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Home  >  Reading and Writing  >  Love of Reading
On Rereading Siddhartha
By Nancy Lord

(© 2000 Alaska Quarterly Review Volume 18, Number 1 & 2)

In 1965, after two unhappy school years during which I suffered from uninspired and uninspiring teachers who were, as I put it then -- with all the contemptuousness of a self-assured 13-year-old -- "wasting my time," my parents sent me to a new, private school with small class sizes and a rigorous college-prep curriculum. Who's to say what might have transpired had I not had this privileged option? I tend to think I would have become one of those overly-bright drop-outs who settles for a GED and then does or does not find her way to some level of self-education and intellectual challenge. I tend to think it would not have been an easy passage.

In any case, eighth-grade found me happily ensconced in a school temporarily housed in a downtown Boy's Club, thinking like mad. My brain stretched around Latin and French, mathematical proofs, history as story (in contrast to memorized dates), and the art and wisdom of Shakespeare and Homer and Hesse.


Writer Nancy Lord

I don't know why our English teacher presented us with Hermann Hesse's Siddhartha. The story of a Brahmin's son who goes off to find the meaning of life was not a logical fit for even a private school in a conservative New Hampshire town still largely untouched by the spirit of the 1960s. Other eighth-graders read, I think, books like David Copperfield, The Catcher in the Rye, and To Kill a Mockingbird -- wonderful books, and revolutionary in their own ways, but more standard for the times, more of a piece with the culture in which we were assumed to live . Before being presented with the small paperback, I certainly had never heard of Hesse. None of us, I think, had had any introduction to German writers, Romanticism or Neo-Romanticism, or Eastern religions. We might, barely, have understood something about allegory.

* * *

Thirty-three years later, while browsing in the town library adjacent to a writers' colony where I was "in residence," my eye fell upon a slim blue book, jacketless and worn, with silver letters shining from its spine. I believe in library angels, the what-evers that direct you to shelves and launch books into your hands, that cause pages bearing information you must have but don't know you're looking for to fly open before you. Siddhartha came to me, musty, with rounded corners and a loose binding, with an egg-blue spiral penned by some hipster on its back endpaper. I flipped pages, saw the familiar name Govinda, saw a reference to Buddha and a ferry. The story began to come back.

I checked out the book, took it to my writers' colony room, sat in an armchair under good light, and read it through, as an old, bifocaled woman of 46 years. I was significantly older than my teacher would have been when he chose it as a text. I was as old as my parents had been when I studied Siddhartha under their sheltering roof. I was, I saw, when I looked up Hesse's birthdate, already a year older than Hesse had been when Siddhartha was first published.

I often reread books. I've returned to Moby Dick, The Scarlet Letter, Lolita, finding them richer in repetition. I regularly reread Chekhov's "The Lady with the Dog," Thurber's "The Catbird Seat," and Welty's "The Worn Path," bolstered each time by their power and beauty. But I had not read Siddhartha,or anything else by Hermann Hesse, since that heady high-school time of intellectual and self discovery, when I had begun with Siddhartha and read, as though I was sucking up oxygen, a steady flow of Hesse's novels. Those books belonged to a time I wasn't sure I wanted to disturb. But I was curious, too. I wanted to know if Siddhartha was a good book. I wanted to know if it had, as I suspected was possible, changed my life.

* * *

My eighth-grade English teacher was a man named Jack Coogan -- Mr. Coogan to us. He smoked a pipe and somehow -- in his bearing and his passions for literature, for the task of teaching, and even, it seemed, for those of us who fell under his charge -- commanded our respect. I think of him as old, although he was not. He had young children then and has only recently retired from teaching.

In a school as small as ours, the English "department" consisted of Mr. Coogan and perhaps one or two others. Thus it was that I studied English, literature, writing, and various related electives under the same Mr. Coogan for most of my high school years. My memory mixes and mashes, but I do recall with fondness an early text called Sound & Sense, discovering the playful poetry of e. e. cummings, acting out scenes from Arthur Miller's The Crucible. That eighth-grade year, I remember such a small thing as learning to mark passages in books that were not school district property but my own to annotate and love. In a short story anthology, I had used a ruler to neatly underline sentences and whole paragraphs that seemed to me to hold particular significance; I'd circled every unfamiliar word and printed its definition at the bottom of its page. Mr. Coogan sat with me one day and told me to forget ruler and precision. He demonstrated through several pages, roughly bracketing passages, scribbling key words, leaving questions to return to. I learned, in that five-minute tutorial, how to be an active, critical, free-wheeling reader.

