Hol über! – Call to the ferryman at the River Rhine, since the Middle Ages
I am the man from the river. – Rosamel Segundo Benavides Venegas, ca. 1993
When I was 20 years old, I read Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha. It was part of my Hesse curriculum, which also included the Steppenwolf, Narcissus & Goldmund, and many shorter works. This was not unusual. In my, the first post-hippie, generation, Hesse loomed large as an accessible sage, a late bourgeois romantic, whom one could read without compunction between the more arduous tasks of studying the finer points of Marx and the secrets of frequentist statistics. Hesse’s prose was like a drug. It made us feel good without revealing its how and its why. Hesse tackles large, life-span, questions of human existence, which 20-year olds cannot square with their own lived experience. A 20-year old reading Hesse enters a dream world, but not a world of memory. Hesse was in his early forties when he wrote Siddhartha, that is, he himself had not yet had all the life experiences he explores in his hero.
Now, at a riper age, I picked up a copy of Siddhartha again and finished reading it by noon. It was a joy. The experience of reading this great poem was fresh, and I came away with a better sense of what Hesse is trying to do and what he is trying to get us to think about. Of course, there is the metaphysics of the eternal return, the unity of all life, and the illusory character of reality. This is fine and well and it is fertile ground for many scholarly dissertations. Here, I want to focus on a more pragmatic issue, cast in Western terms, namely the question of how we ought to live.
Hesse develops three main characters and a few extras, each with a distinctive approach and path. One is Siddhartha himself, another is the ferryman Vasuveda, and a third is Siddhartha’s friend Govinda. The possible fourth, who remains undeveloped, is Gotama, the Buddha. A possible fifth, who also remains but a sketch, is the courtesan Kamala, Siddhartha’s teacher of sensuality and the mother of his son.
Let’s focus on the first three, and begin with Govinda. Govinda is the eternal follower. He follows his high-status friend Siddhartha from a life of comfort into the woods to live a regimen of self-denial, ascetic practice, and search of enlightenment. When Siddhartha realizes the essential hollowness of all formal teachings and practices, Govinda carries on. He is a seeker; he never loses hope that enlightenment, wisdom, and contentment can be reached through work and mastery.
Siddhartha changes course and chooses to live an ordinary life, though one rich in experience, success, money, and sensual gratification. At first, he preserves an attitude of bemused detachment, often succeeding in worldly affairs without really caring. In time, the world envelopes him, and he becomes one among many. Siddhartha eventually awakens from this dream and resumes his wanderings. He reaches the river and finds the ferryman, Vasuveda, the same ferryman who had conveyed him across the current when he, Siddhartha, was a young man. Siddhartha becomes Vasuveda’s apprentice and friend and eventually succeeds him as the ferryman.
Vasuveda is Siddharta’s alter ego. He has no social prestige and no formal education. More importantly, he had chosen to stay on the river, to learn from its flow and the humans passing through, and not to seek the adventure of an active and competitive life. Yet, we learn that he a not a constitutional hermit; he was married once.
With Hesse, we can discard Govinda and Gotama as foils. Govinda fails in his life quest and Gotama is so rarefied that he is barely human. Siddhartha and Vasuveda exemplify the two paths worth considering. Siddhartha’s life becomes complete in that he sees it all and does it all. He can retire and die (and be reborn) in the fullness. He comes to understand the Indic metaphysics from his own lived experience. He knows that there are no shortcuts and he accepts that each generation must suffer and learn anew. In a poignant scene, he comprehends his father’s grief over his, young Siddhartha’s, departure, when his own son rejects him and his teachings.
Vasuveda hints at a different way, and one wonders if this way might be, after all, a shortcut. Vasuveda spends his days doing the humble tasks of gathering wood, cooking meals, taking travelers across the river, listening to them, repairing the raft. Most of all, he listens to the river. The river is always in motion, always passing by, and always the same. The river is a metaphor for all existence, which is the lesson Vasuveda understands and gently tries to bring Siddhartha to see.
How ought we to live? Like Siddhartha, we can seek to comprehend existence by tapping the richness of the experiences it offers. Like Vasuveda, we can cultivate an open-minded receptivity and contemplation without the action or the drama. Hesse’s lesson is, I think, that there is no lesson with an ought. If there were, we’d have another teaching, a prescription, a how-to. Hesse opens our minds to the riverine nature of mind and life. It is a bit lofty, of course, but there are shortcuts and heuristics to remember the poem by. With that, we return to a more pedestrian mode, but I can live with that.
In me, a love of rivers has gradually grown over the years. Especially in my travels in Germany, I have found that many ferries are still in operation. I have crossed the Rhine, the Danube, and their tributaries many times on ferries when I had the option of taking a bridge. A ferry ride slows me down. It takes me close to the water so I can listen to its murmur. This murmur let’s me meditate, if only for a few minutes. It dawns on me that existence is not being, but flow. I am because I am always changing, always flowing. When the flow stops, I will b
Beyond the rapids
The river spoke to me the first time in the summer of 1988. With 5 friends, I was rafting down the Rogue in a trackless Oregon wilderness. For 2 days, the river toyed with us, carrying us along its rapids, and giving us joy. The final rapids, Blossom Bar, was of a different caliber. We missed a turn and the raft hit a rock. We scrambled for the high side, trying to get onto the rock. My booties hit the rock under the waterline, where the moss grew thick and wet. I slipped and instantly found myself submerged in the churning water. Fear takes time to build, so I felt none. Thoughts come faster. I thought that if I had to die, this was not a bad time or a bad place. I did not have to struggle for acceptance. The river provided it. Then, the vest and the current - not my will - brought me up again, and I was able to hold onto and climb another one of Blossom Bar's fencepost rocks. Life stared me cheerfully in the face and asked: 'And how do you propose to get off this thing?' I managed to, with a little help from my friends, only two of whom I remember by name: Johannes Rothlind & Paul Thorsnes. Thank you, guys.