Siddhartha: The Landscape Of The Soul

Like his heroes, who vacillate between na­ture und spirit, Hesse as a narrator feels conflicting im­pulses toward realism and lyricism. In Siddhartha he reached an extreme of symbolic lyricism.
Hermann Hesse - Siddhartha

by Theodore Ziolkowski

One of the most salient characteristics of the reaction against the nineteenth century was a reawakening of in­terest in the Orient. The East, with its aura of mystery, has been a symbol of revolt against rationalism in Ger­many at least since the twelfth century, when the authors of medieval romances such as König Rother and Herzog Ernst sent their heroes off to Constantinople and beyond in search of adventure and magical knowledge that were no longer in evidence in Europe. Not until Herder, how­ever, was a mythical image of India created that inspired, on the one hand, the scholarly investigations of Friedrich Schlegel, Friedrich Majer, and Josef von Hammer-Purgstall, and, on the other hand, the poetic vision that permeates the writings of Novalis, the older Goethe, and Schopenhauer—to mention but a few characteristic exam­ples.

With the reaction against positivism and the advent of modern mysticism that is so conspicuous in the works of Maeterlinck, Yeats, Hofmannsthal, and others, the mysti­cal image of the Orient received a new impulse. Alfred Döblin, with his The Three Leaps of Wang-lun (Die drei Sprünge des Wang-lun; 1913), was one in a line of ex­pressionists that included poets such as Else Lasker-Schüler and Franz Werfel, who exploited Oriental materials in their effort to find a correlative substance for their new conceptions. This interest was disseminated in popularized form to thousands of readers in many languages by Her­mann Count Keyserling, whose Travel Diary of a Philos­opher (1919) gave an account of his trip around the world in 1911 and 1912 as well as an introduction to the mystical thought of the East. The Orient became a popu­lar province for all those—writers, theosophers, and readers alike—who sought a philosophy of unity and totality to offset the fragmentation of existence pro­duced by the scientific and technological progress of the West, whose decline Spengler was gloomily prognosti­cating.

Hesse and the East

While Keyserling was making his subsequently pub­licized tour of India, he might have encountered Hermann Hesse, who, with the painter Hans Sturzenegger, was taking a quiet trip through the East in the same year (1911). In his Picture Book (Bilderbuch; 1926) and in the journal Out of India (Aus Indien; 1913) Hesse published his own far less spectacular account of his impressions. India was a goal for Hesse, toward which he had long been striving, and at the same time a disappointment. In many of his stories and essays he has told of his child­hood, surrounded by the objects that his grandfather Gundert had brought back from thirty years of mission­ary work in India. India, it can safely be maintained, was one of the most influential conditioning factors in Hesse’s childhood. «From the time I was a child I breathed in and absorbed the spiritual side of India just as deeply as Christianity.» As a boy he had before him the con­stant stimulus of that same grandfather, who continued in Germany his scholarly enterprises on Indic languages; and his father also published works dealing with his years in the Orient. «For over half of my life I was concerned with Indic and Chinese studies,» Hesse wrote in Picture Book, «—or, so as not to get the reputation of scholarly authority, I was accustomed to breathe the air of Indian and Chinese poetry and piety.»4 Anyone who takes the trouble to glance at essays like A Library of World Litera­ture (Eine Bibliothek der Weltliteratur; 1929) can easily obtain a quick synopsis of Hesse’s impressive range of reading in Oriental literatures and philosophy. It was only natural that he should desire to see with his own eyes the lands that had so long filled his imagination. And, indeed, he found there the India of which he had dreamed; his disappointment lay in the realization that he himself, as an Occidental, was unable to partake of this Oriental paradise.

«We come to the South and East full of longing, driven by a dark and grateful premonition of home, and we find here a paradise, the abundance and rich voluptuousness of all natural gifts. We find the pure, simple, childlike people of paradise. But we ourselves are different; we are alien here and without any rights of citizenship; we lost our paradise long ago, and the new one that we wish to build is not to be found along the equator and on the warm seas of the East. It lies within us and in our own northern future.»

What he brought back from his trip was «a deep rever­ence for the spirit of the East,» whether in its Indian or Chinese form. But Western Man can never hope to return to that state of primitive innocence; rather, he must seek his own paradise in the future. Not cyclical, but progressive regeneration is his destiny, and that fact separates him irrevocably from the primeval Golden Age of which he dreams.

Hesse’s attitude toward the East is at this time not one of enthusiastic affirmation, but rather of critical assess­ment. The magic of the East, which he clearly regards as an image of a lost and irrecoverable paradise, exerts an ineluctable attraction upon his mind and imagination, and he returns to it again and again. Yet he pores over the lore and wisdom of the East with a skeptical eye, striving to single out those elements that are relevant to his own problems and, in turn, testing and sharpening his own thoughts on the systems that he discovers there. This is particularly evident in his journals from the year 1920, precisely during the composition of Siddhartha.

«My preoccupation with India, which has been going on for almost twenty years and has passed through many stages, now seems to me to have reached a new point of development. Previously my reading, searching and sym­pathies were restricted exclusively to the philosophical aspect of India—the purely intellectual, Vedantic and Buddhistic aspect. The Upanishads, the sayings of Bud­dha, and the Bhagavad Gita were the focal point of this world. Only recently have I been approaching the actual religious India of the gods, of Vishnu and Indra, Brahma and Krishna. And now Buddhism appears to me more and more as a kind of very pure, highly bred reformation—a purification and spiritualization that has no flaw but its great zealousness, with which it destroys image-worlds for which it can offer no replacements.»

