Sunday, April 25, 2010

Off topic: Interpretations of Siddhartha

On the recommendation of my good friend Warren, I read Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse this weekend. Whenever I read something I find fascinating, I attempt to write about the lessons learned from that work. Below is quick, informal interpretation of Hesse's Siddhartha. Warning: contains spoilers. :) Apologies for the off-topic post.

Outside of the metaphysical themes of the continuity and singularity of organic elements, Siddhartha’s central theme warns of the perils of allowing ambition, the pursuit of a desire, to supersede the present. Such a universally-applicable idea could be applied to any period of humanity, but it’s especially relevant to modernity, where fast-paced professional and academic pursuits cause us to perpetually ponder the next step, x+1, for fear that we will fall behind or not attain some tangible – or abstract – desire. All the while, the tenacity of the pursuit can cause unrelated instances of beauty go unnoticed. Perhaps a man zealously pursues a promotion, logging countless hours in the office, all while failing to notice his wife’s beauty and value her companionship. Or perhaps a scholar of literature accelerates through the literary canon so as to impress her peers with the breadth of her knowledge – at the expense of savoring every word as she consumes it. The eponymous Siddhartha learns this lesson, albeit as it applied circa 500BC.

Siddhartha, an especially gifted member of the Brahmin caste, seeks enlightenment, to understand his environment and its meaning at the deepest levels, to attain Nirvana. Throughout the majority of the work, this desire consumes him to the extent where he undervalues those who care for him – his father, his best friend, his teachers (even Buddha himself), the mother of his child. Throughout each stage of his life he seeks a great teacher, the one who can give him the knowledge he needs to attain his goal. When he feels that a teacher has poured into him all of the knowledge he has, yet Siddhartha’s “cup is not full,” he seeks a greater teacher. Such ambition caused him to leave home to join a nomadic, ascetic group of monks when had he learned all that he could from his father; the same ambition was the catalyst for his leaving the monks when he proved he was equal in prowess to one of their elders. Finally, he forgoes the opportunity to learn from Buddha himself, forsaking any teachers, skeptical that anything other than an intense period of self-discovery can help him run down his elusive goal. In the end, he does accept an unlikely teacher – a lowly ferryman, who proves that looking to the highest levels of education for our teachers is not always the most effective strategy, that a simple, lowly man can be the wisest. The ferryman, through limited use of dialog and by example, does, in fact, help Siddhartha accomplish his goal; he does so by teaching him to appreciate the present rather than having an eye toward the future. It’s only unfortunate that Siddhartha is an old man by the time he learns this lesson.

A subtle subtheme of self-imposed alienation also runs though Siddhartha. At most stages of his life, Siddhartha works diligently to avoid being a part of any larger group. The most tangible illustration of this is when he rejects his future as a Brahmin to become a Semana, forest-dwelling, nomadic ascetics, the epitome of societal abandonment. To this point he also prides himself in his abilities of “waiting, fasting, and thinking,” essentially, a life of austerity and abstemiousness. He decides that it’s necessary to attempt to integrate with the base, “childlike” masses to understand how humanity works, to leave his ivory tower. During this period he takes a courtesan as a lover, learns to participate in trade, and becomes a materialistic, wealthy man, an ethos contrary to everything we know about him.

But, this sojourn into materialism serves to humanize him, rather than to completely abase him. Siddhartha uses the word “childlike” throughout the work to describe the masses of humanity. The meaning of the term, however, evolves alongside Siddhartha’s integration with humanity. Early on, it takes on a pejorative context, meaning juvenile or sophomoric; he sees most emotional constructs, love included, to be the folly of the masses. After his enlightenment by the ferryman, he uses the same term to mean carefree or alive. As he moves from a state of “unable to love” through deep, intense appreciation for even the most seemingly-insignificant facets of nature (e.g. a rock), so too does the term evolve.

At the end of Siddhartha’s evolution, whereupon he achieves his goal of enlightenment, he notes several of findings. While using Sansara, the city where he succumbed to lascivious temptations, gambling, intoxication, and materialism, as a metaphor for humanity, and Nirvana as a placeholder for the enlightened and the divine, he notes that all human teachers draw a false dichotomy between the two. He finds that nothing is solely human or purely divine – all life is a mixture of the two and should be celebrated. He also concludes that searching is the worst state to be in, relating back to his previous ambitions that caused him to pass through life oblivious to its beauty; he laments searching as a perpetual state of insatiability, as it implies some unmet desire. Finally, he realizes that the erudite are not superior to the masses. This lesson comes from the ferryman being the wisest man he has ever encountered.

Unfortunately, it would seem that it’s easier in modernity than in Siddhartha’s time to fall prey to the pitfalls Hesse warns us about. Pursing materialistic pleasures; binary categorizations of bad or good, human or divine; social or cultural elitism; self-alienation through any and all of the aforementioned vices: these are the distractions that prevent us from appreciating the aesthetic of the present. And, we will only suffer more from these fallacies as the concentration of wealth in our economy drives us closer to a true dichotomy between haves and have-nots. As this rift further widens, it’s only human to use talent and ambition to attempt to ensure that we’re on the desirable side of the divide. Doing so, and advising our children to so, however, only pushes our consciousness farther into the future, to x+n, as n approaches infinity – all at the expense of the beauty of the present.