Analysis of Hermann Hesse’s Narcissus and Goldmund

Although Narcissus and Goldmund investigates the notion of reaching death through love and art, the novel by the esteemed Swiss-German author Hermann Hesse (1877–1962) is a rather serene work, built on bipolar, contrasting patterns. Hesse’s previous great novels, Demian (1922) and Steppenwolf (1927), illustrate a classical individuation process, achieved under the guidance of a protagonist who plays the role of a catalytic “demon.” In Demian, the powerful and mysterious Max Demian helps his schoolmate Emil Sinclair act out the dark, hidden energies of his psyche to gain metaphysical completeness and personal fulfillment. The individuation process is guided by Demian’s fascinating mother, Frau Eva, perceived by Sinclair as the embodiment of the profound and cosmic unity of life and death. By choosing Frau Eva as a mother archetype (Urmutter), associated with the glorious figure of a paradoxical lover, Sinclair opens his way toward human completeness, which is always understood through Hesse’s work as the unity of life and death.

A fairly subtle gender split plays a decisive part in achieving this dichotomy. According to Hesse’s beliefs, which served as a principal artistic mechanism in a great many of his writings, the male half of one’s personality, concentrated in the figure of the father, is responsible only for one’s life functions; by contrast, all the most important values in one’s existence—like art, love, dreaming, or spiritual achievement—belong to the feminine half of the self. The same is valid for death, as death is intertwined in Hesse’s system of beliefs with both art and love. As the novelist liked to suggest, by being born one gets right of entry to the basic platform of life, but one has to struggle to gain access to the essential qualities of existence, like art, love, dreaming, or death. The quest for the completing maternal figure became, as such, one of Hesse’s main literary obsessions. Steppenwolf’s spiritual plot of individuation is entirely captured by the leading figure of a strange young woman, Hermes/Hermina, who helps the protagonist, Harry Haller, to deconstruct his overemphasized male personality to reach the hidden beauties of life through dance, errant existence, and theatrical magic.

Hermann Hesse Photograph from Keystone-France / Gamma-Rapho / Getty

In Narcissus and Goldmund, the protagonists are intentionally antithetical. Goldmund is a young and rather helpless boy, brought by his father into the monastery of Mariabronn to expiate, through asceticism and devotion, the sins of a luxurious and unruly mother. Here he meets Narcissus, a young and learned theologian who understands the boy’s deep crisis and helps him to achieve completeness by sending him outside the monastery, into the real world. Becoming a free being and a wanderer—like Knulp, the hero of the homonymous novel written by Hesse as a personal manifesto, or akin to the sublime wanderers of Journey to the East, Goldmund learns the art of perfect sensual love wrapped in joy, exuberance, and suffering, and becomes a visionary, highly skilled sculptor, guided by a famous religious artist, Master Niklaus. As his erotic extravagancies have driven him into all sorts of legal troubles and into severe illness, Narcissus eventually brings him back to the monastery, giving him a place to rest and to die.

Goldmund’s career illustrates a complete cycle of existence that started with the dormant life granted him by his father and ends in exuberant death, earned through love, art, and wandering. Moreover, the boy’s existential individuation process and completeness are remotely controlled by a “cold demon,” Narcissus, who acts in the novel as a perfect “double,” already dedicated to mortification, which leads to spiritual elevation. Accordingly, the main, hidden symbol of the novel is structured around the tension between the two types of death, embodied, respectively, by each protagonist. The difference lies in the quest for death, experienced by Goldmund, in contrast with Narcissus’s everyday silent mortification. Returning to Mariabronn, Goldmund openly challenges his friend’s technique of self-realization, suggesting that death, which completes the cycle of individuation, is something a person must search for by acting out the feminine energies of his existence. There is no completion—or death—without the quest for a mother, whom Goldmund recognizes in every woman he loves, and especially in the clay figures he molds. By locking himself up in a convent and exclusively exacerbating the male energies of his existence, Narcissus—the equation suggests—has definitively lost his way toward completeness. The novel’s ideology sheds light on another main obsession acknowledged by Hesse throughout his life, embodied by the qualitative discrepancies between superior art and less relevant religion. We can trace the relation back to Nietzsche, whose bipolar thinking, originating in Arthur Schopenhauer’s philosophical system, also explains the fictional linkage between Narcissus’s serene, “Apollonian” role and Goldmund’s “Dionysian,” amoral life exuberance and art.