This evaluation is perfectly consistent with Hesse’s thoughts as we know them already; it is the reproach that Sinclair, the poet, made to Pistorius, the analyst. A purely abstract vision of the world is insufficient for men who require substance and life. This brings us directly to the story of Siddhartha, the Brahman’s son who rebels against the strictures of his caste and predestined office in life.

After all that has been said it is no surprise that Hesse undertook to write a novel about India; by the same token, it would be naïve to read the book as an embodi­ment or exegesis of Indian philosophy. Hesse found this book difficult to compose because he was engaged in com­ing to terms with India as he wrote. Demian was poured forth within the period of a few months in 1917; 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). Then there came a break during which he wrote the expressionistically flavored story «Klingsor’s Last Summer»; later in the winter of 1919­-1920 he went on to compose the next group of four chap­ters (the Kamala episode). Then he suddenly found him­self unable to go on.

«My Indic poem got along splendidly as long as I was writing what I had experienced: the feelings of Siddhartha, the young Brahman, who seeks the truth, who scourges and torments himself, who has learned reverence, and must now acknowledge this as an impediment to the Highest Goal. When I had finished with Siddhartha the Sufferer and Ascetic, with the struggling and suffering Siddhartha, and now wished to portray Siddhartha the victor, the affirmer, the subjugator—I couldn’t 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.

The Elements of the Plot

Siddhartha, feeling that the teachings of Brahmanism do not lead to salvation, decides to try other paths. He leaves home with his friend Govinda (chapter 1) to join the ascetic Samanas, with whom he spends three years. But gradually realizing that asceticism and yoga are only leading him further away from himself, he goes with Govinda to hear the teachings of Gautama the Buddha (chapter 2). Govinda remains with the great teacher, but Siddhartha perceives that everyone must seek out his own path (chapter 3). Departing from Buddha, Govinda, and a life of the spirit alone, Siddhartha determines to expose himself to the world of the senses and experience (chapter 4)

Crossing a river on a ferry, he reaches a large city where he quickly meets and desires the love of Kamala, a famous courtesan (chapter 5). Aided by Kamala, who has taken an interest in the poor stranger, Siddhartha soon becomes wealthy and is able to afford all the pleasures of life that he desires—including Kamala herself (chapter 6). After many years, however, he realizes that this path was just as foolish as that of asceticism; that his luxurious life has lulled his true self to sleep just as perniciously as the exercises of yoga had done before. He decides to break his way out of the world of Sansara and illusion (chap­ter 7). Unaware that Kamala is now pregnant with his child, Siddhartha steals secretly away from the city and returns to the river where, at the height of his despair, he almost commits suicide. But as he sinks toward the water, he suddenly feels a stirring of his old self and realizes that escape by suicide is impossible (chapter 8).

He decides to stay by the river and to try to learn to understand himself again: he regards his years as ascetic and then as profligate as two necessary evils that cancel each other out, leaving him once again in his original state of innocence—with the added dimension of knowledge of good and evil. Living with the wise ferryman Vasudeva, Siddhartha learns many secrets from the river: primarily that there is no time and that all being is a unity (the awareness of simultaneity and totality!) (chapter 9), but before this knowledge can be of real significance, it must be conditioned by love. After twelve years have passed, Kamala comes to the river with her son in search of Bud­dha. She dies from a snake bite, and Siddhartha begins to care for the boy. He loves his son desperately, but the spoiled young city boy yearns only to get away from the two senile old boatmen and to return to life in the city. Eventually he succeeds in escaping, and Siddhartha ex­periences for the first time the pangs of love and, then, pure unselfish devotion (chapter 10). When he has reached this stage, Vasudeva dies, for Siddhartha can now take over the tradition and his knowledge (chapter 11). Govinda passes by one day and, in a mystic relevation, realizes that Siddhartha in his own way, like Buddha, has a­chieved absolute peace and harmony (chapter 12).

It is immediately apparent that, though the scene has changed, many elements of the plot are similar to those of Demian. Like Demian (and later Sinclair) Siddhartha is characterized by an almost physical illumination that is a reflection of his inner control and mental powers. Here, too, we have a dichotomy between the world of the spirit and that of the senses. Accordingly, Siddhartha passes through the stages of saint and profligate, like Sinclair, on his road to fulfillment. His development also involves the seeking out and consequent transcending of a series of teachers. Vasudeva’s death, with the symbolic embrace, has the same significance of mystical transference as the death of Demian. And, finally, Siddhartha’s development follows the triadic rhythm that we have already noted as characteristic of Hesse’s novels, indeed his whole conception of human growth. Here, to be sure, the initial stage of childlike innocence is not portrayed, for Siddhartha, when we meet him, already has the seeds of knowledge and doubt in his heart. Yet that stage is clearly implied, for instance, in Siddhartha’s words after his awakening on the bank of the river: «Now I stand again beneath the sun as I once stood as a small child: nothing is mine. I have no powers, no accomplishments, I have learned noth­ing.» And the harmony that he attains at the end of the book is, of course, the third stage of higher innocence.

