H is for Hmmmmm (Hesse)

What I read: Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse.

H was very difficult. Considering where I ended up, I thought it would be appropriate to write about my journey through "H."

I first chose Joseph Heller's Catch-22. In fact, I got it out twice, fully intending to tackle it both times. For the purposes of this reading exercise, I don't actually make myself finish the books I choose. However, I couldn't even get Catch-22 started.

It could be that I'd just read Graham Greene, so I wasn't in the mood for "life is purposeless; life is random, hoo-rah." I felt the same way when a book club I attended read Confederacy of Dunces. It was promoted as a totally hilarious book. I thought it was a waste of time. A ship of fools is just not my idea of fun: why would I want to spend more than one page laughing at how stupid other people are? Perhaps Catch-22 isn't like that, but psychologically, I was at an impasse.

I was in a bit of a funk until I spotted Hermann Hesse's Siddhartha at the library. At the last moment, I nabbed it. It's short for one thing, and it falls into the category of "books that many people have read, so I might as well in order to be culturally literate." To be honest, I had always avoided it because I thought it was pretentious, mostly due to the contexts in which I heard Siddhartha mentioned.

I'm not sure it's pretentious so much as a whole lot of nothing about a little bit of something. I did finish it. It isn't too shabbily written although the writing style starts to grate after awhile. It uses the sort of stilted writing that people always associate with Eastern religions or Yoda--inaccurately in the first case. And Siddhartha is one pontificating dude (he's kind of like Socrates: I know nothing, but let me go on and on and on about how much I don't know). I mean, what can you do with lines like this:
No, a true seeker could not accept his teachings, not if he sincerely wished to find something. But he who had found, could give his approval to every path, every goal; nothing separated him from all the other thousands who lived in eternity, who breathed the Divine.

It reminds me of a Stargate episode where ascended-Daniel comes to help (or try to help) Jack ascend. Frustrated, Jack barks, "Daniel, so help me, if you start talking like Oma . . ." Daniel replies defensively, "I'm not talking like Oma. Oma would say something like, ah, ah, 'If the candlelight is fire, then the meal was cooked a long time ago' or something like that."

On the other hand, by themselves, these passages are quite readable (that is, when they don't run together in one big "insightful" mass).

Basically, Siddhartha is the story of a long mid-life crisis. It's about a man who searches for spiritual enlightenment all his life and finally discovers that searching for the thing doesn't produce enlightenment--living in the day-to-day world and showing love and kindness to people does. This is not too different from C.S. Lewis commenting in his autobiography Surprised by Joy that the way to find joy is not to seek it--that joy occurs while one is doing other things. In fact, there are many similarities between Siddhartha and Lewis's The Pilgrim's Regress (The Pilgrim's Regress is more grounded in analogy and more didactic).

And my reaction is, You gotta take a whole lifetime to figure out that one should be good to others and live life day by day?

Don't get me wrong: I'm a huge fan of C.S. Lewis, and Hermann Hesse has a point; it just seems like so much furrowed-browness over a fairly basic idea: Go to work, take care of your kid, leave off being a condescending jerk, stop running into the woods to find yourself. I mean, geez, this is Socialization 101.

Mary McDonnell as Sharon Raydor sums it up in Major Crimes in one phrase: 

Be safe and be kind

2023: Since I am currently working on Fairy Tales in my latest A-Z list, I decided to read Hermann Hesse's fairy tales. 

I was admittedly a bit nervous. Intellectual fairy tales tend to emphasize the negative. Not that Grimm isn't full of negatives! But they are the negatives of slasher films, not the negatives of starring at one's naval and being depressed. 

I should have remembered how nice Hesse is.

His fairy tale writing falls between C.S. Lewis's non-fiction and George MacDonald's fiction. Like them, he tackles the search for the ineffable and ephemeral spiritual experience through tales. He uses the same strong imagery--he is a good writer. However, the tales come across as part essay (except he isn't writing essay) and part fiction. 

To put this another way, he comes across as a tad didactic. 

Despite the Alexander Key-like "wouldn't another world be more peaceful" nonsense, I thought that "Strange News From Another Planet" was the best of the ones I read. It never strays from the young protagonist's point of view. The imagery is sharp. And despite the slight condescension of "how could a world be so evil--tut tut," the king is portrayed as intelligent, insightful, and courageous. And the tale concludes without commentary. 

Hesse is a good writer! 

Still, I tend to go elsewhere for my fantasy-religious tales. 


Eugene said...

Why are men driven to such incessant philosophizing about the existential facts of life that otherwise seem painfully obvious? I address the question at length here.

Matthew said...

I have not read Hesse so I can't really judge him. So many "deep" messages seem things that certain people seem to know instinctively. Like love thy neighbor. That people who think that is a revelation are so sophisticated yet know less then many normal people.