Hermann Hesse, Narcissus & Goldmund (The Sacrifice)

“…I’m beginning to understand what art is. Formerly it seemed to me that, compared to thinking and science, it could not be taken altogether seriously. I thought something like this: since man is a dubious mixture of mind and matter, since the mind unlocks recognition of the eternal to him, while matter pulls him down and binds him to the transitory, he should strive away from the senses and toward the mind if he wishes to elevate his life and give it meaning. I did pretend, out of habit, to hold art in high esteem, but actually I was arrogant and looked down on upon it. Only now do I realize how many paths there are to knowledge and that the path of the mind is not the only one and perhaps not even the best one. It is my way, of course; and I’ll stay on it. But I see that you, on the opposite road, on the road of the senses, have seized the secret of being just as deeply and can express it in a much more lively fashion than most thinkers are able to do.”

“Now you understand,” Goldmund said, “that I can’t conceive of thoughts without images?”

“I have long since understood it. Our thinking is a constant process of converting things to abstractions, a looking away from the sensory, an attempt to construct a purely spiritual world. Whereas you take the least constant, the most mortal things to your heart, and in their very mortality show the meaning of the world. You don’t look away from the world; you give yourself to it, and by your sacrifice to it raise it to the highest, a parable of eternity. We thinkers try to come closer to God by pulling the mask of the world away from His face. You come closer to Him by loving his Creation and re-creating it. Both are human endeavors, and necessarily imperfect, but art is more innocent.”

“I don’t know, Narcissus. But in overcoming life, in resisting despair, you thinkers and theologians seem to succeed better. I have long since stopped envying you for your learning, dear friend, but I do envy your calm, your detachment, your peace.”

“You should not envy me, Goldmund. There is no peace of the sort you imagine. Oh, there is peace,  of course, but not anything that lives within us constantly and never leaves us. There is only the peace that must be won again and again, each new day of our lives. You don’t see me fight, you don’t know my struggles as Abbot, my struggles in the prayer cell. A good thing that you don’t. You only see that I am less subject to moods than you, and you take that for peace. But my life is struggle; it is struggle and sacrifice like every decent life; like yours, too.”

“Let’s not quarrel about it, Narcissus. You don’t see all my struggles either. And I don’t know whether or not you are able to understand how I feel when I think that this work will soon be finished, that it will be taken away and set in its place. Then I will hear a few praises and return to a bare workroom, depressed about all the things that I did not achieve in my work, things you others can’t even see, and inside I’ll feel as robbed and empty as the workshop.”

“That may be so,” said Narcissus, “Neither of us can ever understand the other completely in such things. But there is one realization all men of good will share: in the end our works make us feel ashamed, we have to start out again, and each time the sacrifice has to be made anew.”


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