Apart from those familiar to us from Demian, there are other elements of the plot that are clearly discernible: namely, elements borrowed from the life (or legend) of Gautama Buddha. Siddhartha, in the first place, has the same name as the Buddha, who in addition to the proper name Gautama also bore the epithet Siddhartha («the one who has reached the goal»). Both are supposed to have been first among their fellows, as children, in all competition. Buddha left his wife and newly born son to become an ascetic; Siddhartha leaves his beloved Kamala and their still unborn son for the same purpose. Both spent time among the ascetics, learning the practice of yoga. Buddha spent six years meditating on the bank of a river; Siddhartha’s last years are spent at the river, where his final relevations come to him. Buddha’s relevations came to him under the Bo-tree, while Siddhartha makes his most important decision while sitting under a mango tree. During his three vigils under the Bo-tree Buddha experienced in a vision all of his previous ex­istences, the condition of the present world, and a revela­tion of the relationship of all things to one another; this is precisely the essence of Siddhartha’s final vision in the novel: a view of the world as simultaneity and totality.

These parallels do not mean that Hesse is writing a life of Buddha or using Buddha as a typological prefigura­tion. On the contrary, any attempt to analyze the novel according to Buddha’s life or his teaching about the Four

Truths and the Eight-fold Noble Path does violence to the natural structure of the book. The book includes, certainly, an implicit critical exegesis of Buddhism, but Hesse’s entire view of life and development is explicitly opposed to that of Gautama. In his diary of 1920 he states categorically that he opposes Buddha’s conscious attempt to postulate an established pattern of develop­ment, maintaining instead (just as Siddhartha does) that he hopes «to fulfill the will of God precisely by letting myself drift (in one of my stories I called it <letting one­self fall>) . . .» As a matter of fact, recent studies indi­cate that the thought of Siddhartha has more in common with Chinese than with Indian philosophical and religious systems. However, questions of this nature are out of place here since, as in Demian, Hesse defines his symbols adequately within the framework of his fiction.

The parallels to Buddha’s life are, rather, contributing factors to the legendary quality of the novel, for the legend is the genre that Hesse seems consciously to be imitating here. The legend, as one can easily verify by a cursory comparison of selections from the Acta Sanc­torum, consists substantially of an ideal life whose epi­sodes are filled by traditional «motifs» or, in the terminol­ogy of André Jolles, by «linguistic gestures». These inci­dents or motifs are, as a rule, traditional and transferable; precisely in this way Hesse has transplanted various mo­tifs from the life of Buddha to the life of Siddhartha—not as typological prefiguration, but in order to sustain the legendary quality of the narrative. Hesse, of course, is not attempting to write a model legend; he exploits the pos­sibilities of the genre only insofar as he can do so without obstructing the development of the novel. Yet there are certain other features of the legend per se that appear as elements in his novel and contribute to its structure. In the first place, Siddhartha is clearly regarded as a «saintly» figure—he is, in Jolles’ words again, an imitabile—not in the sense that his road can be emulated, but rather his goal of absolute peace. Then, his reunification with the All at the end of the book corresponds to the miraculous union with God in Christian legends. As in Christian can­onization trials, his saintliness must be attested by witnesses: namely, Vasudeva, Kamala, and Govinda, all of whom recognize in his face the aspect of godliness and repose. These elements of the plot unquestionably height­en the legendary atmosphere of the story.

The quality is maintained above all, however, in the language. The style here is just as highly consistent with the theme as in Demian and hence, properly, is unique and different from the style of the earlier novel. As a matter of fact, in the latter part of the novel one can find passages in which Hesse did not quite succeed in sustain­ing the pure simplicity of the earlier pages. This is ac­counted for by the fact that the first part of the book, as we have seen, was written in a mood of reflection whereas the second part was a voyage of discovery for Hesse him­self. Thus in the beginning the style is more controlled. It is characterized essentially by extreme parataxis of syntax (which corresponds to the parataxis of structure, as we shall see), consciously archaic phraseology, epic repetition and epic cataloguing of detail (joined by many passages of iterative-durative action to denote the passing of time), Homeric simile, and, in general, by a highly stylized pres­entation. This is the basic tone of the entire book al­though in the excitement of the second part Hesse occa­sionally lapses into discongruous passages of extended hy­potaxis and less leisurely presentation.

The River as Symbol

The central symbol around which the plot and sub­stance of the novel are organized is the river. Unlike those in Demian, this symbol is not complicated or com­plemented by other symbols or motifs; it alone bears the full burden of communication. The river, as so often in literature from Heraclitus to Thomas Wolfe, is a symbol for timelessness, and with this symbol Hesse aligns himself with many other modern authors who are obsessed with the problem of the tyranny of time: Proust, T. S. Eliot, Hermann Broch, Thomas Mann, and Faulkner, to men­tion only a few. In Hesse’s case this symbol of simul­taneity is expanded to include the realm, already anticip­ated in Demian, in which all polarity ceases: totality. It is a realm of pure existence in which all things coexist in harmony. Fluidity is a corollary of what, in Demian, we called magical thinking, or what Siddhartha expresses thus: «… of every truth it can be said that the opposite is just as true!» For in any system that regards all polar extremes as invalid, as interchangeable, traditional va­lues are indeed in a state of flux. Hence we find in Sid­dhartha many symbols of fluidity, and this extends even to the vocabulary, which returns to expressions of fluidity just as consistently as the language of Demian to the style of the Bible. Further: another corollary to the principle of magical thinking is metamorphosis. Just as fluidity might be regarded as the mode of totality in space, met­amorphosis—in the Indian sense of transmigration of the souls—is its mode in time. Thus the concept of the «cycle of transformations» (Kreislauf der Verwandlungen) plays an important role in the argument of the book, for Siddhartha’s ultimate goal, as exemplified in the final vision, is to escape the wheel of metempsychosis by realizing that all possible transformations or potentialities of the soul are possible not only consecutively, but simultaneously in the human soul. «In deep meditation there is the pos­sibility of annulling time—to regard everything that has been, that is, and that will be, as simultaneous.» Sid­dhartha explains this idea to Govinda by using the exam­ple of a stone: «. . . this stone is stone: it is also animal, it is also God, it is also Buddha. I love and venerate it not because it might someday become this or that—but because it has long been all these things and always will be . . .» Siddhartha’s redemption lies in the fact that he has es­caped the circle of metempsychosis: his Nirvana is no more than the recognition that all being exists simultaneously in unity and totality. As Hsse states it in his diary excerpts: «Nirvana, as I understand it, is the liberating step back behind the principium individuationis; that is, religiously expressed, the return of the individual soul to the All­-soul. »