Somewhere in those years I remember Mr. Coogan challenging us with the question, Does reading constitute experience? Can you be affected by something you read in the same way or to the same end as you might be by actual flesh-and-blood experience? I don't remember any of us taking him up on the challenge, but I do remember him asking the question more than once and looking frustrated when he couldn't get an argument out of us, either way. By then it must have been the late '60s, and we must, as a class, have fallen into the pessimism of the age and of our own teen-age madness.

I would not, myself, have responded. Those years, for reasons I don't yet and probably will never understand, I was practically mute in class. Speaking in groups did not come naturally from me, and, though I knew I should make the effort, I simply didn't. I think this was not a matter of self-confidence, as the disparity between male and female class participation is commonly explained today, but something deeper. I did not fear I would say something stupid, because I knew I was not stupid. I was thinking all the time, taking in what I read and heard and ordering it for my own uses, but I did not feel obliged to project my thoughts into the classroom. I submitted superior analytical papers and creative work, but I did not speak. I think, perhaps, I was preparing to be a writer, though I didn't know then that I even wanted to be one.

These days, when I stand in front of students and talk, I don't know where that ability comes from, or when it came to me. Very often, there's one (usually female) student listening quietly, and I'm torn between wanting her to speak -- because that makes the teacher's work easier -- and respecting her silence.

In my armchair at the writers' colony, I read:

"In the shade of the house, in the sunshine on the river bank by the boats, in the shade of the sallow wood and the fig tree, Siddhartha, the handsome Brahmin's son, grew up with his friend Govinda."

These words fell upon me with a great, good, heart-warming sense of familiarity. They are simple words, scented with exotic promise, entering the world with rhythmic ease. They were familiar not because I remembered them -- a passage I might once have underlined -- but because I have long since internalized the simplicity of that language and the serial phrasing that makes for such lyrical, rolling, grace. In my writerly dreams, I would write like this.

The story, for those who will not have read or remembered it, follows the young Siddhartha from his departure from home (where he bests his father in a test of wills -- ahoo!), through his years wandering with a band of ascetics (rejecting all material comfort) to his meeting with Buddha (whom he declines to follow, although his friend Govinda does) and his entry into the world of sexual pleasure, business, money, and possessions, to his flight from that empty life (despair, suicidal thoughts) to a river where he meets an enlightened ferryman who teaches him to listen to the river and whom he then joins in that simple life, from which he is eventually jostled by the appearance of the son (begat with his courtesan-lover during his profligate days) whom he fails, despite his new-found capacity to love, to win over. In the end, Siddhartha, a wise and maybe holy old man, again meets with his friend Govinda, to whom he displays his saintliness but, pointedly, imparts no doctrine.

It was clear to me, rereading Siddhartha, why the story appealed to me so much in my youth. Didn't I also resist the values of my family and what I saw as the smallness of the lives surrounding me, and didn't I also yearn to head out on my own, to live a life of spiritual awareness and intellectual mindfulness?

Although for a time Siddhartha gave in to the seductions of material culture and the unthinking people who were like children, he recovered from that and found his way again by listening to the river. I knew how to listen to rivers; I knew that Nature was the only God worth listening to. Raised in the Protestant Church, I disliked the way that Christianity (and all other religions of which I knew) forced upon its believers "thou shalt not" laws, rather than encouraging independent thought or allowing for ambiguity.

Love was hard, Siddhartha learned, and came paired with pain. I could accept that, as I could wonder with the young Siddhartha whether I was even capable of love.

Listen to the river. Listen to yourself. No one else--not parents, not teachers, not best friends, not even the great Buddha himself -- has answers for you. What you need in life will not be taught but must be learned, and learning comes from the active pursuit of knowledge, of oneself and of the world.

