This is the first Hesse book that I have read and I must thank my book club for selecting it for the June book. I have to say that I wasn't really sure what to expect – the only other German author that I had read that happened to be a contemporary of Hesse was Gunter Grass and his play The Plebians Reherse the Uprising was much more political in scope. However, with books like Sidhartha sitting on my shelf, I probably shouldn't be to surprised that Hesse tends to take a much more spiritual slant than does Grass.
Anyway, the story is about this young boy, Goldmund, who is dropped off at a monastery by his father and meets the monk Narcissus. Goldmund, as it turned out, never knew his mother (apparently she was a prostitute) so never experienced the nurture that having a mother brings. As such he falls in love with Narcissus, but is rebuffed by him, and Narcissus ends up locking himself away in a room to meditate. Goldmund, meanwhile, goes for a walk in the country and encounters a gypsy woman who then makes love to him and as such he discovers the beauty of sex. Mistaking sex for love he decides to leave the monastery and to spend his time with this gypsy girl, however when he returns she tells him that she is married and must return to her husband. So instead of returning to the monastery he decides to wander the land where he sleeps with many, many women and comes to understand himself as an artist.
As I said, I wasn't really sure what I was going to expect from the novel and when it became clear that Goldmund was pretty much wandering around medieval Germany having heaps and heaps of sex I was sort of wandering whether this was little more than soft porn, or whether Hesse had an influence on Piers Anthony. In fact the one thing that kept on coming to mind was how would a feminist take this book. Basically we have this guy who seems to have a huge amount of sex-appeal to the point that women simply want to rip off their clothes and basically (pardon the French) screw his brains out. In a way it seemed to be little more that what I got from Bio of a Space Tyrant.
However, the more I think about it the more I realise that this is not necessarily the case. Sure, the first girl he encounters wants to have sex with him, but at the time he was an innocent young man who had basically been tempted by a gypsy. As we progress through the novel we come to see that the women aren't necessarily all throwing themselves at him and that he must seduce them. This is the case in the knight's castle where he has to seduce Lydia, as well as the concubine at the end of the book. Also, not every girl is caught by his charms. Firstly, in the knight's castle, when Julia decides to climb into bed with him, while Lydia is also there, you are (or at least I was) expecting there to be a threesome, and just as it is about the begin Lydia storms out and tells her father (resulting in some bad things happening). Also, when he encounters the Jewish girl, she soundly rebukes him. I probably should also mention that at the end of the book, when he discovers that his favourite concubine has returned, when he encounters her she is no longer interested in him.
The other thing that is interesting is that Goldmund isn't actually a dashing young man – he is poor and homeless, much like this guy:
Though we must remember that this is the medieval world as opposed to the modern world. Still, he is poor and he is wandering from town to town with no purpose and no goal. As for the girls that he ends up sleeping with, they aren't princesses, they are peasant girls, thought probably not like this one because she is somewhat idealised:
The interesting thing about Goldmund is that he has no purpose in lif, and this is something that keeps on coming back to us. He is a wanderer, a vagrant, with no goal and no desire behind his immediate pleasure. This is something that he is confronted with at the beginning of the book since Narcissus has a goal but Goldmund doesn't. In a way the journey that he takes is a journey in search of himself and in search of goal. He does find one a couple of times, but once he has succeeded in this goal he is left, once again, to wander the world in search of meaning. In fact, even at the end of the book when he goes on his final, fateful, journey, it is clear that there is no real over arching goal to his life. Once he has completed his immediate goal he is left to wander a meaningless existence until he meets his fate.
In many ways this seems to be a reflection of our modern world. As a young person I had a goal, and that was to complete university. Once I had achieved that goal I needed a new one, and that was to get a job. Yet with many of us once we have that job that is all life becomes. Getting up early, going to the office, working, and then going home (in a way it seems that we live the existence that Bill Murray did in Groundhog Day). Okay, many of us get married, but that is another chain that binds us to a meaningless existence of work, sleep, work, weekend, and the occasional holidays (if we are lucky enough to get that). If we have to goal, once we hit the world of the worker these goals suddenly become out of reach.
In a way many of our goals are meaningless, and simply, like Goldmund, become a repetitive search for fleeting pleasure. However, what he comes to realise is that the fleeting pleasure is meaningless because what is more important is to leave a legacy. Many of us get to that point where we end up becoming little more than a shadowy existence – we are born, we live, and then we die. In the grand scheme of things our existence is little more than dust that quickly blows away into forgetfulness. Sure, there are some who have left a lasting impact, but how many of the wealthy elite of 19th Century England are still remembered today? Even more, who can name the CEO's of the major corporations back in the 60s, the 70s, or even the 80s. Sure, these people were rich and lived luxurious lives, but in the end they have been forgotten. In fact, who is even going to remember the name of the CEO of the Ford Motor Company ten years from now?
Goldmund's legacy turned out to be art, and Hesse's idea here is interesting in that he suggests that the work of the artist comes out of the artist's passion. The interesting thing about these two characters (and I will get to Narcissus shortly) is that neither of them are incredibly wealthy, but both of them left behind a legacy, or at least Goldmund did. In a way wealth isn't necessarily something that will end up creating a name for yourself, and in fact if we consider many of the people that did leave behind a legacy, none of them are particularly wealthy. Take for instance the guy who painted this picture:
We have all heard of Van Gogh, and many of us think that he was a brilliant artist, however not many people at the time he painted this painting thought all that much of him. In fact he wasn't all that wealthy either. Or consider this guy:
Sure, he wrote some incredibly popular plays and novels, such as The Importance of Being Ernest and The Picture of Dorian Grey but he died without a cent to his name. Also, despite what you believe, there is also this guy:
who is apparently one of the most recognisable figures in Western Culture (though according Morgan Spurlock Ronald McDonald is much more recognisable, but that is beside the point) was executed of blasphemy and basically grew up as a peasant and spent the last three years of his life wandering around ancient Palestine as an itinerant preacher.
I guess my point is, and the idea that came out of this novel, is that wealth doesn't necessarily leave a legacy, and in fact many of the wealthy people of times past are little more than footnotes in history (if that) yet many of the people who at the time were considered to be hopeless losers, never capable of amounting to anything, have left an enduring legacy.
One of the odd things about this book is the character of Narcissus. The name comes from an ancient Greek legend about this really beautiful dude who didn't realise that his was beautiful, but was then tricked into looking into a pond and ended up dying because he could not stop looking at the beautiful image in the pond. Hesse's Narcissus didn't come across like that. Rather, to me, he was one of those dry intellectuals that locks himself in his ivory tower contemplating the meaning of life. I guess the beginning of the book painted him as such when he withdrew from Goldmund simply because he could not handle the fact that Goldmund loved him. However it wasn't until the end, when Goldmund returns from his travels, and then leaves again, that he realises how much he admired the guy.
The suggestion is that Hesse is painting the picture of the passionate artist and the souless intellectual and how while both of them seem to be completely the opposite but in many ways are the same. I guess it isn't something that I really can equate to though, since after finishing this book, in a way I am both Goldmund and Narcissus – you could say a passionate intellectual.