All of this is nothing new: we met it in Demian’s magi­cal thinking and in many of Hesse’s essayistic utterances. And in the story «Pictor’s Metamorphoses,» which was written in the same year (1922), Hesse transports us to a fairy-tale realm where the hero actually does undergo the various transformations that Siddhartha experiences only psychologically. Through the powers of the magic carbuncle Pictor is physically transformed into a tree and other natural objects. But nowhere else has Hesse em­ployed a more appropriate symbol for his ideas than here: for the river is in essence fluidity and simultaneity. This is made clear repeatedly:

«This is what you mean, isn’t it: that the river is every­where at the same time-at its source and at its mouth, at the waterfall, at the ferry, at the rapids, in the sea, in the mountains-everywhere, at the same time-and that for the river there is only the present, without the shadow of a future.»

In the river Hesse found the perfect symbol for his views. Demian’s Abraxas, Harry Haller’s Magic The­ater, and the Glass Bead Game itself are all symbols for precisely the-same concept; but they are invented or eso­teric symbols that have to be explained, whereas the apt­ness and significance of the river is instantly apparent to the reader. But Hesse did not stop at the symbolic func­tion of the river. He uses it in addition as the central structural element. Substance, symbol, and structure are so closely welded that it is almost impossible to separate these functions, for the meaning is not put into words, as in the other works, but must be derived from the action of the book itself.

It is only on the river, this realm of totality and effacement of polarities, that Siddhartha could have ex­perienced the visionary dream that he has as he departs from Govinda to experience the life of the senses in the city.

«Sad was the appearance of Govinda, sadly he asked: Why did you leave me? Thereupon he embraced Go­vinda, wrapping his arms about him, and as he drew him to his breast and kissed him, it was no longer Go­vinda, but a woman, and from the woman’s garments there burst a full breast; Siddhartha rested his head upon this breast and drank, sweet and strong tasted the milk of this breast. It tasted of woman and man, of sun and forest, of animal and flower, of every fruit, of every passion. It made him drunk and unconscious.»

In this dream, which comes to Siddhartha as he spends the night in the ferryman’s hut beside the river, we have a transition from Siddhartha’s previous ascetic life, personified by Govinda, to his new life in the arms of Kamala. But here on the river itself the two realms—spirit and senses—are united in the embrace of the strange hermaphroditic figure of his dream (a figure strongly re­miniscent of the male-female dream—ideals of Sinclair in Demian). This dream plays a key role in the structure of the novel, for it is at once a transition between two parts as well as an anticipation of yet a third part, in which the two worlds will be reconciled in Siddhartha’s vision of totality and simultaneity on the river.

The Structural Principle

Superficially the novel is divided into two parts with, respectively, four and eight chapters. Any attempt to analyze the book on this basis, however, is fallacious, for it is quite obvious that the book falls into three natural sections: Siddhartha’s life at home, among the Samanas,  and with Buddha (four chapters); his life with Kamala and among the «child people» of the city (four chapters); and his life with Vasudeva on the river (four chapters). We have three parts of roughly equal length, each de­voted to a distinct period of Siddhartha’s development.

Temporally and spatially the periods are delimited by Siddhartha’s initial crossing of the river and by his sub­sequent return to it. Only with reference to the river is it possible to determine the fact that the three periods are of equal duration. And the river, as the natural symbol of synthesis, is the natural border between the realms of spirit and sense in which Siddhartha attempts to live be­fore he achieves the synthesis upon its very banks. What we have, in other words, is a projection of Siddhartha’s inner development into the realm of space: the landscape of the soul.

It can be ascertained that each section encompasses roughly twenty years of Siddhartha’s life. There is very little to go on. When Siddhartha leaves Kamala to go and live by the river he is «only in his forties.» Yet when he first meets Kamala he is still a «youth,» and Vasudeva recalls that he had ferried Siddhartha across the river once before: «It must have been more than twenty years ago.» Roughly, then, Siddhartha is in his early twenties when he first crosses the river, and approximately twenty years elapse before he returns to it. When Siddhartha sees Kamala again, the son conceived on the night of his de­parture is eleven years old. After this reference there is no other specific statement: we read only that «long months» passed before the son fled back to the city. And the opening pages of the following chapter are filled with expressions indicating the passage of time. So we should be justified in assuming, for reasons of parallelism if for none other, that at least twenty more years elapse before Siddhartha’s final interview with Govinda. Thus, the nar­rated time in each major section or life-epoch is roughly equivalent.

