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Herman Hesse is one of the world?s most necessary writers. Until winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1946, however, he was virtually unknown outside of German speaking countries. Since then he has been an icon for the young every where because of his ability to communicate the same struggles that many aspiring students face. Many of his characters (often sharing his initials, i.e. Harry Haller of Steppenwolf) struggle within a world that seeks to extinguish individual creativity.
Born in 1877 to a Protestant family in southern Germany, Hesse from the beginning was a square peg trying to fit into a round hole. Perhaps it should be noted that his goal was to be a well-rounded person, finding it difficult to fit into the square confines of his culture. According to biographies, Hesse admits that he was adamant about becoming a poet from an early age- twelve to be exact. While at school, he discovered that curriculums at home and abroad are not designed to nurture poets the same way they are for more practical professions such as doctors and scientists. In fact, one of the earliest of his works, Beneath the Wheel , depicts his own rebellion against such a system, which he sees as lethal to the soul that does not yield.
At the age of seventeen, frustrated with life, he ran away and after brief encounters with local police, landed a job as a bookkeeper?s apprentice. Hesse spent four years struggling to remain focused, and eventually began to be published. After brief success with short stories and poetry, he married a woman and fathered three children, but became even more discontent with his place in life. In 1911, this sparked his journey to a place that always held great mystery and intrigue to him- India. Forever a believer in the ancient wisdom of the East, Hesse sought answers to his own life, which are often reflected in his works. The Orient had always represented an ideal in his mind, and his time spent there gave birth to one of his most noteworthy achievements, the short novel, Sidhartha.
Among Herman Hesse?s other famous novels are Demian, Steppenwolf and Narcissus and Goldmund. Like the title character in Sidhartha, the characters of his works center around people who do not readily fit into society and their struggle to define themselves and the world around them.
As noted previously, Sidhartha is the result of an extended visit to India where Hesse sought piece of mind he believed could only be found in Eastern traditions. Many of his characters also seek spiritual resolution to the problems that they face. These problems usually are the result of being free thinkers or more importantly having the ability to think outside the confines that their society imposes especially conformity. Conformity in learning was Hesse?s main qualm, upset with the way ?learning? was actually the memorization of facts or gaining the ability to think as the ?teacher? thought.
While the traditional story of the Buddha is about the nobleman, Sidhartha, who rejects material possessions after being denied the experience of suffering from his family, Hesse?s take on the story has been noted as being a more western-accessible version. Hesse?s Sidhartha seeks the original Bodhisatva (Buddha) and other spiritual teachers of India. The original story finds Sidhartha actually becoming the first to be enlightened and named Buddha. This is interesting because of the ability of Hinduism (the birth place of Buddhism) to remain idle, and not center around any historical events; allowing the altering the format of it?s written teachings without losing the impact of their meaning or depth.
Besides the author?s internal struggles, another factor to consider in the writing of Sidhartha was turmoil in the rest of the world. Sidhartha was conceived in the chaotic years preceding World War I, and this period of tension due to history making decisions is exemplified by the story?s theme of choosing the correct ethics in which to live by. Eternally opposed to war, Hesse reflects the proverbial seeker as one who is overwhelmed by the turbulence of the world and turns inwardly for the solution.
As mentioned previously, the themes from one of Hesse?s novels is sure to be found in another. Sidhartha is similar to Demian in this respect concerning the development of spirit and primarily the quest for truth. Both Sidhartha and Demain find their main characters discovering that truth ?cannot be obtained from teachers, but only personal experience. (Anslem, p.358)?
Sidhartha has a common thread with Narcissus and Goldmund as well. In both stories, the main character has a life long companion who shares interest in the quest for absolute truth and understanding. In both journeys, the two separate and reunite often, each taking a different approach to enlightenment. Here Hesse is able to present the spectra of choices to spiritual development at different times of the character?s experience while avoiding judgement or losing focus of the ultimate goal. The two go through nobility and poverty and back again (similar to Greek tragedy) without achieving an all-encompassing truth.
Sidhartha, the well off son of a Brahmin (the highest class in Indian society), is not satisfied with his life at home. He lacks the faith in traditional rituals and only concentrates on the ever widening gap between Dogma and reality. He seeks to deny physical and material wealth and dedicates himself to the monistic lifestyle of a Samana. This only brings him ? a flight from self, a temporary palliative against the pain and folly of life?(Beerman, p.200)?.
Hearing that there is one who exists with knowledge of everything, he seeks Guatama- the Buddha. He travels with the Buddha although he remains doubtful he will find it to be his final destination.
