Narcissus and Goldmund - by Hermann Hesse

Narcissus knew only too well what a charming golden bird had flown to him. This hermit soon sensed a kindred soul in Goldmund, in spite of their apparent contrasts. Narcissus was dark and spare; Goldmund, a radiant youth. Narcissus was analytical, a thinker; Goldmund, a dreamer with the soul of a child. But something they had in common bridged these contrasts: both were refined; both were different from the others because of obvious gifts and signs; both bore the special mark of fate.

"To you, differences are quite unimportant; to me, they are what matters most. I am a scholar by nature; science is my vocation. And science is, to quote your words, nothing but the ‘determination to establish differences.' Its essence couldn't be defined more accurately. For us, the men of science, nothing is as important as the establishment of differences; science is the art of differentiation. Discovering in every man that which distinguishes him from others is to know him."

"We are sun and moon, dear friend; we are sea and land. It is not our purpose to become each other; it is to recognize each other, to learn to see the other and honor him for what he is: each the other's opposite and complement."

I call a man awake who knows in his conscious reason his innermost unreasonable force, drives, and weaknesses and knows how to deal with them. For you to learn that about yourself is the potential reason for your having met me. In your case, mind and nature, consciousness and dream world lie very far apart.

"Natures of your kind, with strong, delicate senses, the soul-oriented, the dreamers, poets, lovers are almost always superior to us creatures of the mind. You take your being from your mothers. You live fully; you were endowed with the strength of love, the ability to feel. 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. Yours is the plenitude of life, the sap of the fruit, the garden of passion, the beautiful landscape of art. Your home is the earth; ours is the world of ideas. You are in danger of drowning in the world of the senses; ours is the danger of suffocating in an airless void. You are an artist; I am a thinker. You sleep at the mother's breast; I wake in the desert. For me the sun shines; for you the moon and the stars. Your dreams are of girls; mine of boys…"

mé·tier n. a trade, profession, or occupation: those who work honestly at their métier. an occupation or activity that one is good at: she decided that her real métier was grand opera. an outstanding or advantageous characteristic: subtlety is not his métier.

My goal is this: always to put myself in the place in which I am best able to serve, wherever my gifts and qualities find the best soil, the widest field of action. Never do I wish to find myself in the position of meeting a strong, valuable human being and not know what he is about, not further him.

Miraculously, without understanding why, he was surprised by the realization that pain and joy could resemble each other so closely.

He thought that fear of death was perhaps the root of all art, perhaps also of all things of the mind. We fear death, we shudder at life's instability, we grieve to see the flowers wilt again and again, and the leaves fall, and in our hearts we know that we, too, are transitory and will soon disappear. 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.

To him, art and craftsmanship were worthless unless they burned like the sun and had the power of storms.

Art was a union of the father and mother worlds, of mind and blood. It might start in utter sensuality and lead to total abstraction; then again it might originate in pure concept and end in bleeding flesh. Any work of art that was truly sublime, not just a good juggler's trick; that was filled with the eternal secret, like the master's madonna; every obviously genuine work of art had this dangerous, smiling double face, was male-female, a merging of instinct and pure spirituality.

Goldmund was absorbed in his thoughts. He could not understand how that which was so definite and formal could affect the soul in the same manner as that which was intangible and formless. One thing, however, did become clear to him--why so many perfect works of art did not please him at all, why they were almost hateful and boring to him, in spite of a certain undeniable beauty. Workshops, churches, and palaces were full of these fatal works of art; he had even helped with a few himself. They were deeply disappointing because they aroused the desire for the highest and did not fulfill it. They lacked the most essential thing--mystery. That was what dreams and truly great works of art had in common: mystery.

It was shameless how life made fun of one; it was a joke, a cause for weeping! Either one lived and let one's senses play, drank full at the primitive mother's breast--which brought great bliss but was no protection against death; then one lived like a mushroom in the forest, colorful today and rotten tomorrow. Or else one put up a defense, imprisoned oneself for work and tried to build a monument to the fleeting passage of life--then one renounced life, was nothing but a tool; one enlisted in the service of that which endured, but one dried up in the process and lost one's freedom, scope, lust for life. That's what had happened to Master Niklaus. Ach, life made sense only if one achieved both, only if it was not split by this brittle alternative! To create, without sacrificing one's senses for it. To live, without renouncing the nobility of creating. Was that impossible? All existence seemed to be based on duality, on contrast. Either one was a man or one was a woman, either a wanderer or a sedentary burgher, either a thinking person or a feeling person--no one could breathe in at the same time as he breathed out, be a man as well as a woman, experience freedom as well as order, combine instinct and mind. One always had to pay for the one with the loss of the other, and one thing was always just as important and desirable as the other.

Smilingly, Narcissus interrupted: "You are actually saying that you have a rather low opinion of thinking, but a rather high one of the application of thought to the practical, visible world. I can answer you: we lack no opportunities to apply our thinking, nor are we unwilling to do so. The thinker Narcissus has, for instance, applied the results of his thinking a hundred times to his friend Goldmund, as well as to each of his monks, and does so at every instant. But how would he be able to ‘apply' something if he had not learned and practiced it before? And the artist also constantly exercises his eye and imagination, and we recognize this training, even if it finds realization only in a few good works. You cannot dismiss thinking as such and sanction only its ‘application'! The contradiction is obvious. So let me go on thinking and judge my thoughts by their results, as I shall judge your art by your works. You are restless now and irritable because there are still obstacles between you and your works. Clear them out of the way. Find or build a workshop for yourself and get to work! Many problems will be solved automatically that way."

