of religious spirituality. Throughout his youth at the Mariabronn cloister, Goldmund struggles with the conflict between his ambition and his nature; although his father has instilled within him a desire for academic success and sacrifice to the Church, Goldmund comes to realize that his fundamental need to love and be loved – an aspect of his Mother-self – stands as an obstacle to progression in the Church. As such, he sees his friendship with Narcissus as “a new altar for reverence. Here he was permitted to love, to abandon himself without sinning, to give his heart to an admired older friend, more intelligent than he, to spiritualize the dangerous flames of the sense, to transform them into nobler fires of sacrifice” (27).

In this way, Goldmund’s friendship with Narcissus serves to direct his “feminine” lust for sensual and emotional fulfillment toward his religious and spiritual development. Such spiritualization of sensuality is a basic aspect of Goldmund’s character, and it displays a feminine aspect of religion that lies outside the scope of the intellectual, masculine spirituality of Narcissus and the Church. Indeed, perhaps the most revealing example of this pattern is Goldmund’s own realization of his feminine nature, as expressed in the “rediscovery” of his mother that Narcissus helps to effect:

As he awoke from the rapidly vanishing dream world that was sliding away from him, he saw it. He rediscovered the image, and trembled with pain and joy. His eyes had been opened: he saw Her. He saw the tall, radiant woman with the full mouth and glowing hair—his mother…. O mother, mother! Mountains of rubbish collapsed, oceans of forgetfulness vanished. The lost woman, the indescribably beloved, was again looking at him with her regal light-blue eyes. (51)
This rediscovery of his repressed feminine nature is remarkable in part because of the powerful religious imagery associated with it: the whole experience is cast as a Revelation of sorts, not unlike a vision of God. In addition, the Mother herself is characterized as divine in nature—an ideal of femininity and maternity, almost entirely divorced from the literal figure from Goldmund’s past. As such, she is strongly associated with two religious figures, Eve (to whom Narcissus has already compared her) and the Virgin Mary (Goldmund’s favorite saint, and the target of many of his prayers).

All this further reinforces the religious element of Goldmund’s feminine nature; this aspect of his is not only sensual and emotional, but also profoundly spiritual. One critic points out that such associations are present even in the picaresque middle section of the novel, as Goldmund explores his sexuality and his own identity: among the many women Goldmund loves, perhaps the most significant is Lydia, a pious girl associated with both the Virgin Mary of Christianity and the “devouring goddess” Kali of Hindu mysticism. This duality illustrates the fundamental unity of the “Great All-Mother,” whose dramatically contrasting aspects of sensuality and suffering are ultimately united as elements of the same spiritual divinity (Casebeer 122-23).

Such divinity is most evident in what may be Goldmund’s most spiritually-moving experience - when he witnesses a childbirth for the first time and recognizes in the agonized face of the mother the very same expression of sexual ecstasy with which he is so familiar. This experience shapes how Goldmund views the Great Mother as a unified spiritual influence upon him. Overall, then, it is clear that in Goldmund, Hesse expresses the “hidden” (or repressed) feminine ideal of sensual religious spirituality, that exists separate and apart from the masculine ideal of intellectualized religion.

But Goldmund’s spirituality is not entirely compatible with his Mother-nature; rather, he finds ultimate religious fulfillment only through artistic expression. Paradoxically, although art enables him to express the sensuality and emotional sensitivity that are central to his feminine nature, for Goldmund, both artistic and religious completion lie beyond the feminine sphere alone.

Goldmund’s artistic awakening illustrates both the essentially spiritual experience art comprises for him and the paradox of artistic expression as both within and beyond the realm of his own feminine identity. He is moved to take up sculpture when he sees Master Niklaus’s madonna: “Delicately, gently she leaned forward, the blue cloak hung from her narrow shoulders; she stretched out a delicate girlish hand, and the expression of her eyes above the grieving mouth and the gracefully rounded forehead were so alive and beautiful, so deeply permeated with spirit that Goldmund thought he had never seen anything like it anywhere before…” (146). Clearly, seeing the madonna is a genuinely religious experience for Goldmund, a revelation on par with the rediscovery of his mother memory. What’s more, this artistic enlightenment “speaks” to Goldmund via the statue’s female form and emotional depth - affecting him in the most spiritual part of his nature: his feminine sensuality and emotional sensitivity.

