Narcissus and Goldmund

Two friends of opposite temperaments express, through actions and discussions, contrasting but not necessarily conflicting philosophies of life. One is a monkish teacher, an intellect, and administrator. The other is a passionate and carefree artist. Together they are supposed to illuminate something that grad students can explain and the rest of us can feel.

Hesse preempts the grad students, however, by letting Narcissus take their place at the discourse lectern: “Whereas we creatures of reason, we don’t live fully; we live in an arid land, even though we often seem to guide and rule you… You are in danger of drowning in the world of the senses; ours is the danger of suffocating in an airless void.”

For a passionate artist, though, Goldmund has plenty of abstract ideas: “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.” A more crass narrator might have simply said that it’s good to go around carousing and creating, without much responsibility.

Setting up the binary structure with two characters representing ends of a spectrum isn’t unique, and its chief danger is that the characters tend to be flat expressions of their ideas, much like obnoxious policy wonks, rather than being full people. There is also a verisimilitude problem for characters like Goldmund, who is more likely to end up dead, given his time and place; Narcissus and Goldmund both also understand and accept their relative places, which is something few accomplish.

No books come to mind that use the duality device as explicitly and strongly as Narcissus and Goldmund. Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being is similar, although its four characters represent the male and female parts of heaviness and lightness and are more fully developed. Several famous narrators perceive another, though without the purity of duality of Narcissus and Goldmund: Heart of Darkness, Moby Dick, and All the King’s Men. None of those, however, use the pole method of expression.

Contrary to my tone above, I did like Narcissus and Goldmund, though it was painful to read at times because I recognize too much of Narcissus and too little of Goldmund. The stories that move from birth to death also elicit a twinge of the unpleasant knowledge of mortality, as does closing the cover of a good book one will never again be able to read for the first time.

A common fate awaits Narcissus, who keeps the world on running smoothly, or Goldmund, who has a damn good time in the fullness of experience. Whether the path chosen by the individual matters at all is also left up to the individual, as Narcissus and Goldmund implies that accepting and pursuing is more important than the destination.

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