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Far and yet so close

Far and yet so close

Far and yet so close

The philosopher Peter Natter reads a book against the backdrop of the Bregenzerwald. This time he tackles Hermann Hesse’s novel “Siddhartha.”

Everywhere you look, detours are touted as culturally enriching; an attempt to reconcile contradictions. To better understand the Bregenzerwald region, it’s worth contemplating a detour to India, not the mythically exaggerated and religiously inspired India where Buddha and gurus set the tone, but the authentic India where clichés are cast aside. Talk about a detour! It should be noted that the Bregenzerwald is not exempt when it comes to clichés and their internal and external relevance for all kinds of semi-sacred purposes. But otherwise the region is far removed from India, which is certainly as it should be. And yet for my latest sojourn to the Bregenzerwald, I have selected an underestimated classic to read during my stay.

Hermann Hesse (1877 – 1962), a German-born Swiss writer and winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, is the author of the book “Siddhartha.” It should come as no surprise that the story is set in India, though Hesse’s own familiar environments, Lake Constance and Ticino, are inextricably interwoven into the narrative. As a consequence, the Bregenzerwald region can also claim a certain proximity to the narrative. In 2020, the story turned a hundred years old and has since been published in numerous volumes and editions (e.g. Suhrkamp Taschenbuch 182, first edition 1974, 70th edition 2018). One aspect that makes this book so special is the way in which it is read, i.e. with heart, mind and emotion.

Siddhartha makes his own way with conviction. His journey begins by standing still throughout the night as he asserts his independence from his father, a priest. The philosopher Hans Blumenberg reminds us that “standing is an action” and the young Siddhartha illustrates this point without compromise. He heads into the forest, becomes an ascetic and meets Buddha, and yet the final purpose in all his actions remains elusive. In a city, he learns about love and money and becomes a successful businessman and the learned lover of a courtesan. From one day to the next, however, he leaves his house, business, lover and son. At the end of the story, Siddhartha is an old man, wise, enlightened, alone, sitting motionless by the riverside: a sublime figure.

So far, so good… But what does any of this have to do with the Bregenzerwald? I sit in the midst of green meadows, my view is of forest and mountains, valleys and hills. Rather than enlightenment being my primary concern, I contemplate work, function, material, handicrafts, trade, production and the like. That I withdraw here to read and write is an anachronism, an antagonism, a contrast even, albeit one that is clearer than I would like. Forty years ago, I came to the region to spend my holidays and to help with the haymaking: raking, baling, stamping, drinking raspberry juice and eating cakes. Even though hardly anyone picks up a rake anymore and things have generally changed, the practice is still wonderful and always will be. Such romanticisms must be indulged! But back to Siddhartha: The book presents the city as a world of “childish people,” in which Siddhartha is all too vulnerable and gullible after his journey to holiness. Success and money, business and competition are the ruling paradigms and yet there is more to the story than that. Is there a certain irony when an old hedonist such as myself ponders what would happen to a young ascetic like Siddhartha in the Bregenzerwald today? What would become of him? With a bit of luck, he might even meet a beautiful and steadfast teacher like Kamala. And why not! What would he be likely to learn then?

Siddhartha would get to know the country and its people, but properly. Most likely, his youthful arrogance would also degenerate into wantonness amid all the hedonistic hustle and bustle. Then his teacher would admonish him with the necessary severity and call him to order. Call him to order? Yes, exactly, to that ancient order of origin and tradition from which all modern things derive. Just as Siddhartha returns to the river from the world of childish people and becomes a ferryman, so too does our ascetic recall the flow of things, the flow of time.

He stops for a moment to reflect and look around. Maybe that’s what it’s all about, looking and thus seeing: “He saw trees, stars, animals, clouds, rainbows, rocks, herbs, flowers, stream and river, dew twinkling on the shrubbery in the morning light, distant high mountains blue and pale, birds singing and bees buzzing, the wind blowing over the rice paddies.” This is how things could still be today, even as the wind blows over Alpine meadows or through the Achtal valley. Observation becomes contemplation, and contemplation becomes meditation, a state of being suspended in two senses: tradition and transition.

Here we have it again, the challenge of our era, where the speed of transitions and also the pitfalls must be reconciled with the preservation of that which as been tried and tested. What is the relevance of this story? The word ‘Bewandtnis’ (reason or relevance) in German is a beautiful word. It’s significance has been established by philosophers (Hans Blumenberg: “Die Arbeit am Mythos”), thinkers, and those who struggle for enlightenment.

Eating breakfast in front of my little house in Großdorf as the sun rises over the Hittisberg, Siddhartha is as close to me as the Bregenzerwald. This could be because the two have something in common, namely the struggle for what is genuinely their own. In this space, they defend against their origins as well as the future, they stand still in order to secure their progress and force progress in order to safeguard the future. Could this be expressed less poetically, less cryptically, or perhaps more directly? Possibly, but then that would be not only barbaric, but probably a bit cowardly. Cowardly? Yes, because it is always more fruitful to take one’s time than to waste it.

This brings us quite close to my Bregenzerwald, where sometimes time really does stand still. It is a Bregenzerwald where everything has its time and place. That is to say, that it need not compete with the whole world at any price. That sounds like a modest undertaking. And yet, Hermann Hesse’s “Siddhartha” teaches us that this modesty is actually humility that grows out of greatness. My Bregenzerwald sits on the bank of a river. No more, no less.

Author: Peter Natter
Issue: Bregenzerwald Travel Magazine – Summer 2021