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Hermann Hesse's "Siddhartha": Some Critical Objections Author(s): Colin Butler Source: Monatshefte, Vol. 63, No.

2 (Summer, 1971), pp. 117-124 Published by: University of Wisconsin Press Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/30156543 . Accessed: 05/02/2014 00:46
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HERMANN HESSE'S "SIDDHARTHA": SOME CRITICAL OBJECTIONS


COLIN BUTLER

University of Toronto The need to compel a sense of absolute security from the apparently imperfect conditions of human existence issues in Siddhartha in a confusion of objective reality and wishful thinking such that the way to peace of mind and the way to truth are presumed identical. Neither Siddhartha's sojourn with the Samanas, nor his attempts at spontaneous living in the city-not antitheses, but the same search for "the answer" to existence in two guises-can still the gnawing anxiety which is the chief product of his sense of individuation, or his fear of death. Since the possibility of meaningful human relations providing some point to existence is effectively discounted by the writing out of Kamala and Siddhartha's son, a new, solipsistic metaphysic becomes Siddclhartha's only hope. And so he is enabled to perceive a situation of nunc stans, which eliminates transitoriness, total unity, where he must logically also belong, and the cyclical nature of reality, which allegedly minimizes the significance of individual extinction. Thus the purportedly true nature of reality is determined exclusively by Siddhartha's personal distress, and is then adduced to demonstrate that that distress was groundless. (CB) Like all the novels on which Hesse's reputation chiefly rests, Siddhartha is a fictitious biography. A sort of Bildungsroman, it records the passage of a special individual through selected key experiences until he attains to a position of competence in dealing with what little life is left to him. The nature of Siddhartha's preoccupations and development, and the stylistic devices used to relate them, suggest that the work is the repository of certain truths regarding human existence in general; and so the question naturally arises as to how acceptably Hesse presents and discusses them. In order to decide this, what is being offered must be defined as exactly as possible. In this undertaking, Hesse proves less than helpful. Although generously endowed with intelligence, good looks, a winning personality, and all other requirements for what would normally be considered a successful life, Siddhartha is not content. He is conscious of a discrepancy between conventional assumptions and personal satisfaction which neither adulation nor material advantage nor received interpretations of life's meaning can overcome. The apparent cause of Siddhartha's disMfdU. Vol. 63, No. 2, 1971

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comfort is the inception of an awareness of himself as a question-begging phenomenon in a situation which provides no ready answers. This is a recognizable condition. Much of modern literature is consequent on the proposition that in the absence of a divine guarantor of a "sense" in creation, Man is nolens volens the recipient of an unsolicited and unexplained existence, a set of arbitrary moral and ethical conventions, and the doubtfully welcome ability to deduce that neither he nor anything else is logically necessary. However, while it is undeniable that the absence of discernible metaphysical certainties may give rise to acute anxiety, it is not true that sackcloth and ashes are the only possible response. However much of a philosophical wild goose chase the search for the overall meaning of existence may be, it takes a gloomy person to jump to the conclusion that because life is meaningless in a particular sense, it is also worthless in a general sense. But, at least at the time of Siddhartha, Hesse could be a very gloomy person indeed; and by failing to make clear from the beginning that any appraisal of life and hence of the situation of the individual (or, as in practice is more often the case, vice versa) is determined as much by personality as by metaphysical speculation, he admits a confusion by which his entire story will be conditioned. It is wholly in keeping with the kind of mind which naturally inclines to seek external explanatipns for internal distress that Siddhartha's real concern rapidly turns out to be not the onset of selfawareness as such, the fancifully-phrased principium individuationis, but the narrower problem of the absence of a "Ziel," an a priori absolute purpose. Nor is it surprising that self-awareness is consistently identified to such an extent with the absence of a "Ziel" that no real distinction is possible between them. This is a very convenient simplification for Hesse, for by becoming aware of the error of looking for a "Ziel," Siddhartha will appear to solve the "problem" of individual existence at the same time. For the moment, however, Siddhartha is allowed to pursue his mistaken course, and as a result resolves to annihilate his Self (i.e., his doleful sense of individual identity), since a Self without purpose is held to invite the drastic solution of better no Self at all. Siddhartha's activities with the Samanas could not be other than unsuccessful. One cannot consciously rid oneself of oneself (short of actually committing suicide), since any ridding process undertaken with that intention will only further confirm the presence of a conscious self.1 Once Siddhartha realizes this, the exercises of the Samanas lose their point for him; if continued, they would become merely an end in themselves, which is exactly the opposite of what he wants. Siddhartha's meeting with the Buddha is of greater moment, not only because it brings him face to face with a living success, but also because it introduces three elements that

