The novel "Siddartha" by Hermann Hesse
Prof. Dr. Andreas Meier / German Studies

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The eternal return of the same?

Prof. Dr. Andreas Meier on Hermann Hesse's novel "Siddartha," written 100 years ago.

Hermann Hesse's novel "Siddartha" was published in 1922. What is this book about?

Meier: "Siddartha" is a novel in which the path of a boy from an educated Indian background at the time of Buddha to himself is described. He goes through many stages of life of the most varied kind, he lives very lavishly, but he also goes through phases of asceticism. In the end, he finds his fulfillment in living as a ferryman on a river and ferrying the passing people from one bank to the other.

Why did Hermann Hesse write this book in the first place?

Meier: With literary works, it's always difficult to say why this material, of all things, is being dealt with at this particular time. In Hesse's case, however, "Siddartha" is set in the context of several novels, the "Steppenwolf" and "Narziss und Goldmund". These are all books in which the difficult path of the individual to himself is described, and thus at the same time the demand on the individual to distance himself from the world. This demand on the individual to unite the world and selfhood is a theme that is echoed in many of Hesse's novels in different ways. Hesse, as is known, had ties to the Indian mission through his mother, Marie Gundert. She was born in India as the daughter of the eminent Sanskrit scholar Hermann Gundert and later spent several years there. Hesse himself had become acquainted with Sri Lanka on a trip to Indonesia in 1911 and was well acquainted with Indian philosophy and culture. In "Siddartha" he draws on this body of knowledge, which also gives the novel features of a historical novel from the time of Buddha.

The hero of the novel calls the people who are devoted to the worldly "child people. What does he mean by that?

Meier: Children are people who have not yet grown up and are on their way to becoming themselves or who are stuck in a phase in which, as one might put it in modern terms, critical self-reflexivity is not possible for them. This, however, is the prerequisite for participating in a social life, for entering cultural contexts, but nevertheless for being able to live individually. Kindermensch are satisfied with the surface; it is enough for them if they have material treasures, if they can lead an erotically dissolute life, eat and drink well. The danger of remaining child-men' is certainly exposed to very many people even today.

"Siddartha" is a novel of development, similar in structure to "Der Steppenwolf" or "Das Glasperlenspiel." How do you recognize that?

Meier: On the one hand, this seems relatively easy to understand in the case of "Siddartha," since the novel encompasses the life stages of its hero in search of his self. Siddharta leaves his father's house, is then for some years with his follower Govinda part of a very ascetic sect, the Samanas, becomes a follower of Gotama, who will later be called Buddha, but whom he also leaves to live for some years in luxury with the 'child people' in a large city. But even here, neither the opulent life as a merchant nor his lover Kamala are able to bind him permanently. On the banks of a river, which he had already crossed once, he finally realizes that he is more deeply entangled in samsara, the eternal cycle of life and death, and more distant from nirvana, the salvation from it. Here the enlightened ferryman Vasudeva finally conveys to him the principle of life symbolized by the river, the dialectical relationship of permanent change of the same in principle. On the other hand, however, he is able as Vasudeva's successor to impart this teaching to his friend Govinda, but fails, like his father before him, to help his own son to this realization. To the personal development the principle of the repetitive life sequences enters here.

The famous poem "Stufen" ("Stages") printed in the later novel "Glasperlenspiel" ("Glass Bead Game"), which says, among other things, "Und jedem Anfang wohnt ein Zauber inne" ("And there is a magic in every beginning"), could certainly be applied to these phases of life that Siddahrta goes through. Siddartha" experiences something similar, for whom the new stages of life are each associated with great fascination, but which only has an effect until, once again, "the call of life resounds," as the poem says.

Hesse uses very poetic vocabulary in "Siddartha". Does that also characterize his style?

Meier: In terms of language, Hesse has certainly remained a 'poetic realist', very strongly influenced by linguistic images whose origins can be located in Romanticism. Images of nature play a major role, but at the same time he has a very fine rhythmic feeling for language. His sentence periods are laid out in such a way that they follow a natural feeling for language and only ever culminate in more complex forms when the content demands it. Linguistically, then, Hesse certainly remains wedded to the environment of late Romanticism and poetic realism, at least in terms of tonality and metaphor.

