Most writers, along with most artists and musicians, suffer from the vagaries of fashion. Very few transcend public fickleness or the weathervane of critical revisionism.
In the late 1960s and early 70’s Hermann Hesse’s novels were bought in large number, not least in the United States, as they were seen by many people to be especially resonant with the prevailing counter culture then sweeping that country. The novel Steppenwolf gave rise to the group of the same name whose rock classic ‘Born to be Wild’ featured prominently at the end of the cult film Easy Rider. A few years later, Hesse’s novel Siddhartha was turned into a film by Conrad Rooks which was generally well-received, despite raising the hackles of the Indian Censor Board. Happy times?
Less than fifteen years before, it was a very different story even though this German-born, Swiss citizen had been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1946.
What are we to make of Hesse as we approach 2019 with all the problems that currently confront our world? Such a question lies outside the scope of ‘Book of the Month’ Nonetheless, I think a major re-appraisal of his literary achievements as well as his cultural impact on the 20th century are now overdue.
While his early novels, especially Peter Camenzind, have a certain innocent freshness to them and The Glass Bead Game is undoubtedly his crowning masterpiece (at least intellectually), it is Narziss and Goldmund (Narcissus and Goldmund) where Hesse (at least in my opinion and those of many others) is most effective and engaged.
Narziss and Goldmund is a story (put extremely crudely) about two young men; one wonders around mediaeval Gemany, as an artist, looking for the meaning of life through adventure, love and sexual pleasure, the other (his slightly older contemporary and a former teacher) becomes the abbot of a monastery. Eventually the two re-unite and reflect on how their lives have taken very different paths and yet...I use “and yet” quite deliberately here because the novel is not just about ‘contrasting’ but also about ‘correlating’. This is an immensely rich novel, encompassing Nietzschean philosophy, Jungian psychology along with monastic idealism (both Western and Eastern). It also reaches deep into Greek mythology, via Nietzsche, into the two sons of Zeus – Apollo “the god of the sun, of rational thinking and order [who] appeals to logic, prudence and purity” and Dionysius “the god of wine and dance, of irrationality and chaos, and appeals to emotions and instincts”. [Wikipedia]
Anyone who has ever watched a performance of Euripides’s The Bacchae (which I was fortunate to see as an undergraduate) will vouch for both the profundity and perpetual relevance of its themes. Ultimately the relationship between chaos and order lie at the heart (if not the centre) of the universe, if indeed we can talk about the latter rather than ‘multiverses’. To seek order is a good thing, but so too is to embrace chaos. Both belong to God and are, in some weird sense, aspects of the same!
For five years, I lived alongside a male religious community, later I got to know a female religious community for nearly seventeen. I was married for nearly forty years and have had in many other ways (let the reader understand) an extremely ‘full’ life. For me, very few novels come as close as Narziss and Goldmund in making sense of the human condition i.e. us!