Hermann Hesse: Siddhartha

Hermann Hesse is yet another of those authors I’ve never had much success with. Gave up on Steppenwolf, intimidated by the scale of The Glass Bead Game (not to mention his Nobel), and tempted – but not enough – by lesser-known titles such as Peter Camenzind and Strange News from Another Star. As for Siddhartha, well, a rationalist, sceptical soul like me knew it for a load of sentimental, soft-hearted spiritualism. (A presumption which had a purity all its own, untainted by evidence.) Now Penguin have gone and made me rethink my prejudice by issuing the book in their fine Modern Classics range. As with Robert Walser’s The Assistant, they’ve pulled out the promotional stops by wrapping the book in a vivid red sleeve, advertising a new introduction by the egregious Paulo Coelho (the Helen Steiner Rice de nos jours). This blocks about a third of the beautiful cover illustration by fashionable designer Julian House; but on the plus side, (a) it may attract people to the book who wouldn’t otherwise consider it (er, other than those swayed by a Penguin Modern Classic tag), and (b) the introduction is very short.

Siddhartha (1922) was published when Hesse was in his mid-40s, and might unkindly be considered the result of a mid-life crisis. In throwing out explicitly the biggest questions of all – how to live, the purpose of existence, the meaning of happiness – the book risks ridicule, which it courts doubly with its mystical eastern setting. Immediately the reader is thrown into a world of Brahmins and Oms and Govindas, and the cynical-minded have to struggle against making up their own jokes (referring to the glossary, for example, to find that Atman is akin to the soul, and not a superhero who travels by email).

In fact Siddhartha is not nearly so unworldly as it might first appear. Hesse’s eponymous character, the son of a Brahmin (holy man), has a pretty sceptical eye himself:

he would not become an ordinary Brahmin, a lazy sacrificial official, an avaricious dealer in magic sayings, a conceited worthless orator, a wicked sly priest, or just a good stupid sheep amongst a large herd.

Siddhartha feels that “his worthy father and his other teachers, the wise Brahmins, had already passed on to him the bulk and best of their wisdom, that they had already poured the sum total of their knowledge into his waiting vessel; and the vessel was not full, his intellect was not satisfied, his soul was not at peace, his heart was not still.” This acknowledgement of the limitations of what I thought would be the solutions offered in the book is surprising and disarming, as is Hesse’s decision to make Siddhartha not a tiresomely virtuous seeker after truth, but a human with unattractive qualities (as when he shows contempt for others who don’t share his values).

The story follows Siddhartha as he struggles to make sense of his life, follows and rejects various spiritualist practices, embraces materialism and sexual indulgence, and moves toward epiphany and enlightenment. Against expectations, it’s a clear-eyed and plainly written account, without sentimentality. It’s a tribute to Hesse’s ability to embrace without embarrassment the spiritual aspects of the story, and at the same time avoid fortune-cookie philosophising, that each time I returned to this short volume I wanted to make the journey last as long as possible. It even made me feel relaxed and optimistic (though I did read it on holiday … then again holidays are usually stressful, so let that stand).

The question that then arises is how well Siddhartha straddles the line between literature and self-help volume. It’s invariably viewed to some extent as the latter these days, even though when Hesse wrote it eighty years ago, it’s likely that the person he was seeking to help was himself.  I noticed in the bookshops recently that there’s another UK edition, published by Picador, with a very long introduction – at 70 pages, half the length of Siddhartha itself – covering much of Hesse’s life and the writing of the book, which I feel I would probably benefit from reading.  (Coelho’s introduction here, surprise surprise, is mostly about himself.)

Those coming to Siddhartha for spiritual sustenance in fact probably will find content here to ponder (“Was then not all sorrow in time, all self-torment and fear in time? Were not all difficulties and evil in the world conquered as soon as one conquered time, as soon as one dispelled time?”). Furthermore, from a literary point of view it provides a fascinating display of a writer stretching his aims and entering unknown territory, and coming through the struggle on top, or at least with a sense of completeness. And what more enlightenment could one wish for than that?


  1. Cripes, they’ve given Coelho the job of introduction. I doubt very much Hesse would be pleased. Hesse certainly seems to have been shunted into the soft-focus mystical schmistical zone you mention, which is obviously in literary terms a damning with very faint praise, but I think he’s a much better & more formidable writer than considered these days. Just dipping into a book of short pieces, My Belief, which is well worth a place in anyone’s library.

