Muse Noir wastes no time but goes directly to two of the most significant themes in Narcissus and Goldmund. The conversation which she repeats comes from Chapter XVII of the novel, and it takes place on the road to Mariabronn, the cloister of which Narcissus is the Abbot and at which Goldmund has first met Narcissus when he was but a lowly student there. Narcissus has just rescued Goldmund from almost certain death for seducing the bishop’s mistress Agnes; Goldmund is still in shock from his near-encounter with death; and the conversation records the attempt of both men to return to everyday reality after this close call and their separation of many years.
The first major theme that surfaces --- a mighty theme throughout the entire range of German Romanticism, one of the most profound spiritual convulsions ever to shake the planet --- is the correlative polarity of thought and feeling. Thought is the centripetal force in the human soul: it radiates ever outwards from the human spirit and enlarges the sphere of human consciousness. We do not need to be reminded of this fact, since in our science-and-technology governed our age, thought is transforming our world massively, almost unrecognizably, from one decade to the next. But the human soul has not always understood the power of this intellectual fact until the early seventeenth century --- the age of Bacon, Descartes and Galileo --- when it began to do so. And then, it learned the lesson so well that, in the eighteenth century, the Age of Enlightenment, it began to reconstruct human society on this basis of this insight.
Yet the end result of this optimistic enterprise was a sad one. The French Revolution, followed by the world-destructive Napoleonic wars, proved that something was missing from the equation. The missing element was feeling, an equally centrifugal feeling, and the German Romantics will be forever famous for having rediscovered it, not merely as an artistic principle (good artists have always known this truth!) but also as an instrumental element in human consciousness, necessary not merely in politics but also in science and technology. Left to itself, thought will inevitably lead to despair, but disciplined and guided by feeling, thought will survive. “When you feel happy on a horse, riding through a pretty landscape,” Narcissus gently chides Goldmund, “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?” Indeed, it is, and the German Romantics rediscovered Pascal’s brilliant insight that the heart has its reasons that reason can never know.
But as the German Romantics themselves learned, feeling must also be supplemented and completed by thought: indeed, thought and feeling are correlative polarities. Goldmund himself understands this truth. Lured originally away from the monastery by the lure of sexual pleasure, Goldmund plunges into a life of a senses, only to be disappointed again and again and again. What makes his experience, so common to all of us, so unique is the intensity with which he experiences it. Narcissus knows his former pupil well: “Most people feel this 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.” This is why Goldmund ultimately becomes an archetypal hero --- he is willing to follow his feelings to their logical conclusion in a way that most of us cannot, to experience to the maximum “this seesaw between lust for life and sadness of death.” And the graphic way in which Hesse outlines this endless oscillation so that the reader feels it, above and beyond merely perceiving it, is one of the most powerful emotional aspects of this novel.
There is much more that I could say about this mighty theme --- the endless oscillation of thought and feeling as correlative polarities --- especially as represented in the work of Schopenhauer and Nietzsche (whom Hesse studied with care), of Jung (who became Hesse’s friend) and of Freud (whom Hesse came to admire greatly), but in order to keep this post within reasonable bounds, I have to jump to second great theme which this conversation between priest and artist reveals, viz. the power of artistic creativity to blend together the otherwise incompatible demands of thought and feeling.
Art, art alone, can rescue the temporal from time, can bring back the remembrance of things past. Goldmund gradually comes to realize that art is, above all things, “the overcoming of the transitory.” In a world where everything exhausts its energy and its meaning, art remains eternally vital, eternally suggestive. When Goldmund carves his statue of Saint John the Apostle, a statue that slowly begins to take the appearance of the youthful Narcissus, he suddenly realizes just how valuable his relationship with his teacher had been. When he carves his masterpiece, a Madonna with a Mona Lisa smile, he realizes that at the heart of his unappeasable lust for women, there was something truly mystical and world-transcending in his desire, a something that only a genius like Dante could have encompassed in words when he wrote of his beloved Beatrice. Art becomes for Goldmund, not merely a way of transcending the destructive power of time, but also a way of understanding himself, not on the level of thought, but on the level of feeling. Goldmund discovers that what he creates illustrates what he really and truly knows, as opposed to what he thinks that he knows. Art becomes for him not merely an educational, but, in the end, a truly salvific and complete, if only temporary, release from the horrors of this world, a release inferior only to his final release of death at the end of the novel.
Nor was Hesse the only artist in the 1920s who was sensitive to this message. Listen to what Goldmund tells Narcissus about the power of art: “I saw that something remained of the fools’ play, the death dance of human life, something lasting: works of art. They too will probably perish some day: they’ll burn or crumble or be destroyed. Still, they outlast many human lives, they form a silent empire of images and relics beyond the fleeting moment. [Remember “the realm of the Immortals” in Steppenwolf?] To work at that seems good and comforting to me, because it almost succeeds in making the transitory eternal.”
And then listen to the conclusion of William Butler Yeats’s magnificent “Sailing to Byzantium,” published in 1927, the year that Hesse first sat down to describe that majestic chestnut tree serenely radiating its beauty in the courtyard of the Mariabronn Cloister:
Once out of nature I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing,
But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold and gold enamelling
To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;
Or set upon a golden bough to sing
To lords and ladies of Byzantium
Of what is past, or passing, or to come.
Both Yeats and Hesse are speaking here about the exact same experience, the experience of art as the reconciler of thought and feeling, the reflection of archetypal eternity through the fleeting impressions of time, the complete, though temporary, quieter of the heart’s eternal unrest. In this insight, both Yeats and Hesse reveal that the decade of the 1920s was one of the most profound artistic eras in the modern West, a decade of which only the creativity of the 1960s (which, not accidentally, rediscovered Hesse) could view without shame.
Alas, here as so many other times in Western culture, the message was uttered too late and to too few. By 1930, the year in which Narcissus and Goldmund appeared, the first effects of the (First) Great Depression were beginning to manifest themselves within Germany. 1930 is the year when the Nazi Party, previously dismissed as a racist, extremist joke, began its final, and ultimately victorious, campaign to win the hearts and minds of the German people. The Nazis hated art, and they especially hated Hesse. But then, how could they have loved either? Despising the correlative polarity of thought and feeling, the Nazis embraced a heartless intellectual ideology of racist stereotypes and then drove them into power through a mindless tidal wave of homicidal violence. Within just three years, Hesse, the harmless dreamer of Montagnola in the Swiss Alps, would be helping the intellectual elite of Germany escape the Nazi Regime. And in the course of doing so, Hesse --- like Yeats in Ireland --- could come to realize what Goldmund merely suggests to Narcissus, viz. that works of art can destroyed, that the fabled Journey to the East could be stopped dead in its tracks. And if that were to happen, what is there left in which to believe? Hesse’s answer to this question came in The Glass-Bead Game, the novel for which he finally won the Nobel Prize for Literature. But that novel, of course, is quite another tale…
Albert Camus: "In the depth of winter I finally learned that there was in me an invincible summer."