Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse

Book 1 of 100 on the Great American Read list.

(In which I begin this endeavor with something I know very little about.)

When I first came to America ten years ago, I worked for a charming neighborhood bookstore in San Francisco. Over time I started to know which authors were popular and which classic books sold well. What I couldn’t figure out was why a book by a prominent Third Reich Nazi was such a popular title.  So I googled “Siddhartha Hesse” and discovered that Rudolf Hess and Hermann Hesse were NOT the same person.

And while I’m sharing embarrassing misconceptions. I always thought this was a book about Buddha in his youth, when he was Prince Siddhartha. Turns out I had that wrong too.

It’s actually the story of a lifetime’s spiritual journey, undertaken by a man named Siddhartha. It begins with Siddhartha as a boy learning Hindu teachings and rituals with his Brahman father, then he hitches a wild ride with the aesthetics as a traveling pilgrim, giving all that up for a rich life of sex and money and finally finding peace in a simple middle way as a ferryman who listens to and understands the river. Along the way he often interacts with his best friend from boyhood Govinda and tangles with Buddha himself.

Is it any good? Yeah, it’s alright. It’s stacked high with flowery imagery and as a fictionalization of a religious ideology it does a great job getting across the central idea of Buddhism that the enlightened must live in the world, without becoming consumed by it. It’s also got some good sexy bits in it.

Why do I think it’s on the list? Well, it’s definitely a favorite for AP World Literature lists and I think that’s important. High school students with their futures ahead of them might read this and identify with the protagonist who searches for spiritual answers while he also searches for a physical place in the world. I understand why this would leave a lasting impression on students.

There are some obvious cultural issues here which I can’t ignore. Siddhartha is a work of fiction based on teachings and legends from the Buddhist religion, but it was written by a white European author. Religious texts are not included in the Great American Read list, otherwise perhaps we’d see The Sutras or The Bhagavad Gita in this list. But this is the only example of Eastern philosophy on the list and it isn’t written by someone native to that culture. I think Siddhartha is an excellent example of Orientalism, a long-standing tradition in the West to use Eastern culture as inspiration, in a mostly patronizing way.

A more generous interpretation is that Siddhartha makes Eastern philosophy accessible to Westerners, particularly Americans, because the book is vastly more popular in the US than in the UK. There are only 16 editions of Siddhartha available on Amazon in the UK, but 35 in the US (normally there are similar numbers of editions published in the two countries). I think this popularity can be explained by the American inclination toward religion and self-determination.

According to the Pew Research Center 3% of Americans identify as Atheist and although new research shows that the actual figure may be higher, it’s still lower than the roughly 50% of non-believers in the UK. I think it must be difficult to be an American atheist. Perhaps Westernized Buddhism as described in Siddhartha serves as an actual middle way between organized religion and nothing. Mindfulness and meditation are incredibly popular and can be arranged into a loose set of philosophies to attract those who want to be spiritual (because spirituality is important in America), but want to determine their own path to enlightenment (because self-sufficiency is also a key American character trait).

I might be making this too complicated, so here’s something simple Siddhartha sells in California. It promotes the idea of self-discovery through experience of life and nature, which aligns happily with the hippy and surfer cultures for which California is famous.


  1. I suggest you follow up with Narziss und Goldmund when you have time. More accessible, less cultural baggage (medieval European Christian thought); made a huge impression on me and my world view at 17.

    1. I've got 99 more books to read first! Cool recommendation though.