Siddhartha Hermann Hesse
The following entry presents criticism on Hesse's novella Siddhartha: Eine indische Dichtung (1922; Siddhartha: An Indian Poetic Work.
Siddhartha (1922) is often considered the high point of Hesse's art in fiction, as well as the pinnacle of his fascination with orientalism. The novella is concerned with the individual's search for truth and identity by means of what Hesse termed the Weg nach Innen (inward journey), a recurring theme throughout his works; in fact, Siddhartha was written after a difficult period of introspection in Hesse's own life. Although the novella was completed by 1922 and was widely recognized and appreciated in Europe, it did not become popular in the United States until the 1960s and 1970s. During that period, American youth, embroiled in an era of cultural upheaval, identified with the title character and his struggle to transcend meaninglessness and materialism through mysticism and love, and a near cult following for Hesse ensued. The popularity of Siddhartha, while no longer near that of the 60s and 70s, remains steady. It was written during Hesse's second and most productive period—1916 to 1925. A crisis initiated by multiple personal problems led Hesse to undergo psychoanalysis during the early part of this stage, an intensive therapy which provided Hesse the incentive to begin his Weg nach Innen toward self-awareness and ultimately to greater self-realization, all of which helped shape the writing of Siddhartha.
Plot and Major Characters
The title character of Siddhartha is the son of a Brahman who with his friend Govinda leaves home and caste to join the ascetic Samanas. For three years Siddhartha and Govinda deny the body's senses and external world, yet Siddhartha fails to find the true path he is seeking. He renounces this life of ritual and asceticism and departs with Govinda to hear Gautama Buddha speak. Govinda decides to stay with Gautama, but Siddhartha does not accept the Buddha's teaching and declares that one must seek truth through living, not preaching. Leaving Govinda and the Buddha, Siddhartha encounters a river, which becomes a symbolic motif throughout the narrative, representing the boundary between two universes and two lifestyles. Siddhartha now immerses himself in the world of the senses, the physical universe—the polar opposite of the austere nature of repressed sense perception he was previously pursuing. Siddhartha travels across the river to a city where he meets Kamala, a courtesan, who introduces him to a life of wealth and pleasure—sexual and commercial. Siddhartha eventually realizes that “sensual lust is related to death,” and that he must leave Kamala and the merchant way, unaware that she is now pregnant with his son. Siddhartha returns to the river, which now functions as the symbol of a turning point, rather than a boundary. There, in despair, he nearly commits suicide, but, in observing the mystical symbology of the river, does not. Siddhartha decides that both his years as an ascetic and as a profligate allow him “to live again,” as he explains to Govinda, who comes across Siddhartha sleeping. Determined to stay by the river, Siddhartha lives with the ferryman Vasudeva: a figure based on both Eastern attributes and Charon, the boatman of the river Styx. After twelve years Kamala visits the river bringing the son Siddhartha fathered and dies from a snakebite. Siddhartha cares for the boy and discovers that he loves his son desperately. But the child is spoiled and longs only to leave the two boatmen and return to the city, which he eventually succeeds in doing. Through his son's departure, Siddhartha experiences first the pain of love and then pure, unselfish devotion, eventually learning the lesson of the river: “All voices, all aims, all yearning, all suffering, all pleasure, all good and all evil, all together made up the world.” When Vasudeva dies, Siddhartha carries on the tradition and knowledge he has been taught by the ferryman and the river. When Govinda passes by, he sees that Siddhartha, like Buddha, has achieved absolute peace and harmony, that he has finally “found the Way.”
