Of love, life and art

In 1930 the German-born Swiss poet and writer Hermann Hesse (1877-1962) published his novel Narcissus and Goldmund, about the human quest for spiritual and artistic enlightenment.

In 1946 Hesse (right) was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature “for his inspired writings which, while growing in boldness and penetration, exemplify the classical humanitarian ideals and high qualities of style.” One of his best books, of which there are three translations in English, is Narcissus and Goldmund. It is the story of a young man, Goldmund, who is sent to a monastery school where he meets the gifted young teacher Narcissus. Goldmund is naturally bright and there is little age difference between them, so Narcissus befriends him. After straying too far in the fields one day, gathering herbs, Goldmund meets a beautiful Gypsy woman, who kisses him and invites him to make love. This encounter leads to a spiritual crisis in which Goldmund realises he was not cut out to be a monk. With the help of Narcissus, he leaves the monastery and embarks on a wandering existence. One day, seeing a beautifully carved Madonna in a church awakens his innate artistic talent and he decides to seek out its maker, with whom he studies for several years.

As a test piece for membership of the guild, and after much labour, Goldmund completes a carving of St John the Disciple. He almost persuades himself to abandon his life of pleasure for the discipline of artistic achievement, but then:

“He stood for a long time in front of the disciple, an hour or more, filled with the solemn feeling of a rare great experience that might be repeated once more in his life but might also remain unique. A man on the day of his wedding or of receiving the accolade of knighthood, a woman after giving birth to her first child, may experience a similar emotion, a lofty consecration, a profound gravity, and at the same time a secret dread of the moment when that sublime and unique occasion would have become part of the past, integrated and swallowed up in the normal course of everyday life.”

In the end, Goldmund refuses the offer of guild membership, preferring the freedom and vagaries of the road. When the Black Death devastates the region, he encounters human existence at its darkest and ugliest. Finally, he is reunited with his friend Narcissus, now an abbot, and the two reflect upon the different paths their lives have taken, contrasting the life of the artist with that of the contemplative thinker.

Hermann Hesse seems to have had a similar philosophy to the English novelist, poet, playwright, and painter D.H. Lawrence (1885-1930). Lawrence (right) celebrates the joy and intensities of life and his works are sometimes held up as an extended reflection upon the dispiriting and dehumanising effects of modernity and industrialisation. There is a unmistakable echo of Hesse in Lawrence’s well known poem “Things Men Have Made”, which might almost refer to Goldmund’s statue of St John the Disciple:

“Things men have made with wakened hands, and put soft life into
are awake through years with transferred touch, and go on glowing
for long years.
And for this reason, some old things are lovely
warm still with the life of forgotten men who made them.”


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