The Same River Twice
(in German, 1922) Shambhala 2000
By Hermann Hesse, translated by Sharab Chödzin Kohn
Reviewed by Seana Graham
My book group selected this classic novel as this month’s selection, despite the fact that most of us had read it at some point or another in our lives. I was happy enough with the choice, for the simple reason that it was short and so not likely to place a huge burden on my reading time. And so it proved, as, due to a variety of reasons, I ended up reading it on the last day.
As memory serves, I actually read this book for another book group many years ago—my mother’s reading group, which she was always encouraging me to take part in, with various results. One of the members was much under the sway of Alan Watts at the time, and all things Eastern had a certain sheen. I had taken a few religious studies courses in college by then, and was interested in its Buddhist leanings. I remember being a bit confused, as for some reason I had thought it was a retelling of the Buddha’s own story, a misapprehension that made the story somewhat confusing. As I learned in my book group, I was not the only one who had had this misconception.
One thing that was strange about our reading is that most if not all members knew they had read it, but had almost no memory of what they had read the first time except in the vaguest sense. I think one factor for me was that I was reading it in a different translation, very ably rendered by Sharab Chödzin Kohn, who is a longtime student of Chögyam Trungpa, among other things. One of our members said that one particular plot point seemed a bit unlikely, but my own feeling is that Siddhartha isn’t so much a novel as a fable and we shouldn’t force it into any kind of naturalistic mode. Some of the metaphoric passages remind me more of the Iliad than any contemporary story, though of course Hesse was much more of our times than either Homer or Buddha are.
Both Paul W. Morris’s introduction and that of Kohn proved illuminating after reading the book. Siddhartha is not a completely accurate rendering of Buddhism, as apparently there are some aspects of doctrine that Hesse got wrong and even he wondered what he had really achieved in rendering this tale for Westerners. However, India embraced it willingly, as did Japan. Its initial translation into English was not until 1951.
It was Heraclitus who said you cannot step into the same river twice, and in Siddhartha there is an actual river illustrating the point, which Siddhartha does encounter twice, although I would argue that it is the same river but a different person who enters it. It is also true that reading this story several decades after your first encounter with it is virtually a new experience. I find it so fascinating and poignant that Hesse himself after writing Part One found himself unable to continue for a time, and though he completed it only a year or so later, it’s hard not draw the conclusion that he had written to the end of his experience and, in effect, had to catch up with himself. One of the many interesting decisions Siddhartha makes in his quest for enlightenment is to not become a disciple of the actual Gotama or the Buddha as we know him, believing that teachers are no stand-in for one’s own experience.
As the introduction makes clear, Siddhartha’s path is similar to Hesse’s own journey, and as much as this is an Eastern tale, it is also a Western one. Like Siddhartha,Hesse did not follow in his deeply Protestant family’s footsteps and in fact dropped out of school at an early age, disappointing his parents’ hopes for him. It was not an easy road for him, and led to several breakdowns. There is perhaps something of his own sadness mirrored in Siddhartha’s realization when his son runs away, that he himself has left a father grieving for his child.
The seed of Siddhartha came to Hesse in a dream, a very Buddhist dream for a German man to have, although this was a man who also happened to be undergoing analysis with none other than Carl Jung. In the dream, two voices spoke to Hesse, one speaking of profound sorrow. But it was the second voice which was stronger and was the basis of this ever resonant novel:
“Listen to me! Listen to me, and remember: suffering is nothing, suffering is an illusion. Only you yourself create it, only you cause yourself pain!”