What a message to impart to restless, eager, arrogantly doubting teen-agers! How had this small, translated-from-the-German fairytale of a book, written in the ancient year of 1922 by the son of Pietistic Lutheran missionaries, a school drop-out, a failed suicide, a Jungian, and a poet, come to my classroom and to the hearts and minds of so many rebellious or reflective children of the 1960s? Although I didn't know it then, Siddhartha was being discovered and embraced by young people all across the country; it was or would become a "classic" of the age. We '60s children were all, it seemed -- like Siddhartha -- the ultimate outsiders.

Then, though, my context was small. In the self-absorbed fashion of 13-year-olds, I felt that my response, what the book meant to me, was everything. I'm sure Mr. Coogan must have talked to us about Hesse and the tradition of German Romanticism, about Hinduism and Buddhism, and about narrative, allegory, myth-making, and the literature of questing. Surely we looked at the construction of the story, at symbols, and at the lovely, lilting prose, the simple language that, nevertheless, conveyed large ideas. Surely we wrote papers on some aspect or another. I remember none of this.

What I remember is the feeling, the sense the book instilled in me, that there was beauty in language and strength in ideas, however fictional might be their cloak. I could immerse myself in text and feel at home there, in a world that was bigger and more promising and Other than anything I'd yet met. I was affirmed in the present by something that dwelt in foreign lands and times of old, something that, even so, seemed to explain me.

Siddhartha "looked around him as if seeing the world for the first time." Siddhartha listened to the river and understood how everything flowed together. Siddhartha saw that people were like falling leaves, except for the few who were like stars traveling one defined path, untouched by wind, with their guide and path within. I had had those moments. Yes, I identified. I would not be a falling leaf.

I reached the part, in my rereading, about Kamala, the beautiful courtesan. I read of her "bright red mouth like a freshly cut fig," and I remembered the simile as though I'd written it myself. I think in fact I did write it. A vague recollection came back to me, of choosing Kamala for a writing assignment, beginning with her fig lips and writing her life as she, not Siddhartha, might have known it. I hadn't identified with Kamala, I think, as I had with Siddhartha, but I had liked the power she wielded as a woman. She was not the toy of slobby men, not inferior, not victim, but a courtesan who chose her lovers and practiced with and upon them a high art. That I knew nothing first-hand of sex had not, I think, detracted from my appreciation of sexual power.

* * *

This may have been the reason Siddhartha had wanted to spring at me from a library shelf:

A few months earlier, a close friend from my high school years -- of whom I'd had no news at all in the intervening decades -- found me on the Internet. His e-mail subject line, "This was not written by Hermann Hesse," had sent blood pounding into my head. I was no longer a Hessophile, had not thought about any of Hesse's characters or themes in I didn't know how long. I'd certainly thought of my friend from time to time, but I had completely forgotten, until Hesse's name appeared before me in twelve-point font, that I had insisted he read Siddhartha and Steppenwolf and I don't know what-all else.

At that time of my life, I had collected and shared everything I could find by Hesse. The titles, if not the storylines, still roll off my tongue:The Glass Bead Game, Narcissus and Goldmund, Demian, Beneath the Wheel, Rosshalde, Klingsor's Last Summer, The Journey to the East. I had worked studiously through at least one book of Hessian criticism -- not for any class, but in my own pursuit of knowledge.

When I was a high school junior or senior, on the last day of school, I remember pawing through piles of books and papers students had flung from their lockers, collecting the copies of Siddhartha left behind by that year's eighth-graders. I was offended by their abandonment and the state of their torn pages and defaced covers, and I rescued what I could in the belief that they should find better appreciation elsewhere. I passed them on to those who needed them, just as evangelicals pressed their tracts upon those they would save.

When my friend thought of me all these years later, he thought of Hesse. I must have been fanatical.

* * *

After Kamala, after his business and gambling ventures, Siddhartha came once again to the river. The river spoke to him with the perfect sound of Om, and he embraced the world afresh, with the innocence of a child.

