The Labyrinth of Friendship:

Reading Space in Herman Hesse¡¯s Narcissus and Goldmund


Eric Ruckh


And friends, they tell us, share and share alike; so in this respect, at any rate, there will be no difference between you, if only you give me a true account of your friendship.

—Plato, Lysis 207c.8-10


those in the prime of life it [friendship] stimulates to noble actions—¡®two going together¡¯—for with friends men are more able to think and to act [kai gar nohsai kai praxai dunatwteroi].

—Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics 1155a.14-16


The fact that man is capable of action means that the unexpected can be expected from him, that is able to perform what is infinitely improbable.  And this again is possible only because each man is unique, so that with each birth something uniquely new comes into the world.

—Arendt, The Human Condition




I.  Framing the Question:

On the Occasion of Friendship



With Narcissus and Goldmund, Herman Hesse produced one of the premier reflections on the experience of friendship in the Twentieth Century. Written through 1928 and 1929, published in 1930, Narcissus and Goldmund became one of Hesse¡¯s most popular novels.  It received and continues to receive, however, decidedly mixed reviews.  And in this discordant reception we find one of the first clues that Hesse¡¯s Narcissus and Goldmund is worth reading. 


In both content and structure, Hesse¡¯s Narcissus and Goldmund is strange and uncanny fare.  On the one hand, the novel seems to unfold within an field of conceptual terms drawn entirely from philosophical reflections on friendship from Plato through to Montaigne.  Particularly strong affinities exist between Aristotle and Hesse.  This is not surprising because Aristotle in his Nichomachean Ethics and Eudemian Ethics developed both a rich description and a typology of friendship which forms the touchstone of any analysis of friendship to this day.  Hesse echoes Aristotle in thinking: first, that friendship is an action, activity or mode of life (Nichomachean Ethics 1157b.10ff, 1169b-1170b.20); second, that it is directed towards happiness as a good (1156 b.5-15, 1169b.30, 1171a.25ff); third, that it is reciprocal (1155b.30-35, 1163a.15ff); fourth, that it exists fully only between equals (1158b.1-10, 1159a.35-1159b.10); and, finally, that, in its highest form, it is non-instrumental (1155b.25-35, 1156b.10-30, 1166a.1-10, 30, 1171b.30ff).  In its highest form, friendship is crucial in leading a virtuous life:  it sustains and nurtures the virtues and—in this sense, in helping humans lead virtuous lives—friendship exists between those who are similar (1159b.5-10, 1165b.1-35, 1169b-1170b.20, 1172a.10-15).[1]  On the other hand though, while seeming to deploy Aristotle¡¯s philosophical lexicon of friendship in his construction of this literary friendship, Hesse¡¯s novel begins to diverge from it.  Narcissus and Goldmund begins to present characteristics of friendship that Aristotle had either downplayed or attempted to explain away.  In this way, Hesse¡¯s novel begins to develop and manifest a dimension of the philosophical tradition¡¯s reflections on friendship that most often has been consigned to the shadows.  


The way to throw this divergence in sharpest relief is to recall that for Aristotle one of the characteristics of friendship is ¡°concord [h omonoia];¡±  it is for Aristotle the form political friendship will take (1167a.25-1167b.15).  Aristotle writes, ¡°A city is said to be in concord when [its citizens] agree on what is advantageous, make the same decision and act on their common resolution¡± (1167a.28-29).  Concord is the sharing of interest and a willingness to act in common.  Concord is constituted through a union of interest and unity of action; friends are willing to act in unison and their action brings them close.  In this way, friendship can become a stable foundation of a city.  It is here that Hesse diverges most sharply from Aristotle.  For his text repetitively deploys metaphors, figures and structures of distance, space and room.  Hesse will insist that friends don¡¯t converge in a ¡®oneness of mind¡¯ and that friendship is directed not toward the erasure of ¡®space¡¯ between friends but rather toward its maintenance.  He has Narcissus insist to Goldmund that ¡°no road will bring us together¡± (40).  Aristotle, on the other hand insists that friendship is ¡°equality and similarity¡± and that ¡°concord is found in decent people¡± (1159b.4, 1167b.5).  So, what are we to make of this divergence?  What are we to make of Hesse¡¯s unexpected and surprising insistence on distance, dissonance, spacing and room when talking about friendship?