  2. Just to paste a sizable extract from My Belief on Dostoevsky:

    “I said Dostoevsky is not a poet, or he is only a poet in a secondary sense. I called him a prophet. It is difficult to say exactly what a prophet means. It seems to me something like this. A prophet is a sick man, like Dostoevsky, who was an epileptic. A prophet is the sort of sick man who has lost the sound sense of taking care of himself, the sense which is the saving of the efficient citizen. It would not do if there were many such, for the world would go to pieces. This sort of sick man, be he called Dostoevsky or Karamazov, has that strange, occult, godlike faculty, the possibility of which the Asiatic venerates in every maniac. He is a seer and an oracle. A people, a period, a country, a continent has fashioned out of its corpus an organ, a sensory instrument of infinite sensitiveness, a very rare and delicate organ. Other men, thanks to their happiness and health, can never be troubled with this endowment. This sensory instrument, this mantological faculty is not crudely comprehensible like some sort of telepathy or magic, although the gift can also show itself even in such confusing forms. Rather is it that the sick man of this sort interprets the movements of his own soul in terms of the universal and of mankind. Every man has visions, every man has fantasies, every man has dreams. And every vision every dream, every idea and thought of a man, on the road from the unconscious to the conscious, can have a thousand different meanings, of which every one can be right. But the appearances and visions of the seer and the prophet are not his own. The nightmare of visions which oppresses him does not warn him of a personal illness, of a personal death, but of the illness, the death of that corpus whose sensory organ he is, This corpus can be a family, a clan, a people, or it can be all mankind. In the soul of Dostoevsky a certain sickness and sensitiveness to suffering in the bosom of mankind which is otherwise called hysteria, found at once its means of expression and its barometer. Mankind is now on the point of realizing this. Already half Europe, at all events half Eastern Europe, is on the road to Chaos. In a state of drunken illusion she is reeling into the abyss and, as she reels, she sings a drunken hymn such as Dmitri Karamazov sang. The insulted citizen laughs that song to scorn, the saint and seer hear it with tears.

    From an excellent site below. I might, bit I doubt, be doing an injustice to Coelho who I haven’t read, but I doubt it, & I’d guess the above makes clear teh intellectual gulf between the two. Hesse’s brief thoughts on Kafka & ‘understanding’ him are especial proofs of Hesse’s own artistic substance & insight.


  3. I might, but I doubt, be doing an injustice to Coelho who I haven’t read, but I doubt it, & I’d guess the above makes clear teh intellectual gulf between the two.

    I have not read Hesse but have had the misfortune of Coelho, but my impression is that there’s a Mariana Trench between them, Hesse with his depth, and Coelho lazing on the surface, ever so shallow.

  4. Though I could have done Hesse a little favour, Stewart, & paid a moment or two’s attention to the structure of the sentence. I could have done without one of the but I doubts.

  5. I’ve read Hermann Hesse in bits at a young age, but couldn’t like him for my non-spiritual mindset. But hey, how do Penguin link Hermann with Coelho? Cheese and chalk?

  6. Is this an imagined biography of Buddha? Or a tale inspired by Buddha’s story?

    Buddha’s original name was Siddhartha, but he was the son of a King and a warrior, not a Brahmin (holy man)

    Sound’s interesting, I have long had an interest in the spiritual philosophy of India.

    If anyone is interested, an outstanding introduction to Buddhism and the story of Buddha, a very easy to read but very *ahem* enlightening book, is ‘Buddha’ by Karen Armstrong.

  7. It’s a work of fiction, with confusingly Siddhartha someone who meets the original Buddha within the book, but the book odes contain real truth, in an artistic sense, which is I suppose the only reason any ‘religious’ person lasts through time; ie their ability to encapsulate truth within powerful artistic vehicles.

  8. I remember struggling through this in my early 20’s, and, as you mention, I was quite guilty of making up snarky jokes as I went along. This was the last Hesse I ever attempted to read. I have always pictured him as a dour humorless asthete and I have always wondered if lit scholars profess to admire him because they want to appear more intellectual and not because they truly admire his work.

    It seems fitting that Paul Coelho wrote a 70 page intro filled with self-laudation! Har!

  9. I read this book when I was in my teens. I don’t remember much about it.

    In a recent episode of Law and Order: Criminal Intent, a bookish teen developed a cult following the the girls in a small town, by quoting Siddhartha, but not telling the girls that he read it from Hesse’s work. All the girls thought he was a genius and really didn’t want to admit to the police that the bookish teen incited them to murder the shallow boys of the town.

  10. As a bookish teen, I read as much Hesse as I could get my hands on. Some I appreciated, some I did not. Siddhartha fell in this latter category. My favourite, and the only Hesse I have reread since then is Narziss and Goldmund, which covers many of the same themes but in a medieval setting during the time of the plague. The title characters being Narziss, the asthete monk and Goldmund, the hedonistic youth.