"He looked lovingly into the flowing water, into the transparent green, into the crystal lines of its wonderful design. He saw bright pearls rise from the depths, bubbles swimming on the mirror, sky blue reflected in them. . . . He saw that the river continually flowed and flowed and yet it was always there; it was always the same and yet every moment it was new. Who could understand, conceive this? He did not understand it; he was only aware of a dim suspicion, a faint memory, divine voices."

I remembered, well enough, going into the world under this influence. Consciously, I accepted what I found there, as a child would. (The fact that I was still largely a child perhaps escaped me.)

Here's what I want to know, though: To what extent did Siddhartha influence me philosophically, and to what extent did it simply match my own affinity? Clearly, I was predisposed to hear the message. Otherwise Siddhartha would long ago have washed through the sieve of my memory like so much else I read at the time. We made a pair, that book and I. And not only content-wise. Lean prose is much my own style, and lyricism my ideal. But how much is influence, how much convergence?

At the least, there is something to be said for validation. It's always a pleasure to find the questionable workings of your own mind reinforced. At age thirteen, when you fear you might be the only out-of-step dancer in the universe, that affirmation can be a soul-saver. I needed what Siddhartha delivered -- a bolstering of my idea of myself and the life worth living, life that involved intellect and art and living close to nature, as simply and usefully as ferrymen.

As luck would have it, the library angels visited me once more, and delivered to my hands Hesse's own answer to the question of influence. In Reflections, a hagiological book of Hesse quotations, I found this under Books and Reading: "Our inner compass is deflected by every book we read; every outside mind shows us from how many other points of view the world can be considered. Then the oscillation gradually dies down, and the needle returns to its old orientation, inherent in the nature of each one of us."

Except, I think -- to extend the metaphor -- sometimes, when we strike metals that have for us the right magnetic charge, our inner compass might forever be moved by a degree or two. Siddhartha, as one work of art that carried that particular charge for me, taught me about ways of seeing, the value of patience, the importance of rightly chosen words and artful phrasings. These were wrapped up together, sound and sense, forming an aesthetic that before or after, egg or chicken, was and became and is my own.

* * *

At dinner at the writing colony, I asked my fellow residents, "Did you ever read Siddhartha?" Most had -- several with enthusiasm, none with less than a general if vague fondness. Those older than I had come to the little book in their twenties, glad for its spiritual steadiness; the youngest among us, thirty-something, had read it, like me, as an eighth-grade assignment. I hadn't realized quite how cultishly popular, how much a part of the larger culture, Siddhartha had been. I was, maybe, disappointed -- because, wasn't I really different?

Did anyone still read Hesse? Except for one woman who periodically returned to Demian, none of us did; we agreed he seemed to have fallen from fashion. I, despite my one-time devotion, had obviously not made a career out of Hessian scholarship, had never even made much of an exploration into related matters -- Eastern religions, for example, or Jungian psychology. After high school, the doors to learning had swung so wide for me, I'd spread myself with what might have seemed a random scrabbling, one enthusiasm leading to the next. I didn't much, in the ensuing years, come across references to Hesse, and I don't recall ever engaging in conversation about him or his works. I had not recently witnessed any young people trotting past with Steppenwolf clutched to their chests.

There is one sure way to test trends, and the next day I made my way onto the Internet. A Siddhartha search led to sites belonging to a Siddhartha School, on-line bookstores from which Siddhartha could be ordered, and real-life people named Siddhartha. A Hermann Hesse search found a Web magazine published at the University of California at Santa Barbara, the primary purpose of which is to list Hesse events taking place around the world -- a conference on Romanticism, an exhibit of Hesse's watercolor paintings, the meeting schedule of a Japanese club that studies German literature.

At I found 128 items by and about the man, including Siddhartha on audio cassette, a 1997 biography (Hermann Hesse: Pilgrim of Crisis) and a 1998 book of criticism (Understanding Hermann Hesse: The Man, His Myth, His Metaphor). There was, even now, a Hesse industry. I had a fleeting vision of middle-aged corporate commuters pushing Siddhartha into their SUV tape players for a ride into the countryside.