Hesse's Siddhartha reflects much of the literary and intellectual history of Germany and Western Europe during the first decades of the twentieth century. In particular, the work has many points in common with the romantic movement, neo-romanticism, and expressionism. The years after 1918 in Europe were filled with literary turmoil and experimentation, and the results of both the psychoanalytic movement and the new orientalism then in vogue are much evidenced in Siddhartha. The importance of what Hesse termed Weg nach Innen—the individual's struggle to transcend the materialism of bourgeois society through art, mysticism, and love—is especially palpable in Siddhartha. Highly influenced by the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche, Hesse had vowed to reject traditional religion and morality and lead a life of individualism and isolation. Siddhartha also rejects traditional religion and morality, and ultimately finds that pure individualism is an embrace of unity, with love as the synthesizing agent. In his essay My Faith (1931), Hesse stated that “Siddhartha puts not cognition, but love in first place; that it disdains dogma and makes the experience of unity the central point. …” The inner perfection Siddhartha—and vicariously through him, Hesse—seeks is an awareness of the unity, totality, and simultaneity of all being. Siddhartha's life contains strong similarities to that of the historical Gautama Buddha, who, in addition to the proper name Gautama, was called Siddhartha in secular life, meaning “the one who has reached the goal” or “the one who has found the Way.” Other names in Siddhartha function similarly in their usage of Eastern religious motifs: Vasudeva is a name for Krishna, meaning “he in whom all things abide and who abides in all”; and Kamala can be associated with Kama, the Hindu god of love and desire. Hesse portrayed the dominant mythic overtones in Siddhartha by borrowing various facts from Gautama the Buddha: Gautama left his wife for a life of asceticism, much as Siddhartha left Kamala; the Buddha spent several years meditating on a riverbank and received his revelations under the Bo-tree, just as Siddhartha spends his final years beside a river and discovers enlightenment beneath a mango tree; and Siddhartha's final vision of the world as a simultaneity and totality corresponds to the Buddha's vision of interconnectedness. But there are also fundamental differences, due to the fact that Hesse's overall philosophy is explicitly opposed to that of Gautama the Buddha, who made a conscious attempt to put forth an established pattern of religious development. Hesse hoped, in Taoist fashion, “to fulfill the will of God precisely by letting myself drift (in one of my stories I called it ‘letting oneself fall’) …” The plot, characters, and setting of Siddhartha are indicative of Hesse's lifetime interest in the East: “I experienced religion in two forms,” the author commented, “as the child and grandchild of pious upright Protestants and as a reader of Indian revelations in which I give pride of place to the Upanishads, the Bhagavad-Gita and the sermons of Buddha. … From early childhood I lived just as much in the atmosphere of Indian spirituality as I did in that of Christianity.” Hesse's interest in the East was partially reinforced by the popularity of orientalism in his time and by the influence of the book Travel Diary of a Philosopher (1919) by Count Keyserling, whom Hesse had praised as “the first European scholar and philosopher who has really understood India.” Hesse traveled to Ceylon, Malaya, and Sumatra in 1911, but, confronted with appalling poverty and a commercialized Buddhism, he found the trip a disappointment. He commented later to a friend that he had failed to get beyond “the charm of the exotic” and enter into “the world of the Indian spirit.” Disenchanted, Hesse returned home without actually visiting India. In contrast to his own physical journey to the East, he described Siddhartha as “an Indian poetic work,” a realistic narrative with a strong impulse toward lyricism, a symbolic projection of his internal vision through geographic symbolism. Thus, Siddhartha fits well both in the genres of the Erziehungsromane, or novel of education, and the Bildungsroman. Hesse addressed in Siddhartha, as in most of his other works, characters who struggle to come to terms with themselves, individuals who passionately attempt self-realization.
Siddhartha has generated a vast body of critical commentary and has profoundly affected readers throughout the world, though its popularity peaks most notably during periods of social ferment. During the Weimar Republic in Germany, from 1919 to 1933, much politically motivated criticism of Hesse was in evidence. Throughout the Third Reich Hesse experienced both political and literary rejection. After National Socialism collapsed and Hesse won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1946, there was a rebirth of interest in his writing among German critics and scholars. During the last period of Hesse's life, when he wrote relatively little, his work was made more readily available in many reprints, new editions, and collections. Although Hesse's highly romantic prose style does not always lend itself easily to translation, many of his writings were translated into English after World War II, affording Hesse a wider audience. In the 1960s and 1970s Siddhartha was well received in the United States; the novella garnered an almost cult following, especially among the youth of the era. Hesse's extreme individualism and focus on the inner self, along with his disparagement of modern society and interest in the East, all spoke to a generation who often viewed America as a materialistic, mass-oriented, and morally bankrupt society. Hesse's belief in the ultimate meaningfulness of life became an inspiration for dissidents and seekers from both the establishment and the burgeoning counterculture of the 1960s and 1970s. The author's ability to universalize private agony and personal crises, as demonstrated in Siddhartha, has allowed Hesse to achieve an ongoing international popularity.