Within the sections the time scheme is different. It is obvious from the total time structure of the novel that Hesse must operate, in this book more than in any other he has written, with compression of narrated time within the epochs. This is achieved, in the first place, by the fre­quent occurrence of passages indicating iterative-durative action. A good example is the opening paragraph.

«In the shade of the house, in the sun of the river bank by the boats, in the shade of the Sal forest, in the shade of the fig tree Siddhartha grew up, the handsome son of the Brahman, the young falcon, along with Govinda, his friend, the son of the Brahman. Sun browned his fair shoulders on the river bank, during the bath, dur­ing the sacred ablutions, during the holy sacrifices. Shadow flowed into his dark eyes in the mango grove, during the children’s games, during the songs of his mother, during the sacred offerings, during the teaching of his father, the scholar, during the conversations of the sages.»

Although the novel begins when Siddhartha is about eighteen years old (he spends three years with the Samanas before he crosses the river for the first time), we re­ceive, in passages of this sort, a clear impression of Siddhartha’s childhood and an almost tactile sense of time passing.

From this general continuum of time that lasts for some sixty years, certain phases are isolated as characteristic examples for each of the three epochs. In general Hesse is operating here with two-day phases in all three sections, and these phases fall, in general, at the beginning and end of each epoch. The intervening time is filled—never simply omitted or ignored!—with iterative-durative action of the type just mentioned. In the first epoch we find a two-day phase beginning with Siddhartha’s decision to leave home and continuing to the next day when he and Govinda join the Samanas. The second phase takes place three years later, when Siddhartha accompanies Govinda to the grove of Jetavana, where they meet Buddha; forty-eight hours after their departure from the Samanas, Siddhartha also takes leave of Buddha and sets out on his new ad­venture.

The first phase of the second epoch relates the crossing of the river and his first full day in the city. The follow­ing twenty years, however, are expressed by time com­pression:

«Siddhartha thanked him and accepted, and now lived in the merchant’s house. Clothes were brought to him, and shoes, and a servant prepared his bath daily. Twice a day a plentiful meal was laid out, but Siddhartha ate only once a day, and neither ate meat nor did he drink wine.»

This passage is a particularly good example because it shows a transition from phase style to iterative-durative style. The first sentence is actually the last sentence of the preceding phase and is a specific answer to a specific pro­posal by Kamaswami. In the next sentence, however, the change takes place. The fact that clothing and shoes were brought to him is still specific, referring to the first day in Kamaswami’s house; but the last part of the sentence is already iterative-durative: his bath was prepared not only on this one occasion, but every day for the next few years. From this point on, the epoch is not interrupted by another specific phase until the end of the twenty-year period when Siddhartha, who is now a wealthy merchant with his own house, possessions, servants, suddenly tires of his life and decides to leave it behind in order to start out all over again. This decision is again related in a two-day phase, which begins with Siddhartha’s terrifying vision of his degeneracy and lasts until he finds himself on the river bank two days later, after his near-attempt at suicide by drowning, whereupon he decides to remain with Vasudeva, the ferryman.

The last epoch is richer in phases. The first, which takes place when Siddhartha has been with Vasudeva for twelve years, describes Kamala’s arrival with her child and her subsequent death. The next phase relates the son’s flight, many months later, and Siddhartha’s realiza­tion that he cannot keep the boy with him or determine his way in life. The third phase depicts Vasudeva’s death some years later; and the final phase is Siddhartha’s mystical transfiguration before the eyes of Govinda. Yet between these eight specific phases, which form the slight action of the novel, the sense of time is never suspended, but is kept flowing by a variety of iterative-durative de­vices that leave us with a full impression of Siddhartha’s life over a period of some sixty years.

The flow of time has two important functions in the novel. In the first place, the flow of time in Siddhartha’s life must be depicted in order to make the symbol of the river plausible as an analogy for human life; the tertium comparationis is flux. In the second place, time is neces­sary to allow Siddhartha’s own development. He must have time to exhaust fully the possibilities of two aspects of life and, in his third epoch, to adjust to the totally new synthesis of which he becomes aware on the banks of the river. In its own way, the novel Siddhartha is a Zeitroman in Thomas Mann’s definition of his The Magic Mountain—a novel about time. And the time in Sid­dhartha is as carefully structured as that in Mann’s novel although the structure is a totally different one.

The temporal structure of the novel, which can be de­termined only by reference to the river, is paralleled by the spatial structure and what might be called the sym­bolic geography of the book. We have seen that the river symbolizes the goal of simultaneity and totality that Sid­dhartha aspires to achieve. Simultaneity and totality, however, imply the resolution of polar opposites. In Sid­dhartha the polar opposites to be reconciled—the spirit and the senses—are restricted geographically to realms di­vided by the river. The river by its very nature has part in both realms: it is not an obstacle to be crossed (as in Buddhistic symbolism) but rather constitutes in itself the natural synthesis of extremes. Siddhartha’s wanderings in geographical space thus parallel his inner development.

