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Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse. Tom Send a noteboard - 17/02/2011 10:26:34 PM

Most of the people who would read this are familiar with my 2011 Reading Challenge. Aside from reading ten books in Russian that for one reason or another I hadn’t gotten around to reading (despite having been a Russian major in undergrad), I vowed to read ten books in French and ten in German. Of course, both my French and my German were at a low conversational level as late as November of last year.

I realize that I set an extremely steep learning curve for myself. In order to be able to read ten books in French and ten books in German, I’ve had to radically improve my French and my German vocabulary and understanding. The French improved as I read Le Rouge et Le Noir in December, and then with Madame Bovary at the beginning of the new year. While my spoken French may be slow, I’m finding that my passive understanding of even spoken French has improved dramatically, and so I’ve been reading Les Misérables in French (with almost no recourse to a dictionary at this point) and gotten quite far in what may be the longest book written by someone other than Proust in that language. Due to that length, having finished Part III, “Marius”, I felt that I needed to keep pushing myself by finally reading something in German, even if it meant putting aside Hugo for a bit before powering through the last 500 pages or so of Les Misérables.

I had been working on improving my German vocabulary (German grammar is something I had learned a while back) by reading news articles online. However, I knew that I needed to actually read something. I had to sit down with the book, a dictionary and then methodically look up each word that I did not know. Obviously, some of my book choices for my Challenge were not ideal for this. Der Zauberberg would have been a monumental task to start with, and attempting to tackle it as my first book in German would be something akin to a suicidal mania. However, the other choices on my list didn’t really fit the bill well, either. I needed something simple, yet elegant, that would expand my vocabulary well with words that I would find in a novel but probably not in a news article.

So I chose Hesse. In particular, I chose Siddhartha. Siddhartha replaces one of those dusty pieces of vile propaganda from my “German alternates” list (the alternates are just placeholders to allow me to replace up to two books from my chosen list of ten for each language; the idea is that I have to read at least 8 of the 10 I’ve chosen to put on my main list). I’m not sure which one I’ll knock off the alternate list, though. It’s probably irrelevant as I’m likely to read another Hesse book as another alternate, either before or after Traumnovelle (which I think I’m ready to read now). And so, on to my review.


Hermann Hesse’s famous short novel Siddhartha, inspired by the life of the Buddha, is an interesting and paradoxical work. It is interesting because it is an excellent, short and clear story of self-discovery and introspection, with lucid prose and a simple style. It is paradoxical because, being about the Buddha, it is not strictly Buddhist.

To begin with, Hesse approaches Buddhism from a Western perspective. In fact, anyone familiar with Edward Said’s Orientalism will be prone to accuse him of approaching Indian society in general from an Orientalist perspective. The East is reified as an exotic of extremes, from the ritualistic piety of the Brahmans, to the stark asceticism of the Buddhist monks, to the sensual indulgence of a life filled with women, wine and song. There is little balance or realism sought.

I think it is unfair to blame Hesse for this aspect of his novel, however. To begin with, the entire story is an allegorical story, an idealized and symbolic journey of the individual in search of self-knowledge, much like Coelho’s The Alchemist. To inject too much realism into the story would defeat the purpose. Playing into Orientalist themes is precisely why the story works. The reader is expected, not to picture an actual world or the actual history of the Buddha (to do so would also lead the reader into factual errors), but rather to capture the sense of stark contrasts that the journey of self-discovery can create within the seeker. Hesse could have placed the novel in a different setting, with different protagonists, and with similar success. Or rather, with almost the same success.

The reason I say almost is that Hesse still, despite his factual errors and doctrinal sins, has captured much of the essence of a Buddhist self-analysis and evaluation, and has pointed out many of the problems that were discussed and are still discussed by Buddhists today. For example, Hesse notes the absurdity of monastic discipline or any attempt at piety in Buddhism. This paradox is often discussed in Buddhist writings – monasticism in Buddhism has many detractors (often from monastic backgrounds) who note that the flight from the world and the worldly merely substitutes a different ego for the ego that was supposedly destroyed though monastic meditation and contemplation. Another example is seen in Siddhartha’s major failing in the book: he cannot let go of his son or understand that his son has to learn his own lessons. This negative behavior has negative consequences, and it reinforces the Buddhist teaching that “grasping” or “clinging” behavior leads to suffering.

Aside from the Buddhist flavor, Hesse touches on the “big questions” of life generally. This is what leads me to compare Siddhartha with The Alchemist. The writing style is similar (though Hesse is richer and deeper in his descriptions and explanation), if for no other reason than to allow the reader to absorb the philosophical exploration more readily. The symbols and imagery are virtually all Jungian archetypes, replete with deep unconscious meaning.

The end result is a book that is well worth reading. Not everyone may agree with the philosophy of the book or with the Buddhist renunciation of attachment, but in any case it will leave the reader with something to think about. It is a short book and so (if you aren’t reading it in German to improve your German-language abilities) it can be read in a couple of hours.

Political correctness is the pettiest form of casuistry.

ἡ δὲ κἀκ τριῶν τρυπημάτων ἐργαζομένη ἐνεκάλει τῇ φύσει, δυσφορουμένη, ὅτι δὴ μὴ καὶ τοὺς τιτθοὺς αὐτῇ εὐρύτερον ἢ νῦν εἰσι τρυπώη, ὅπως καὶ ἄλλην ἐνταῦθα μίξιν ἐπιτεχνᾶσθαι δυνατὴ εἴη. – Procopius

Ummaka qinnassa nīk!

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Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse. - 17/02/2011 10:26:34 PM 9284 Views
I do believe I have access to a copy of it - 17/02/2011 11:43:12 PM 1629 Views
I think it is a little unfair - 18/02/2011 11:19:17 AM 1310 Views
You mean Eco to Brown. - 18/02/2011 01:16:10 PM 1276 Views
Yes. *NM* - 18/02/2011 10:19:12 PM 683 Views
You weren't really slamming a Nobel laureate in favor of a shitty writer like Coelho, were you? - 18/02/2011 06:29:17 PM 1345 Views
No - 18/02/2011 10:20:33 PM 1432 Views
Thank you. I was starting to worry. - 19/02/2011 02:15:38 AM 1420 Views
I love that book. - 18/02/2011 06:34:00 PM 1352 Views
It is incredibly easy to read in German. - 19/02/2011 02:18:43 AM 1439 Views
Re: Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse. - 08/06/2011 08:16:52 AM 2157 Views

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