The first thing to say is that this divergence is worth reading; it is a clue that points to a entry point into the text, into the times and into the philosophical tradition concerning friendship.  The recurrent issue of distance, space and dissonance in Hesse texts has the appearance of a necessity:  no matter what Hesse had wanted to say, he ends up say a lot about spacing and room.  Being attentive to these moments may allow to read history itself from the literary text. They will allow give us tangential access to the highly charged political atmosphere in Europe of the late 1920¡¯s, so that we can begin to address the significance of considering friendship as a mode of living that sustains distance, space and room. 


The second thing to say is that the issue of distance and dissonance in philosophical discussions of friendship is not a new one, not one that emerges with Hesse. It is an experience of friendship and it is co-extensive with philosophical reflection on friendship.  Aristotle famously defines the friend as one soul in two bodies (Eudemian Ethics 1240b.3, 1245a.27-35).  Taken literally this means that we find part of ourselves outside ourselves; who we properly are is split and sundered between bodies.  Such an understanding implies an aim of friendship:  to find those beings carrying part of us around with them and to unite with them so that we can become complete beings.  It also implies friendship¡¯s end:  if successful, there would no longer be two (or more) beings but one and we would erase the need for friendship. Friends are in concord or union only to a degree and, friendship for Aristotle appears through ¡°sharing conversation and thought¡± as a mode of human ¡°living together [suzw]¡± (Nichomachean Ethics 1170b.10-15).  The sharing of communication implies a spacing between communicating beings; it also says something about the kind of space that must exist between the two beings in friendship.  It must be a space of communication and not command, a space that is amenable to the giving of one¡¯s thought, a space that welcomes what the each friend offers to the other.  The two friends must willing to keep the space and distance between them open for an actual sharing of thought and not a mere echoing or repeating.  Friends must be occasions for communication.  To be an occasion for communication implies an open-ness and willingness to engage differences and to allow them to enter oneself.  For this communication to be mutual though, both must share a willingness to be an occasion for communication and so the spacing between them is the product of their joint action. This space of difference is also a space of ¡®oneness of mind.¡¯  Aristotle insists on this when he revises himself near the end of Book IX of The Nichomachean Ethics writing, ¡°the friend is closely similar¡± (1170b.16).  Aristotle also insists near the end of his discussion of friendship in the Eudemian Ethics that ¡°none the less does a friend wish to be as it were a separate self¡± (Eudemian Ethics 1245a.35).  Hesse¡¯s novel unfolds within the paradox and puzzle of this ¡°closely similar¡± and ¡°as it were.¡±


Early in Hesse¡¯s novel, Narcissus, a young novice training to be a teaching monk will say to his younger student, Goldmund:  ¡°our friendship has no other purpose, no other reason, than to show you how utterly unlike me you are¡± (32/37).  It is a theme that Hesse will repeat, reduplicate and generalize:  he purports to show that friendship is a human relationship in which distance and the maintenance of distance is essential.  For what this implies is that friendship is a way to have an experience of intimate distance, to encounter a distance or spacing near to oneself, or even, more radically inside oneself. Friendship, Hesse seeks to show, allows us to experience distance intimately.  Hesse¡¯s novel then unfolds a riddle or puzzle that is as old as reflection on friendship itself—a puzzle, as Aristotle puts it, that ¡°concerns human nature¡± itself—the place or role of difference, distance and dissonance within not only the form of human living together that we call friendship but within community itself.  This shadow of difference or distance runs through, to varying degrees of emphasis, attention and consciousness the entire western tradition of philosophical reflections on friendship.[2]  Whenever one reads of friendship, one is reading simultaneously about what it means to be apart, separate, yet linked.  Space or distance is a substructure of friendship.  In Hesse that substructure is made visible throughout the text, at the level of theme, setting, plot and structure. And this experience of distance, of absence at-hand, is crucial to a broader array of the human condition.  The question that I wish to pose is how this recurrence of the idea of friendship as lived difference and distance functions in three registers:  one, within the narrative of the text, Narcissus and Goldmund; two, within the philosophical frame of reflection on friendship and; three, within a wider frame of the politics and culture of Europe in the late 1920¡¯s. 