Siddhartha leaves home in the first chapter in search of «Atman, It, the Only One, the All-One,» which he had not discovered in Brahmanism. «And where was Atman to be found, where did It reside, where did Its eternal heart beat, where else but in the own Self, in the inner­most being, in the indestructible part that everyone bears within himself?» These are all periphrases for the word «soul» as we have seen it in Demian and Hesse’s various essays. Accordingly, Siddhartha sets out to find Atman in asceticism and yoga, for he is still persuaded that the answer lies in exercises of the mind and denial of the world of senses. Yet, in the crucial phase at the end of his first epoch he is forced to conclude: «I sought Atman, I sought Brahma, I wished to dismember and unpeel my Self in order to find in its unknown interior the kernel of all shells, Atman, Life, the Divine, the Ultimate. But in doing so I lost myself.» As he wanders on he meditates:

«He now had to experience himself. . . . The body was surely not the Self, nor more was the play of the senses; yet thinking was not it either, nor reason, nor acquired wisdom. . . . No, this world of thoughts also was not part of the beyond, and it led to no goal if one killed the random I of the senses in order to fatten the random I of the mind and of erudition. Both of them, thoughts as well as the senses, were nice things. But the ultimate meaning lay hidden behind both of them; it was important to listen to both of them, to play with both, neither to despise nor to overestimate either—and to perceive in both the secret voices of one’s innermost being.»

With this perception in mind he crosses the river and proceeds to the city, where he devotes himself to the sense pleasures of the second section. We have here the familiar polarity of spirit and nature, but in Siddhartha the two realms are not mingled as was the case in Demian, where Sinclair pendulated constantly between the light and dark worlds. Instead, one section (twenty years) is de­voted to the cultivation of intellect and another section (twenty more years) to the cultivation of the senses. Geographically, however, these are also different realms, and they are separated by the symbolic river which Sid­dhartha crosses. Twenty years later, when he returns to the river, he realizes that his life among the «child people» had merely cancelled out his preceding expe­riences in the realm of spirit and asceticism: «That was why he had had to go into the world, to lose himself in desire and power, in women and money; that is why he had had to become a merchant, a gambler, drunk and avaricious—until the priest and the Samana within him were dead. . . . He had died, and a new Siddhartha had awakened from the sleep.» The return to the river is, of course, not accidental; if Hesse had not intended it as a structural element, he would not have described Siddhartha’s first crossing and meeting with Vasudeva, which include certain elements anticipatory of the final resolution.

What we have is a geographical parallel to the tem­poral structure: in the first section Siddhartha spends twenty years in the realm of the spirit on one side of the river; in the second section, twenty more years in the realm of nature and the senses on the other side of the river; and the last (twenty) years of his life are spent on the river, which represents the synthesis of nature and spirit, the unity, totality, and simultaneity of all being. It is of interest to note that Siddhartha also begins his life on the banks of a river. (In the paragraph quoted above, the river is mentioned several times as an important feature of his childhood.) We have no indication that it is the same river. Yet it is significant that his period of childlike innocence (the first of his three stages) was spent on a river; he leaves the river when the seeds of doubt have sprung in his heart and returns to it only when the poles of spirit and senses have cancelled each other, leav­ing him again as a child. For although rivers occur else­where in the book (there is, of course, a river in Kamala s city), they are mentioned only in passing and play no structural role.

It might be added that the parallelism between the first two epochs extends further to include the characters who play an important role. The significant dream that in­vades Siddhartha’s mind before he first crosses the river calls our attention to the parallel function of Govinda and Kamala*: both stand for the essence, or the ideal, of the realm that they respectively represent. Buddha him­self, who has achieved fulfillment, does not fit into the realm of the spirit any more than does Vasudeva: both show by anticipation the state upon which Siddhartha will enter when he has advanced far enough. But the Samanas, as representatives of the extremes of asceticism repel Siddhartha just as instinctively as does the village maiden who, at the beginning of his second epoch, invites him to engage in a little amatory sport from the Kama Sutra: she is not the essence of sensuality, but its gross extreme.

Through the projection of inner feeling into the realm of geography we have followed Siddhartha’s develop­ment from the pole of spirit to the pole of nature and back to the synthesis of totality and simultaneity in the symbol of the river. In the final vision of the book Hesse renders Siddhartha’s fulfillment visually by reversing the process. For as Govinda looks into Siddhartha’s face at the end, what he perceives is no longer the landscape of the soul, but rather: the soul as landscape. Siddhartha has learned the lesson of the river so well that his entire being now reflects the totality and simultaneity that the river symbolizes. As in a painting by Marc Chagall or in Rilke’s poem «The Death of the Poet,» the landscape is actually reflected in Siddhartha’s face. He has reached fulfillment by affirming the totality of the world and by accepting it as part of himself and himself as part of the development of the world.

«He no longer saw his friend Siddhartha’s face, he saw instead other faces, many, a long row, a streaming river of faces, hundreds, thousands, all of which came and went, and yet all seemed to be present at the same time, all of them seemed to be changing and renewing them­selves constantly, and yet all were Siddhartha. He saw the face of a fish, a carp with its mouth opened wide in infinite pain, a dying fish with breaking eyes—he saw the face of a new born child, red and full of wrinkles, drawn up to cry—he saw the face of a murderer, saw him plunge a knife into the body of a man—he saw, in the same in­stant, this same criminal kneeling in chains and his head being cut off by an executioner with a blow of the sword—he saw the bodies of men and women naked in the posi­tions and battles of furious love—he saw corpses stretched out, still, cold, empty—he saw heads of animals, of boars, crocodiles, elephants, bulls, birds—he saw gods, saw Kri­shna, saw Agni—he saw all of these forms and faces in a thousand relationships to one another. . . . and all these forms and shapes rested, flowed, reproduced, swam along and streamed one into the other, and over all of them there was constantly something thin, insubstantial and yet existing, drawn like a thin glass or piece of ice, like a transparent skin, a shell or mold or mask of water, and this mask smiled, and this mask was Siddhartha’s smiling face. . . .»

