Spring break reads range from offensive to outstanding

Siddhartha, Hermann Hesse, A New Directions Books. Courtesy of General Press via Flickr.

What did you do over spring break? I read. I went to the Bay Area to stay with my sister for a bit. I was struck by the place and decided to study up on stuff that happened there. Obviously, I read about Ken Kesey, acid, appropriated Buddhism and Thomas Pynchon. But by far the most enjoyable aspect of all was Oedipa Maas.

I started by reading Tom Wolfe’s “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test” on the journey back to Oregon. I live in Eugene, which is basically the town where Ken Kesey grew up, and the hippies and the acid and the whole Oregon connection really drew me in. I got 100 pages in, stopped, then picked it up again on the plane back to New York. I’ll let you know when I finish it. What I took away from this book were two quintessential ’60s texts: Herman Hesse’s “Siddhartha” and Thomas Pynchon’s “The Crying of Lot 49” (admittedly, “Siddhartha” was written in the ’20s, but it became popular in the ’60s).


The Crying of Lot 49
Thomas Pynchon
Harper Perennial
Courtesy of Brendan Riley via Flickr.

And while we’re on the subject of critiques of ’60s culture, let me add a brief aside: What the fuck was Timothy Leary on when he advocated for LSD as a personal growth tool? Like, I’ve read Nietzsche, I know what it’s like to question society. I’ve read “Dune,” I know what mind-bending drugs are like (and I’ve “heard from friends” that the stuff is pretty powerful). But, like, why did this man have to blend the two together so painfully? The best guide for the acid-trip, Leary writes somewhere, is Herman Hesse’s novel “Siddhartha.” Supposedly, this is the best guide for the acid-trip besides Leary’s own acid-Buddhist bullshit guide, “The Psychedelic Experience: A Manual Based on The Tibetan Book of the Dead.”

If that last sentence didn’t make you cringe, “Siddhartha” will. It’s a novel that follows a character named Siddhartha as he searches for meaning after breaking away from the teachings of the Brahmins and the Buddha. “Siddhartha” has been likened to other spiritually-inclined coming-of-age texts, which I feel is a bit unfair. The book seems like a coming-of-age text, but its protagonist is a fully-grown man for much of the story—as in fully grown but completely irresponsible. This man makes so many poor decisions that it is utterly astounding. Like, yes, it is totally fine to leave your “wife” and child because you feel like your spirituality tells you to. What I hate the most about this book in terms of character and plot is that there is never any genuine attempt to demonstrate how the main character has changed. He is a proud, pompous man from beginning to end.

And I am not going to come up here and state what Buddhism is or isn’t because that isn’t something I can say with certainty. Hermann Hesse, at one point, seemed to be a Buddhist. “Siddhartha” at least tangentially connects with some core ideas of Buddhism. But, for the majority of this book, Buddhism is really only espoused as a sort of tool for Herman Hesse’s whiteness. It’s something that the character Siddhartha moves away from when it doesn’t help him anymore. Buddhism is seen as a fantasy to be enamored by, not a facet of life.

Even worse, Hesse deploys “spirituality” as a tool to battle the all-important aspect of life: critical self-examination. Siddhartha searches so tirelessly to find a life that is his own. He struggles until his life is all but over, but I was always left with the feeling that he never really changed. Unlike the Dantes, Lao Tzus and Le Guins of the world, Siddhartha never fails; he never makes a mistake, because he never thinks. Mirroring its protagonist, “Siddhartha” is a book that will be forever comforting—as long as its reader forgets to question it.

In this context, the protagonist of the next book I’ll review is refreshing. “The Crying of Lot 49” is a book about a character named Oedipa Maas who, after being named an executor in her ex-lover’s will, apparently discovers the existence of an alternative mail system whose history extends far back into history. This is a novel that glares back at us with an uncomfortable sense of self-knowledge. Here is a plot of breadcrumbs we can follow down into the confusing, meaningfully meandering ends where the reveal of American Nazism is treated as back-handed facts. “Oh you didn’t know that Nazi intelligentsia immigrated into the U.S. after war?” the book seems to ask, “Well, consider that later. Right now we must stay focused. In front of us is evidence of the corruption embedded in alternative mail courier systems.”

It is a book where all possibilities are open, where two women are given center stage (Oedipa Maas and Remedios Varo) while we are brought along to pounce around the literary aesthetics of this reality until we forget what part we read, and what part we saw beyond the page. It is a book that opens with the Bordando el Manto Terrestre and tactfully leaves out the black-clad figure, forcing the women to compose the regalia of the world’s mantle. Here is a book that forces you to consider just what it means for Pynchon to stage such an event at such a point. More importantly, here is a book that accomplishes this in a way that is engaging. If you aren’t already intrigued by Maas’ name, maybe you will be by a character named Genghis Cohen, or the mystery behind the enigmatic W.A.S.T.E. bins you’ve seen in cities before. This is a book where a painting is just as illuminating as the actions of the protagonist, and where insanity ramps up right until the last, beautiful page.

