53. Hermann Hesse – Siddhartha (1951)

Barry Miles describes Burroughs’ mother as an early influence when it came to esoteric religion. She was a follower of Sri Aurobindo (who I am yet to read at this point), and he believed Burroughs to be “years ahead of Ginsberg and Kerouac” in studying Buddhism.

To drive this point home, Miles states that Laura Lee sent her son a copy of Siddhartha on its first American publication in 1951.

Arguably, the horse had long bolted by 1951, as far as Buddhist oneness was concerned. By that point, Burroughs was either deep into the drunken pit of self-loathing that led to him killing his wife, or else reeling from the aftermath of that.

If Hesse was going to have a big impact on Burroughs, he would have had to have read it earlier and, although he did speak German, the very fact that his mother sent him the first English-language translation, suggests he had not already come across it (during his time in Vienna, for example) nor read the book in its original language.

Still, there are some intriguing continuities between Hesse’s core themes and Burroughs’. Hesse portrays a spiritual master who can transfix a man with a gaze. This hypnotism recurs in Burroughs’ reading, and is a skill he too practiced, possibly also influencing his preference for hypnotherapy over talking cures.

There is the spiritual rebirth of the liberated Siddhartha as a variety of changing forms (suggestive of the Deluge theme), among these a crying baby and a precocious youth.

Finally, and most importantly, Hesse’s description of time as an illusion seems to fit into Burroughs’ own notions of time as a tape recording. Instead of a tape reel, Siddhartha experiences the river: its source, its flow, its emergence into the sea, and its return to the source through clouds and rain.

The water is indifferent to its place in the cycle: “the present only exists for it, not the shadow of the past, nor the shadow of the future.”

As he spends years as a ferryman, Siddhartha reaches enlightenment through contemplating the river. Eventually seeing in it “himself and his relatives and all the people he had ever seen.”

Enlightenment is therefore presented as an immersion in the total flow of being that allows one, through detachment, to experience the eternity behind the flow through its repeated action.

It’s a far more calming image than Burroughs’ vision of the universe as a pre-recorded tape, or a “time track” (as Dunne, then Hubbard, describe it). Burroughs’ tape isn’t something you want to immerse yourself in – it’s something you want to cut up, scramble, leap out of, and otherwise free yourself from.

James Grauerholz states that Burroughs never really understood Buddhism. I can agree with this, and see why it would be the case. I would be tempted to expand that to include all Westerners, to be honest, as our language and ways of thought, steeped in two thousand years of Christianity, does not simply leap over in an instant into an equally old, equally total world vision.

Burroughs, nevertheless, was a bad Buddhist even by Western Buddhist standards.

Considering the potential influence of Hesse on Burroughs, I am led back once again to the idea that his fatalism is an adapted Calvinism. His interest in esoterica, including Eastern religions, appears to be pragmatic – the quest for immortality – rather than a desire to adopt a foreign belief system.