Within the text, Narcissus and Goldmund, the issue of difference and distance establishes the setting—both within the abbey and in the world—drives the plot, and constitutes the characters; more it helps to explain a recurrent question in the secondary literature on Hesse about the manner in which the novel ends.  Within the frame of wider debates in the western tradition about the character of friendship as a form of human being together that enables a good life, distance and difference function as a conditions for the a virtuous life to unfold.  In other words, it is not a question of difference or spacing interrupting the quest for a virtuous life, it is rather that such a quest could not be undertaken without spacing and differentiation. Friendship, according to Hesse, is one of the human social relationships and structures which enable and sustain human uniqueness.  By living distance and difference through friendship, we each, Hesse claims, offer the other the occasion to become more fully ourselves, realizing our potentialities and , in so doing, realizing our happiness. And finally, within the frame of the times, the emphasis on the essential nature of spacing and difference in friendship constitutes  an intervention into the gathering politics of the day.  By emphasizing the necessity of spacing and differentiation to friendship, the text functions to disrupt efforts to organize a totalitarian community in which spacing and difference are either entirely erased or are commanded within a fixed set of allowable positions. This experience of lived distance has then a critical political and historical function.  Friendship is one of the structures of human existence which sustain the very possibility of political action, action understood as the emanation and maintenance of human plurality and natality; further, friendship is one of the structures from which history itself emerges.  Friendship, as an experience of distance, generates the future.  Hesse will do more than embed this claim into the content of the novel:  friendship as lived distance, sustained complementarity, is written into the very structure of the novel.  Reading Hesse¡¯s Narcissus and Goldmund we will be given an experience of friendship and this gift goes someway to explaining both the popularity of and resistance to the novel.


In the work of reading that follows, I would like to meditate with Hesse; we will follow and stray from him, acquise and resist his ¡°strange¡± and ¡°curious¡± portrait of friendship.  To follow Hesse into the relationship of Narcissus and Goldmund will be to follow him into the labyrinth of human existence.  And if we begin by asking ourselves why Hesse insists on presenting friendship as a relationship of difference, we should not expect to come out the other end with final answers.  For we will instead be drawn along with Hesse into ever more complicated and intractable problems:  of politics, of action, of history.



II.  ¡®There was Room Enough For Everything¡¯: 

The Path of Friendship


Spacing is the condition for the possibility of friendship. And it is for this reason that at the beginning of Hesse¡¯s Narcissus and Goldmund we find an extended description of the architecture and the setting of Mariabronn, the cloister in which Narcissus and Goldmund first meet.  But more is at stake here in the first, long, labyrinthine paragraph of Narcissus and Goldmund:  something like history demands this paragraph, an extended mediation on the type of space which is conducive to the nurturing of human plurality. For these reasons, it is encumbent upon us to read carefully this drescription of space. 


Set roughly in the Holy Roman Empire of the Fourteenth Century, Mariabronn is protective yet welcoming.  Made of ¡°sandstone,¡± it separates itself from the world (1; 7).  Yet, in order to live, this space must be open; it must be porous, allowing for passages of beings, goods and information.  It welcomes outsiders into its space, first and foremost a ¡°sweet chestnut . . . brought from Italy many years earlier by a monk who had a made a pilgrimage to Rome¡± (1; 7).  The chestnut is described as a ¡°stranger [als Fremdling] in the eyes of the natives¡± (1; 7).  It figures the fertile possibilities of this space.  Near the protective stone columns of the cloister, this stranger thrives, grows and produces fruit that sustains other strangers that the cloister welcomes into its embrace.  And from this space emerges an entire tradition:  ¡°Generations of cloister boys passed beneath the foreign tree¡± (1; 7).  History itself emerges out of the cloister space. 


Nurtured by a balance between isolation and contact, between rigidity and fluidity, similarity and difference, the cloister is a figure for a kind of space which sustains human plurality.  Hannah Arendt, in The Human Condition, describes plurality as ¡°the condition of human action because we are all the same, that is, human, in such a way that nobody is ever the same as anyone else who ever lived, lives or will live¡± (Human Condition 8).  The cloister gathers and shelters newcomers and ¡°always,¡± Hesse writes,  ¡°the new came¡± (Narcissus and Goldmund 2; 7).  By virtue of their birth they come and, arriving, ¡°most resembled each other¡± in so far as each was alive and labored to keep themselves alive—eating, drinking, excreting.  But, welcomed into the cloister, they would be welcomed into a realm of books, words, speech and action.  They would undergo what Arendt calls ¡°a second birth¡± (Human Condition 176)  Inaugurated into speech, into the logos—¡°they had their hair shorn, read books . . . . learning¡±—they would then be inserted back into the world, or more properly said, they would be inserted or birthed into the world of human action for the first time.  ¡°Some stayed for life,¡± Hesse writes, ¡°Others after finishing their studies . . . went into the world and lived by their wits or their crafts¡± (Narcisuss and Goldmund 2; 8).  The cloister is a space that nurtures beginnings:  a fountain of life (Mary¡¯s fountain).  It is a space which provides the occasion for initiative: 