4 Comments

  1. Hey Jimmy… Glad you had a nice break. Wanted to respond to your curt dismissal of some early thought once espoused by one of my very dearest friends in life, Dr. Timothy Leary.

    As far as I can tell, you base your dissing of Tim, primarily on 1) A beautiful work of semi-nonfiction written by fantastic writer Tom Wolfe about the great Kens, Kesey and Babbs and the other Merry Band of Pranksters in “Electric Kool Aid Acid Test”. Who were later joined by Tim, Rosemary Leary and Allen Ginsberg amongst others. Turns out Wolfe got that wrong. They did get together at Millbrook and there are photographs to prove it.

    Tim and the Kens by the way remained life long friends and huge admirers of each other (view the admittedly very flawed documentary “Timothy Leary’s Last Trip” as an example. And 2) an extremely early attempt to formalize some of what Timothy (along with the two other writers that you sadly neglected to credit, the brilliant and very recently deceased Ralph Metzner, and the quite wonderful and equally brilliant Richard Alpert, later known also as Ram Dass. Perhaps you can use a bit of historical perspective here. The book written by these three Harvard Profs, no bastion of alternative thought, at least not at the time, was begun in 1962 and published in 1964, only a couple years after those gentlemen first tried the magic mushrooms in Mexico. It was a very different world in 1964 as one can imagine.

    And the book was a first, early and bold attempt to try to formalize their experiences with a state of consciousness that I think most would have great difficulty writing about. Also wanted to suggest that you look up the plethora of books and articles that Tim put out over a lifetime before you dismiss his view of psychedelics after reading (reading?) solely this one of his many astounding tomes. The great Michael Horowitz, writer and Leary archivist put together the most complete bibliography of Tim’s work extant. Quite a bit more complete than what you’ll find on Wikipedia though that’s not a bad place to start. Nor is Tim’s Autobiography “Flashbacks”, which might help to contextualize the times.

    Won’t even attempt to figure out your outright dismissal of the genius Herman Hesse and his fine novel. A critique you are without doubt entitled to, though if you’ll pardon my slightly condescending tone here, with a certainty only possible by students of what I can only assume are of your undergraduate age. Not gonna make many friends here with that statement! But don’t worry, I of course was there too once upon a time! Though it was back in the late seventies. It’s our birthright and no doubt a necessary stage in our lives to be so very god damn positive of our absolute ability to discern and report the truth in all things.

    You might perhaps try reading Hesse’s “The Glass Bead Game”

    Tim, being groomed to head a department of Psychology at Harvard, chosen in part because he was, even pre-mushrooms, something of an iconoclastic thinker and psychologist, wrote that he learned more about the human mind during his first psychedelic experience on mushrooms than he had during the entirety of his study and work as a psychologist up until that time. Worth reading about the work he did following the publication of that book while still at Harvard (The Concord Prison Experiment and the Good Friday Experiment) and then later at Millbrook. Including his being chosen as one of the 100 most important Psychologists of the Twentieth Century.

    That said the psychedelic experience itself is most definitly not for everyone, nor will some find any internal and eternal knowledge there. Frankly psychedelics are just one tool of many a person can utilize for personal growth. Some should clearly stay the hell away from them entirely. A few others might find they can reach very similar states through practices like Holotropic Breathing, the Breath Work of Dr. Stan Grof.

    Well, I should wrap this up I guess. Let me leave you with a couple of thoughts along with these words from Timothy, spoken during his last year on the planet (perhaps you heard that some of his ashes were shot into space along with those of Gene Roddenberry). He said when looking back at his lifetime of work, “A third of what I said and wrote was clearly mundane, not that interesting. Another third was just plain wrong. But a third was world class philosophy, and if you bat .333 in baseball, they put you into the Hall of Fame!”

    So I’d encourage others to take your thoughts Jimmy with perhaps a grain or two of salt, and go read these fine books you list and many others and decide for themselves how much they agree or disagree with your thesis. Might I suggest Tim’s aforementioned Autobiography, “Flashbacks”. Or anything by Dr. John Lilly including “The Scientist”. For a slightly more irreverent take, Robert Anton Wilson’s “Cosmic Trigger: The final Secret of the Illuminati”. And of course, one of Kesey’s great books “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” amongst many others. Including some of the more challenging works by Pynchon. Tim wrote about interviewing him by the way. He probably did! (must give a shout out to the under appreciated film based on Pynchon, “Inherent Vice”. Oh btw, “Crying” is the only Pynchon I’ve ever read too.)

