Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Adventure classics -- Cosmic road trip to enlightenment


by Hermann Hesse


Considering the history of psychological novels, “the problem, for writers and readers alike, with all this inward gazing is how few of us ever gaze in far enough to justify the strain,” novelist/journalist Tom Robbins writes in his introduction to a 2006 translation of Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha. “One of the very rare Western authors not only to plumb those arcane depths but to do so in a narratively entertaining, stylistically engaging fashions . . . was Hermann Hesse.”

Certainly, among the alluring paperbacks that tempted me from study in college bookstores, Hesse ruled. More serious classmates preferred Joyce, Mann, Dostoevsky. But really, what kind of cover artists did those guys have? Gloom and doomy ones, that’s what, while Hesse got colorful, sexy, psychedelic covers. Not to mention his works were usually shorter and snappier than the other guys’.

Nowadays, of course, we don’t choose books for their covers. In fact, they’re probably electronic and don’t even need to worry about such things, although as soon as I saw the cover image for the Sanskrit translation that illustrates this post, I had to have it! The time we don’t spend lingering over a sexy cover, is only more time to revel in the sweet anguish of Hesse’s seeker, Siddhartha, his boyhood companion, Govinda, and the teachings of the beautiful courtesan Kamala, she of the “bright red mouth like a fig split in two,” an image more alluring than any starlet’s spuriously wanton selfie.

“In the parlance of cinema,” Robbins writes, “Siddhartha would qualify as a ‘road movie.’” Its hero travels across Hesse’s imagined India of the fifth century B.C. E. seeking enlightenment from an assortment of priests, prophets, sinners and ordinary people, imagining wisdom within his grasp, only to find it eluding him.

After achieving early popularity as a novelist before World War I, Hesse endured changes in fortune that eclipse even Siddhartha’s. An outspoken pacifist, he devoted himself to relief work during the war, alienating the German public that had previously bought his books. His father died, his wife had bouts of schizophrenia, and he himself suffered a nervous breakdown that caused him to seek relief through psychoanalysis, leading him to believe that “the true profession of man is to find his way himself.”

And so in 1922, Hesse wrote of Siddhartha turning his back on all teaching and doctrine, seeking his own way to enlightenment. “Finally,” Robbins notes, “the seeker even rejects seeking, concluding that ultimate reality can never be captured in a net made of thought, and that ‘knowing has no worse enemy than the desire to know.’”

Grim? Not nearly as much as in, for instance, Hesse’s later Steppenwolf (written after the breakup of his second marriage). For the wisest of Hesse’s characters in Siddhartha are those who smile gaily, who find the joys of life as full of reality as its suffering. And who laugh.

“Here now is a bit of doctrine that will make you laugh,“ Siddhartha tells Govinda at last. “To see through the world, to explain it, to scorn it--this may be the business of great thinkers. But what interests me is being able to love the world. . . To look at it and myself and all beings with love and admiration and reverence.”

Hesse’s work is all over the internet, but if you can, try Susan Bernofsky’s lyrical English translation from Random House’s Modern Library Edition. And savor both Hesse’s words and Tom Robbins’s witty and loving introduction.

(Next Wednesday, Adventure classics continues a December of spirited adventures with Madeleine L’Engle’s mid-century American family road trip, The Moon by Night.)

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