Solitude in Literary Fiction

Siddhartha, by Hermann Hesse

Published in 1926, Siddhartha falls between Hermann Hesse's major works, the earlier Damien, and the latter Steppenwolf, Narcissus and Goldmund, and The Glass-Bead Game. In each novel, a man seeks understanding through experience, a solitary and archetypical Western quest. The search is not resolved in novels other than Siddhartha, suggesting Hesse's affinity for Eastern thought, even though the resolution in Siddhartha is a tenuous one.

The "Siddhartha" of the novel's title is not Gotama, the Buddha -- although publishers insist on placing the Buddha's image on their covers. Though "Siddhartha" was historically the Buddha's given or first name, the Siddhartha of the novel is another Siddhartha, as the first-time reader realizes in contrasting the son of a prince (the historical Buddha) with the son of a Brahmin (the protagonist of the novel).

Thus, their paths differ: the historical Buddha breaks from the Kshatriya caste of nobles, while the Siddhartha of Hesse's story breaks from the Brahmana caste of priests, which is socially and intellectually "superior." This distinction is key to the novel because it assumes a significant spiritual knowledge on the part of the protagonist. In contrast, the historical Gotama's knowledge is a worldly one -- he is married, enjoys dancing girls, has a child, enjoys riches and luxuries -- but his spiritual knowledge is limited.

Indeed, the historical Gotama breaks from his caste upon the realization of the existence of suffering; he witnesses what his father has wanted to conceal from him: real people suffering sickness, old age, and death. In his new quest for understanding, Gotama carries with him a degree of worldly experience and now seeks spiritual experience in his pursuit of the life of a samana. This is the natural pattern in Eastern thought and psychology.

In contrast, Siddhartha breaks from his caste without direct experience of worldliness, although he has some acquaintance with suffering in the world from an intellectual point of view. Hesse's subtle contrast of characters give rise to interesting juxtapositions. Unbeknownst to average readers, what is being juxtaposed is Western and Eastern thought and psychology. The weight of the novel's success will be based on the reconciliation of these juxtapositions or contradictions in Siddhartha.

Siddhartha's pursuit of the samana experience parallels Gotama's in that both attempt extreme asceticism and both fail to achieve enlightenment in that way. And though Siddhartha rejects Gotama as a teacher, it cannot be said that Gotama has had a teacher, either. In this, too, Siddhartha imitates Gotama. Siddhartha, too, is destined to postpone true enlightenment at the intellectual stage.

In this postponement, Siddhartha has the worse of it. He insists on the necessity of returning to the state of Gotama's youth, with fine clothes, rich food, life with a courtesan, and employment by a worldly merchant. Hesse follows a Western pattern of socialization and personal development: an idealized religious education in youth, rebellion in adolescence and thereafter. But yawning before the Western "Siddhartha" model is the precarious possibility -- or probability -- of failing to exit the karmic wheel due to an insistence on the priority of experience -- experience of all ways, means, vices -- as life's teacher.

The recreation of this Western pattern naturally appeals to Western audiences (and to modern secularized Eastern audiences not conversant with their own traditions). The psychological premises of Hesse's novel are strong, engaging, and do build tension --- will Siddhartha stay in the world? Will he resume his search for enlightenment? But the tension is resolved very late and not so much by Siddhartha's psychology as by the availability of an Eastern tradition that the protagonist can pursue as a transcendent ideal.

The reader can sense the tension in the cultural (West vs. East) juxtaposition of paths. Hesse embeds tension not in the  protagonist's leaving his father or the exhaustion of the samana path, or even in his parting with Govinda over following the Buddha's teaching -- these incidents have their parallels in the Buddha's life. Rather, the tension is in the reader's wondering how Siddhartha is going to emerge from the psychological grip of the worldly representatives of the vaisyas caste: Kamala the courtesan, Kamaswami the rich merchant, and Siddhartha's his own independent life as a rich and corrupt man. There is no theory, no teaching, no obvious device to extract him from thisworld except a spiritual (or psychological) crisis.

Despite the benignity of Vasudeva the ferryman-hermit, who is the true model of enlightenment here -- even more so than the fictionalized Gotama -- Siddhartha is still shackled by the world. On the cusp of world-weariness (Hesse uses the word "nausea") Kamala reappears with their on in tote. The event sucks Siddhartha back into the excruciating angst of the world. Only Vasudeva prevails, with his absolute attachment to nothing worldly, with his profound silence and eremitic example. Indeed, Vasudeva represents no caste, or rather could be from any. He is a widowed hermit now living alone in the forest. And he is as a god to Siddhartha, a bodhisattva, a savior.

Siddhartha protests to Govinda that he accepts no one's teaching, that he is a perpetual searcher. In the same breath, however, Siddhartha calls Gotama one of this teachers, and Kamala, and Kamaswami, and Gotama, and Vasudeva, and the river. Such is Hesse's tortuous reconciliation of West and East. Can Siddhartha really attain equanimity when he also divvies up his heart, mind, and memories in this way?

At one point in the late chapters, Siddhartha calls his worldly experience maya, or illusion, but at another point he deems it a necessary path that has gotten him to where he is. This is a backward look at life, a justification of the past, not a severing or an understanding of his karma. Ultimately, it is Hesse's interpolation of the Western point of view.

Hesse's tension between the necessity of experience and its transcendence is tenuously redeemed by the presentation of the compassionate Vasudeva and the silent teaching of nature in the guise of the river. In one sense the river is presented by Hesse as a teaching that transcends the many words and concepts of the Buddha, poorly championed by Govinda. And the river is a teacher that transcends the Hindu traditions of either the Brahmins or the samanas. To Siddhartha, the river reflects time and people like the mysterious aleph. Only the single word "Om" and the unity of all time and being emerge to erase Siddhartha's clinging to teachers and to experience. But "Om" is a distinctly Hindu concept after all, presented by Hesse as a perennial teaching, a teaching transcending the doctrine of Hindu or Buddhist or Westerner.

Siddhartha is a coming-of-age novel that attracted a generation of young searchers, a work of existential fiction, an attractive tale of all-or-nothing. It is not a didactic or spiritual manual. The eremitic model redeems the protagonist and the story itself, and that, perhaps, is its chief virtue.