Updated: May 26, 2022
#1: Hermann Hesse's Siddhartha (Book of the month)
#1: Hermann Hesse's Siddhartha (Book of the month)
Reviewed by Ayesha
The function of literature is to be at the center of itself. That is perhaps why books like Siddhartha feel so close to the heart. It joins with another center- that is the Soul.
Hermann Hesse's ascetic descent, that is Siddhartha, should be on every reader's list. It can be spiritual, thoughtful, meditative, contemplative, enlightening, and fulfilling. But it can also be the antithesis of all those sentiments. It can also strip you of your perceptions of spirituality, wisdom, and fulfillment. So that, by the end of this book, you feel less burdened and more free-spirited.
Siddhartha empties and invalidates the Self. The book absolves the burden that is pressed upon the shoulders of an individual; the burden of possessing an identity and the burden identifying with things we surround ourselves with.
Siddhartha is an imaginative story. Made even more self-aware and introspective because it stemmed from the depth of Hermann Hesse's own conflict, antipathy, and rejection of dogmatic, pompous, and loud doctrines.
Siddhartha is about letting go of definitions for the self, for others, and for the world at large.
That is the first step.
Perhaps the most difficult one of all - to let go of what we think we know of people and their nature. And one of the most enlightening aspects of this book is that it focuses on the experiential side of human nature.
What this does is it reverses our preconceived thinking patterns. What we don't realize, oftentimes, is that we are overbearingly desensitized to life. Which even in this book is something that I felt is one of the core values that Hesse was trying to put across. Not only has our awareness solidified, and that in itself obstructs our experience of life, but it has also subconsciously clogged our understanding of that awareness.
The writing style and story is straightforward and simple enough. But when you look beyond the pages, that's when you realize that this is one of the most complex novels of its time.
Siddhartha tackles the definitions of freedom and force in relation to the self.
Freedom can mean the freedom to make choices that align with the self. This is Siddhartha's desire to not stay attached to the role of a son, ascetic, believer, voyager, to name a few.
Force is to never resist that attachment. You continue to identify yourself by doing things a certain way just to satisfy the standards or beliefs of another. This is the antithesis of Siddhartha's path. To ground oneself in a single community's values and belief system because that is where you find collective consciousness.
Under this light, your inner freedom cannot be taught, considered, weighed, or compared to somebody else's. It's about attaining spirituality, abandoning conformity, and discovering self-truth in relation to yourself. And that is the groundwork and philosophy of Siddhartha that resonated with me the most.
To quote from the book: "Wisdom cannot be imparted. Wisdom that a wise man attempts to impart always sounds like foolishness to someone else ... Knowledge can be communicated, but not wisdom. One can find it, live it, do wonders through it, but one cannot communicate and teach it."
Hermann Hesse echoes the sensibilities of possessing a self - and only your Self - as a way of imbibing all that wisdom you've gained through your personal experiences.
And how, no matter what, these lessons cannot be measured up against someone else's.
He writes: "It is not for me to judge another man's life. I must judge, I must choose, I must spurn, purely for myself. For myself, alone."
It's quite clear that Siddhartha attains wisdom, knowledge, and awareness that forms the basis of his freedom by looking inward. His writing forces you to abandon the illusion of attaining freedom by looking outside. Only then can you bridge the gap between the self and knowledge.
In Siddhartha, the dissection of self is strongly echoed. And because Siddhartha's journey in the book is based on his hedonistic manifestations that are visceral and heretical. It's quite reflective of the modern dimensions of life.
One can easily dream of living closer to nature and living a peaceful and calm life among trees, the sound of birds, sunsets, and clean air. But the reality, at least for people living in cities, is much different.
So the journey of the inner life. Of discovering what's true for you, building non-attachment - all these values one can bring with them no matter where they are in the world.
Another calming and thought-provoking event that takes place in the book is when Siddhartha, who is now old and less driven to immediate gratifications, finds that even though he's not a young man anymore, he still possesses that capacity to learn new things every day.