Narcissus knew the statues and he came often to the workshop, which at times was his favorite place in the cloister. He looked on with joy and astonishment. Everything his friend had carried in his restless, stubborn, boyish heart was coming to flower. There it grew and blossomed, a creation, a small surging world: a game perhaps, but certainly no less worthy a game than playing with logic, grammar, and theology. Pensively he once said: "I'm learning a great deal from you, Goldmund. I'm beginning to understand what art is. Formerly it seemed to me that, compared to thinking and science, it could not be taken altogether seriously. I thought something like this: since man is a dubious mixture of mind and matter, since the mind unlocks recognition of the eternal to him, while matter pulls him down and binds him to the transitory, he should strive away from the senses and toward the mind if he wishes to elevate his life and give it meaning. I did pretend, out of habit, to hold art in high esteem, but actually I was arrogant and looked down upon it. Only now do I realize how many paths there are to knowledge and that the path of the mind is not the only one and perhaps not even the best one. It is my way, of course; and I'll stay on it. But I see that you, on the opposite road, on the road of the senses, have seized the secret of being just as deeply and can express it in a much more lively fashion than most thinkers are able to do." "Now you understand," Goldmund said, "that I can't conceive of thoughts without images?" "I have long since understood it. Our thinking is a constant process of converting things to abstractions, a looking away from the sensory, an attempt to construct a purely spiritual world. Whereas you take the least constant, the most mortal things to your heart, and in their very mortality show the meaning of the world. You don't look away from the world; you give yourself to it, and by your sacrifice to it raise it to the highest, a parable of eternity. We thinkers try to come closer to God by pulling the mask of the world away from His face. You come closer to Him by loving His creation and re-creating it. Both are human endeavors, and necessarily imperfect, but art is more innocent." "I don't know, Narcissus. But in overcoming life, in resisting despair, you thinkers and theologians seem to succeed better. I have long since stopped envying you for your learning, dear friend, but I do envy your calm, your detachment, your peace." "You should not envy me, Goldmund. There is no peace of the sort you imagine. Oh, there is peace of course, but not anything that lives within us constantly and never leaves us. There is only the peace that must be won again and again, each new day of our lives. You don't see me fight, you don't know my struggles as Abbot, my struggles in the prayer cell. A good thing that you don't. You only see that I am less subject to moods than you, and you take that for peace. But my life is struggle; it is struggle and sacrifice like every decent life; like yours, too."

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? Had man really been created to live a regulated life, with hours and duties indicated by prayer bells? Had man really been created to study Aristotle and Saint Thomas, to know Greek, to extinguish his senses, to flee the world? Had God not created him with senses and instincts, with blood-colored darknesses, with the capacity for sin, lust, and despair? These were the questions around which the Abbot's thoughts circled when they dwelt on his friend. Yes, and was it not perhaps more childlike and human to lead a Goldmund-life, more courageous, more noble perhaps in the end to abandon oneself to the cruel stream of reality, to chaos, to commit sins and accept their bitter consequences rather than live a clean life with washed hands outside the world, laying out a lonely harmonious thought-garden, strolling sinlessly among one's sheltered flower beds. Perhaps it was harder, braver and nobler to wander through forests and along the highways with torn shoes, to suffer sun and rain, hunger and need, to play with the joys of the senses and pay for them with suffering. At any rate, Goldmund had shown him that a man destined for high things can dip into the lowest depths of the bloody, drunken chaos of life, and soil himself with much dust and blood, without becoming small and common, without killing the divine spark within himself, that he can err through the thickest darkness without extinguishing the divine light and the creative force inside the shrine of his soul. Narcissus had looked deeply into his friend's chaotic life, and neither his love for him nor his respect for him dwindled. Oh no, since he had seen those miraculous still-life images, radiant with inner harmony, come into being under Goldmund's stained hands, those intent faces glowing with spirit, those innocent plants and flowers, those imploring or blessed hands, all those audacious, gentle, proud, or sacred gestures, since then he knew very well that an abundance of light and the gifts of God dwelt in the fickle heart of this artist and seducer. It had been easy for him to seem superior to Goldmund in their conversations, to oppose his discipline and intellectual order to his friend's passions. But was not every small gesture of one of Goldmund's figures, every eye, every mouth, every branch and fold of gown worth more? Was it not more real, alive, and irreplaceable than everything a thinker could achieve? Had not this artist, whose heart was so full of conflict and misery, fashioned symbols of need and striving for innumerable people, contemporary and future, figures to which the reverence and respect, the deepest anguish and longing of countless people would turn for consolation, confirmation, and strength?

Smiling and sad, Narcissus remembered all the times since their early youth when he had guided and taught his friend. Gratefully his friend had accepted, always admitting Narcissus's superiority and guidance. And then, quietly, he had fashioned his works, born of the tempest and suffering of his ragged life: no words, no instructions, no explanations, no warnings, but authentic, heightened life. How poor he himself was by comparison, with his knowledge, his cloister discipline, his dialectics!