Narcissus and Goldmund is the story of a passionate yet uneasy friendship between two men of opposite character. Narcissus, an ascetic instructor at a cloister school, has devoted himself solely to scholarly and spiritual pursuits. One of his students is the sensual, restless Goldmund, who is immediately drawn to his teacher's fierce intellect and sense of discipline. When Narcissus persuades the young student that he is not meant for a life of self-denial, Goldmund sets off in pursuit of aesthetic and physical pleasures, a path that leads him to a final, unexpected reunion with Narcissus.
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In my college years, Hermann Hesse was one author considered required reading by my peers. I read and reread all of his better known novels and found them all worthwhile. But of all of Hesse's work, it is Narcissus and Goldmund that moved me most deeply and it is the novel (of Hesse's) to which I have returned to most often.
Like all of Hesse's novels, it is about the the pursuit of the meaning of life, but here the writing is less self-conscious, simpler in some ways, but deeper in the exploring the range of human experience. It has drama, insight, poetic vision and covers a wide range of experiences. It is very Existential in some ways, but touches on the mystical in the arts with a more profound effect than the more "metaphysical" manner of the earlier novels.
This novel is about two medieval men with a very deep friendship but with very different temperaments. The meet in a monastery (after the death of Goldmund's mother). They appear to be complete opposites each seeks to bring meaning to their existence; Narcissus seeks peace and salvation (purity of mind) within a religious life in a monastery, while Goldmund is burning with the desire to experience life and throw himself into the world.
The story is about finding one's way and being true to one's inner nature. Narcissus lives a life of constraint but one that has purpose for him. Goldmund is unhappy in the monastery, and Narcissus tells him "be yourself, try to realize yourself" and encourages him to find his own way. The men separate to following their own paths. We follow the lives of both of these men, and in their contrasting experiences.
Goldmund then wanders the world in search of adventure, love and self-discovery . He has fantastic adventures, experiences the best and worst of humanity surrounded by the Black Plague; and in the mist of all these hardships, he finds meaning and beauty. After being profoundly touched by the beauty of wooden statue of the Madonna, the artist within himself awakens giving a new purpose and direction for his life. He seeks out the artist and becomes his apprentice. He develops his own skills, sacrificing the wild experiences and settling down to work (at least for the duration of the work) and he creates a sculpture of great merit.
Hesse writes powerfully and beautifully on the conflict between the Apollonian (understanding; form, order, restraint, conforming, the world of the intellect/mind) and the Dionysian (experience; passion, frivolity, lust, expression, the world of images/symbol/beauty). Hesse is able to bring out the conflict between flesh and spirit, emotion and control, ambition and modesty. This is a novel about the dilemma of life, and two possible paths that of spiritual pilgrims and that of artistic souls on the road of life. This was perfectly timed for me, in my early twenties, this book seems to express artistically and poignantly the central conflict of my life.
I own dozens of audiobooks, and none are better performed than this one. The narrator, Simon Vance, has the perfect voice, expression and pacing for such a meaningfull story. He varies the pitch and style of his speech to clearly portray each of the characters and expresses the difference between the thoughts and the words of the characters. He never over-acts nor does he ever rush the delivery. I've read the book several times, but in my listening to the audiobook I heard details that I'd never noticed before. As a result of the enjoyment of this performance, I've now purchased many other audiobooks narrated by Simon Vance, they are all well-read. Most highly recommended.
I frankly found this novel a bit tedious. It's quintessentially Germanic. Set rather vaguely in a pre-industrial stylized world of monks, craftsmen, blacksmiths, gypsy women, etc., it tells the story of the life of Goldmund. The life is fairly implausible. There are long, long, sections in which his mind and feelings and relationships are described in depth. The author's outlook, when it comes right down to it, is that the only thing that has real value in the world is aesthetic experience. THe deeper your soul, the deeper, and hence more valuable this will be. EVen when Goldmund is having sex with every girl he meets, this is still understand as essentially aesthetic--or as the foundation for something aesthetic. I think if I'd read this when I was 19 I'd have been very impressed; but not being 19, I found it often tiresome. The narration is very good.