The Beatific Smile

Siddhartha’s smile in the preceding passage is the best example of the new dimension that we find in this novel. Here, in brief, we have the same story that we encoun­tered in Demian: a man’s search for himself through the stages of guilt, alienation, despair, to the experience of unity. The new element here is the insistence upon love as the synthesizing agent. Hesse regards this element as «natural growth and development» from his earlier be­lief, and certainly as no reversal or change of opinion. In the essay «My Faith» (1931) he admitted «that my Siddhartha puts not cognition, but love in first place: that it disdains dogma and makes the experience of unity the central point. . . .» Cognition of unity as in Demian is not the ultimate goal, but rather the loving affirmation of the essential unity behind the apparent polarity of be­ing. This is the meaning of Siddhartha’s transfiguration at the end of the book. The passage goes on at length, de­veloping all the images of horizontal breadth in space and vertical depth in time that we have indicated. But the whole vision is encompassed and united by «this smile of unity over the streaming shapes, this smile of simultaneity over the thousands of births and deaths.»

The beatific smile is the symbol of fulfillment: the visual manifestation of the inner achievement. As a sym­bol, it too is developed and anticipated before the final scene in which Govinda sees it in Siddhartha’s face. It is the outstanding characteristic of the two other figures in the book who have attained peace: Buddha and Vasudeva. When Siddhartha first sees Gautama he notices im­mediately that his face reveals neither happiness nor sadness, but seems rather «to smile gently inward.» Everything about him, «his face and his step, his quietly lowered gaze, his quietly hanging hand, and even every finger on this quiet hand spoke of peace, spoke of per­fection.» When Siddhartha departs from the Buddha he thinks to himself:

«I have never seen a man gaze and smile, sit and walk like that. . . . truly, I wish that I too might be able to gaze and smile, sit and walk like him. . . . Only a man who has penetrated into his innermost Self gazes and walks in that way. Very well—I too shall seek to pene­trate into my innermost Self.»

Siddhartha acknowledges in the Buddha a conscious ideal, but it is Buddha’s goal and not his path to which the younger man aspires. The symbol of this goal is the beatific smile behind which, almost like the smile of the Cheshire Cat, the individual disappears. The same smile appears again when Vasudeva is portrayed, and we see it grow on Siddhartha’s own face.

«And gradually his smile became more and more like that of the ferryman; it became almost as radiant, almost as illumined with happiness, similarly glowing from a thousand little wrinkles, just as childlike, just as aged. Many travelers, when they saw the two ferrymen, took them to be brothers.»

At the moment of Vasudeva’s death the unity of this smile is clearly expressed: «His smile shone radiantly as he looked at his friend, and radiantly shone on Sid­dhartha’s face, too, the same smile.» The words here are not used in a figurative sense, for it literally is the same smile. The smile is the symbol of inner perfection, but inner perfection for Hesse means the awareness of the unity, totality, and simultaneity of all being. It is thus appropriate that the three men who share this perception should also share the same beatific smile, even though each reached his goal by following a completely different path.

The Epiphany

The beatific smile as the symbol of fulfillment recurs in many of Hesse’s novels: we shall find it again in The Steppenwolf, The Journey to the East, and The Glass Bead Game. But before we leave Siddhartha we must dis­cuss one major point: the achievement of Siddhartha’s affirmation of existence.

Siddhartha’s development to the point of loving affir­mation is marked by a technique of modern fiction that James Joyce defined as the epiphany, but which occurs regularly in much prose, German and French as well as English, of the early twentieth century. In the epiphany the protagonist perceives the essence of things that lies hidden behind their empirical reality, and as such the epiphany is another symptom of the modern turn away from realism toward a new mysticism. The epiphany re­veals the essential integral unity of a given object in a burst of radiance (what Joyce, in the words of Aquinas, calls the integritas, consonantia, and claritas of the ob­ject), and the observer is able to enter into a direct re­lationship of love with the object thus newly perceived. It is this element of loving perception, missing in the cooler cognition of Demian, that we find here in passage after passage. The most striking example occurs in the «awakening» scene of Chapter 4 after Siddhartha has made up his mind not to follow Buddha, but to seek his own way in the world of the senses:

«He looked around as though he were seeing the world for the first time. Lovely was the world, colorful was the world, strange and mysterious was the world! Here was blue, here was yellow, here was green. The sky flowed and the river, the forest towered up and the mountains, everything lovely, everything mysterious, and magical, and in the midst of it all—he, Siddhartha, the Awakening One, on the way to himself. All this, all this yellow and blue, river and forest, entered Sid­dhartha for the first time through his eyes, was no longer the magic of Mara, no longer the veil of Maja, no longer the senseless and accidental multiplicity of the world of appearances, contemptible for the deep-­thinking Brahman who disparages multiplicity and seeks unity. Blue was blue, the river was river, and even if the One and the Divine lay hidden in the blue and river within Siddhartha, it was still simply the manner of the Divine to be yellow here, blue here, sky there, forest there, and Siddhartha here. Sense and Essence were not somewhere behind the things. They were in them—in everything.»

