Narziss and Goldmund

Having read one novel, burnt into consciousness by being read young and loved, I thought I would read a second whose central protagonist is an artist. This one is even closer to my heart, having being read first when seventeen, when reading was all innocent absorption and assent (or rejection).

It is Hermann Hesse's 'Narziss and Goldmund' (and unlike White's 'The Vivisector', I have read it several times, at intervals).

The best way to approach Hesse, I now believe, is as fable. Extended and sophisticated as his novels are, they depend on a simplicity of symbolic form that gives them great resonance that removes them from realism. They are, like fairy tales, a genre in which he, also, excelled, archetypal, the characters carry fable before they flesh out in their histories, and it is the fable for which they are charged and memorable.

This is especially so of their female characters, always seen through masculine eyes. They come as ciphers of transformation, as anima figures, to chose a Jungian typology, that never step out of a framing by males. They are often loved, honoured, worshipped but never allowed to stand forth as individual woman, with their own internal lives, freed from a male seeing.

Like myth, the books speak of the typologies of being human. Like myth, they aim at the essentials. Like myth, they lack something of the homely particularities of story, the embodied textures of the real.

I love this book - the contrast between the two friends - the monk, Narziss, full of intellect, the distinctions of thought, the dominance of word as words, ciphers of meaning within their own space. Goldmund, the poet, who sees in images, who imagines his way to conclusions that are, for him, embodied in the forms he carves, the sculptures in wood he offers to the world.

The play and seriousness of their friendship is a prolonged meditation on creativity, the need for both and the superiority of the concrete senses that allow images to rise and unite, what in thought is split asunder. That pain and pleasure, to take two, can co-exist in a moment, be caught in a face as it gives birth, can live and breathe and are always different, transient, in movement in image (and caught and tied in the words of thought).

I had forgotten or perhaps see in a new way how haunted the book is by death - death as necessary and as that whose continuing embrace sharpens, shapes life. Death has a different face to me now than when I was seventeen - an arbitrary and distance stalker is closer and both more friendly and more terrible.

The passages describing the coming and sweep of plague - and how Goldmund, the artist, absorbs the manifold images of death that it gives rise to are extraordinary in their power and poetry, and settle under the skin, un-easing of complacency, as all art should, bringing a renewed vulnerability to see and be seen. 


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