Why I Still Read Hesse

It is 1966, summer. I am two months away from entering Franciscan minor seminary. I’d recently received its summer reading list in the mail. Surprised that God’s academy would yet deal in such secular-seeming pursuits, I remember choosing one of the titles with the fewest pages: Siddhartha, by Hermann Hesse.

Thin, black and silver New Directions paperback in hand, I repaired to the pine grove just down the street and a million miles away from my house. This was my sanctuary, where a fourteen-year-old chubby, intellectual, unathletic and thoroughly spiritual boy could feel safe from the bullies and belonginglessness of his world. Rows of pines stood in unerring lines, planted, legend had it, by a local tribal chief. I settled myself upon the layers of pine sod and opened the book.

And then my life changed forever.

I soon found I was not alone in this. Hesse spoke to my peers and I as no other writer could, and introduced an entire generation to the wonderous, intimate, salvific relationship of discipled reader to literary, spiritual master. I inhaled Siddhartha; by the time I left that grove I was more certain than ever of my imminent departure on sacred quest, and infinitely, even eagerly, less bound to any ultimate destination.

As another searing voice would soon assert irresistibly to young listeners:

The road is filled with homeless souls,
Every woman, child, and man,
Who have no idea where they will go,
But they’ll help you if they can.

Hesse himself seemed deeply, irresistibly drawn to long journeys, walking usually south through Switzerland and into Italy. A medley of poems and watercolors, Wandering, and a truncated excursion to India both closely preceded his creation of Siddhartha.

In 1970, as I was entering college, Kurt Vonnegut published his essay Why They Read Hesse. In it he asserts that “America teemed with people who were homesick in bitter-sweet ways,” and that Hesse’s were the most profound books about homelessness ever written.

Characters such as Hesse’s Goldmund, Emil Sinclair, Harry Haller, and Joseph Knecht showed us the sacredness of the homeless soul, if not its necessity, and the nobility of vocation in helping without attachment to outcome. And for me and so many, the epitome of this form of holiness and calling was Siddhartha, the Brahmin’s son, who became the ferryman of seekers.

Put succinctly, Siddhartha leaves his father’s home as a young man, accompanied by his adoring friend, Govinda. He is looking for Truth, for Meaning, for the Real, not as ideas to hold, but as a conscious and constantly lived experience. He begins his quest with the Samanas, the extreme ascetics of Hinduism; Siddhartha soon masters all their techniques, but what he seeks still illudes him. His homeless wandering continues; he immerses himself in world after world, that of studying with the Buddha, of sexual ecstasy, of success in business and the decadence of wealth. In all of these he is kind and compassionate to those he meets, but none of it fills the soul. Most significantly he comes to reject all teachings of any sort as inadequate to encompass that which he seeks:

“That is why I am going my way — not to seek another doctrine, for I know there is none, but to leave all doctrines and teachers and to reach my goal alone.”

Finally, in despair, he flees his latest dwelling place and prepares to throw himself into a river. Suspended just above his leap, he hears with the ear of the heart the voice of the river whispering the sacred word, OM, that syllable that speaks to and from the innate Oneness of all things. Siddhartha lives, and takes up residence with an elderly ferryman, clearly a spiritual master. The novel ends with Govinda, who had stayed behind as a Buddhist monk, reencountering his old friend at the ferry. He begs Siddhartha to give him some hint into the enlightenment that he sees emanating from his person, but that Govinda himself had never found.

What follows still quickens my pulse to think about, fifty-five years after my first reading it. It bears quoting here in full:

“Give me something to help me on my way, Siddhartha. My path is often hard and dark.”

“Bent down to me!” he whispered quietly in Govinda’s ear. “Bend down to
me! Like this, even closer! Very close! Kiss my forehead, Govinda!”

But while Govinda with astonishment, and yet drawn by great love and
expectation, obeyed his words, bent down closely to him and touched his
forehead with his lips, something miraculous happened to him. While his
thoughts were still dwelling on Siddhartha’s wondrous words, while he
was still struggling in vain and with reluctance to think away time, to
imagine Nirvana and Samsara as one, while even a certain contempt for
the words of his friend was fighting in him against an immense love and
veneration, this happened to him:

He no longer saw the face of his friend Siddhartha, instead he saw
other faces, many, a long sequence, a flowing river of faces, of
hundreds, of thousands, which all came and disappeared, and yet all
seemed to be there simultaneously, which all constantly changed and
renewed themselves, and which were still all Siddhartha. He saw the
face of a fish, a carp, with an infinitely painfully opened mouth, the
face of a dying fish, with fading eyes–he saw the face of a new-born
child, red and full of wrinkles, distorted from crying–he saw the face
of a murderer, he saw him plunging a knife into the body of another
person–he saw, in the same second, this criminal in bondage, kneeling
and his head being chopped off by the executioner with one blow of his
sword–he saw the bodies of men and women, naked in positions and
cramps of frenzied love–he saw corpses stretched out, motionless, cold,
void–he saw the heads of animals, of boars, of crocodiles, of elephants,
of bulls, of birds–he saw gods, saw Krishna, saw Agni–he saw all of
these figures and faces in a thousand relationships with one another,
each one helping the other, loving it, hating it, destroying it, giving
re-birth to it, each one was a will to die, a passionately painful confession
of transitoriness, and yet none of them died, each one only transformed,
was always re-born, received evermore a new face, without any time
having passed between the one and the other face–and all of these
figures and faces rested, flowed, generated themselves, floated along
and merged with each other, and they were all constantly covered by
something thin, without individuality of its own, but yet existing, like
a thin glass or ice, like a transparent skin, a shell or mold or mask of
water, and this mask was smiling, and this mask was Siddhartha’s smiling
face, which he, Govinda, in this very same moment touched with his lips.
And, Govinda saw it like this, this smile of the mask, this smile of
oneness above the flowing forms, this smile of simultaneousness above
the thousand births and deaths, this smile of Siddhartha was precisely
the same, was precisely of the same kind as the quiet, delicate,
impenetrable, perhaps benevolent, perhaps mocking, wise, thousand-fold
smile of Gotama, the Buddha, as he had seen it himself with great
respect a hundred times. Like this, Govinda knew, the perfected ones
are smiling.

