The Balancing Act of Narcissus and Goldmund

Narcissus and Goldmund, written by Hermann Hesse in 1930, is a fascinating read. It chronicles, in fictional but all-too-real style, a familiar puzzle of identity that every person at some time in his or her life-the puzzle of balance. He addresses a wide array of issues that each of us are forced to come to terms with as we grow older, and he does so in a way that entertains, amuses and humbles. The main characters in the story will remind the reader of his- or herself, of friends and family members, and of acquaintances all but forgotten. Hesse captures the human psyche in this book, its beauty and misgivings and its charm.

Like yin and yang, hot and cold, or good and evil, Narcissus and Goldmund are the epitome of perfect contrast. They do share an obvious intelligence, and there are other characteristics that coincide, but when it comes to their perceptions on approaching life, they couldn’t be more different. Narcissus is limitation. Goldmund is excess. Narcissus is thought, and Goldmund is emotion. These two men exhibit extremes that should not exist independently in any one individual. Narcissus and Goldmund are each halves of a person. They both have dreams they aspire to fulfill, and they both experience pleasure in their lives, but something is missing from each of them.

Narcissus, as a perfect example of his concept of “father-heritage”, seems mostly content with his cloister life. He is surrounded by the learned, the disciplined, and the obedient. As a thinker and a servant of God, he believes he has everything he needs. There is structure and plenty of time for quiet contemplation. Still, he yearns for something. He envies Goldmund’s freedom, his willingness to let life lead him wherever it chooses to lead him, and to take in the sights and sounds and smells along the way. Narcissus will never know the beauty of surrender and acceptance. Simply because it is in his nature to fight against his impulses, to instead observe and categorize life, he seems to be certain that his entire existence must revolve around this idea of sacrifice and restraint.

Goldmund is, of course, the opposite of his beloved friend. Goldmund is what Narcissus calls “mother-heritage”. After Narcissus helps him to see that his desire to become a monk is something that Goldmund’s father wants for him and not his own ambition at all, Goldmund begins to truly understand himself. Goldmund is a man of sensation and experience. Instead of thinking about the world, he must live it completely. He is driven to see everything he can, to absorb it all exactly as it is. He wants the pain with the pleasure, to know the relative joy that can be derived from a small piece of bread in comparison to days of hunger. He wants to love life, to cherish it, to risk it in order to cleave to it even more and to know its value in ways that many others cannot. He withholds himself from no adventure, denies no opportunity to soak up and take in the sweet, the unpleasant, and the frightening.

Narcissus leads us to believe that a person must be “mother-heritage” or “father-heritage”. He presents these concepts as if they are innately opposite. He implies that each of us have tendencies that are embedded within us, even if we are unaware of it, and that discovering our true nature and succumbing to it is the only path to complete satisfaction. Goldmund expresses the same ideas. He insists that these propensities cannot exist in harmony with one another. As he is waiting to return to Agnes, he claims that “either one lived and let one’s senses play-drank full at the primitive mother’s breast” or else “put up a defense, imprisoned oneself for work” and “renounced life, was nothing but a tool.” Although he has chosen the life of freedom, he understands the negative consequences of living as he does. He knows that his beauty will soon fade, and he will have no security. He admits that a life of dedication and discipline also has its place, but fears that such a life will lead to a lack of all the things he treasures-sensuality, enthusiasm, and curiosity.

Toward the end of the story, Goldmund and Narcissus make a certain kind of peace with their uncompromising lifestyles, both with a small amount of pride in their inflexible approaches, but also with some regret. This regret seems to be imperative to the message Hesse is attempting to convey to us. Earlier in his journeys, Goldmund claims that it is not possible to experience “freedom as well as order” and “combine instinct and mind.” This is precisely what one must do in order to be complete, though. Life is a series of balancing acts that are performed more gracefully with Goldmund-like daring and Narcissus-like contemplation. Without thought, there is no sense to be made of the hardships and trials one endures. Without those trials, life would consist of only theories and assumptions, and no certain conclusions could ever be drawn. It’s a constant struggle, a never-ending conflict, regulating the opposing sides. We’re all faced with it, though. The beauty is in seeing how well we fare.

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