    And then look up some of what Tim wrote next about computers and the internet, back in the early 80’s before most of us even understood what the hell those things were. Even if you don’t appreciate “Psychedelic Experience”, perhaps read some of Tim’s later works before you dismiss his thoughts completely. You wouldn’t want to be remembered solely by this review would you Jimmy? All the best! M.D. Segel

    • Hi Michael! I actually agree with a lot of the points you made. I do feel that I was too dismissive of Timothy Leary and that I didn’t give him a fair depiction. You were right that most of the information came from Tom Wolfe’s book, but I never meant any disrespect. The point of the line in my review was to draw attention to how Buddhism was being utilized to create a certain aesthetic surrounding acid and spirituality. Embedded in this duality is an idea of social critique. I thought, and still think, that “Siddhartha” attempts at existential criticism don’t land all that well because of a lack of self-knowledge. I also found its use of Buddhism to be somewhat tone-deaf, which is the same issue I had with Leary, Alpert, and Metzner’s “Tibetan Book of the Dead” psychedelic guide.

      In my review, my dismissal of both “Siddhartha” and Leary stem from a critical misfire in how they engage with Buddhism. As I said in my review, Siddhartha never learns! The Buddha warns Siddhartha about his desire to find the world on his own and the suffering that he predicted does indeed come to pass. Siddhartha abandons the love of his life, traumatizes his son, and almost commits suicide because of his actions. In some sense this can be read as classically Buddhist. Suffering exists in the world, and we can see that Siddhartha’s suffering stems from his desires. Where I think Hesse messes up is that he never makes this leap and instead rejects the Buddhist rationale for a half-baked idea of mystical self-expression. Something feels very disingenuous to me about the voice of the River at the end of the novel. And given this novel’s endorsement by Leary, and its popularity in the 60s, I found something troubling in how this novel alludes to the whitewashing we see of Buddhism in our modern age. In the review I attribute this to Hesse’s whiteness. I use this term not to write off Hesse as a novelist and as a person, but instead to denote the desire of whiteness to appropriate other traditions and cultures in order to satisfy a desire that the modern age cannot provide to those that identify simply as “white.” Certainly Hesse and Leary would have no idea what I am talking about here, but at this point I am addressing issues that I see in our modern age and not necessarily an issue inherent to the text (although it certainly appears in the text).

      That being said, I agree with you that it is a fine novel. It is short, moving, and well-told. I also found it particularly comforting and helpful to read. Reading Leary’s description of it actually makes me appreciate it a bit more. In fact, the critiques I am leveling here does not make this book inherently bad. I just have some very clear issues that I wanted to address by using the book. Some part of me feels like I was too harsh in the review, but I feel that that criticism was necessary for the purpose of the article: I thought that Pynchon’s 49 accomplished many of the same things Siddhartha attempts but on a level that resonates more with today’s culture. Does this make Siddhartha a bad novel? No. But for the purpose of the review it made sense to hammer my critiques of that novel to expose flaws that I see in our modern age that stem from the culture established in the 60s. The flaw that I see in “Siddhartha” is not its wonderful sense of self-discovery–or the genuine comfort that the novel provides–but its treatment of Buddhism as if it is antithetical to its identity as a novel.

      And nothing is perfect, least of all my review. In a perfect world I would be able to get across the joy I felt while reading “Siddhartha” and have the room to explain the change in opinion I’ve had towards Timothy Leary. After some cursory research and soul-searching, I agree that I was too dismissive of Timothy Leary. And I’m thankful that you pointed that out. I feel that critique and criticism are important aspects of our modern culture, and I feel that it is all too easy for me to get swept up in the rush to critique without really thinking about what exactly it is that I am critiquing. I’ve enjoyed all the interviews of Leary that I have listened to. He sounds like someone that I agree with more than I disagree. And he seems to be someone that stands for all the good things that occurred in the 1960s. None of this is reflected in my review, so I’m glad I have the opportunity to respond here to the comment you made. He saw something wrong with the world and he wanted to change that. I can respect that. In fact, I respect that quality so much that it was what motivated me to write this article in the first place.

  2. Hello James! Just noticed your kind and thoughtful response. Hope to reply in kind (sort of pun intended) shortly. Life is full but will try to get back to you soon. In the mean time, many thanks! Look forward to continuing the conversation. Just know that last Sunday while biking with my daughter on the Venice bike path I ran into great friend, writer and Merry-ist of Pranksters Ken Babbs who appeared quite well and if all goes well-er (sic) will be coming out with his own book of wild tales before too long (it’s with his agent I believe). All the best to you, Michael Segel

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