Friday, August 16, 2019

Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse

Source of book: I own this.

I have a small hardback of this short novel, from Fall River Press, translated by Katja Pelzer. 

Siddhartha is one of those books that is considered an essential classic, but that few seem to have read. While it was published in Germany in 1922, it didn’t make an impact in America until the English language translation was published in 1951. This was ideal timing, as it was at the dawn of an era of interest in Eastern philosophy and religion. The book became one of the most influential writings during the 1960s. 

Hermann Hesse was himself a Buddhist, although he was raised by Pietist Christian parents - he later said that their genuine and humble faith - “not preached but lived” - was a tremendous influence on him. 

Siddhartha is the story of a life’s journey by the title character. Siddhartha is born into a Brahman family, and is so intelligent that his parents believe he will become a saint. This doesn’t exactly happen (or at least doesn’t happen until near the end of Siddhartha’s life.) Siddhartha leaves home to become a Samana, meets the Buddha, hooks up with a courtesan, makes a fortune, becomes disillusioned, and finally finds peace by listening to an old man and the river. 

Although translations can obscure the original a bit, I think Pelzer captured the simple and straightforward style of the original. 

A couple of quotes were interesting to me. For much of the novel, Siddhartha struggles to figure out what to do with the self. As a Samana, he is expected to punish the self, to cut the self off, so to speak. Later as he seeks pleasure, he finds the self disgusts him. A key turning point occurs as he notes that the senses (the flesh, perhaps) are not the self, but neither is the life of the mind.

But he had never really found this Self, for he had tried to capture it in the net of thoughts. Just as the Self was certainly not the body, and not the play of senses, it was also not thought, not the mind, not learned wisdom, not the learned art of drawing conclusions and spinning new thoughts out of old ones. No, even this world of thoughts was still on this side, and no goal could be reached by killing off the arbitrary Self of the senses while fattening the arbitrary Self of thoughts and scholarliness. Both were to be listened to, both were to be played with, both were neither to be condemned nor overvalued; from both, the secret voices of the innermost core were to be heard. 

This was fascinating to me, because of my own religious background. It is a Western thing, perhaps, but my religious tradition is deeply suspicious of the body and of the senses. (Particularly anything connected to sexuality, but pleasures in general.) This leads to an intellectualizing of one’s faith, making it a faith of “believing the right things,” and not a faith of a lived experience in community with the vulnerable. The other result, though, is a traumatic separation of the body and the senses from the “true self,” which is “spiritual” - meaning intellectual. For those of us who feel deeply, and experience transcendence in things like music and poetry and the beauty of nature, this was always a difficult thing - and it felt like a violation to be expected to divorce the parts of our inner being. (I imagine it is far worse for those who don’t have the advantage of being cishet, and thus literally have their nature set at war with their faith.) 

I’m not sure Siddhartha (or Hesse) ever finds a convincing answer to the nature of the self, but at least they acknowledge the question of how to live with one’s whole being. 

The second passage was fascinating for a similar reason. As an old man, Siddhartha is reunited with his childhood friend, Govinda, who left to follow Gautama. Govinda is disappointed that Siddhartha seems to have gained some insight, but can’t share it. I think, though, that Siddhartha is on the right track when he explains that words and ideas tend to get in the way - they intellectualize what must be lived. 

“You see, my Govinda, this is one of the thoughts that I have found: Wisdom cannot be conveyed. Wisdom that a wise man attempts to convey always sounds like foolishness....I am saying what I have found. One can convey knowledge, but not wisdom. One can find it, one can live it, one can be carried by it, one can do wonders with it, but one cannot speak or teach it.” 

This kind of captures the essence of the book. Wisdom (or faith, or a life well lived, or however you wish to put it) isn’t an intellectual exercise. It requires the whole self. It can be lived, it can be found, it can change your life. But you can’t reduce it to words or a set of beliefs or a formula. Likewise, one learns from others more by example than by teaching. Just like Hesse and his parents.

There were a few sour notes in the book. The main one concerns the role of women. Which is: not much, and not positive. Siddhartha’s mother gets a brief mention, but his main relationship is with his father. His best friend is Govinda - another boy and then man. The riverboat operator becomes the final path to enlightenment - and he too is male. The merchant Kamaswami, who teaches Siddhartha in the ways of commerce, is male. 

It is the courtesan, Kamala, who instructs him in the ways of love. But this isn’t presented as the most positive thing. It seems a bit like the stereotype of the wanton woman who seduces the man from his higher pursuits. And, conveniently, she dies, leaving Siddhartha with their son. She is given less character development than the male characters, and seems to be known for her beauty, and her ability to attract rich men to support her. She could have been so much more. 

I also felt that the final resolution was a bit trite. I will concede that I am reading this from a very Western point of view, that I am not particularly well versed in Buddhism so I am likely missing some of the reference points, and that the triteness is probably because Hesse has been imitated by many lesser artists in the 70 years since. It is certainly possible that the “everything is connected” insight felt fresher then. Although, come to think of it, there are plenty of people today who could use that insight. 

Siddhartha is a thoughtful book, and was pleasant to read. I think it also helps to understand the popular versions of Eastern mysticism that took off in the 60s. Like most things we Americans have appropriated from other cultures, it lacked context and got watered down a bit. But elements permeated our own culture to the point where we don’t even notice them these days. It is in elucidating these hidden bits of borrowed culture that the book is most enlightening, although Siddhartha’s journey is compelling in its own way. 


Siddhartha's quest reminds me so much of one of U2's greatest songs ever. 


  1. What a great song to leave at the end of your review. I, too, was a bit frustrated with the book, but enjoyed the story of his spiritual journey. I didn't even notice the lack of women in the story as it is so much like other stories that have been told. I was most frustrated with the son and what an asshole he was to his father. I guess it's typical of father/son relationships when the father is more concerned with his own journey.

    1. Yeah, neither father-son relationship was good. Which is an interesting thing since Hesse had a decent relationship with his parents before they died, and considered himself influenced strongly by them. I don't know enough of the Buddhist legends to know if the "leave everything" idea was part of that - I kind of suspect it might be.

  2. I'd be interested in reading your perspective on some of Hesse's other works, such as Demian or Narcissus & Goldmund, that deal more with Western religion and spirituality.

    1. I haven't read any of his other works, but I will keep my eyes open for more when I go to used book sales.

  3. It been a while since I’ve read this one, but I remember being rather underwhelmed by it. I’ve tried to read it again in German, but only got through about 25 pages. Frankly, I thought Narcissus and Goldman was a better book.

    1. Interesting. I guess I am a bit late to Hesse - I'll have to find some of his other books.