The Buddha does satisfy his logical needs, but leaves him longing for metaphysical relief. He recognizes Buddha?s experience as more profound than any other, but does not accept it as his own, and searches for his own personal awakening.
It is then he realizes that he has been searching for a way to change his being instead of unifying it with his spirit, where upon he returns to his sensual characteristics. He spends a great deal of time in his old world of excess and eventually becomes disgusted with it again and wanderlust sets in once more. On the verge of suicide he remembers the Brahmin teachings of his youth. Reflecting on the invincibility of the life essence and the divinity all around him he begins to understand that love and devotion is the only thing that can save him from himself. His new belief is ?to have one?s heart absorbed in love brings us to unity with all creatures and unravels the mystery of the universe (Beerman, p 200)?.
While he has achieved this piece of mind, he lacks perfection. At this time he discovers he has a son born from his years of sensual abundance. His imperfection has a chance of erasing itself, but his one-sided and focused love drives his son away, causing Sidhartha the highest suffering. Through this loss he is able to find absolute love and perfection and most importantly peace in the world.
He no longer saw his friend Sidhartha. Instead he saw other faces, many faces, a long series, a continuous stream of 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 Sidhartha. He saw the face of a fish, of a carp, with tremendous painfully opened mouth, a dying fish with dimmed eyes. He saw the face a newly born child, red and full of wrinkles and ready to cry. He saw the face of a murderer, saw him plunge a knife into the body of a man; at the same moment he saw this criminal kneeling down, bound, and his head cut off by an executioner. He saw the naked bodies of men and women in the postures and transports of passionate love. He saw corpses stretched out, still, cold, empty. He saw the heads of animals-boars, crocodiles, elephants, oxen, birds. He saw Krishna and Agni. He saw all these forms and faces in a thousand relationships to each other, all helping each other, loving, hating, and destroying each other and become newly born. Each one was mortal, a passionate, painful example of all that is transitory. Yet none of them died, they only changed, were always reborn, continually had a new face?
This is an excellent passage to illustrate the ultimate understanding that many of Hesse?s characters achieve. Sidhartha, himself, finds the world and the spirit unending and forever in change, and with this knowledge he is able to accept things the way they simply are. The faces that Govinda sees before he passes away represent the different stages, whether symbolically or literally, that he has seen his friend undergo in his life. It is my belief that these faces represent the ?Everyman? concept and that eventually it shall be the way that many of us view the world after enough experience with it.
It is widely accepted among critics of Hesse that his meaningfulness among young people is largely due to his ability to show them the way they view the world and the way they will soon come to view the world without being patronizing about it. Hesse also lacks the forcefulness that many other writers tend to have in regards to his message. Rudolf Koester writes, ? Hesse?s ?individual? has no desire to impose his will on others. These individuals do not contribute to human betterment?by using humanity as raw material for their autonomous wills, but they contribute by their mere existence?
Hesse counsels against the common ideals and standards of achievement. Because each of our destinies is unique, there can be no one way of being gauged by another?s. He felt that one should be subjective when deciding the worth of an individual and their potential.
In conclusion, I will quote Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. with his ideas of why even today the youth of America have such an affinity for his work, ? Hesse is no black humorist. Black humorists? holy wanderers find nothing but junk and lies and idiocy wherever they go? Not so with the wanderers of Hesse; they always find something satisfying- holiness, wisdom, hope (p. 209).? It is a great accomplishment to capture the spirit of the young seekers of truth and knowledge in a tumultuous world, it is an even greater accomplishment to present with a fair and optimistic conclusion.
Felix Anslem, ?Herman Hesse? in Poet Lore (copyright 1947 by Poet Lore, Inc) Vol. LIII, No. 4, Winter, 1947, pp. 353-60
Hans Beerman, ?Herman Hesse & The ?Bhagavad Gita?? in Midwest Quarterly (copyright 1959 by Midwest Quarterly, Pittsburgh State University) Vol. I, No.1, October pp. 27-40
Herman Hesse, ?Sidhartha?, Copyright 1951 by New Directions Publishing Corporation, New York, New York.
Rudolf Koester, ?Self-Realization: Hesse?s Reflections on Youth? in Monashefte (copyright 1965 by the Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System). Vol. 57, No.4, April-May, 1965. Pp. 181-86
Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., ?Why They Read Hesse? Wampeters Foma &Granfallons (copyright 1974: reprinted with permission of Delecorte Press/Seymour Lawrence). Delacorte Press, 1974. Pp. 107-115
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