Monday, 23 February 2009

'Strange dreams were reflected in his enlarged eyes...'

It seems counter-intuitive to open 'Siddhartha' up for discussion because much of the novel is about S...(argh, i'm gonna call him Sid for brevity's sake...) is about Sid walking away from just such a thing, from reading and debate, from, quite literally, groping enlightenment with both hands. At the start, he's walking away from received wisdom (Brahmin/scriptural) about 'the creation of the world, the origin of speech, food, inhalation, exhalation, the arrangement of the senses, the acts of the gods'. The lad won’t be taught. Then he decides he doesn't want Buddha's version of events either, and wanders straight into the ‘fig-lipped’ (er…I might have that quote wrong - I‘m talking about Kamala) and oily-haired pleasures of samsara. What comes after is nigh on impossible to articulate, unless you‘ve got Hesse‘s grace. But in discussing 'Siddhartha', I guess we’re gonna forge ahead and clumsily try to articulate extremely nebulous things.

So here's what impressed me about the novel, knowing nothing about it before I started reading it: that Sid's life was full. By which i mean that it wasn't obnoxiously ascetic, which I'd presumed it would be. He went out there, got in amongst 'em, down and dirty, let himself get ruled by his cock, his clothes and his covetousness, and stopped being righteously distant (as in, ' People like us cannot love. Ordinary people can'). I'm not sure what I was expecting. Someone whose life was more of a straight line, more exemplary, perhaps. Specifically, as in Eightfold Path sense of exemplary. But did anyone else find it unexpected and pleasing (I'm asking those with as much prior ignorance of the story as me) that Sid got lost in samsara, making him more relatable?

On another matter, I don't know enough about Buddhism, and it would be great if someone could correct me/enlighten (boom boom) me as to my probably shite, snail's-paced interpretation of Hesse's theological thrust. Is Sid, in rejecting the institution of Buddhism, not only being very wise in rejecting all institutionalised ways of being in order to pick his own way (kinda Jonathan Livingston Seagull, but never mind. Also, perhaps, DJ *calling DJ Brown...*, if you have a moment you could riff on institution theory...?!?), but also moving beyond Buddhism? I mean, if Buddhism works on the idea that we need to get the hell outta samsara into nirvana but Sid unravels his own theory - that the distinction between samsara and nirvana, between suffering and salvation, is false, that they collapse in on themselves, and that time is unreal and truth is relative...then isn't Hesse dissing doctrinal, prescriptive Buddhism?

Although sure, at the same time, he's saying that thing everyone knows, everyone says, and is in no way antithetical to Buddhism - that's it's all about love. Humbling, stone-stroking (if you're Siddhartha), love. And you don't have to go questing for it. It's just there. I'm just highlighting what I got from the novel - a perhaps minor critique of Buddhism and a major big-up for Love (which is encompassed in Buddhist doctrine so, you know, good).

Yay, nay, have I misread things, whatever…?? I'd love to hear what you think - any thoughts, disagreements, corrections about my unsubtle interpretations, or anything really, would be marvellous. Also, anyone want to get biographical about Hesse, go for it (hey, or autobiographical if you want, i bet they do that in Oprah's book club, i bet the books are just excuses for rampant confessional...). I prefer the 'death of the author' thesis - ie. that banging on about what was going on for the author at the time, his diet, how often he wanked, is a waste of time. i'm not sure that gets too far into understanding a novel, honestly. But if anyone comes up with anything illuminating, then great. To start with (er, I've just suddenly switched to the 'resurrection of the author' thesis), here's a nice essay about Hesse's life and its analogies with the plot of 'Siddhartha'.

'Herman Hesse and India'

And a quote from Hesse (taken from that essay):

"Jesus' teachings and Lao-tse's teachings, the Vedas and Goethe finally express
the same humanity. There is only one message. There is only one religion.
There is only one happiness. A thousand different ways expressing
the same thought, a thousand different voices expressing nothing but one final
and common call. God's voice can not be found on Sinai or in the Bible,
the essence of love, beauty and holiness is not within Christianity, not
within the ancient world, is not Goethe or Tolstoi- it's all within yourself, in
you and in me, in each of us. That is the only final truth. It is the message of
the heaven that is within ourselves" (1917).

Woah. Dude.

So...i've got the ball rolling. Eek! Any takers? Apologies about the slight reek of Hare Krishna stallmonkey earnestness. We'll do something more hard-edged next time, about football hooligans or something.

ps. Thanks Doug for the image :)


  1. *Cough...* Er, just to clarify...Siddhartha is not a fictionalised biography of the Buddha! The Buddha is in the novel, and also called Siddhartha, but he's a different guy. Most commonly referred to as 'The Illustrious One'. Which sounds very Wayne's Worldy, for some reason.