Thursday, April 23, 2020

Hesse's proto-hippie Narcissus and Goldmund - that which was all-important to him, apart from the ecstasy of love: freedom

After the inventiveness of Berlin Alexanderplatz (1929) and the first big chunk of The Man Without Qualities (1930), it was a surprise to read such an old-fashioned but contemporary book as Hermann Hesse's Narcissus and Goldmund (1930, tr. Leila Vennewitz) that deliberately reached back to the 19th century German-language novella.  To Goethe and that crowd.  The first sentence describes a chestnut tree “brought back generations earlier by a pilgrim returning from Rome” (Ch. 1).  I had met that pilgrim, many times, in German literature.  Goldmund is another in that line, even if he never leaves German-speaking territory.

Goldmund is a student in a monastery who discovers that he is irresistible to women.  The secret is in his voice, apparently.  So that’s it for the monastery!  Goldmund becomes a wanderer, a tramp, really a kind of hippie.  A proto-hippie.  The reason for the Hesse boom in the 1960s was quickly obvious.  Of course dissatisfied young people wanted to read this book.

Digression – this is James Laughlin in The Way It Wasn’t (2006):

I went through it [Siddhartha] and thought it was very readable, but a little too Germanic and the message was just Buddhism with a sugar coating. I stalled but Henry [Miller] would write about every three months saying I had to publish that book.  Finally, to oblige Henry, I did.  The first year it sold only 400 copies, but sales kept growing and at the height of the Hesse boom we sold a quarter of a million copies in a year. (290)

This novel, like Siddhartha is more or less picaresque, and it was the a long episode about art that drove home Hesse’s hippie ethos.  Goldmund informally apprentices himself to a Tilman Riemenschneider-like limewood sculptor and becomes a real artist, but worries that artists are too bourgeois:

For more than three years Goldmund had sacrificed to art that which was all-important to him, apart from the ecstasy of love: freedom.  To be free, to roam wherever he pleased, to live the random life of the wayfarer, to stand on his own two feet and be independent: all this he had renounced … Art, that goddess who seemed so spiritual, required so many banalities!  It required a roof over one’s head, and tools, wood, clay, paint, gold; it demanded work and patience.  (Ch. 11, 140)

So he gives it up.

The novel is set during the 14th or 15th century.  Is there a pandemic in it?  There sure is.  The plague arrives in Chapter 13, and Goldmund lives, with some other refugees, in an isolated forest idyll.  “There being no bread, they adopted another goat, and they also discovered a small field of turnips” (Ch. 13, 169).  This lasts until the world intrudes.  Hesse is unsparing about the horrors of the plague, and the horrors of people during the plague.

Narcissus, up there in the title, is a monk, priest, teacher and friend of Goldmund’s who appears only in the opening and closing episodes.  Hesse apparently found the form of the novel insufficient for his ideas, because both of these sections include philosophical dialogues of dubious value.  They seemed artless, and the ideas expressed shallow.  Philosophy for twelve-year-olds.  Well, they need philosophy, too.  But the scenes, the action of the novel, and Goldmund’s responses to what he found out in the world, good and bad, expressed ideas, too, and with more art.

I borrowed the image of the Riemenschneider sculpture from the Museum für Franken in Würzburg.


  1. Ha! Nice review. And the quote from Laughlin is great. I read this years ago, and it reminds me of what I felt at the time. It is odd, though not really surprising, that Hesse had his burst of popularity in the 60s. "Philosophy for twelve-year-olds' indeed.

    A year and a half ago, reading around Romain Rolland, I read a collection of Hesse's essays. It did make me think I should revisit Hesse. Hasn't happened yet, though.

  2. Granting that any Novel of Ideas is going to be some trouble for me, the ideas in this novel seemed significant and interesting to me, when they were expressed as a novel.

    That Laughlin book is a ragbag - it's the memoir he never really quite wrote - but it is full of amusing and instructive things.

  3. I went to college at the height of the Hesse boom, and while I never actually read Hesse, I learned to avoid people carrying a copy of one of his books. (No offense to those who love him, but at that time it was not a good sign.)

  4. Those Siddartha and Steppenwolf paperbacks were strong signals! Now the signal has dissipated.

  5. I read Steppenwolf in the early 80s, and I confess I don't remember a word of it. But reading Hesse was certainly a marker of hip awareness, at that time, in that place anyway.

  6. That's pretty much when I read Siddartha. We were past the peak of the boom, but there was still a strong cultural presence - an Important Writer who wrote Important Books.

    And because of the boom, there were an enormous number of Hesse paperbacks floating around.