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will be important later on. First, the imprecise religious connotation: the Buddha is a priest and has found "the way." Second, however, the Buddha is not a priest in the orthodox Western sense, nor does his way lead to the Kingdom of Heaven or to any equivalent of it. In other words, Siddhartha becomes acquainted with a secular solution to life's problems that has the aura, but not the essence, of a religious solution in the usual sense of the word. Third, the word most frequently associated with the Buddha is "Vollkommenheit," or other words and phrases amounting to the same thing. The inference is that ultimate truth ("the way") and this undefined "Vollkommenheit" are inseparable; which allows the fallacy to be insinuated that attainment to the latter automatically entails the discovery of the former. And so terms such as "Erlisung," "Erkenntnis," "das Wesentliche," and "der Weg der Wege" are employed indiscriminately, and Siddhartha's quest is now for personal happiness, now for an answer to "die Unsinnigkeit des Lebens," now for knowledge, and now for a purpose in life. Predictably, Siddhartha's eventual solution (it is a comfort to know that life lends itself so readily to blanket solutions) will be a pot-pourri of all of these, for the way of understanding reality will also turn out to be the most satisfying. It could be, of course, that the attempt to gain an objective understanding of reality might well issue in the realisation that the kind of satisfaction Siddhartha is looking for is just not possible. But in Siddhartha the wish is always father to the thought, and so the illegitimate identification of objective truth and subjective contentment is allowed to run its course. On leaving the Buddha, Siddhartha indulges in a period of stocktaking. He transfers attention back to himself, accepts the reality of the phenomenal world, which he has previously held to be illusory, and accepts for the first time the isolation of the seeker operating without the support of pre-established certainties. His objective remains the same: to find the sense of life as if there were a single sense to be found. Only the location of his enquiries and his modus operandi are changed. Having abandoned the possiblity of forcing a solution by intellectual action, he will now try his luck with the senses. It is worth pointing out here that Siddhartha's capacity for sensual experience is, like that of all Hesse's protagonists, singularly limited. Ultimately this is due to a deficiency on Hesse's part, but in terms of Siddhartha its effect is to invalidate the contrast that is purportedly being established. Siddhartha's removal from the country to the town was obviously intended to symbolize a complete change in Siddhartha's experience of reality and so to prepare the way for the conclusion that neither intellectual effort nor unconceptualized sensual gratification is sufficient by itself to cope with the demands of a problematical existence. If this is to be done convincingly,

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however, Siddhartha's change of environment must be accompanied by an appropriate change in expectations on his part. Yet this is precisely what fails to occur. Siddhartha'slife in the village is a catalogue of failures-failures which the uninitiated would incline to attribute directly to his inability to develop a capacity for spontaneity. That, however, would be all too simple an explanation. As in the episode with the Samanas, Siddhartha's various occupations are expected to provide him with a reason for living. His excursion into the world of business proves unsatisfactory, not because of the inherent tedium of buying and selling, but because, from Siddhartha's point of view, business is only one of a number of pastimes which mutatis mutandis are all equally available to him and which are also all equally imperfect. Again, his relationship with Kamala, the courtesan, is irretrievably compromised by dint of the fact that it is basically a deliberate and artificial course of instruction. Neither trading, nor sexual expertise, nor gambling is per se of sufficient teleological significance to provide Siddhartha with the feeling that here at last he has found the way. And so he not unnaturally generalises his situation and succumbs to the notion that all human activity is "Sansara," a game. At this point the question arises: has Siddhartha's position in any way been advanced since the end of the first part of the book? A superficial difference is immediately apparent, namely, that whereas he has hitherto been filled with confidence, he is now filled with despair. He is considerably older now, and the visible signs of physical deterioration are an undeniable reminder of the inevitability of death-which, of course, makes the discovery of a "Ziel" that much more desirable. And as far as the story's symbolical meaning is concerned, by the end of the second part- Siddhartha is presumed to have exhausted if not the whole range of human experience, then at least sufficient of its two constituent areas for him to infer the impossibility of ever finding a solution to his problems. From another point of view, however, his position is not much altered. For although he has quantitatively increased the range and number of his experiences, the criterion of ultimate insufficiency by which he has found all of them wanting indicates that his sojourn in the village has amounted to no more than the continuation of old attitudes into new circumstances. If anything, Siddhartha has regressed, for in the earlier chapter "Erwachen" he was at least able to appreciate the beauty of the phenomenal world without feeling obliged to subject it to a process of intellectual evaluation; but this is an ability which was lost almost as soon as it was acquired. To be sure, Hesse is careful to point out that Siddhartha has forsaken his Samana's asceticism and drifted into the ways of the world. But there is a real and important difference between his eventual seediness, and the vigorous, whole-hearted indulgence