between the thick . . . red stone . . . [the cells and halls of the cloister] were filled with life, with teaching, learning, administration, ruling; many kinds of art and sciences—the pious and the holy, the frivolous and somber—were pursud here, and were passed on from one generation to another . . . .  Erudition and piety, simplicity and cunning, the wisdom of the testaments and the wisdom of the Greeks, white and black magic—a little of each flourished here; there was room enough for everything¡± (Narcissus and Goldmund 2; 8).

Hesse¡¯s literary cloister provides room for the human plurality.  It is a figure of a kind of space in which humans can take the initiative to realize themselves.  Some will set themselves in motion to a greater degree than others and so the very character of the monastery, its worldly character, will morph over time:  ¡°one interest would usually outweigh another . . . .  at times . . . exorcism . . . at other times . . . fine music, or for the holy monk who had the power to heal and perfom miracles, or for the pike soup and stag-liver pies served in the refectory¡± (2-3; 8).  The one miracle this space will aways perform is that it will surprise itself and the world; it will always produce ¡°one or another who was special . . . who seemed to be chosen, of whom people spoke long after his contemporaries had been forgotten¡± (3; 9).  What this cloister space nurtures then is the unexpected, the surprising, the startling.  Such is the character of human life itself that the ¡°starling unexpectedness,¡± Arendt recalls to us, ¡°is inherent in all beginnings and in all origins . . . .  this again is possible only because each man is unique, so that with each birth something uniquely new comes into the world¡± (Human Condition 178).  Hesse¡¯s novel then begins in and from this cloister space.  This extended allegory on space is more than a mere description of setting.  It projects into the world a vision of the space of friendship.  We will see that the friendship establishes a parallel (inner) space between Narcissus and Goldmund. Friendship can only unfold in a space which is similarly tolerant of the ¡®starling unexpected.¡¯  But if friendship is birthed from such a space, and unfolds its possibilities within it, then Hesse will also insist that friendship turns back and sustains this very type of spacing.  Friendship is one of the pillars or columns which support the spacing of human action and plurality; without friendship the edifice of tolerant room would be seriously shaken and threatened with collapse.  Further, we will see that the cloister is at best only a provisional description of the tolerant space of friendship.  If it gives birth to the friendship of Narcissus and Goldmund, it will also allow for that friendship to exceed it, extend beyond itself.  In order to amplfy this point—that the cloister is only a poor model of a the type of space which nurtures plurality—the narrative structure of the novel will be radically truncated:  it will end with a projection into the unknown.  In other words the very structure of the narrative will model this space:  it will both be highly formal yet open ended. As a literary space, at the end, it will leave room for everything.  In other words, the novel, as a literary space, will help create a space conducive of freedom itself, for it is freedom understand as the possibility of unexpected, surprising action which is, to some degree, the product of friendship.


It is important to pause here for a second and say that what is described in the first of paragraph of Narcissus and Goldmund is not an ¡®actual,¡¯ Catholic monastery of the Fourteenth Century.  It makes no difference whether this description of a monastery is at all remotely similar to the historical reality of monasteries in the Middle Ages.  What is at stake in Narcissus and Goldmund is not whether it is an ¡®accurate¡¯ historical novel, not whether Hesse did his ¡®homework¡¯ well (and he did by all accounts make an effort to understand the medieval cloister), but rather whether it would be possible to advance the project of freedom in the early Twentieth Century.  For the history that is pressuring the novel is the history of the twentieth century.