I looked to see how well Siddhartha, the book, was selling. The sales rank was 3,581. Not bad, I thought. Sixty-two customers had posted reviews and given it an average grade of four-and-a-half stars. I browsed the most recently posted reviews.

From California: "Much better than I'd thought it'd be. I had to read this book for my 9th grade English class. Although the premise was a little confusing, I liked how it showed all of the facets of a balanced life, in Hesse's opinion. I had recently thought of myself as a horrible person, because I tend to think about things differently than other people, but this book changed my opinion of myself for a few hours. I recommend this book to anyone who has a lot of time on their hands, and wants to ponder the meaning of life."

From Japan: "This is the first book I fell in love with."

From Idaho: "This book is great! You could really learn a lot from this book. The journey is so symbolic and the transcendental references are outstanding!"

From New Zealand: "It has given my life a spiritual lift and has really changed my tone of thought."

Young people were reading Siddhartha. Not as many as were reading The Catcher in the Rye (ranked at 219, with 364 posted reviews), but what seemed to me a significant number, significantly moved. I felt truly and deeply cheered.

In the end, when Siddhartha and Govinda are reunited, Siddhartha picks up a stone.

"This," he said, handling it, "is a stone, and within a certain length of time it will perhaps be soil and from the soil it will become plant, animal or man . . . I do not respect and love it because it was one thing and will become something else, but because it has already long been everything and always is everything. I love it just because it is a stone, because today and now it appears to me a stone. I see value and meaning in each one of its fine markings and cavities, in the yellow, in the gray, in the hardness and the sound of it when I knock it, in the dryness or dampness of its surface . . . But I will say no more about it. Words do not express thoughts very well. They always become a little different; immediately they are expressed, a little distorted, a little foolish. And yet it also pleases me and seems right that what is of value and wisdom to one man seems nonsense to another."

This little speech does not, in my middle-age, so late in this tangled century, seem to me either simplistic or juvenile. To me, it makes great good sense, respectful of the earth and all its mysteries, including the minds of other people. I've become -- or perhaps always was -- a great fondler of stones, as happy as Siddhartha with the way they feel in my hands and how the light shines upon them. I'm less accepting, I know, of those who would see nonsense where I see value, but then, I'm not as wise (yet) as I might still become.

* * *

Mr. Coogan, clever teacher that he was, wanted us to think about literature as life experience, about how what we read might influence our lives. Does reading constitute experience? Might what happens between book and mind compare to what happens between a more direct sensory acquaintance with the world and that same mind?

All these years later, I'm still thinking this over. Reading about getting hit by a truck is not, of course, the same as getting hit by a truck. But we all -- those of us who read -- know about the fabulous entry books give us into other minds, times, cultures, layers of experience we could never, whether we wanted to go there in person or not, be otherwise allowed. Some of these slip away from us rather quickly, like dreams, into unconsciousness or oblivion. Others resonate for a good long time.

As the young Californian reported on the Internet, Siddhartha changed his opinion of himself for a few hours. That, I suppose, is a long time in our fast-paced '90s.

I'm convinced that the right books catch us, as the right teachers and friends do, at the right, ready, needy moments in our lives. We may need to hear from Jo in Little Women, or from The Little Engine That Could, from Holden Caulfield or the Karamazov brothers or the brain of Anais Nin. When the books come to us, we recognize them. Once met, they stay with us forever, whether we know it or not, in the deepest determinations of who we are and how we respond to the rest of what life brings us.

I think about Mr. Coogan's question, and it is like a Zen koan, a question with no logical solution. The answer is not an answer at all but a meditation. I may or may not have begun to learn this from Hesse/Siddhartha in the eighth grade, but I continue to learn it every day of my life: this, that what's worth seeking isn't answers, but questions. I trust more than anything that the art of living, like the art of writing, lies in the framing of questions and in their turning, again and again, like stones in our hands, all through our thinking lives.

The photo of Nancy Lord is by Linda Smoger

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About the Author: Nancy Lord is an Alaskan whose books include Green Alaska: Dreams from the Far Coast, Fishcamp, and two short story collections. She is a commercial fisherman and a regular commentator for National Public Radio's "Living on Earth."

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