The novel has been called an "Indian poem." But it can also be interpreted as a reflection of European society. How do you recognize that?

Meier: In "Siddartha," Hesse certainly holds up a critical mirror to his contemporaries, too, if you look at the world of the urban child-people in the novel. Here one sees how easily a society can be distracted from the 'call of life', how easily people are content with material externals and how easily one can also, lured by a beautiful courtesan, 'lose' one's life, as it is said in a Middle High German epic, in Hartmann von Aue's "Erec", whose title hero 'loses himself' and forgets his knightly duties. Here, a reference to Hesse's present certainly arises easily, but also beyond it, insofar as also present contemporaries do not hear or do not want to hear the 'life call', do not bear to live in dissent with society, to be ascetics, hermits or even doubters.

It is known today that Hesse had family problems during the writing, which he overcame thanks to psychoanalytic treatment. Do these psychoanalytical insights flow into his novel?

Meier: There are repeated passages in "Steppenwolf," and even more so in "Narziss und Goldmund," in which it becomes clear how familiar Hermann Hesse was with Carl Gustav Jung's model of psychoanalysis. He himself underwent many years of analysis with one of Jung's students, Josef Bernhard Lang. In "Siddartha", however, these theories and models do not flow as directly as in the previously mentioned novels. Only in Siddartha's phase of life with the children's people can one discern the beginnings of a psychoanalytic crisis in this sense, here connected with the motif of fatherhood. Siddartha has a son with Kamala. He meets both of them again as a ferryman, but is unable to keep either Kamala, who is bitten by a snake, a highly symbolic animal, or his son, who leaves him and moves back to the city, with him, since he is already on another stage of life. Here, a deep life crisis of the author Hesse, connected with his divorce from his first wife Maria Bernoulli and the separation from the children, becomes perceptible, especially since the first working phase on "Siddartha" can be traced from December 1919.

In the 1960s, "Siddartha" became a cult book in the USA. Around 100,000 copies of Hesse's Buddha legend were sold there in 1967 alone. During this period, did Hesse become a hippie guru, so to speak, who also described themes such as subtle sex in "Narcissus and Goldmund" or drug dreams in "Der Steppenwolf"?

Meier: Hesse's renaissance is indeed curious. The American Germanist Theodore Ziolkowski, for a long time a full professor at Harvard, drew attention to this phenomenon as early as 1969 with an essay entitled "Saint Hesse among the Hipppies". Until the 1960s, Hermann Hesse was virtually unknown in America. This changed abruptly with the rise of the hippie movement and especially when in 1967 a rock band appeared that called itself 'Steppenwolf', although none of its members had ever read a book by Hesse before - and possibly not even later - and this although the founder of the formation, John Kay, was born in 1944 as Joachim Fritz Kauledat in Tilsit and later grew up in Hanover. So the name of a book alone, which the group's producer Gabriel Mekler happened to be carrying, made Hesse known in popular culture circles. To what extent he was actually read here is something else entirely. Siddartha" certainly contributed significantly to this popularity, since in 'Indian poetry' one hoped to find an access to Indian philosophy and thus in the 1970s at the same time an access to another world. Especially the young people of these years were in search of alternatives to the world of consumption - and with some benevolence one can certainly recognize in this a reaction to the 'call of life'.

In the end, the hero of the novel is continuously searching for the human soul. Siddartha literally means the one who has reached his goal. Did he reach his goal in the end?

Meier: Yes, at least Siddartha says so. He sits by the river, he sees the world come to him and swim past again. He experiences the cycle of life in the water that he has in front of him as a symbol of the eternal return of the same, which, according to Buddhist ideas and the ideas of rebirth, only ends in nirvana as a state in which the compulsion to reincarnate is lifted. After all, Buddhist asceticism strives to overcome the world into which one does not want to be reborn after having just left it through death. Siddartha has reached his goal the moment he has taken over the task of the ferryman. He is a pole around which the world happens.

Uwe Blass

Apl. Prof. Dr. Andreas Meier teaches Modern German Literature in the Department of German Studies in the Faculty of Humanities and Cultural Studies at Bergische Universität.

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