Hesse Excessa

Posted by Mike

I first read Hermann Hesse a very long time ago. He was popular with the post-hippy college crowd back in the 70’s; they thought he was saying something to them about finding their way in the world, about individuation, being their own person(s). I read Steppenwolfe , Demian, and Siddhartha. This was a very long time ago. At the beach last month I was desperate to read something – besides the New York Times on-line. There were lots of paperbacks in the living room; most of them seemed to be the kind of romance novels that you see in the libraryin the paperbacks section . In any case, there wasn’t much to read at the beach house that appealed to me. So what did I come upon? A copy of Hermann Hesse’s Narcissus and Goldmund [Hesse, by the way, was the Nobel prize winner in literature in 1946]. Am I going to let this opportunity pass by? No. Of course not. So I picked it up and read it – over the course of a couple of days. What’s it about? It’s reminiscent of the earlier works I read by Hesse: there is a lonely protagonist. He is isolated and has only one friend, whom he quickly leaves, for twenty years of wandering the countryside. What does he do? Basically he womanizes – ad infinitum. Finally he becomes entranced by art and apprentices to a sculptor for a year and produces several fine works which reflect the inner spirit of the sculptor. He tires of the commercialism of professional sculpting, never becomes involved in any significant relationship or community, leaves sculpting and begins wandering again. He becomes ill, returns again to the monastery where he was raised after his mother’s death, and succumbs in the presence of his old friend, Narcissus, who has become the abbot.

In many ways the story is touching. Critics suggest that Hesse is contrasting the Apollonian versus the Dionysian spirit as described in Neitzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy. That may be the case; however, despite Goldmund’s extensive philosophizing throughout the book, what I see is a description of a highly narcissistic personality, who takes advantage of virtually every person he comes into contact with, who is unable to establish any kind of relationship to which he makes a commitment or in which he must make any sacrifices, and who is completely unable to participate in an interactive, interrelated, committed community with others. Ironically, the other title character in the novel is called Narcissus; but it is Goldmund who is the narcissistic one. The picture that we have of Narcissus is a bit limited; we know, however, that he has embraced community his entire life and has committed himself to helping and leading others in a compassionate and understanding way.

If you’ve never read Hesse, N and G may be excessa, but find one of his classic novels and read it.

Hermann Hesse Der Steppenwolf 1927.jpg


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