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of the fleshpots which the rudimentarycapacity to enjoy being alive would provide, even if intellectually the business of living did not make any more sense than before. Even a bad Samana is still a Samana. If all this is true, what appears to be the antithetical development of the book is really nothing of the kind, despite the fact that its formal arrangement suggests that a genuine antithesis was Hesse's intention. For if both the criteria and the conclusions remain substantially the same in both parts, it can hardly be contended that Siddhartha has been exposed to the advantages and disadvantages of an alternative appreciation of reality before he contemplates suicide, let alone that all of life's options have been exhausted. Again the fault lies with Hesse, whose outlook on life is much more inflexible than the attempted comprehensiveness of his story indicates. But given this inflexibility on Hesse's part, it is inevitable that if Siddhartha is to find any kind of solution, it will remain the product of a mentality that faute de mieux thinks in terms of purposes and absolutes, even though a number of apparent modifications will have to be made if the reader is not to be left with the impression that suicide might have been the best response after all. Reduced to their essentials, the problems that have beset Siddhartha have been transitoriness, death, and the absence of a sense of fulfillment. Having foregone the opportunity in the second part of the book to consider life from any angle other than sub specie aeternitatis, and having resolutely refused to recognize in any meaningful way that Siddhartha's trouble derives as much from his congenital inability to adapt to life as from his sense of metaphysical isolation, Hesse is faced with the daunting task of discovering the world to be perfect in the face of its manifest imperfections, and at the same time of accommodating Siddhartha's personal disconsolateness." He begins by having Siddhartha persuade himself that he can apprehend reality in its entirety. In addition, a cyclic principle is perceived which, unlike Siddhartha's earlier assumption of linear progression (which for him necessitated the question: to what end?), means that reality is not only physically self-contained, with all matter recurring infinitely, but that it is philosophically self-contained as well. In virtue of the totality of his vision, Siddhartha may be sure that no upsetting factors exist beyond the confines which a merely partial view of things would entail; and in virtue of this newly-discovered cyclic principle, the nature and meaning of existence may be explained without reference to any supra-terrestrial arbiter. Suddenly the world is filled with meaning. The idea of the death of God which had made Siddhartha's search for a "Ziel" at once so necessary and so tortuous is accepted and dismissed as superfluous at the same time; and everything is perfect ("vollendet") at last, particularly as the minor inconveniences of life such as pain, sorrow, and murder are apparently as ame-

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nable to assimilation in the grand view of things as are the large metaphysical issues. The unregenerate may argue that owing to the general inadequacies of the human mind and to the particular meagreness of Siddhartha's recorded experiences, a total view of things such as is vouchsafed to Siddhartha is not in fact possible; that futhermore his exclusively immanent interpretation of reality obscures rather than answers the philosophical issues which have previously exercised him; and that therefore he ought at the very least to be more tentative in his conclusions. Such reservations, however, only serve to confirm their unregeneracy. In the light of Siddhartha's revelation, what had hitherto appeared to be problems now present no difficulty. First, since reality now makes sense beyond a peradventure, one has no longer to cast about for a sense in it, or for a "Ziel": to appreciate one's inclusion in the unity of all things ("Einheit") is enough. Second, the same sense of belonging to an homogeneous reality automatically ensures the annulment of the principium individuationis. (Again, it might be asked why one has to regard reality as being complete before one can feel one belongs to it.) Third, once the unsubstantiated assumption is made that time is not intrinsic to reality, transitoriness can be dismissed with equal facility; for in what is maintained to be a situation of nunc stans, that is, the eternal circulation of what is already at hand, transitoriness is a concept without meaning. Without meaning, however, less because what are held to be the objective conditions of existence make it so than because the individual who has posited these conditions can feel it to be so. In other words, Siddhartha's attempt to mitigate the consequences of self-awareness by retailoring reality to his own specifications still in fact depends for its effectiveness on selfawareness. What has changed or rather, what has been decreased, is the anxiety which has hitherto been inseparable from Siddhartha's sense of individuation. That sense of individuation remains, however, and-a consideration which seems to have escaped Hesse's notice-it is implied by the grammar of almost every sentence in the closing chapters of the book (e.g., "Sein Ich war in die Einheit eingeflossen," a statement which confirms the division between Siddhartha and external reality even as it tries to conceal it). It is in the light of this that Hesse's treatment of death has to be interpreted. For the disquiet which has made it so hard for Siddhartha to live will certainly make it hard for him to die unless a good deal of ingenuity is employed. In order to express his attitude to death, Hesse resorts, as likely as not with many a side glance at Schopenhauer, to an analogy which would seem to be less than adequate. As an example of the truism that genres endure beyond the life-span of individual specimens the river has its use, but it falls short when it is adduced as a paradigm of the human situation because