The points to be noticed in this and other epiphanies (including, of course, those written by the young Joyce) are, first, the impression of radiance aroused by the entire description, which here is created largely by words such as «blue,» «yellow,» and «sky.» Then: these are all ob­jects encountered constantly in daily life, but here per­ceived for the first time. And finally: what Siddhartha realizes is that the meaning of these things is inherent within them and not some abstract ideal that lies behind their reality. They are radiant and meaningful as mani­festations of the One and the Divine, hence as symbols of unity and totality.

A further characteristic of the epiphany—one that is in­herent in its very nature but not usually present in the actual epiphany scene—is the subject’s feeling that words, phrases, and concepts detract from our ultimate perception of the object, that they lie as a veil between the viewer and true reality. (This is a syndrome that we dis­cussed earlier as the language crisis.) In Siddhartha, as well as Hesse’s works in general, we find this attitude, which provides the background for the experience of the epiphany. Siddhartha’s final interview with Govinda makes it clear that he has been able to attain his affirma­tion and union with the All only because he eschews the easy way of convenient words and phrases as explana­tions of reality. «Words are not good for the secret mean­ing. Everything is always slightly distorted when one ut­ters it in words—a little falsified, a little silly.» He goes on to confide that he does not make distinctions between thoughts and words. «To be perfectly frank, I don’t have a very high opinion of thoughts. I like things better.» And he concludes by asserting that any ostensible dif­ference between his views and those of Buddha is only illusory, the product of word-confusions. In essence, despite all superficial differences, they agree. The final vision, in which Govinda sees totality and simultaneity revealed in his friend’s face, is also an epiphany: a direct revelation to Govinda of the essential unity of being that Siddhartha was unable to convey through the medium of words.

It is through epiphanies that Siddhartha breaks out of the rigid schematism of Buddhism and Brahminism (their «highly bred reformation» quality of which Hesse speaks in the diary of 1920) and begins to enter into an immedi­ate contact with the world, though it first leads him to the false extreme of sensualism. Since love is the new di­mension of Siddhartha’s world, he must, as his final trial, learn to affirm even the rejection of his love by his own son. Only after he has suffered the torment of rejection can he perceive the final truth, which had hitherto been purely intellectual: no two men have the same way to the final goal: not even the father can spare his son the agonies of self-discovery. When Siddhartha accepts this truth, he perceives with visionary clarity that in the realm of simultaneity and totality even he and his own father are one. Just as he had once deserted his father, so had his son left him.

«Siddhartha gazed into the water, and in the flowing water pictures appeared to him: his father appeared, lonely, grieving about his son; he himself appeared, lonely, he too bound by the bonds of longing to his distant son; his son appeared, he too lonely, the boy, storming covetously along the burning course of his young desires; each directed toward his goal, each pos­sessed by his goal, each suffering. . . . The image of the father, his own image, that of the son flowed together; also Kamala’s image appeared and merged with the stream, and the image of Govinda, and other images, and flowed one into the other, becoming one with the river. . . .»

Not until he has recognized and then affirmed the loss of his son is Siddhartha ready to enter the state of ful­fillment. Only at this point does he affirm with love the insight which had been purely intellectual cognition when he departed from Buddha. For even in the case of his own son he is forced to concede that each man must find his own way in life, that no man’s path can be prescribed. Thus the highest lesson of the novel is a direct contra­diction of Buddha’s theory of the Eightfold Path, to which, as we saw at the beginning of this chapter, Hesse objected in his diary of 1920; it is the whole meaning of the book that Siddhartha can attain Buddha’s goal with­out following his path. If rejection of that doctrine is the essence of the novel, then it is futile to look to Buddhism for clues to the structural organization of the book. Rather, the structural principle is to be found precisely where the meaning of the book lies. Just as Siddhartha learns of the totality and simultaneity of all being—man and nature alike—so too the development of the soul is expressed in geographical terms and, in turn, the land­scape is reflected in the human face. The book achieves a unity of style, structure and meaning that Hesse never again attained with such perfection after Siddhartha.

It would be futile to deny, on the other hand, that this unity has been achieved at the expense of the narrative realism we customarily expect from fiction. Just as the characters and landscape have been stylized into abstrac­tions by Hesse’s poetic vision, likewise the dialogue and action have been reduced—or escalated—to symbolic essen­tials. As in Demian the action is almost wholly inter­nalized: the excitement of this externally serene work is entirely within Siddhartha’s mind. It is ultimately beside the point to judge this work by the criteria of the tradi­tional realistic novel. Like Hermann Broch, who insisted that his The Death of Vergil was «lyrical work» and that it be read and criticized as such, Hesse had good reasons for calling Siddhartha «an Indic poem.» In both works there is a stratum of realistic narrative, but each as a whole represents the symbolic projection of an inner vision and not an attempt to capture external reality mimetically. Like his heroes, who vacillate between na­ture und spirit, Hesse as a narrator feels conflicting im­pulses toward realism and lyricism. In Siddhartha he reached an extreme of symbolic lyricism; his next major work, The Steppenwolf, comes closer to realism in its characterization, dialogue, and plot than anything else Hesse has written.


* Kamala’s name, like that of Kamaswami, is based on the Sanskrit root kama, meaning «love,» or Kama, the god of desire.

Source: The Novels of Hermann Hesse: A Study in Theme and Structure, by Theodore Ziolkowski, © 1965 by Princeton University Press, pp. 146-77.


Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Read More

Weekly Magazine

Get the best articles once a week directly to your inbox!