Excerpts from Herman Hesse’s “Narcissus and Goldmund” (1930)

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“And so,” he concluded violently, “what is this world in which we are made to live? Is it not hell? Is it not revolting and disgusting?”

“Certainly, that’s how the world is.”

“Ah!” Goldmund cried with indignation. “And how often you told me that the world was divine, that it was a great harmony of circles with the Creator enthroned in its midst, that what existed was good, and so forth. You told me Aristotle had said so, or Saint Thomas. I’m eager to hear you explain the contradiction.”

Narcissus laughed. “Your memory is surprising, and yet it has deceived you slightly. I have always adored our Creator as perfect, but never his creation. I have never denied the evil in the world. No true thinker has ever affirmed that life on earth is harmonious and just, or that man is good, my dear friend. On the contrary. The Holy Bible expressly states that the strivings and doings of man’s heart are evil, and every day we see this confirmed anew.”

“Very good. At last I see what you learned men mean. So man is evil, and life on earth is full of ugliness and trickery—you admit it. But somewhere behind all that, in your thoughts and books, justice and perfection exist. They exist, they can be proved, but only if they are never put to use.”

“You have stored up a great deal of anger against us theologians, dear friend! But you have still not become a thinker; you’ve got it all topsy-turvy. You still have a few things to learn. But why do you say we don’t put justice to use? We do that every day, every hour. I, for instance, am an abbot and I govern a cloister. Life in this cloister is just as imperfect and full of sin as it is in the world outside. And yet we constantly set the idea of justice against original sin and try to measure our imperfect lives by it and try to correct evil and put ourselves in everlasting relationship with God.”

“All right, Narcissus. I don’t mean you, nor did I mean that you were not a good abbot. But I’m thinking of Rebekka, of the burned Jews, the mass burials, the Great Death, of the alleys and rooms full of stinking corpses, of all the gruesome looting, the haggard, abandoned children, of dogs starved to death on their chains—and when I think of all that and see these images before me, then my heart aches and it seems to me that our mothers have borne us into a hopeless, cruel, devilish world, and that it would be better if they had never conceived, if God had not created this horrible world, if the Saviour had not let himself be nailed to the cross in vain.”

Narcissus gave Goldmund a friendly nod.

“You are quite right,” he said warmly. “Go ahead, say it all, get it all out. But in one thing you are quite wrong: you think that the things you have said are thoughts. But actually they are feelings. They are the feelings of a man preoccupied with the horror of life, and you must not forget that these sad, desperate emotions are balanced by completely different ones! When you feel happy on a horse, riding through a pretty landscape, or when you sneak somewhat recklessly into a castle at night to court a count’s mistress, then the world looks altogether different to you, and no plague-stricken house or burned Jew can prevent you from fulfilling your desire. Is that not so?”

“Certainly that is so. Because the world is so full of death and horror, I try again and again to console my heart and to pick the flowers that grow in the midst of hell. I find bliss, and for an hour I forget the horror. But that does not mean that it does not exist.”

“You expressed that very well. So you find yourself surrounded by death and horror in the world, and you escape it into lust. But lust has no duration; it leaves you again in the desert.”

“Yes, that’s true.”

“Most people feel that way, but only a few feel it with such sharpness and violence as you do; few feel the need to become aware of these feelings. But tell me: besides this desperate coming and going between lust and horror, besides this seesaw between lust for life and sadness of death—have you tried no other road?”

A second favorite passage: 

“…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 on 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.”

“Let’s not quarrel about it, Narcissus. You don’t see all my struggles either. And I don’t know whether or not you are able to understand how I feel when I think that this work will soon be finished, that it will be taken away and set in its place. Then I will hear a few praises and return to a bare workroom, depressed about all the things that I did not achieve in my work, things you others can’t even see, and inside I’ll feel as robbed and empty as the workshop.”

“That may be so,” said Narcissus, “Neither of us can ever understand the other completely in such things. But there is one realization all men of good will share: in the end our works make us feel ashamed, we have to start out again, and each time the sacrifice has to be made anew.”

-Herman Hesse, “Narcissus and Goldmund” (1930)

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