A Quote From Hesse

Back when I was in my teens the novels of German author Hermann Hesse were wildly popular. I read Siddhartha and Steppenwolf but the novels didn’t really engage me at the time.

I was looking for something to read last night and found a copy of Narcissus and Goldmund in a box of books. It’s quite a story, with echoes of Neitzsche and Jung evident in the depiction of the two main characters: Narcissus the bookish rationalist, a monk devoted to the life of the mind, and Goldmund, who chafes at the strictures of the monastery and roams out into the world, becoming a homeless and shameless seducer of horny women of all ages. Apollo and Dionysius!

There are many fine passages in the novel; this one I consider to be particularly evocative:

… Goldmund knew a spot along the river where the water was not deep; its bed was covered with shards and all kinds of rubbish that fishermen had thrown there. He sat down on the embankment wall and looked into the water. He loved water very much; all water attracted him. From this spot, one could look through the streaming, crystal-threaded water and see the dark vague bottom, see a vague golden glitter here and there, an enticing sparkle, bits of a broken plate perhaps or a worn-out sickle, or a smooth flat stone or a polished tile, or it might be a mud fish, a fat turbot or redeye turning around down there, a ray of light catching for an instant the bright fins of its scales and belly — one could never make out what precisely was there, but there were always enchantingly beautiful, enticing, brief vague glints of drowned golden treasure in the wet black ground. All true mysteries, it seemed to him, were just like this mysterious water; all true images of the soul were like this: they had no precise contour or shape: they only could be guessed at, a beautiful distant possibility that was veiled in many meanings. Just as something inexpressibly golden or silvery blinked for a quivering instant in the twilight of the green river depths, an illusion that contained, nevertheless, the most blissful promise, so the fleeting profile of a person, seen half from the back, could sometimes promise something infinitely beautiful, something unbearably sad. In the same way a lantern hung under a cart at night, painting giant spinning shadows of wheel spokes on walls, could for a moment create a shadow play that seemed as full of incidents and stories as the work of Homer. And one’s nightly dreams were woven of the same unreal, magic stuff, a nothing that contained all the images in the world, an ocean in whose crystal the forms of all human beings, animals, angels, and demons lived as ever ready possibilities.

Quite a riverbank reverie! I enjoy typing out passages such as this, as it forces me to pay attention to syntax and structure, and gives me time to enjoy the imagery. Interesting how Hesse draws the reader in; the first three sentences are short, but the fourth sentence just rambles on forever. So many commas, semi-colons, dashes, and colons! One reason, I surmise, for this tendency towards long sentences is that the book has been translated from the German language, which tends towards such excesses, both in words and sentences.

While re-reading this passage as I typed it out, sentence by sentence, I was reminded of some of the video poetry collaborations of Kathy McTavish and Sheila Packa, such as Black Iris:

See the resemblance? Hesse’s prose descriptions are of hard-to-make-out shifting images filtered through rippling river-water, while McTavish’s video (accompanied by her electronica/ambient cello-playing) features shifting images which you really can’t make out either. Both pieces, one 20th- century prose and the other a 21st-century amalgam of video, music, and poetry, are dreamy, myth-like works which defy logical analysis. But, as I try to remind myself, there will always be aesthetic works which have to be taken on their own terms.

I do have one question about the Hesse passage: why would someone hang a lantern under a cart? Had Hesse seen this done, as he seems to imply?




Filed under Books, Music

3 responses to “A Quote From Hesse

  1. bev

    Yes, a beautiful passage. Having spent much time along streams, the water imagery seems especially powerful to me. About the lantern under the cart. I believe people used to sit and sleep under carriages when traveling in the horse-drawn days, so a lantern under a cart would probably be a familiar sight at night. The Black Iris video poetry is very cool. I liked the shifting shapes, colours and shadows – murky and suggesting but never quite confirming what is seen or unseen.

  2. Virginia

    The Hesse passage likely describes many who spend time looking through clear water anywhere to see what lies below. I wonder if Goldmund ever waded in to pick up a particular treasure, or if the water was actually too deep or treacherous.
    The evocative Black Iris poem was enhanced by the media. The cello and images slowed me down when I wanted to race on to the next line. I felt the description of night as if it emerged from the iris led me to think of the early twilight purples and deep blues of the night sky giving way finally to dark. What a nice pairing of prose and poetry/media you chose, Larry.

  3. Thanks, Virginia!

    I think that one virtue of the poetry/video melange is that the hybrid medium forces you to read and/or hear the poem slowly rather than “racing through it” as we tend to do when reading prose.

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