I have been terrified of Hermann Hesse for years. I’m not sure how I got the impression that he was difficult and dense to read, but I’ve avoided him. Next year, however, my book club is reading Siddhartha, so I decided to bite the bullet and read it now.
Siddhartha is about a spiritual journey. Siddhartha is a young man in India learning how to be a holy man. He is smart, clever, earnest, and seeking, and therefore unsatisfied with what his teachers can teach him. The book follows his life through many lessons, from young childhood almost to his death.
I had no idea what I was really expecting from this book, but it was very different from anything I could have imagined. I really enjoyed the first 3/4ths of the book. Siddhartha’s journey seemed to be a metaphor for the stages of life. He went through the disillusionment of the teenage years. In his young adulthood, he desired to escape the prison of his body and become one with the universe. He rejected the teachings of everyone and decided he could only find his own path alone. Then as he grew older, he tried to keep to his ideals while living in the world, doing worldly things, until the world overtook him and swallowed him up, and he lost his ideals and became ordinary. This lasted until a mid-life crisis where he rejected his life and went back to his ideals.
All throughout his life, Siddhartha learns new lessons, finds new philosophies. He learns about the cycles of life, about the patterns of fathers and sons, about what can be learned from teachers and what must be learned from experience. At one point he makes a statement that, to me, sums up most of what’s taught in this book:
This path is stupid, it goes in spirals, perhaps in circles, but whichever way it goes, I will follow it.
The book is less about a person and more about life in general, philosophies that can be applied to the universal man. As you can tell from the above quote, there’s a certain uber-spiritual, self-helpish tone to much of the book (reminded me a bit of The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran or The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho). It’s certainly preachy, but not in a way that feels forced. More like it’s meant to be a spiritual guide, to take if you’d like or leave behind if you prefer.
I enjoyed most of the book, but admit that the last quarter of it got too woo-woo for me. I felt like Siddhartha’s journey stopped being a metaphor for life in general and simply became a collection of spiritual babblings, most of which sounded too over-simplified for me to really take seriously. Then again, even the book says that that’s how it will sound:
What is of value and wisdom to one man seems nonsense to another.
And perhaps that’s all there is to it. By the time Siddhartha has achieved peace and enlightenment at the end of his life, he can no longer use words to explain what he has found. Not adequately, at least. He says that man can teach knowledge, but not wisdom, and the end of this book seems to be trying to do the latter, which is probably why it felt, to me anyway, inadequate.
But still, the book was definitely worth reading. Yes, it was a little preachy and woo-woo, but it has some interesting stuff in it, and I definitely could recognize different parts of my own life in Siddhartha’s. This is another one I’ll be very happy to discuss with my book club, and I’m glad I finally got over a little of my fear of Hesse. Maybe one day I’ll even attempt Steppenwolf (the one that really scares me).