9/6/84 The Compleat Guru
|Saturday, June 9,1984
The Straits Times: Section Two Page 1
The Compleat Guru
He rode the rickshaw bargained for souvenirs in Chinatown, roamed the brothels which, he claimed, were run by Freneh or Portuguese mission fathers, and complained of the food at the Raffles, where he stayed.
Together with his companion, a Swiss painter, Hesse stayed in Singapore for 11 days. The two friends had come down by ship and stopped over in Penang and Kuala Lumpur.
Hesse had planned to go on to India, where his parents and his maternal grandfather had worked as Christian missionaries. But by the time he reached Kandy, the capital of Ceylon, he was down with dysentery and feeling utterly miserable.
He did not like the Indians he saw, he did not like the noise, the smells the heat, and the beggars. He and his friend cut short their trip.
Hesse did not get to India and he never came East again. But 10 years later, he wrote Siddhartha, a seeking-after-wisdom parable that was set in ancient India.
It was an India without dysentery and heat and noise that he wrote about. For him, "the way to India and China did not go by way of railroads and ships," as he told a correspondent. "I had to find the magic bridges myself."
It was an India of the mind, but some 40 years later, a whole generation of American youth came East looking for it.
Little known outside of Germany and Switzerland, even though he was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1946, Hesse was suddenly in vogue in the United States soon after he died in 1962, at the age of 85.
The German author was introduced to the US by American writer Henry Miller who, in 1951, persuaded his publisher to bring out the English translation ( by Hilda Rosner) of Siddhartha. Miller told his readers that the little book pointed a new mystical way out of what he called "the air-conditioned nightmare".
Coincidentally, in England at that time, a dropout named Colin Wilson discovered Hesse in his feverish reading in the British Museum library, and he celebrated the German writer, together with philosopher Nietzsche and others, in his first book, The Outsider, which became an overnight success after it was published in 1956.
Wilson recommended Hesse's Steppenwolf ñabout a shy, studious writer who longs within him for the wild abandon of the steppe wolf.
The last third of the book reads like a drug induced hallucination (there is mention of cocaine), and it was picked up by Harvard professor turned-LSD guru Dr Timothy Leary, who hailed the book as a "psychedelic trip" and called Hesse "a poet of the interior journey".
That endorsement was Hesse's best advertisement. For a generation of youth who were embarking on a mass "interior journey" with the help of drugs and Eastern mysticism, Hesse had suddenly become the Compleat Guru.
His books were in the backpack of just about every hippie who set out on the road looking for himself, and in no time Hermann Hesse was known worldwide, together with Levis and Coke.