This article appeared on The South China Morning Post’s Rewind page
In a sense all books are about silence, which is perhaps one reason why it has long been considered expedient that children take at least a passing interest in them. In the 1960s and 70s, decades after its first publication in 1922, Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha influenced the Beatles and fed into a hippy counterculture that gave off a lot of noise – but there is little point in blaming the water for what grows in the ground: the novel itself, though redolent enough with the German-Swiss author’s own spiritual angst, has a meditative, hushful quality about it in-keeping with its eponymous hero’s search for inner peace, enlightenment and all that sort of thing.
When he wrote Siddhartha, Hesse was living as a semi-recluse and had immersed himself in Hindu and Buddhist scripture in the hope of finding a cure for what he called his “sickness with life”. The result is a version of the bildungsroman – a phrase coined by another German about a century before to refer to novels about difficult young men, more or less – that takes the reader on a walkabout around India in the time of the Buddha and delves rather haphazardly into eastern theology but which must also be read as echoing Hesse’s own quest for self-realisation.
The Siddhartha we meet at the beginning of the novel is a Brahmin’s son who can hold his own in discussion with the wise men of his village and knows “how to say Om silently”. The author does not say as much but he is certainly an unusual boy. Soon he decides to leave his parents and head off in pursuit of nirvana, moshka and various other states of spiritual release the book touches on: first of all by embracing asceticism, which among other bizarre exercises involves occupying the soul of a dead jackal, then later by tasting of a more worldly existence as a trader and lover.
Ultimately, however, it is in quieter rhythms that he discovers “atman”, his true self: by the river, a recurrent symbol of life’s “song”, he meets the ferryman Vaseduva and gains the knowledge he has been seeking from the old man’s “silent love and cheerfulness”.
In the years that followed the First World War – during which Hesse made life difficult for himself by daring to denounce the patriotism he saw as responsible for unleashing hell on earth across Europe – Germany fell into intellectual forment. Hesse was influenced by German romanticism and neo-romanticism, he was intrigued by expressionism, fascinated by the psychoanalytic movement and by orientalism.
And yet, in light of the hell to which -isms would soon return the country it is, in passing, moving to note that Siddhartha effectively renounces the idea of doctrine as a route to harmony. When his old boyhood friend and spiritual accomplice, Govinda, finds him by the river, he wishes to hear what wisdom Siddhartha has finally attained. But the answer is incommunicable – and Siddhartha cannot respond other than with silence.