Siddhartha, Hermann Hesse (1922) #JazzAgeJune

Siddhartha, to his best friend, Govinda: “When someone is seeking it happens quite easily that he only sees the thing that he is seeking; that he is unable to find anything, unable to absorb anything, because he is only thinking of the thing he is seeking, because he has a goal, because he is obsessed with this goal. ‘Seeking’ means: to have a goal; but ‘finding’ means: to be free, to be receptive, to have no goal. You, O worthy one, are perhaps indeed a seeker, for in striving towards your goal, you do not see many things that are under your nose.”

Technically, this was a reread. When I was in high school Siddhartha (and The Glass Bead Game) was passed around like water on a thirsty day. But as the decades have passed, I’d forgotten why.

Siddhartha is a good son from a wealthy Brahmin family. He looks to his parents, his religion and the wise holy men to teach him. He has learned the rites and rituals well and is supported by his devoted friend, Govinda. But he is restless and one day has the realization that his teachers, who have spent their entire lives in meditation, prayer, learning and performing rituals are still not enlightened. And isn’t that the goal of the work?

When a group of renunciants enter his town he leaves with them in hopes that their austerity will lead him to “kill his Self.” He spends three years living in the forest begging for meals, holding no property or material possessions of any kind, learning deep meditation and extreme fasting. Though he has moments of transcendence, he is still conscious of his Self in his daily life.

He leaves the Semanas and begins a path of his own living the life of a rich merchant and lover of a courtesan, then realizing the material world is not for him, he renounces it all for a meager subsistence as a ferry boat worker. Along the way he meets Gotama, an enlightened master whose teachings he admires and is tempted to follow.

Siddhartha to Gotama Buddha: “Not for one moment did I doubt that you were the Buddha, that you have reached the highest goal which so many thousands of Brahmins and Brahmin’s sons are striving to reach. You have done so by your own seeking, in your own way, through thought, through mediation, through knowledge, through enlightenment. You have learned nothing through teachings, and so I think, O Illustrious One, that nobody finds salvation through teachings. To nobody, O Illustrious One, can you communicate in words and teachings what happened to you in the hour of your enlightenment….worthy instruction does not contain the secret of what the Illustrious One himself experienced…That is why I am going on my way…to leave all doctrines and all teachers and to reach my goal alone.”

Siddhartha recognizes that Gotama is enlightened and has gathered around him others like Siddhartha who are looking for a teacher to guide them to their own enlightenment. But the techniques that brought Gotama to that point were discovered through is own journey, his own questionings, frustrations and observations. Siddhartha must do the same.

I found this quite important. No one can lead you to yourself, except you. This might be what attracted me in high school: Siddhartha is a timeless story about finding yourself and the unique path you are meant to travel.

Siddhartha had one single goal—to become empty, to become empty of thirst, desire, dreams, pleasure and sorrow—to let the Self die….When all the Self was conquered and dead, when all passions and desires were silent, then the last must awaken, the innermost of Being that is no longer Self—the great secret.

The reason why I do not know anything about myself…I was afraid of myself, I was fleeing from myself. I was seeking Brahman, Atman, I wished to destroy myself, to get away from myself….I will no longer devote myself to Atman and the sorrows of the world. I will no longer mutilate and destroy myself in order to find a secret behind the ruins. I will no longer study Yoga-Veda, Atharva-Veda, or asceticism, or any other teachings. I will learn from myself, be my own pupil, I will learn from myself the secret of Siddhartha.

Siddhartha to Govinda who, many years ago left Siddhartha to follow Gotama Buddha: ”Wisdom is not communicable. The wisdom which a wise man tries to communicate always sounds foolish…..Knowledge can be communicated, but not wisdom. One can find it, live it, be fortified by it, do wonders through it, but one cannot communicate and teach it. I suspected this when I was still a youth and it was this that drove me away from teachers.”