    I may revisit Steppenwolf one day.

  11. Thanks for the comments everyone: nice cultural cross-pollination, Isabel! Lizzy, I will look out Narziss and Goldmund (which I’ve never even heard of). I’d like to give Steppenwolf another try myself.

    Chartroose, sorry if I was unclear: Coelho’s introduction is only two pages long (thankfully). The 70 page introduction is in another UK edition, by a Hesse scholar I think. I probably had similar thoughts about Hesse as you in my 20s. Thank heavens we’re so much more mature now! 😉

    Paul, as Andrew suggests (and many thanks Andrew, for your thoughts, and the excellent Hesse quote and information), Siddhartha is fictional but features the Buddha, whom Siddhartha opts not to follow in his pursuit of his individual enlightenment. I’ve heard of Karen Armstrong writing about religions otherwise, and will be interested to look out the Buddha book you mention.

    Mrinal, I think the link was made between Hesse and Coelho probably largely for marketing purposes, plus the superficial conceit that Siddhartha is a sort of self-help book in novel form, like Coelho’s works. As Stewart and Andrew indicate, they have nothing in common otherwise. (One of my favourite bookshop games is to open a Coelho book at random and see how far I can get before laughing.) The About the Author page in this edition also includes a brief biog of Coelho. It ends with the words “He writes a weekly column syndicated worldwide.” If only Hesse had had the foresight to put himself out there like that.

  12. I just reread Steppenwolf and posted about it on my blog. I read Magister Ludi about eighteen years ago and found it sublime. At the time I was reading a lot of eastern mysticism, comparative religion, etc. I found Steppenwolf on second reading not as wonderful but still a very good book. I suppose I should reread the other Hesses but the TBR pile is sooooooooooo tall. I loved Siddhartha but then I read it in college or high school and it was the late sixties so I would have. We all did.

    The wikipedia article on Hesse covers the salient points of his life and is not too long. You might try that. There is a short biography which I have somewhere. Having read wikipedia I think I will eschew the bio.

    I credit Magister Ludi for helping to form my idea of reality and the universe. It has taken me twenty years to do that but I am sticking with it at this point.

  13. The reason I reread Steppenwolf is because I watched Coppola’s film Youth Without Youth and it reminded me of Steppenwolf. I am now reading Eliade’s novella of the same name in an attempt to understand the film better. I have to say the film is one of the most interesting I have ever seen.

  14. My twopenneth … don’t be put off by the size of The Glass Bead Game John! I opened my copy more than a few years ago now (an old Penguin with a dark, cubist painting on the cover as I recall) thinking it would be tough, tough, tough but, y’know, good for me and, in fact, it was an absolute breeze. Highly recommend it if you want to explore further…

  15. I’ll be third in the list to say The Glass Bead Game (Magister Ludi) is an excellent novel. If you read Hesse’s work throughout his writing career you’ll see that, as with all true artists, he is essentially writing the same book over and over. His genius is the many imaginative ways that he postulated his theories of the quest for self.

    Two minor quibbles – humor was very important to Hesse and laughter itself, in GBG, proves to be part of transcendence. Second, Hesse has never been respected by academia – he was resented during the first wave of popularity in the English speaking world in the 60’s as hippie-ish and dismissed as a minor author at best ever since.

    It was the Nobel committee that got it right.


  16. I’ve always kept clear of this particular Hesse, what with the eastern philosophising; – I equate it in my mind with that perhaps false, but much weaker notion of the Hesse of fashionable ideology as praised by ’60s counter-culture.

    Personally, I have a great fondness for Peter Camenzind, Rosshalde and Narziss and Goldmund – perhaps in that order.

  17. Thanks again everyone. Candy, I’ll get myself over to Wikipedia pronto: but I’m ashamed to admit I didn’t realise that Magister Ludi was The Glass Bead Game until Don said so (and thanks for the words on humour and Hesse, Don). I’m glad of the recommendation from such trusted sources, and the UK edition of The Glass Bead Game does keep winking out at me from my local bookshop shelves, so maybe that will be my next one after all. A breeze eh, Mark – I may come back to you on that claim!

    Thanks also obooki; that’s two for Narziss and Goldmund! I think I know where you’re coming from with your aversion to the 60s view of Hesse.

  18. Glass Bead Game the one from his oeuvre I’d choose also. There’s a couple of lesser early to mid career ones, less ‘mystical’ also, worth reading- Rosshalde & particularly Gertrude.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s