Never in my life have I researched a book so extensively after finishing it. I looked everywhere for any sort of indication that someone shared my thoughts on this book. Ironically, I found two others who felt the same way I did on Goodreads, and with that, I feel more confident in writing this review.
There was an itch on my side while reading Siddhartha. That itch is attributable to two things: that people perceived Siddhartha as an accurate representation of Buddhism or Eastern philosophy, and that Siddhartha is not an accurate representation of Buddhism or Eastern philosophy. Though perhaps ‘researched’ at best, it just didn’t sit well with me that a book, that talks a great deal about the philosophy, history, teachings, and virtues of Buddhism, was written by a person who was not Buddhist. In saying that, I do not necessarily take issue with a person who writes about something that is beyond their realm of personal or lived experience, but if you do not have the lived experience of something, it is very likely that you will misrepresent or misconstrue it.
Siddhartha is perfectly packaged for non-Buddhists to read, and still feel comfortable and unchallenged in their worldview and perspective. The values and rhetoric it espouses still fits within the Western values framework, even though this book centres on Eastern philosophy. Siddhartha was written to satisfy people who feel a cultural void in their life and who want a dose of something that is otherwise unobtainable and easy to consume. Siddhartha is a self-help book for the philistine.
Hesse’s prose reads like how ignorant people appropriate and commodify foreign cultures to make themselves feel more cultured, and he tries extremely hard to make the prose sound as spiritual and exotic as possible. This sort of writing creates a gulf between the subject matter and the reader – to deliberately alienate the reader so that the reader can spectate Siddhartha’s life as an outsider, thereby reinforcing how foreign and intrinsically different everything is – from trees and people to way of life. This is an exotification of the Other – and the Other is everything we read about in Siddhartha. I take issue with this because it is inherently dehumanizing – the characters aren’t really treated as humans with depth, flaws and complex characters, but are painted as caricatures of an Orientialist fantasy.
Despite my qualms with Siddhartha, if I took a step back and told myself that this was not a book about Buddhism, there were some passages in the book that I could appreciate (even if the tone was shallow, pretentious and lofty at times). Hesse writes beautiful imagery that is both vivid and sublime.
Light and shadow ran through his eyes, stars and moon ran through his heart.
Is this revelation? Is this suffering? Is this resignation? Is this peace? What resonates with one individual will be different for another. Despite my criticisms (which I stand by with regardless), if Hesse had written about something else – something that was not inherently about Buddhism – perhaps I would appreciate his writing more.
If you ever do choose to read Siddhartha, read it for its narrative and the allegory. Do not go in thinking that this book is an accurate portrayal or representation of Buddhism. If you can overlook its inherent flaws and how pseudo-spiritual it tries to be, there are nuggets of beauty to be found in this book, and perhaps it may speak to you. It just didn’t so much for me.
Book Name: Siddhartha
Author: Hermann Hesse