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Siddhartha: Herman Hesse

Someone mentioned Siddhartha on FFA and I remembered I hadn't reviewed it yet!

Siddhartha, a young man living in 5th century India, decides to leave his well-off existence to find spiritual fulfillment. He joins the Samanas, a group of wandering ascetics, dragging his friend Govinda with him. After several years with them, he hears Gautama (Sakyamuni) speak, and leaves the group, while Govinda joins Gautama. Siddhartha wanders into a city where he meets Kamala, a courtesan, and dabbles in the life of the mundane awhile. Years later, he becomes sick of this life and moves on, finally settling with a ferryman who lives and listens to the river. All this time, he is trying to find something--something he doesn't even know.

As the lackluster summary probably shows, I did not like this book. I had what I can only describe as a most unpleasant collision of philosophies with it. This normally wouldn't be such a problem, except I did not like Siddhartha at all either, and that bothered me a lot.

I make no pretensions to being a sophisticated reviewer here. This was one of the books that would have been on my high school reading list, so it's obviously interesting enough to merit its inclusion (this list was for International Baccalaureate's Higher Level English (i.e. for your primary language) if you're curious.) My English teacher chose to do other works that year, but mentioned that in other years he'd swap it in for other works, and so I've always been curious about it. Despite disliking many of the works we studied personally, I think many of them merited study or at least reading--I've never regretted reading them, nor spending time analyzing them. (Dejection: an Ode, though...) However, my annoyance with the text means that I mostly focus on that, not on a more specific topic that someone doing more formal analysis probably focuses on. I'm sure there are many good analyses out there, including ones by people actually familiar with Buddhism or various philosophies.

But first, Siddhartha annoyed me because I felt like he was doing a retread of extreme beliefs. Actually, it was the extremism. His family is socially and economically well off. His friend, his mother, and his father all love him. Instead, he decides to completely sever ties with his parents--his father is understandably upset, and he doesn't even ask or talk about it to his mother, just says bye. Admittedly, this is antiquity and transportation is much more difficult, but they love each other. How can you sever familial ties like that, so casually? Even as a modern reader (the kind who learned about Confucius in English-language school: if my parents talked about it, I don't remember) I had such a strong but filial duty! reaction. If only to discuss it, a little; Siddhartha more or less gets the idea to leave, tells his father about it, and leaves the next morning. This feeling is exacerbated by Siddhartha's contempt for a lot of what "child people" (i.e. people like you and I) do, including love. He thinks less of them for having cares.

So he renounced the world. It reminded me very sharply of backlashes against previous artistic movements--Romanticism against what had come before, for example. The glorification of the emotional, of nature, to the exclusion of all else, in direct response to what had come before--it annoyed me then, and it annoys me now. Here Siddhartha seeks to escape his Self through fasting, physical exertion, meditation and self-denial. He views the world as not merely trappings, but actively disgusting trappings. It's like the prioritization of the soul, or the body, or the mind over everything, all over again. It's like the rise of the mendicant orders in Europe all over again, or the extreme asceticism of Saint Anthony.

Then he swings all the way over into complete carnality. He submerges himself into the lives that he despises--he seeks lodging with a merchant after meeting Kamala, a courtesan, in order to get closer to her. For years he does this. He sleeps with Kamala, gambles and gives away money, lives with the "child people". He throws himself wholly into it, and yet manages to remain contemptuous of his fellows' concerns, which he sees as petty. And he is quite clear that he's superior.

He observed people living in a childish or animal way that he simultaneously loved and deplored. He saw their struggles, watched them suffer and turn gray over things that seemed to him utterly unworthy of such a price--things like money, petty pleasures, petty honors. He saw people scold and insult one another, saw them wailing over aches and pains that would just make a Samana smile, suffering on account of deprivations a Samana would not notice.


He's slowly drawn into these lives, though. He begins gambling, and the text mentions he gambles recklessly, for how better could he demonstrate his contempt for wealth and merchants' cares by gambling everything? It makes him bitter, but it doesn't give him any more compassion. This part, though it made me dislike him even more, at least rang true.

Then he gets sick of it. He quits the city abruptly, quits Kamala, without a word to anyone (much to the distress of the merchant, who sends out search parties, fearing some harm had come to him.) Through several meandering journeys he ends up working alongside a river ferryman, who seems to have found his own peace. The river becomes an image, a symbol to focus his thoughts on as he works on his newest belief system. He believes that everything is one, there is no future nor present but all is now. In an echo of

I hate that the novel glorified Siddhartha's lack of grief at Kamala's death. His son is quite obviously distraught--his mother has died in front of his eyes--but Siddhartha (in reply to the ferryman's query about sorrow not entering his heart), says that he's "made richer and happier [by discovering his son]". I'm not looking for lingering scenes of grief, but that's your reaction? It didn't endear me to him at all.

Siddhartha's journey wasn't satisfying for me, because once he decided to join the Samanas, I could see what was coming: he would first reject the world wholly, then he would plunge back into it heedlessly, then he'd take another step back, etc...It's like watching someone toddle through their first steps, exploring something new, when they swing wildly from one extreme to the other. (It is also an echo, though not complete replication, of Siddhartha Gautama's journey.) There were some good points made, I thought; while talking to Gautama, Siddhartha says that while he truly sees that Gautama has achieved nirvana, he cannot learn it from Gautama, no matter how well Gautama speaks--doctrine cannot help him. The novel touches on that again, when he is with the ferryman, and Siddhartha realizes anew that he cannot have reached his present spot without having synthesized all these experiences. I thought that callback and consistency of thought was good. But I couldn't stand Siddhartha.

My beef with Siddhartha himself came mostly from his apparent inability to understand things like compassion, empathy, or any sort of fellow feeling with others' worries or feelings. Govinda loves him. (Actually, I thought there was subtext between the two, if one-sided from Govinda.) There are people who really do love him, and he is apparently unable to acknowledge it. He has contempt for it. It's not till his son runs away from him that he actually seems to feel anything beyond his self-centered little bubble. Govinda clearly thinks the world of Siddhartha, but in every interaction, Siddhartha looks down on him, always mocks him a little.

To sum all that up: do I regret reading it? No. There are very few things I regret reading, and this includes truly brain-bleach worthy things on the internet. I didn't enjoy it very much, but I'm glad to know what it's about. And, well, I got to deconstruct it in a rather rambly entry. But I don't think I'm going to read much other Hesse, not soon. I would not recommend this book if you enjoy books partly because of protagonists, because he was very unlikable, nor if you disagree with the quasi-religious idea of everything being One. I don't even know how to rate this. 8/10?


Crosspost: http://silverflight8.dreamwidth.org/140488.html.

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