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Re: Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse. Camilla Send a noteboard - 08/06/2011 08:16:52 AM

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.

I think he did well to split the Buddha in two, as he did. It helps remove it from any claim to historical truth or realism.

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.

I enjoyed the Buddha (or, rather, Gotama) pretty much winking and saying "yes, this may not be the way to salvation, but it is better than the alternative for these people".

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.

Indeed. Since my German is limited to telling people my name, that I am scared and that I have killed a man, I am sticking with my Norwegian translation, which for a change is lovely. The rhytmic flow of the language is quite seductive.
structured procrastinator
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Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse. - 17/02/2011 10:26:34 PM 9376 Views
I do believe I have access to a copy of it - 17/02/2011 11:43:12 PM 1674 Views
I think it is a little unfair - 18/02/2011 11:19:17 AM 1355 Views
You mean Eco to Brown. - 18/02/2011 01:16:10 PM 1320 Views
Yes. *NM* - 18/02/2011 10:19:12 PM 702 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 1392 Views
No - 18/02/2011 10:20:33 PM 1473 Views
Thank you. I was starting to worry. - 19/02/2011 02:15:38 AM 1466 Views
I love that book. - 18/02/2011 06:34:00 PM 1397 Views
It is incredibly easy to read in German. - 19/02/2011 02:18:43 AM 1479 Views
Re: Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse. - 08/06/2011 08:16:52 AM 2206 Views

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