Hermann Hesse, Siddharta
Certain books one read as a youth seem to make a fatal imprint upon one’s life, or to remain with one like the memory of a young love. Long afterwards, even as we move on with our lives and we change both within ourselves and our relationships, something of this first love remains like a lingering scent.
I discovered Hermann Hesse in my mid teens: Narcissus and Goldmund, Damian and Siddhartha were significant books for me. In one sense they reflected my own discontent with the Scheinwelt, a sense that there was an unknown path to be walked, that “my real self walked elsewhere”.
Hesse’s Buddhist sensibility was – at least to me then – free of overtly Buddhist parlance – it was expressed through beautifully told stories, an easily accessible idiom.
It was the opposite of the sort of de rigeur nonsense that passes as Buddhism in a self-obsessed capitalist-consumerist West, where even the way of enlightenment becomes one more commodity, an exercise in self-branding, a way to serve at the altar of Self.
To have been exposed to Hesse in an oppressive, late-1970’s South Africa was a liberating experience for me. In a conservative patriarchal society ruled by an authoritarian spirit, and in a family dominated by an authoritarian father, Hesse represented a window on another world for me, a world where kindness and gentleness prevailed, where the coldness and sterility of life was challenged by an altogether different spirit of peace and – for fear of sounding “New Age” – for want of a better term, a spiritual expansiveness.
I suppose that as I grew older I grew away from Hesse, much as his Siddhartha found his own way apart from the Buddha. It is not a platitude to say we are all making our own journey, even if we are unaware of it, even though it’s beginning is forgotten and it’s end beyond the horizon of our comprehension. Perhaps it is a journey to awakening, to a knowing, to authenticity. I don’t think it is a journey in any way like the journeys that the guru, life coach and motivational speaker would have us make.
“As a result of your seeking you cannot find”.
Counterintuitive perhaps, or perhaps it reflects the Psalmist’s words:
“Be still, and know I am God.”
SMOKE AND MIRRORS
We are so much like the seafarers of old, insisting that we are captains of our own ships, forgetting that the wind and ocean currents may force us from our charted course. And yet at every turn we encounter the belief system- so intimately linked to the capitalist metanarrative – that we can be in control. Life’s vicissitudes prove otherwise: death (the discussion of which is practically anathema in a society which fetishizes youth and “the new” and which displaces death into movies and videogames where once again it becomes a servant of our own self-interest) is the ultimate negation of our conceit. Death scrambles our radar, eviscerates our charts.
Every weekday evening on the radio financial “experts” discuss “the markets”, confident they can turn it’s volatility to profit. Financial experts remind us how under-insured most of us are, and we feel a twinge of resentment towards this elite few with their offshore investment portfolios. The advertising industry ensures the sense of anxiety is sustained at fever pitch, constantly reminding us that if we only buy this or that we will be more loveable, more acceptable, that our worth is somehow directly correlated to our ability to aquire “stuff.”
But all of this is Scheinwelt, maya, a world of illusions, smoke an mirrors.
A BRIEF DIGRESSION
What are we to make of Christ’s words to the rich young man, “Go, and sell all you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me”?
Too radical for us, too challenging to our shabby egotism and our obsession with money, we casually ignore and explain away Christ’s words. Fetishizing money, lost in our own idolatrous phantasms, we easily pervert Christ’s teachings to endorse our own avarice. Creflo Dollar (Google him if you really want to get depressed) is but one example of such aberation: the Word of Faith movement shows us how insidiously widespread heterodoxy has become, how the moneychangers have crept back into the temple with their rickety tables, tatty doves and their grubby coins.
What if the young man had followed Jesus? What would have become of his ‘financial planning’? What of the navigational charts he’d carefully prepared for his life? We know that the Shepherd was soon to be crucified, his sheep scattered, and terrible persecution was to follow. Would the young man not have been ill-advised to follow the Teacher? And as for the aforementioned Mr Dollar: would he put the persecution of the early church down to their lack of faith?