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Nacissus | davelovell.net
Sep 222010
read this book...

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.

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