Welcome to the first of the online book discussions of Brooklyn Book Talk. Various BPL librarians will lead these discussions, and each month will feature a new title chosen by a different librarian. The titles can range from classics to contemporary fiction, drama and non-fiction. We are hoping that you will find these discussions entertaining and educational.
Our first selection is Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha.
When we read a book, we establish a complex interaction among the author, the book, and ourselves. We ask questions, project meanings, experience emotions, and make inferences. The kind of reading experience we end up with will largely depend on what we ourselves bring to the reading process in the beginning. To make our discussions of Siddhartha richer and more meaningful, we will approach the text from diverse but relevant literary perspectives including formalist, biographical, mythological, historical, psychological, cultural, gender, deconstructionist, and reader-response criticisms. We will attempt to evaluate the emergent insights in the light of reason and evidence supported by the text and the context.
The author, the reader, the text and the context are intertwined in a complex unique unity. This is especially true for Siddhartha as it crosses cultures, philosophies and sensibilities. Hesse fittingly termed his works “biographies of the soul” and “inward journeys” in search of one’s true identity.
We shall begin exploring the many meanings of the novel with an advance acknowledgment of the enduring enigmas of life, world and consciousness and their mysterious possibilities and potentials. As the contemporary novelist Milan Kundera said, “A novel examines not reality but existence. And existence is not what has occurred, existence is the realm of human possibilities, everything that man can become, everything he’s capable of. Novelists draw up the map of existence by discovering this or that human possibility.”
Hesse conceived of Siddhartha in 1911 following an extended visit to India in search of the fulfillment that he believed Oriental philosophies could offer. The novel’s youthful protagonist, Siddhartha, is an exceptionally bright, inquisitive yet skeptical Brahmin, a member of the highest caste in Hinduism, who seemingly has a secure and comfortable existence but feels emotionally dissatisfied and spiritually hollow. In due course, he courageously renounces his life of Hindu ritual and embarks on a personal search for the ultimate meaning of life.
Along the way he embraces various philosophies and practices. But, even meeting the Buddha did not convince him of the doctrine of salvation from suffering. Siddhartha reminds the Buddha of his own quest for enlightenment, stating, "You have done so by your own seeking, in your own way, through thought, through meditation, through knowledge, through enlightenment. You have learnt nothing through teaching, and so I think, O Illustrious One, no one, nobody finds salvation through teaching. To nobody, O Illustrious One, can you communicate in words and teachings, what happened to you in the hour of your enlightenment."
Nonetheless, Siddhartha’s search for ultimate meaning remained intact but he could not find what he sought as he perceptively observed the consequences of practicing different philosophies on his being and consciousness.
Disillusioned that all these paths failed, Siddhartha becomes a simple quiet ferryman but he never ceases to look for the symbols of meaning that surround his existence. During repeated crossings of the river and relentless introspection, he reaches his own “hour of enlightenment” which even the Buddha could not describe to him. Hence Hesse’s honored insight: “Every man is more than just himself; he also represents the unique, the very special and always significant and remarkable point at which the world's phenomena intersect, only once in this way, and never again.”
Some possible discussion questions:
The following questions can be combined to explore Siddhartha from several perspectives. You can engage perspectives which most resonate with you.
In what way are the facts about Hesse's life relevant to the understanding of Siddhartha?
Do any of the known myths and archetypes of any culture shed light on the text?
How do you think your own historical moment affects your reading of the work?
How does the work challenge or affirm your own ideas of psychological and spiritual growth?