At the same time, however, Goldmund soon discovers that the creator of the madonna, Master Niklaus, is an extraordinarily masculine figure, a craftsman analogue to Narcissus in his almost intellectual approach to sculpture. In addition, when Goldmund himself achieves truly spiritual artistry, it is in his figure of Narcissus as St. John - yet another masculine figure totally divorced from Goldmund’s own feminine nature. This paradoxical conflict suggests that while only artistic expression offers Goldmund true religious “wholeness,” it falls outside the sphere of the Mother-nature that defines Goldmund on his most basic level.

Another, similar barrier separates art from Goldmund’s feminine nature. He soon learns that art requires a degree of devotion and self-sacrifice to artistry that he is unable or unwilling to offer. Part of the feminine “lust for life” Goldmund exhibits is an uncontrollable yearning for freedom and independence, which leads him to the wandering “gypsy” lifestyle he so adores. But true artistic expression, as a spiritual sacrifice of the sort Master Niklaus teaches Goldmund about, would require Goldmund to abandon the lifestyle of his Mother-nature in favor of a settled, “masculine” life as a craftsman. Ultimately, this is the reason why Goldmund fails to achieve complete spiritual fulfillment through artistic expression, in that he never completes the statue of the Great Mother which is his most cherished artistic ideal.

Critic Oskar Seidlin eloquently describes Goldmund’s ultimate failing:

In art the two poles, the world of the father and the world of the mother, seem to merge into a synthesis. And yet, a full and permanent union is impossible. The Matrix which is the chaos will always elude the grip of the logos. The supreme image, the statue of Eve, the All-Mother, which Goldmund has carried in his heart all his life, he will never be able to finish. Death, the world of the father, in which there is no growth, no form, no dream, where there is only the imageless stillness of the thought, will overcome Goldmund before the supreme achievement is even begun. (Infotrac)
The “synthesis” of father and mother which Seidlin discusses is in fact the true unity offered only by God - in other words, religious spirituality.

On his deathbed, Goldmund comes to accept this failure of his; he acknowledges that he will never carve the “most sacred of all images” (311), but finds comfort in the fact that while the Great Mother cannot prevent his death, his own Mother-nature has taught him how to die at peace with himself. That such religious synthesis of male and female evades Goldmund, bound by his Mother-nature despite his transcendent artistic gifts, suggests that spiritual fulfillment lies beyond the boundaries of the feminine sphere.

The novel’s conclusion illustrates a parallel realization on Narcissus’s part: after being reunited with Goldmund, Narcissus comes to understand that while his friend’s feminine nature prevented him from achieving religious completion, the Church’s intellectual, masculine approach to God does not encompass spiritual fulfillment either. Hence, religious spirituality ultimately transcends the division between male and female, intellectuality and sensuality.

On the one hand, Narcissus reunites with a Goldmund who is spiritually crushed by years of hardship, a strange combination of transcendent artist and base vagrant. After reintroducing Goldmund to the structured, masculine spirituality of the Church, Narcissus observes the true limits of the spirituality the artist was able to achieve on his own. On the other hand, Goldmund sheds light upon Narcissus’s own spiritual limitations. Casebeer describes how the two men’s conversations have a profound impact on Narcissus, as the abbot begins to feel the true importance of art as a unifying force upon the masculine-feminine duality of the world, and to appreciate his own deep-seated love for his friend (137).

