Review: Re-reading Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse

My strongest memory of reading this book a as teenager was of the power Siddhartha’s ability to fast gave him in his negotiation with the businessman Kamaswami.  His asceticism freed him from being disciplined by the desire for material things, even food, removing much of Kamaswami’s leverage over him.

I was prompted to re-read this book by my own Ash Wednesday fast, which brought this interaction back to me. Having now re-read the book, the scene remains effective.  Kamaswami assumes that as Siddhartha is without possessions he is destitute and comes to him seeking to serve him to survive. Instead Siddhartha points to the value of his experience fasting, saying that if he hadn’t learned to fast ‘I would have to accept any kind of service before the day is up, […] because hunger would force me to do so’. As it is he can ‘wait calmly, knowing no impatience’.  The demonstration puts him on an equal footing with Kamaswami and he prospers as his business partner from there.
Much of the rest of the first half or so of the book, up to Siddhartha’s mid-life crisis, is equally good.  Part one follows Siddhartha from his childhood, learning Hindu traditional lore as a Brahmin, through a period as an ascetic, to his meeting with the Buddha, and rejecting him as a teacher.  It’s nothing personal, by this point he has rejected all teachings and teachers, and wants to find himself by engaging with the world.   All of this progresses cleanly, at pace, in very clear and direct prose.

Now engaging with the world, he meets and learns the ‘arts of love’ from Kamala the courtesan, and the skills of business from Kamaswami. This for me was probably the most effective part of the book as it considers the costs and benefits of his distance from the world, even as he engages with it.  He is always aloof and indifferent in business, and seems incapable of truly loving.  He feels himself superior and apart from the ‘childish’ worldly people even as he engages with them and their activities and also begins to feel an envy of their direct connection with life.  Slowly though the dissolute life of a wealthy merchant consumes him.  He wakes one morning from a terrible dream in which he throws out into the street Kamala’s dead songbird, as though it were just rubbish, and in his waking ‘felt death and horrors in his chest, sat and sensed how everything died in him’.

I’ve been reading a few ‘mid-life memoirs’ recently and found the build up to and description of Siddhartha’s crisis succinct and strong.  Hesse conveys well the sense growing in Siddhartha that he has been slowly drawn away from his purpose, slowly corrupted by his unthinking daily activities.  This s a short book, and his realisation that the wealth and comfort of his current life has left him weak and degenerate works well when we have so recently seen him as an austere, iron-willed ascetic.

From here though the book suffers an abrupt decline into a vague mysticism.  He becomes a ferryman and sits by the river listening and learning from it, but neither he, nor Hesse, can put into words the wisdom gained. As he explains to his friend Govinda: ‘wisdom cannot be passed on. Wisdom which a wise man tries to pass on to someone always sounds like foolishness’.  I’m afraid that is true of the late chapters of this book.
I wouldn’t go as far as John Crace does in mocking this as proto-New Age nonsense, but he has a point as the book degenerates from a good, lean first half, into a short but interminable feeling second half of unfulfilling and irritating woolly mysticism.