Now in gathering place of the cloister, Narcissus and Goldmund meet.  Their mutual action toward each other will manifest a certain type of space; for the spacing of friendship comes into being only through the action of human beings.   ¡°And then it happened that a new face appeared,¡± Hesse writes, ¡°a new face did not pass unremarked and unremembered¡± (8; 14).  He is immediately associated with the strange, chestnut tree, emblem of uniqueness and fertility. ¡°I have never seen a tree like that,¡± Hesse has Goldmund say, ¡°What a strange, beautiful tree.  I wonder what it is called¡± (8, 13).  His introduction into the cloister will be an introduction to the name of the tree and to its strangeness.  More that question will launch Goldmund into his destiny:  it will be the beginning of his life of action.  With that question, those words, Goldmund will be introduced and enter into the life community of the cloister.  Arendt writes, ¡°The disclosure of the ¡®who¡¯ through speech, and the setting of a new beginning through action, always fall into an existing web where their immediate consequences can be felt.  Together they start a new process which eventually emerges as the unique life story of the newcomer¡± (Human Condition 184).  Goldmund feels an affinity for the tree and describes as his ¡°friend¡± (9; 15).  Ignoring, for the moment, the complexity of whether and in what sense one can be friends with an non-human, this description of the tree as Goldmund¡¯s friend links the characteristics of external space of the cloister with Goldmund and the remarkable, unexpected friendship that is to emerge between Narcissus and Goldmund.  More, it links friendship as a structure of human living together with the capacity to begin, with starting out.  Friendship is one the structure of human being together that manifests an ¡®in between,¡¯ a spacing from which human action emerges. 


[1]  One way in which Hesse diverges sharply radically, from Aristotle, or, better, one way in Aristotle diverges sharply from much of the classical discussion of friendship, is that Aristotle believes it possible for men and women to be friends.  Aristotle writes, ¡°The friendship between man and woman also seems natural . . . .  For the differences between them implies that their functions are divided, with different ones for the man and the woman; hence each supplies the other¡¯s needs by contributing a special function to the common good.  For this reason their friendship seems to include both utility and pleasure.  And it may also be friendship for virtue, if they are decent¡± (1162a.15-25).  Hesse will ceaseless contrast Narcissus¡¯s and Goldmund¡¯s relationship with the relationships that Goldmund forms with women and he will ceaseless insist on the inferiority of the latter. On the matter of relationships between men and women, Hesse seems to be much closer to the position Montaigne expresses in ¡°Of Friendship,¡± where he vigorously asserts the superiority of the friendship between males over any relationship with a woman and quite clearly asserts his belief that women are incapable of friendship:  ¡°Besides, to tell the truth, the ordinary capacity of women is inadequate for that communion and fellowship which is the nurse of this sacred bond; nor does their soul seem firm enough to endure the strain of so tight and durable a knot¡± (¡°Of Friendship,¡± in Essays, pp. 137-138).

[2]  Cicero in De Amicitia will repeat Aristotle¡¯s formulation of friendship:  ¡°he [the friend] is, as it were, another self¡± (De Amicitia, xxi.80).  Cicero will understand this spacing amongst the friends using an ocular metaphor:  ¡°Again, he who looks upon a true friend, looks, as it were, upon a sort of image of himself¡± (De Amicitia vii.23).  St. Augustine extends this tradition:  ¡°For I felt that my soul and my friends¡¯s had been one soul in two bodies¡± (Confessions IV.6). The spacing of friendship is marked in Augustine¡¯s text by a tactile metaphor, specifically of a weld, of two pieces of metal conjoined yet still distinct: ¡°there can be no true friendship unless those who cling to each other are welded together by you in love¡± (Confessions IV.4).  St. Aelred of Rievaulx describes the spacing and the unification of friendship with a tactile image as well, that of the kiss, or, more precisely the ¡°spiritual kiss:¡±  it is ¡°characetristically the kiss of friends . . . for it is not made by the contact of the mouth but the affection of the heart, not by the meeting of lips but by the mingling of spirits . . . .  I would call this the kiss of Christ, yet he himself does not offer it from his own mouth, but from the mouth of another, breathing upon his lovers that most sacred affection so there seems to them to be, as it were, one spirit in many bodies¡± (Spiritual Friendship 2: 26).  Montaigne seems to break with the tradition and insist that friendship brings about a ¡°complete fusion of wills¡± (¡°Of Freindship, Essays, p. 141).  On more careful examination though, Montaigne imagines it possible for friends to give to each other:  friends provide ¡°the matter and the occasion¡± for the other to be generous.  And in providing an occasion for generosity, the recepient friend is more generous than the giving friend.  In so far as friends are ¡°occasions¡± for each other to give, they provide a space for a gift to happen.  again we retrun to the ways that spacing and unification are entangled, each providing the condition for the other.