Hesse writes these words in 1922. His Steppenwolf appears five years later; Narcissus and Goldmund three years beyond that. He continues to write prolifically until The Glass Bead Game, his opus major and final full-length book, published in 1943. 2021 marked the seventy-fifth anniversary of his Nobel Prize. But none of Hesse’s works would ever again express the sense of spiritual quest fulfilled, of enlightenment achieved like Siddhartha. Quite the contrary, in fact.

Hesse’s other novels are filled with quests dashed, hopes barely realized, if at all. Though scattered with triumphs, they read largely like a testimony to the ultimate futility of achieving any final fulfilment. Steppenwolf’s Harry Haller is a loner and social misanthrope who despises the modern world; Goldmund of Narcissus and Goldmund dies without truly fulfilling his search for the Divine Feminine and his own. And Joseph Knecht, the Master of The Glass Bead Game, barely breaks free of its bonds before perishing in a (perhaps suicidal) drowning incident.

Nowhere do we see repeated or expanded upon that transitoriness transformed, that mocking, thousand-fold smile of the perfected ones.

And that, I must profess, is why I still read Hesse, why that New Directions paperback has never left my bookbag (and now my Kindle), even to today, in my sixty-ninth year.

There is a sort of an irascibleness in Hesse’s work; its flavor to the literary palette always seems to be a sweet-and-sour. No matter what positive, even glorious experiences occur for his wandering characters (and they do), there is always a purposeful dissonance sounding in the midst of it. I attempted to capture this in a poem:

With Herman Hesse in sunny Italy

In the Bergamo
I found him
playing rickety guitar
with companion walkers
in a cobbled square
I smiled
offered my hand,
and tuned the one
sour string
he smiled, too,
made the namaste
he had brought from
his two weeks in India
looking back
over my shoulder
I saw him rejoin
them deftly

And yet, there remains that ascendant, all-inclusive scene of Govinda’s vision, embracing sweet and sour, love and death, the human, the animal, and the divine, even as it transcends them all. What are we – what was I – to make of the seeming singularity of Siddhartha, the only unqualified triumph of the soul in a canon of spiritual near-misses and their consequence?

Five and a half decades of wandering with Hesse and of the going on my own way – from Franciscan seminary to Student Mobilization Committee, from treadmill activism to learning meditation in a seaside hermitage, from an adoption search that revealed my own Jewishness to Torah as a spiritual path and Jewish Renewal, from darkest divorce to discovering Great Love and remarriage, from invitation to interfaith Peace Chaplaincy to a summoning by spontaneous past-lives and shamanic experiences – all of these have led me to one certain conclusion: that Hesse’s description of that enlightenment is too true, too accurate to be anything but real.

I have come to believe in my core that Siddhartha is, in its core, not a work of fiction, but the transmission of a lived experience: the enlightenment of Hermann Hesse himself.

What this seminal book in my life, combined with all of Hesse’s other work, has shown to me is the reality of many lives, many incarnations, in the one life we lead. When I reread the list of flowing faces in Govinda’s vision, I see my own: the fourteen-year-old seminarian, the college activist, the lost orphan and the rediscovered Jew, the divorcee and the at-last beloved, the interfaith clergyperson, the past-life Essene. The writer. The poet. Lives which all have, and will all come and disappear, and yet all seem to be there simultaneously, which all constantly change and renew themselves, and which are still all Wayne-Daniel.

I have come to see the literary, spiritual master to whom I discipled myself all those years ago as a sort of amnesiac bodhisattva by choice who, relatively early in his life and career, kissed the OM, the oneness of all characters in the river’s pages, but who never piously saccharined that experience into the same quest-story, told over and over again. Rather, it would seem he subsumed his own enlightenment, steadfastly presenting literary masterpieces of the sweet and the sour, leading each reader to the dock of the ferry. That much help he would give to every woman, child, and man. Beyond that, he knew, one’s way, from life-to-life within one life, must, of necessity, be often hard and dark.

Vonnegut was right (of course!) Hesse was and remains the most profound of writers on homelessness, the bitter and the sweet, and on the necessity of one for the other in the on-going river called home.

I still read Hesse; my on-going lives are not over yet! And neither, I hope, is my companioning on the road of souls, although, thanks to Siddhartha, I do feel I have an idea where I will go, indebted to all Hesse’s works for unvarnished insight into the process of the getting there:

why I support summer reading

lean forward.

his fourteen-year-old steps
walk him from his house
in torturetown then left
into the hidden pine grove
perfectly straight rows
chief cohannet may have
actually planted for all
he knows he sits where
needles give only cushion
and does his summer reading
Siddhartha New Directions
1966 black cover silver
he steps out of the grove
a samana having left everything
he walks up the years to his
courtesan to the unplanting of
all that surety
he wanders to
his ferryman teaching centering
prayer in a backyard hermitage
on the south shore finally he
disentortures himself by
this river his sixty-nine-year
silver soul opens a page.

kiss the forehead of this poem.

The Names They Gave Us
A Young Artist