Title: Siddhartha
Author: Hermann Hesse
Publisher: Bantam Books
Date: 1922, 1971
Device: Mass Market Paperback
Pages: 152

Challenges: #20BooksofSummer, #JazzAgeJune, Historical Fiction Reading Challenge, Mount TBR

The Razor’s Edge, W. Somerset Maugham (1944)

“I’ve been reading a good deal. Eight or ten hours a day. I’ve attended lectures at the Sorbonne. I think I’ve read everything that’s important in French literature and I can read Latin, at least Latin prose, almost as fluently as I can read French. Of course Greek’s more difficult. But I have a very good teacher. Until you came here I used to go to him three evenings a week.”

“And what is that going to lead to?”

“The acquisition of knowledge.”

“That doesn’t sound very practical.”



razorThis is my first book by W. Somerset Maugham and I found it to be a compelling narrative with a theme that is close to me. It is a book with a large cast of characters, but by weaving them in and out of each other’s lives Maugham keeps them familiar to us. We watch as their individual fortunes rise and fall affecting all around.

The story begins just after WWI and centers on Larry Darrell and his childhood friends. He is the only one of his group who fought, joining the Air Force to train as a fighter pilot. Traumatized by seeing his best friend killed, when he returns home he is unable to resume his carefree life as a member of the upper class. Set to marry his long-time love, Isabel, and live the conventional life of his class, his experiences during the war have changed him in ways that make that life impossible. He is full of questions about the meaning of life and no longer feels comfortable in the Chicago of his childhood. With inner demons demanding attention he embarks on a life of study and manual labor in France and Germany and to India where at the feet of gurus and into ashrams he spends several years. Confounding his friends with his voluntary poverty and perpetual study, he refuses to reign in his voracious quest for answers.

As the years pass and Isabel loses her ability to wait for him; as the offers of employment dry up and the words of wisdom from well-meaning friends fall on deaf ears, Larry remains undaunted. At its heart this is the story of one man’s spiritual journey, but it is also that for all the characters who experience existential crises in the life choices they make and in the way their lives unfold.

Maugham, who plays himself in the story, met Larry just after he returned from the war at a party given by Isabel’s uncle Elliott. As a writer, he comes to Paris often. His meetings with Larry make him the perfect go-between keeping all at home informed of Larry’s whereabouts and progress on a quest they cannot understand.

Maugham structures the narrative so that he runs into the characters accidentally on streets, in restaurants, at events as a device for “catching up.” He is the older, trustworthy, non-gossipy family friend. They pour out their trials and tribulations to him, their decisions, their changes of heart or circumstances, whether their hopes are attained or dreams dashed.

That Maugham plays himself in this story had me confused. Is this a fictional account of a true story? If so, does his presence make it nonfiction? Or are the characters fictional in order for Maugham to expand on the real point of the book—the quest for the meaning of life vs. living a conventional material life, and as a vehicle that showcases the new Eastern spirituality that had become so popular in the West?

My confusion forced me to learn more about Maugham to see if that might shed some light.

Maugham was involved with some of the major players and organizations that brought Indian religion and philosophy to the States in the late 19th to mid 20th centuries. Swami Vivekananda and the Vedanta Society, Paramahansa Yogananda and The Self-Realization Fellowship were well-known messengers of this new spirituality. They lectured throughout the United States and Europe to packed houses making positive impressions everywhere. Maugham uses himself in the book as a sort of messenger not only between Larry and his friends, but as Larry’s sounding board, foil, and inquisitor to his spiritual journey. By forcing Larry to explain himself through their conversations he becomes the transmitter of this spirituality to the reader.

As a new reader of W. Somerset Maugham I thoroughly enjoyed his style of writing and telling of this story. He is asking us to think about what makes a meaningful life and the struggle between material desire and spirituality. Is Larry the better person for his choices and Isabel, who refuses Larry’s life of poverty, the villain? Is a life of inner exploration superior to that of outer conformity to convention? Or does there have to be a choice between the two? A universal conundrum for sure.


My Edition
Title: The Razor’s Edge
Author: W. Somerset Maugham
Publisher: Doubleday, Doran & Co., Inc.
Device: Hardcover
Year: 1944
Pages: 258
Full plot summary