It seems a bit contradictory to say "to learn" because Hesse writes that the desire to learn something is superficial. Anything that is supposed to be learned - at any particular age or during any phase of one's life - is incomplete.
Because there is no such thing as what we call "learning."
He says that if you desire to learn true wisdom, nonattachment, and self-acceptance - chances are you will never know them. And you'll only learn them in words, not in feeling.
So the only way to truly know something is to live through it.
At the core of it, the essence that permeates everything is the acceptance that you can never truly learn or know anything unless it emanates from the self. That to follow the doctrines and teachings of others - be it a teacher or philosopher or a community is to abstain from the wellspring of your own thoughts and feelings.
And that, in my opinion, is the central axis around which this entire book revolves. It is ironic because the book draws much from Buddhism. But again, it's best not to attach labels to this story.
Read Siddhartha for what it unmistakably embodies; the signals that pass between the words you read on the pages and your mind.
Very few books can do this. Sometimes I was so overwhelmed by certain words or passages in the book that I forgot to annotate them. But overall, what stuck in my memory is the feeling, the epiphany, that a book like Siddhartha exists for its own sake. And it's one of the most thoughtful books I'll ever read.
According to Hesse, humans are supposed to map their own spiritual journeys. And not borrow and follow somebody else's.
Each self is unique, isolated, and sincere. And just like Siddhartha, who possessed many "selves'' in the book; meaning that he played different roles as a son, an ascetic, a voyager, a beggar, a lover, a rich merchant, etc. He lived through each self in the same way a river flows - organically, unrestrained, and free.
He experienced extremities of deprivation, as a devoted ascetic, through riches, love, desire, indulgence, and existential nausea, angst, frustration, and anger.
Such an assortment of feelings, emotions, and thoughts. So his understanding of self was not a rejection of religion or spiritual doctrines. To truly experience a self without identifying with it, without attaching soul, without validating the ego - is the way to attain self-reliance and self-knowledge.
This sums up my experience of reading Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha. A fascinating, unconventional, and psychological book. Hesse draws parallels in many of his other literary characters - Harry Haller in Steppenwolf, Joseph in The Glass Bead Game, and Narcissus and Goldmund in the novel of the same name.
Hesse uses themes like alienation and conformity to break free from the collective life of an individual - to let go of childish games in the name of Society, Religion, and Politics.
And what’s really a difficult feat, according to Hesse, is to remain authentic - of tapping into the fountainhead within one’s being. That is what it truly means to make it on your own. Through sorrow and hope, indulgence and deprivation, and every sameness and irregularity and idiosyncrasies of the world.
#2: Not Enough Books
Written by Ayesha
“The wisest are the most annoyed at the loss of time.”
This is Dante Alighieri.
That is why you have to read.
“... one doesn’t want to read badly any more than live badly since time will not relent. I don’t know that we owe God or nature a death, but nature will collect anyway, and we certainly owe mediocrity nothing, whatever collectivity it purports to advance or at least represent.”
This is Harold Bloom in How To Read And Why.
And this is why you need to develop a taste for reading.
Can there be anything worse than never figuring out about yourself what you like and dislike? Because then all the self exists as is a vessel containing inside it the things the self will always be unaware of. Living life in a dormant, passive state when there is a source, a means through which we can, bit by bit, become aware of what’s worth reading and what is not?
We’re so often talking about books as carving out a mental sphere for a reader. Which is true. But what about its physical boundaries? Where do you stop as you glide your finger across all the spines in a bookshop? Which book do you pluck out to read the summary of before buying?
Like many unanswerable questions with regards to becoming and being a reader, you may think of this article as me trying to weave a few more strands of literature together.
I’ll never grow tired of the different routes I find myself on whenever I’m reading a new book. A recent literary voyage of mine was when I read Great Expectations by Charles Dickens. It had a few illustrations that, unexpectedly, intensified my experience of reading a classic. I’ve never read books with illustrations before. And to feel in Charles Dickens’ writing the literary fragrance - that ignites the lifelong love of literature in a child perhaps - in my mid-20s, I wasn’t expecting that.
