Narcissus smiled weakly. "The goal? Maybe I will die as a school principal, or as an abbot or bishop. All the same. The goal is this: to place myself where I can serve best, where my skills, my gifts and characteristics, can find the best soil, the greatest field for work. There is no other goal."Goldmund: "There's no other goal for a monk?"Narcissus: "O yes, there are goals enough. For a monk it can be a life goal to learn Hebrew, to produce commentaries on Aristotle, or to decorate the cloister church, or to close himself in and to meditate, or to do a hundred other things. For me these are not goals. I want neither to increase the riches of the cloister, nor to reform the order, nor the Church. I want to serve the possibilities of the spirit [Geist] within me, as far as I understand them, nothing more. Is that not a goal?"- Hermann Hesse, Narcissus and Goldmund
As an idea, Narcissus and Goldmund seems magnificent. Two equally sympathetic, articulate characters, one dedicated to the solitary life of the mind, the other to wandering and creation: how many opportunities could this schema present for a subtle, unprejudiced investigation of such weighty problems! One can just imagine the fiery arguments, debates, and confrontations, along with the inevitable understanding of the issue's ambiguities that the characters would undoubtedly acquire. Such a book would have something new and interesting to offer to the poet as well as the scholar.
Unfortunately, Narcissus and Goldmund is not that book. Where its goal requires complexity and nuance, it relies on lazy stereotypes and convenient, unmotivated resolutions. Where it needs fine characterization, it substitutes cardboard cutouts and plot tokens. Where it seeks for intellectual engagement, it offers only crude, vaguely seedy "eroticism." (The book's characteristic move, which it repeats again and again for what must be two hundred pages, is to document in detail Goldmund's pursuit of undifferentiated women, none of whom have anything resembling a real personality, and then to dump the accumulated episodes into a big bucket labeled "Life Experience Necessary for Creative Labor." The result is unbelievably tedious and unconvincing.) While Narcissus does act as something of a foil for Goldmund, he brings even less intellectual substance to the book than the latter's various sidekicks and love interests. Predictably enough, what we're left with in the end is the painfully familiar story of the Heroic Artist and the Agonies of Creation.
Part of the problem is the novel's Bildungsroman format, which is so formulaic it's almost funny. It's not enough for Hesse to narrate the symbolic processes of leaving home, growing up, and so on: he also has to lard each episode with a flashing signpost in the form of a soliloquy. What these passages serve ultimately to underscore is the constricting monologism of the Bildungsroman as a form, at least in Hesse's hands. (He certainly was responsible for enough of them in his time.) With the Hesseian Bildungsroman, no real conflict is in fact possible, because the central character always ends up in the right. He might learn and grow and develop, but he never really changes, since the novel is a kind of apologia for his outlook on life. All other events, characters, and ideas end up being brutally processed into "experiences," which deprives them of any power or credibility for the reader.
Contemporary "cultural critics" who like to talk about the narcissism of my generation (the "Millennials") rarely remember the narcissism of past generations, but Hesse's once enormous popularity as a writer is a powerful reminder of it. It wasn't just his dabbling in "Eastern" something-or-other that kept him popular into the '60s; it was also, it seems to me, his ability to use protagonist-identification to make his reader feel like he had learned a Major Life Lesson About Art while stroking his ego enough to make the experience pleasant. This kind of thing, married to pop psychology and pop existentialism, was as significant as helicopter parenting and social networks for reshaping the way people thought about their place in the world. Written by a different author, Narcissus and Goldmund could have been a great book; as it is, it's simply a document in the ever-growing annals of self-help.