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-ah." I felt the same way when a book club I attended read Confederacy of Dunces. It was promoted as a totally hilarious book. I didn't see it. I felt no connection to any of the characters. A ship of fools is just not my idea of a good time: 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.

My sister suggested, as a lite alternative, Kristin Hannah. I got out several of her books. The premise or conflict of each of her books is very interesting--for instance, in the one that I started, the main female character is a therapist who is blamed by families when one of her patients goes out and shoots up a school: she should have known and stopped it from happening! That's a pretty interesting conundrum.

Unfortunately, Hannah's books belong to what I call "world romance" rather than "character-driven romance" (see my post "Where Romances Go Wrong" and its sister-post "Why Romances Are Good"); the focus of "world romance" is on the heroine's life and all the stuff she goes through and all the people she meets (including little children towards whom she always behaves maternally) while "character-driven romance" focuses on the day-to-day conflict between the heroine and hero. I happen to be more interested in the day-to-day conflict stuff than in the all-my-life-before-I-fall-in-love stuff. (One reason I prefer You've Got Mail to Sleepless in Seattle.)

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--inaccurately probably; I don't think the Dalai Lamai writes like this. 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):
There shone in his face the serenity of knowledge, of one who is no longer confronted with conflict of desires, who has found salvation, who is in harmony with the stream of events, with the stream of life, full of sympathy and compassion, surrendering himself to the stream, belonging to the unity of all things.
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 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 much more mind-oriented rather than feeling-oriented).

At this point, I am going to get really, really sexist (I apologize in advance): is this a guy thing? Any woman can tell you this stuff about living life and being good to others by the time she is 18. You gotta take an entire life-time to figure out something anybody with a menstrual cycle already knows? Is this why women don't have mid-life crisis (in the same way) as men?

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.

Are women fundamentally more realistic or grounded than men? When I read books like Siddhartha--which really isn't bad, and worth the few hours it takes to inhale (the last chapters about the son are the best)--I start to think so.

On the other hand, maybe this is why more religions are started by men (but staffed by women). It's kind of hard to flesh out a theology if your reaction is, "Oh, yeah, sure, I knew that, whatever." (And life would be very, very sad without fleshed-out theologies.)

1 comment:

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.