Every now and then you remember a book that you read in your youth; it’s like remembering an old classmate that you were very close to for a short while, long ago. During some undergrad survey in philosophy we read Sidhartha — it didn’t do much for me, but I remember the professor mentioning that it was his least favorite of Hermann Hesse’s work, and that was enough to send me off to the library. I came back with a worn copy of Narcissus and Goldmund.
I hope everyone has a book that hit them at a vulnerable moment in their life, one that called their inherited world view into question. N&G hit me during my second year of college seminary, that’s the year when you are learning a lot, but haven’t yet come to grips with how much you don’t know. During those years I embraced my Rector’s dictum to develop a renaissance attitude; study hard, play hard, experience all. He cautioned us not to make decisions about life until we had experienced some… So I played two sports, dated and spent many late nights in the library discovering those treasures that all earnest young undergrads discover. I loved it all, in many ways my life began in those years and I embraced the idea of being a scholar, athlete and socialite all at the same time.
Then I read Narcissus and Goldmund.
In the novel Hesse lays out the parallel yet opposing lives of two young men, close to the age that I was at the time. Narcissus is the acknowledged scholar aesthetic of a monastery into which Goldmund is given by over-burdered parents. The two men admire each other, and the younger Goldmund attepmts, for a time, to emulate the life of Narcissus. Narcissus lives a life of the mind, all reason and thought — a rejection of the flesh and its emotional hazards. Goldmund is drawn in the opposite direction and eventually leaves the monastery to experience all a world has to offer (and then some).
I loved both characters, and I still do, but at the time they caused me to doubt everything that I felt I was building toward. I saw myself in Narcissus — I too loved long silent hours alone in the library; just me and my brain and great words from great minds. I could easily lose track of time, miss meals and forget that there was any world at all outside the fortress of my library. I reveled in the peace of a well-fed mind.
But I was very much Goldmund as well, from the struggles on the soccer fields to the excitement of being a male co-ed surrounded by female co-eds. I wanted to take huge gulps of everything I saw, aware that life is fleeting, and not wanting to miss a thing.
Upon finishing the book, I felt diminished. My understanding was that Hesse was telling me that I would have to choose; a life of the mind, or one of the flesh — I felt foolish in that I had imagined I might have both. Which would I choose, go and tell my coaches that I was finished playing, call off the date(s) scheduled for that weekend, or write to the bishop with the news of my withdrawal from seminary. I had just enough inherent wisdom to keep myself from taking any action, instead I wandered around the campus in a haze for about a week — until the rector smacked me on the back of the head with an order to report to his office.
I think it was the first time I heard; “…a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.” I was informed that I had learned enough to take Hesse seriously, but not enough to actually understand what his point was. Whether or not you have read the book, you already know what the rector told me — Hesse’s point is that neither Narcissus nor Goldmund are whole beings, they are the two extreme sides of all of us. They’re fatal flaw is that without the other side, they are unbalanced, unhappy and unhuman.
Only with age do we begin to realize the great gifts that people have given us over the years, I received a great one from a Swiss author and an Irish rector at a time in my life when I was open to it — I had no idea what they gave me at the time. From that time on I lived a life trying to promote both sides of my nature, and I learned it early enough for it to become habit. Whether or not it has served me well is not for me to say, but I’m wise enough to be thankful for the lesson.
So this afternoon I will take my Narcissus to the library to tackle some Proust (again…) and then my Goldmund and I will hit the road for a bike ride…
…the struggle is in the balancing.