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it depends for its success on an exact equation between human lives and drops of water. A drop of water does not die, nor can it ponder its end in advance, for it has no conscious existence; it evaporates and merges with its environment by an entirely mechanical procedure. The individual, however, does die, and this is not a relative and insignificant change of his immediate physical condition but an event which challenges everything he feels and understands himself to be. Having said that, however, it has to be recognised that in another sense Hesse's analogy is entirely appropriate, for it is precisely the insentient character of a drop of water that makes it so attractive. The same characteristic is to be found in Vasudeva. "Ich gehe in die Wailder.Ich gehe in die Einheit," he says "strahlend," meaning that he is going off to die. That Vasudeva has become so vegetated during his later years that his utterance sounds less ludicrous than it would normally is in the present context not a criticism but a commendation; for it is his total passivity and his reduction of the conditions of existence to a manageable minimum which makes him an exemplary figure in Hesse's eyes.4 Siddhartha's pseudo-apotheosis is of a piece with this. The total equanimity he attains to is achieved by that kind of fixed and determined contemplation which refuses to be disturbed by the intrusion of disruptive emotions. Death, transitoriness, and purposelessness have ceased to be causes for concern because Siddhartha has persuaded himself that he can view them with detachment, and therefore with acquiescence; and in that condition the way of ways and the way to truth must indeed seem to be conterminous. Since Siddhartha's understanding of reality is alleged to be comprehensive, the question of how long it may be sustained must needs be out of place. As long, one suspects the answer might be, could the question be put, as Siddhartha does not move. It is possible, of course, that even if Siddhartha is mistaken in conception and misleading in detail it might remain a significant novel by virtue of the excellence of its style and its subtle analysis of the human soul. However, in view of Siddhartha's drab uniformity of response to situations which are already severely limited in type and variety; of his conviction, which is eventually "justified," that all of life can be reduced to a single point of view; of his latent homosexuality (a characteristic of most of Hesse's protagonists, notably Narcissus and Joseph Knecht); and of the fact that despite all this Siddhartha is still the most developed character in the novel: both the book and its eponymous hero must invite the adjective "immature"-that is, they consistently draw large conclusions from a small fund of experience without being aware that they are doing so. Much has been made by Hesse's expositors of Siddhartha's love for his son, and Hesse clearly regarded it as important. Yet it is also true that he found it necessary to remove both the son and Kamala, the only characters

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in the story with whom Siddhartha manages to establish anything like an intimate relationship, before proceeding to a conclusion that is solipsistic and abstract. It would be foolish to deny the presence of real feeling in those parts of the book that deal with the son. But it is to Hesse's discredit that he obscures its true nature and significance by subjecting it to pretentious rationalizations. Whatever the explicit reasons advanced for the son's departure; for Kamala's premature demise; and, for that matter, for Govinda's ultimate exclusion: the real reason for those excisions is that Hesse found himself in each case having to treat an emotion to which he could only respond with the regret and incompetence of the deprived spectator. In the last analysis, love is short-changed; and instead of "l'amor che move il sole e l'altre stelle" we are presented with the substitute rearrangement of heaven and earth that is Siddhartha's barren vision. If the foregoing analysis of the content is true, little need be said about the style; for if the content is unacceptable, it is difficult to see how its linguistic formulation can effect any kind of meaningful improvement. It may well be that Hesse manifests a certain gift for creating atmosphere (personally, I must admit to finding Siddhartha laboured and unconvincing). But the atmosphere of Siddhartha deceives rather than enhances:; it makes up in cloudy strangeness for what the book lacks in precise insight. A superficial Orientalism and what Theodore Ziolkowski calls "symbolic lyricism""may be exotic enough to make for a certain immediate appeal; but they also serve to conceal the fact that Hesse's real reason for turning to the East was not an accession of faith, but an abortive attempt to escape the problems of an obdurately Western understanding of reality.
Cf. T. S. Eliot: "Wethink of the key, each in his prison Thinking of the key, each confirms his prison.'" (The WasteLand, "Whatthe Thunder Said.") 2 Siddhartha is manifestly written in three parts, despite its ostensible division in two. Referring to the composition of Siddhartha,Theodore Ziolkowski writes: "Siddhartha: An Indic Poem required almost four years of effort although it is shorter than Demian by one quarter.Hesse began the book in 1919 and quickly wrote the first four chapters, which were published separately in the Neue Rundschau (1920) later in the winter of 1919-20 he went on to compose the next group of four chapters (the Kamala episode). Then he suddenly found himself unable to go on. . . . It was not until 1922, after a complete revision of his views of India, that Hesse was finally able to finish the last third of his novel and publish it in full." (Theodore Ziolkowski, The Novels of HermannHesse, Princeton, 1965, pp. 150-151.) In Das Glasperlenspiel (1943), the virtues of seclusion are treated with a welcome measureof detachmentthrough the figure of "der iiltereBruder." The Novels of HermannHesse, p. 177.
1

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