Most days it seems the world is going mad. I’m sure I don’t need to enumerate the many reasons why, but yes they include the US Republican presidential candidate, the continuing destruction of vast swathes of the earth from the Great Barrier Reef to the polar ice caps to the expansion of coal mining in the Hunter Valley, as well as crazy-making (if welcome) about-turns like the Turnbull government’s announcement today that ‘climate science matters‘ having ditched it only six months ago. No wonder I can no longer stand the platitudes and sophistry and faux action gushing from corporations, accountants and economists as they purport to address (if ever there were an inactive verb) ‘sustainability’, a word now so capacious as to be meaningless.
So I’ve retreated – or perhaps it’s advanced – into poetry, fiction, gazing at the ocean and plants. I like what Jennifer Percy says about writing at the 2014 Brooklyn Book Festival:
‘I think the actual act of writing itself, the process, is an act of disillusionment. And you should not approach writing with something stable, concrete, theory about the world already in your head, but rather have questions and curiosity and wonder, and be approaching moments of bewilderment and trying to figure things out. Sort of having the world break down in the process of writing, questioning the world. And I think what happens is you approach these moments of clarity where you feel like you’ve really figured things out, and you come across a different moment and the idea you’ve just solidified in your writing then breaks down. And I think we should also be comfortable showing our thoughts having these ups and downs, or solidifying and breaking down, or showing the process of thinking on the page. I think it’s good for readers to show them that struggle and how you can think about a problem complexly.’
The life of Hermann Hesse was a series of crises and new beginnings, and one such crisis struck him during the First World War. The pressures of the war, the stresses in his marriage, and his father’s death in 1916 drove Hesse to physical and emotional collapse. To recover, he went to Lucerne for psychoanalysis with JB Lang, a student of Jung. Based on this experience, he wrote Demian, the novel that brought him international fame, published in 1919 under the name of its narrator, Emil Sinclair.
In the spring of 1927 having suffered a physical breakdown and spent much of the previous four years at Baden health spa on medical advice, Hesse started work on Narcissus and Goldmund. He’d become increasingly distressed by the crippling effects of industrial civilisation and technology, and preoccupied by what he considered the duality of life, particularly the pull between the contemplative life of the spirit and the life of the flesh he felt acutely in himself. His previous novel, Steppenwolf (1927), explores this pull. In his sixth novel, Narcissus and Goldmund, Hesse returns to this tension but can now sympathetically express both tendencies in himself: scholarly hermit and worldly artist.
Narcissus and Goldmund is the story of two young men in medieval northern Europe who bear ‘special marks of fate’—Narcissus, a handsome prodigy admired for his intellect and refinement, and Goldmund, a radiant, golden-haired youth filled with dark secrets, driven by passion and creative yearning. Still in his early 20s, Narcissus’s extraordinary intelligence has secured him a position as teacher at the Mariabronn cloister on the edge of the Black Forest. He’s also gifted with the ability to see into the souls of those around him, able to sense their character and destiny. When Goldmund arrives at the cloister accompanied by his stern father, both father and son determined that Goldmund will train for the priesthood, Narcissus soon intuits that the delicate youth’s destiny doesn’t lie within the Church. A curious, illicit friendship grows between teacher and student, until they become inseparable.
But their friendship is destined to cause pain, to others and to themselves. As Narcissus says: ‘our friendship has no other purpose, no other reason, than to show you how utterly unlike me you are …’ They are opposites, sun and moon—’No road will bring us together.’ Narcissus feels called to show Goldmund his soul’s purpose and in the process breaks both their hearts. Unlike Narcissus, who’s born for scholarship and cloister life, Goldmund belongs in the world beyond. He has a secret bond with wood and stone, an affinity for ‘the flowers and thickets of sprouting leaves that burst forth from the stone of the columns and unfolded so eloquently and intensely’, and his learning lies not in books but in ‘the petal of a flower or a tiny worm on the path’.
Narcissus and Goldmund is told with a fable-like simplicity and the influence of Jung is apparent in many of its themes and motifs. Narcissus acts as Goldmund’s confessor and medieval psychoanalyst, pushing him to crisis point: ‘you’ve forgotten your childhood; it cries for you from the depths of your soul. It will make you suffer until you heed it.’
Hesse was the original teenage rebel. During his life he received thousands of letters and visits from young readers who responded to the confessional nature of his novels and looked to him for spiritual guidance. In 1967 the musician John Kay formed a band in San Francisco and named it Steppenwolf after Hesse’s novel. Born Joachim Krauledat, Kay had escaped post-war East Germany in a daring midnight flight with his mother and arrived in Canada aged 13, dreaming of rock and roll. Steppenwolf’s hit song ‘Born to be Wild‘—which opened cult movie Easy Rider (1969)—defined the generation that looked to Hesse’s novels of teenage angst and rebellion against family and society in their search for their ‘true self’.
I’m over halfway through The Story of the Lost Child, the last book of Elena Ferrante’s extraordinary Neapolitan quartet which I love so much that I’m contemplating going back to the first book and reading all four all over again, straight away, when I finish it. I’ve never felt that urge before with any other book. I’m thinking of Ferrante here because I’m wondering if the friendship between the two girls at the centre of her quartet will, like Narcissus and Goldmund’s, turn out to have ‘no other purpose, no other reason, than to show you how utterly unlike me you are …’