Not only this, though, the conversations cause Narcissus to question the very fabric of his spiritual existence:

But he had not only been enriched by Goldmund. He had also grown poorer because of him, poorer and weaker. The world in which he lived and made his home, his world, his cloister life, his priestly office, his scholarly being, his well-constructed thought edifice—all this had been shaken to its foundations by his friend and was now filled with doubt. Certainly, seen from the point of view of the cloister, from the point of view of reason and morality, his own life was better, righter, steadier, more orderly, more exemplary… much purer, much better than the life of an artist, vagrant, and seducer of women. But seen from above, with God’s eyes - was this exemplary life of order and discipline, of renunciation of the world and of the joys of the senses, of remoteness from dirt and blood, of withdrawal into philosophy and meditation any better than Goldmund’s life? (297)
Narcissus has lived his entire life under the assumption that the masculine approach – his approach – to life and to God, was the correct one - an assumption the example of Goldmund forces him to reevaluate.

After seeing the magnificent works of art Goldmund fashions for the cloister, though they are nothing compared to the Great Mother madonna Goldmund will never be able to complete, Narcissus appreciates that art offers an avenue to true spirituality that is not open to his own masculine approach. While the Mother-nature of men like Goldmund has both ethical and practical failings, Narcissus comes to understand, so too the Father-nature of men like himself is flawed: it is cynical and overly analytical, structured and divorced from the true joys of life. The sheer force of his own emotional attachment to Goldmund, whether it is a repressed homosexual passion or merely an especially powerfully platonic bond, makes Narcissus realize all that has been lacking from his spiritual life.

Hence, although Narcissus and Goldmund is concerned primarily with Goldmund’s moral, sexual, and artistic development, the concluding chapters add an interesting element describing a real spiritual development on Narcissus’s part. The seminal moment in this development occurs when he witnesses Goldmund’s death. Narcissus sees that while his friend’s feminine nature may have prevented him from achieving spiritual fulfillment in life, Goldmund’s attunement to the Great Mother has prepared him for Death, so that he is able to die at peace. Before the final moment, Goldmund asks his old friend, “But how will you die when your time comes, Narcissus, since you have no mother? Without a mother, one cannot love. Without a mother, one cannot die” (311).

Thus, what Narcissus comes to comprehend from his final years with Goldmund, neither the masculine nor the feminine sphere suffices in and of itself to enable true spiritual fulfillment. As such, God and religion lie in a realm beyond male and female, a realm accessible perhaps only by art.

Superficially, Narcissus and Goldmund presents a false dichotomy between male and female: the masculine world of study and worship, striving intellectually toward God, versus the feminine world of sensuality and emotion, attuned to Mother Nature, but ultimately aspiritual. Upon closer examination, however, Hesse’s novel depicts each sphere as possessing its own unique spirituality, while true spiritual fulfillment lies beyond either one. Indeed, among the only true “glimpses of God” Hesse describes are Goldmund’s artistic endeavors, an avenue to spirituality that transcends the very barrier between masculine and feminine that separates Goldmund from Narcissus. Hence, on a basic level, Narcissus and Goldmund - like many of Hesse’s works - is a form of artistic justification, whereby the author rationalizes his art (writing) as a fundamentally spiritual pursuit that transcends distinctions between “masculine” intellectuality and “feminine” sensuality.

But if spirituality lies beyond both of the latter ideals, where exactly is it? Ultimately, perhaps, Hesse argues that the sphere of God is the sphere of Truth and Beauty - two similarly complementary ideals, yet far more all-encompassing. Here is where Master Niklaus’s madonna, Goldmund’s St. John, Abbot Daniel’s compassion, Narcissus’s understanding of human nature, and all the other wonders of the world reside. This is the fundamental unity that lies beneath the apparent duality man encounters in the world, and at its center is art.

Works Cited

Casebeer, Edwin F. Hermann Hesse. New York: Warner Books, Inc., 1972.

Hesse, Hermann. Narcissus and Goldmund. Trans. Ursule Molinare. New York: Bantam Books, 1971.

Seidlin, Oskar. “Herman Hesse: The Exorcism of The Demon” (1950). Essays in German and Comparative Literature. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1961.

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