At my highly privileged school, there used to be a class called “Div”. Div classes happened most days. They were a chance for the assigned teacher to throw anything he (always a he) thought might be of use for the development of the child. One year we had a teacher called David Lorimer, who had almost been an Olympic runner. He and his fiancee would sometimes be seen canoodling in the water meadows, before she ditched him. (So the story went). Lorimer was a strange product of liberal England. Probably born in the fifties. In many ways he seemed like a decent, understated man, albeit one who didn’t seem particularly happy with his chosen life plan, to be a teacher at a public school. There’s a curious British strand of intellectual endeavour which veers towards mysticism and this was the direction Lorimer lead us. I’m not sure if we studied Gurdjjeff or Castaneda under Lorimer, but I know we read Colin Wilson’s The Outsider, a book which opened several doors, Huxley, and the doyen of a kind of post-sixties consciousness, Herman Hesse, among others.
This slightly mystic strand continues in the British consciousness. Sometimes it seems to me that our colonial endeavours owed as much to this instinct as they did to the commercial imperative. (Which is not to deny the significance of the latter.) From T E Lawrence to The Beatles there’s a longing to escape the straightjacket of the classified, calcified British social structures and flee into the uplands of the mind. Hesse caters perfectly to this longing. HIs writing created a spiritual firmament waiting to be occupied. It was potent material within the confines of a privileged boarding school.
All of Hesse’s novels have a spiritual flavour, but none more so than Siddhartha, a straightforward retelling of the life of a Buddhist savant. The novel is beguilingly simple. The book is not just successful because it tells a cute story, but also because it does so with no-nonsense prose and a clear narrative rhythm. In spite of its spiritual themes, the story moves along at a good lick. The India Hesse describes feels like it might be centuries old or it could be today. At the heart of the book is an anti-intellectualism that chimes perfectly with a British sensibility. Enlightenment will not be achieved through teaching, but via a personal quest, a journey to the innermost corners of the soul.
Re-reading the novel today, you can perfectly understand its appeal to adolescents trapped in a world where it seemed logical to question an established order which decreed that learning was there in order to prepare you for a life of tedious social conformity. If that was all that learning had to offer, what was it really good for? Hesse articulates the possibility of an alternative, more individualistic method and objective for the process of learning, one that denies the materialist values of society. Although it must be added that it would not appear that Mr Lorimer’s Div classes, or our reading of Hesse, ever had any real transformative effect on the society we eventually inherited.