The dualities of life, this is what Herman Hesse was obsessed with, and through this obsession he brought about a prolific thematic trilogy of books, each book better than the one before it; better it in terms of themes, each one building on the themes which preceded it; better in terms of complexity of the narrative, beginning as a rather straight forward and accessible allegory and culminating in a structurally unique masterpiece; and better in terms of the integrity of the dualities explored. This trilogy beginning with Siddhartha, progressing to Steppenwolf, and finally reaching the precipice with the gem Narcissus and Goldmund.
“He no longer saw the face of his friend Siddhartha. Instead he saw other faces—hundreds, thousands, which all came and disappeared and yet all seemed to be there at the same time, which all continually changed and renewed themselves and which were yet all Siddhartha.” -Herman Hesse, Siddhartha
Siddhartha follows the journey of a young man striving for enlightenment, through pain, through sacrifice, through sex, through business, and finally through complacency. He begins this journey among the Brahmins, all whom devote their lives towards the pursuit of enlightenment, yet none have achieved it. With this realization, Siddhartha leaves on a life long journey. He follows many paths, all of which seem to promise enlightenment in some form, yet none seem to bring him any closer to his goal. The world seeks for enlightenment all around him, or they discount that journey entirely following a more worldly path, but none can bring contentment to Siddhartha. Eventually, he abandons each path presented to him, always against the warnings and cautions of others.
As his life culminates, Siddhartha finds the lonely ferryman Vasudeva, a man entirely content spending his life leading strangers from one side of a river to the other. Taught by Vasudeva to listen to the river, Siddhartha makes a discovery.
“Let us listen,” says the ferry man.
“They listened. The many voiced song of the river echoed softly. Siddhartha looked into the river and saw many pictures in the flowing water. He saw his father, lonely, mourning his son; he saw himself, lonely, also with bonds of longing for his faraway son; he saw his son, also lonely, the boy eagerly advancing along the burning path of life’s desires; each one concentrating on his goal, each one obsessed by his goal, each one suffering.”
“Listen better!” whispers the ferryman.
“Siddhartha tried to listen better…[everyone he knew] They all became part of the river. It was the goal of them, yearning, desiring, suffering; and the river’s voice was full of longing, full of smarting woe, full of insatiable desire. The river flowed on towards its goal…to the waterfall, to the sea, to the current, to the ocean and all goals were reached and each one was succeeded by another….
“Siddhartha listened…completely absorbed, quite empty, taking in everything…He had often heard all this before, all these numerous voices in the river, but today they sounded different. He could no longer distinguish the different voices…They all belonged to to each other…They were all interwoven and interlocked, entwined in a thousand ways…then the great song of a thousand voices consisted of one word: Om—perfection.”
Before Siddhartha was able to reach this point, he had to walk the many roads he had taken before, had to be able to distinguish the voices within the river, and through these many fractions, they all coalesced and became one perfect voice, the sound of the universe.
A beautiful theme and sentiment, however, what are we, the readers, to take away from this? Are we to devote our lives to discovering these multitudes of voices? Are we also to follow the path of monk hood, of business man, of artist, of lover, all in an effort for our lives to culminate into a perfect moment of Om? I don’t think so, and I don’t think this is the message Hesse would have us take from his novel either. What do we do when our life has culminated into on big disappointment, after all it happens quite frequently?
The story of Siddhartha is a simple story, simple in its writing, simple in its themes, and while a satisfying read and a complete work, these themes of fracture further escalate within Steppenwolf, wherein the introduction states, “readers [of Steppenwolf] have recognized themselves in the Steppenwolf, identified themselves with him suffered his griefs, and dreamed his dreams; but they have overlooked the fact that this book knows of and speaks about other things besides Harry Haller and his difficulties, about a second, higher, indestructible would beyond the Steppenwolf and his problematic life. The ‘Treatise’ and all those spots in the book dealing with matters of the spirit, of the arts and the ‘immortal’ men oppose the Steppenwolf’s world of suffering with a positive, serene, superpesonal and timeless world of faith…”
This has been part one of a trilogy of posts. Be sure to check back soon for part 2.