Tuesday, 30 December 2014

Siddhartha - Hermann Hesse

About three years ago, not long after being treated for depression, I read Hermann Hesse's novel "Siddhartha", and it had a profound effect upon me. The events and philosophies detailed in the book gave me hope and encouragement, and reminded me that the world, and this life, were still beautiful and precious. Just recently I re-read "Siddhartha", as part of a tentative effort to once again "reboot" my life.

In brief, the novel follows the eponymous character on a journey of self-discovery and spiritual exploration. He craves enlightenment, but comes to recognise that this cannot be attained via the teachings of others. It has to come from within, and we must find our own path, our own truths, and that the voices come from within - the "bird in the breast".
It is not difficult to appreciate why "Siddhartha" so captured the imagination of counter-cultural circles on both sides of the Atlantic in the decades which followed World War Two. Its message of liberation from doctrine, tradition and hierarchy, of arriving "there" by ourselves, was warmly embraced by a ready audience.
The renunciation of material possessions was of course also a favoured theme of the Sixties, but Siddhartha's quest does not perhaps follow the totally ascetic and self-denying course which some might expect (and/or hope). It seems he took the view that one needs to be immersed in "real life" to see the emptiness of some parts of it. All part of the process of conquering the "self"?
It was noticeable how some aspects of the story assumed greater prominence for me just recently, and which did not loom as large when I first read "Siddhartha".  One is the implication that more knowledge or learning can be imparted in one kiss or physical embrace than by slavishly studying some exalted text or tome. Events in my own personal life since 2011 have made me more receptive and empathetic to such things.
Also, Hesse mentions that a "game" can only last so long before it becomes stale and repetitive. We must have a goal, a path, a greater aim. As in all things, we need a balance, between keeping grounded and striving for a higher fulfilment.. This is something that many people, myself included, often overlook to our detriment.
Siddhartha's dreams are occasionally enlisted to convey symbolism, often to signpost the next stage in his odyssey. As in many of his stories, Hesse's language is organic, vivid but economical, evoking the vitality and the essence of life. These ingredients all help to make his work so enchanting and inspiring.
As with the many Hesse works which draw inspiration from Eastern philosophies, the themes of renewal, rebirth, cycles, the transient nature of things, and the essential harmony or "one-ness" of life and nature feature prominently here, as does a simple but profound love of all things.
Towards the end, as Siddhartha renews acquaintance with the ferryman, the river is used as a metaphor for life, being, "the moment", one's path, destiny, however we choose to interpret them. The arrival of Siddhartha's son is symbolic; the father's search coming to an end, and the offspring beginning his.
Some other important nuggets which I drew concerned the nature of time, the removal of fear and the limitations of words in expressing and explaining truth and wisdom. In time, Siddhartha came to terms with ordinary people, their preoccupations and their loves. This for me was one of the most important sub-plots, and consistent with the "unexpected" character of the journey.
Interestingly, the "lesson" which resonated with me was - don't try too hard, or you may miss something which is right in front of you.  Instead, listen and be receptive....
"Siddhartha" did not have quite the same emotional impact on me this time around.  This is not surprising, since it was not new to me, and I am a different person now from the one who was engrossed by it three or four years ago. However, I still found it invigorating and instructive.  Recommended reading for anyone.

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