The main symbols of the novel are arranged in vivid dichotomies, straddling the borderline that separates— in Nietzsche’s terms—Apollonian form and Dionysian energy. Some of them reveal the difference between the two protagonists, Narcissus the theologian (later on known as Pater Johannes and abbot of his monastery) and Goldmund the artist. Narcissus spends practically all his time inside the walls of Mariabronn, so he is depicted as fixed to a place that encircles his existence in a sort of ritual, while Goldmund, the lover and the artist, enjoys open spaces as an itinerant wanderer. Narcissus’s devotion and mysticism raises his thinking beyond earthly forms toward the pure light of the Godhead, while Goldmund’s art springs from beneath, as a materialization of what he believes to be the archaic archetypes of the underworld. Narcissus’s career is determined by the saintly example of Christ’s resurrection, while Goldmund’s attraction goes toward an “original Mother of the universe” whose main epiphany is the earth with its sorrows, pains, and vicissitudes. Nevertheless, the devil plays no role in the novel, because Goldmund’s fulfillment relies not on spiritual goals, but on the pure cosmic play of the senses.

When working on the manuscript, Hesse intended to use “the quest for motherhood” as a subtitle for his future novel, but later he rejected this urge. The cosmic mother is conceived here as a jocular energy, which gives birth to forms in order to call them back into nothingness, very much like Schopenhauer’s “blind will” from The World as Will and Representation. In Hesse’s formula, life is a cosmic interplay of creative archetypes, which can be captured only by artists, thinkers, or mystics, whose minds go beyond form into spirituality and abstraction. According to Schopenhauer, the cosmic “will” continuously generates forms from itself through self-limitation, producing the world we live in and experience; the will, however, also tends to return to its infinite primeval and powerful completeness by incessantly destroying the limitation it has erected. Thus, existence is presented by the German philosopher as a continuous game of creation and destruction, having death, and not life, as its final goal: In this striving to recapture the cosmic unity of the primordial creative energy, the “will” ends up by destroying every limitation or form.

Schopenhauer immediately realized that by taking up the image of such cosmic generation, his system would inevitably become a thanatology, that is, a hymn to death. Therefore, he subtly corrected his thinking by introducing the “cold” faculty of the intellect, which could “freeze” the forms forever, sparing them from the inevitable extinction. In Hesse’s novel, Narcissus embodies the faculty of the “freezing” intellect, which sustains life by inner vision and contemplation, while the itinerant lover Goldmund continues to perform within the endless cycle of life and death. His concern is to go beyond belief, theology, and ethics into the pure and irresponsible realm of amorality. Faced during his wanderings with the perils of everyday life, Goldmund even kills twice, without remorse or anxiety. Contemplating the dead bodies that lie around him, he realizes that death is nothing more than another image of life. A considerable part of the novel shows him struggling with the myriad deaths brought about by the plague. Hesse’s suggestion is that by doing this, his protagonist earns his way toward death, in complete contrast with Narcissus/Johannes, who has replaced the quest for death with simple mortification.

Another set of symbols reflects the complex relation between art and sensual, voluptuous love. Goldmund feels the call of art by contemplating a wooden statue of the Madonna, donated to a church by Master Niklaus, a famous sculptor. Visiting him, Goldmund becomes his apprentice and achieves recognition as one of the best representatives of the sculptors’ guild. His art is a sort of archaic eruption of the “primitive images” and instincts harbored by his soul. Master Niklaus quickly understands that the creations of his rather paradoxical disciple are embodiments of elementary cosmic energies, which have nothing to do with stylistic discipline or teaching.

Working like this, Goldmund tends to sculpt figures that look archaic, primitive, and pagan despite their initial, theological symbolism. The same happens when Goldmund is rescued by Narcissus and taken back to the monastery after being sentenced to death. Despite becoming a highly praised religious artist and even receiving the sacraments, Goldmund continues to mold and carve pagan, earthly images, or persons he once was acquainted with. The motivation lies in the cosmic (and gender-biased) difference between male discipline and female extravagancy, illustrated in the novel by the initial relation between a punitive father who brings his innocent son to the convent, and the son’s nostalgia for an “artistic” mother, whom he never really managed to savor. By stepping forward as Goldmund’s privileged theological aid and spiritual guide, Narcissus provides a mild replacement for the father; he also realizes that the boy hides a deep personal trauma that will make him unhappy and existentially incomplete. Narcissus and Goldmund raises the quest for the mother to metaphysical intensity, connecting primeval motherhood to art, love, and finally death.

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———. Hermann Hesse. Between the Perils of Politics and the Allure of the Orient. New York: Peter Lang, 2003.
———. Hermann Hesse. Life and Art. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981.

Categories: German Literature, Literature, Novel Analysis

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