Herman Hesse's "Siddhartha" as a guide to self-discovery

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The beginning, or return, to college is a reminder of a relentless, overwhelming question: Who am I? Some discover the answer with ease. For others, though, the inability to define oneself can be a jarring and disorienting feeling. For decades, Hermann Hesse’s novel "Siddhartha" has provided comfort for these people.

Published in Germany in 1922 and in the U.S. in 1951, the book took off amidst the counterculture of the 1960s. A dreamy, contemplative exploration of Eastern philosophy and the idea of self-discovery, it resonated powerfully with young readers. 

But in the past 50 years, "Siddhartha" has become something of a cliche, an introduction to Eastern thought for the youth in revolt. It’s easy to see why; the novel follows an Indian prince as he travels across the country in search of enlightenment. But at its heart, "Siddhartha" is something much greater, more fundamental than that. It’s a reminder that in the search for who we are, we’re bound to spend a lot more time discovering who we aren’t.

During our first weeks of college, we are told innumerable times to get involved, to find a group in which we fit in. The idea of surrounding ourselves with like-minded people is part of the reason we came to a place like UT. But for many, the process can be profoundly discouraging. The archery club attendee who misses every shot, the beginning French student who can’t understand a single word at the “club francais,” the intramural frisbee hopeful who’s just not as quick as the others. "Siddhartha" has always spoken to these people; to them, and occasionally to all of us, the idea that this is where we come to discover our identity can seem like a false promise.

It takes "Siddhartha's" eponymous protagonist a considerable number of attempts before he finds peace. He spends his life in a range of occupations from ascetic to businessman, but none of them seem right until the novel’s end. It is only by travelling to new places, by moving forward, that Siddhartha is able to find where he belongs, and to find himself. The same holds true for us. Only by venturing to a reading will we discover that we love poetry. Only by getting in a boat can we learn that we are rowers. We might also learn, just as importantly, that these things don’t click with us.