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A classic, reincarnated

July 16, 2006|David L. Ulin

HERMANN HESSE'S novel "Siddhartha" (Modern Library: 130 pp., $16.95) is a countercultural icon, a totem of youth in revolt. First published in 1922, this fable about a contemporary of the Buddha struck a chord in the 1960s among a generation alienated by the affectations of the middle class.

For them, Hesse's Siddhartha was a role model, a wealthy Brahmin who turned his back on privilege to become a Samana, or wandering ascetic, then gave up that path as well to pursue a destiny uniquely his own. Subtitled "An Indian Poem," the novel -- which has just been reissued in a luminous new translation by Susan Bernofsky, with an introduction by novelist Tom Robbins -- is perhaps best read as a kind of allegory, a parable of the examined life.

Although Hesse won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1946, he has often been dismissed as a gateway writer, one whose work is significant primarily for helping lead readers to harder stuff. Yet such a characterization is unfair on many levels, not least in regard to this novel, which may be his most misunderstood. For all its youth culture resonance, "Siddhartha" is hardly a book for young readers -- its subject is the way a single life goes through many incarnations, from, in Siddhartha's case, student to mendicant to businessman to seeker to saint.

More to the point, it argues for that simplest yet most elusive of doctrines: the necessity of thinking for oneself. What's remarkable about Siddhartha is not that he achieves enlightenment but that he does so without a guru, without following anything other than the dictates of his heart. He walks away from every teacher he encounters, even the Buddha himself.

"One can pass on knowledge but not wisdom," Siddhartha explains at the end of the novel. "One can find wisdom, one can live it, one can be supported by it, one can work wonders with it, but one cannot speak it or teach it." It is the importance of keeping one's own counsel that Hesse is espousing, the notion that only by looking inward can we come to terms with the world.

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