And that got me thinking about how I will never have enough books. New voyages. New pressing questions. New explorations about the Written World. New ways of possessing fragments of other lives - thoughts and emotions I may never have of my own.
On the whole, this also addresses how we respond to the impermanence of living. The only time you’ll truly immerse yourself in a book whose treatment of language and diction is strange to you is when you accept the simplicity of life in the same breath as its complexity.
Perhaps this is one way of broadening your horizons. Transcending the physical boundaries of books because that is one way humans can transcend the physical boundaries between each other.
Books may occupy less space in this world than humans do. The people who read books are perhaps more finite than the books they read. People wither and pass on. The book stays. The time that we have left before we turn to a handful of dust - now that is something.
So instead of tossing and turning in our invisible cribs. Why not read as many books as you can?
How else can a reader develop one’s own criterion of reading?
The compass that instructs us toward the good and bad of literature is within us. And for certain readers, present company included, ‘the only way out is through’.
Every literary voyage I am on, I feel it’s akin to Santiago’s final but spiritual Thalassic odyssey (in Hemingway’s The Old Man and The Sea).
Empty-handed, slightly faded, solitary.
I find myself adrift in the ocean, perhaps too succumbed to the winds and waves of literature. This is all it is ever going to be. Beautiful, raw, painful, mesmeric, and infinite.
I can’t possibly go any farther than this to identify my reading to Santiago’s because I honestly feel like I’m still just getting started. The things I know and don’t know; the alternatives that help me stay afloat; the techniques I adopt to build my compass; the realization that I’ll never be enough for “the ocean of available literature that swells and widens constantly.”
To live with this truth, this declaration of the impermanence of my existence and the permanence of the books that will outlast me.
We shall all turn as grey and aching and delirious as Santiago. We shall all lose ourselves, shatter, and gather the pieces of the puzzle toward no complete, perfect portrait to frame in the end. All this is inevitable.
But a good way to do this - the only way to do this - is with a worn-out book under one’s arm. That is enough.
#3: TV Show Recommendation
Ethos: We are all obscure beings trapped in a maze
(you can stream it on Netflix)
The original Turkish title of the TV show, which is “Bir Baskadir,” is an accurate characterization of the essence of the show. It translates to “Is Something Else” but the English title of the series is “Ethos.”
The word ‘ethos’ has many synonyms: philosophy, mentality, spirit.
It determines the lives of many. And conversely, it is determined by one’s way of life. When does the ethos of a society or a community bleed into the ethos of an individual? That is never known.
Each person’s story in Ethos is linked to another’s. Where one is, there will always exist something else.
Multiply the absurdity of human relationships until it forms a labyrinth. Centering around peoples’ hopes, expectations, circumstances, love, and loathing. The contours and boundaries of this labyrinth are forever shifting.
All that happens within this realm mirrors the lanes and intersections of an individual’s psyche. The chaos and obscurity of the labyrinth mirror the imperfections and the bizarre nature of human life.
A show like Ethos portrays, intelligently, the roots and branches of this labyrinth. The show unwraps the layers of inching towards one’s psychological catharsis.
The dialogue and cinematography alienate each character from the other. The 8 episodes that make up the entire show highlight the solitary lives of a vulnerable species; deserted by physical dimensions but deeply connected and grounded within.
The essence of the show is an axiomatic truth. Because every emotion is chaotic but absolute. Every impulse is ambiguous but self-seeking. And every dysfunction breeds fear but it also unnerves you and wakes you up to the dull conformity of existence.
I highly recommend this series (you can stream it on Netflix) for its artistic and idiosyncratic genius. Do not watch the dubbed English version. Watch it in the original (Turkish) audio with English subtitles. That “1-inch barrier” that Bong Joon Ho was talking about, listen to him. Don’t be lazy.
#4: Recommendations (from elsewhere)
1. Better Than Food’s “My Five Favorite Books of 2020”