Archive for October, 2011

McCarthy: The Border Trilogy

October 28, 2011

The Border Trilogy
All The Pretty Horses; The Crossing; Cities of the Plain
Cormac McCarthy
(Everyman’s Library, 1999) [1992; 1994; 1998]
302 p.; 426 p.; 292 p.

Set in the period spanning the 1930s to 1950s, the Border Trilogy — considered on the most superficial level, at least — shows us the cowboy’s life pushed to the brink of extinction by the modern world. Yet it would be wrong to say that the books are about the conflict between the old and new, for the new, considered in itself, is barely visible. McCarthy achieves a deft reversal of figure and ground: it is not the cattle trail that crosses the interstate, but the interstate that crosses the cattle trail. The world of these characters is dominated by the horse; motorized vehicles appear only as temporary interlopers. No, the precariousness of the horseman’s life is conveyed not so much through encroachments by industrial society as by the narrow, dangerous space into which these men are pushed in order to preserve their way of life.

All three stories take place along the borderland between Mexico and the United States. In all three, young American men cross the border to seek their fortunes on the Mexican side, where horse and rider still dominate the landscape. And in all three — this is Cormac McCarthy, after all — the results are harrowing. Here is no heroic tale of saloons and sharp-shooters, high-noon showdowns and corrals, riders and sunsets. When they cross the border to Mexico they enter a world where the law is weak or corrupt, and where violence is brutal and pervasive. It is a dark vision. In each story, a light — whether it is love, friendship, or the simple desire for adventure — is held up in the face of this darkness, and a battle ensues.

I cannot remember when last I read a book, much less a series of books, in which male friendship was so central. In All the Pretty Horses, it is the friendship of John Grady Cole and Lacey Rawlins, two young Texans seeking work on a Mexican ranch. In The Crossing it is the fraternal bond between Billy and Boyd Parham, who seek revenge when their parents are killed by horse thieves. Cities of the Plain brings together, some years later, John Grady Cole and Billy Parham, now friends. I remark on this because for some reason our modern culture seems particularly inept at portraying friendships between men. Boorishness we can manage, chummy frivolity we can manage, but genuine friendship, founded on trust and affection between rough and intelligent men, is rarer in our popular imagination than it ought to be. McCarthy’s achievement in these novels, in which the central friendships are wholly believable, is therefore all the more praiseworthy.

As I noted when I read The Road a few years ago, McCarthy’s prose strikes me with its close observation of actions and objects. There is a minuteness of detail about his descriptions of things that stands in contrast to, and perhaps in place of, the almost complete absence of psychological detail. We are shown characters doing things, and we hear them saying things, but we are almost never granted direct access to their thoughts. This is not as alienating as you might think. Here is an example, selected partly because it illustrates the point and partly because it consists of just one, fairly amazing, sentence:

They rode the high country for weeks and they grew thin and gaunted man and horse and the horse grazed on the sparse winter grass in the mountains and gnawed the lichens from the rock and the boy shot trout with his arrows where they stood above their shadows on the cold stone floors of the pools and ate them and ate green nopal and then on a windy day traversing a high saddle in the mountains a hawk passed before the sun and its shadow ran so quick in the grass before them that it caused the horse to shy and the boy looked up where the bird turned high above them and he took the bow from his shoulder and nocked and loosed an arrow and watched it rise with the wind rattling the fletching slotted into the cane and watched it turning and arcing and the hawk wheeling and then flaring suddenly with the arrow locked in its pale breast. (The Crossing, 129)

There is a lot of landscape description in these novels, and both land and weather are important to their atmosphere. I was surprised to find quite a lot of humour, albeit edgy and often bleak, in the books. (There was no humour in The Road.) There is a good deal of Spanish dialogue in all three books, which left me in the dark more than a few times. And, as the passage above indicates, McCarthy’s trademark negligence of grammatical niceties is well in evidence throughout. I am still not entirely convinced by this practice. It risks being an affectation, and if McCarthy were a literary noodler, rather than the steely-eyed craftsman that he is, I believe his style would be his undoing. As its best, his narrative voice achieves a kind of primitive power, and occasionally breaks through into the realm of poetry. Consider, for example, this passage, in which repetition and variation seem to suspend time, conveying something of the ecstatic and dizzying experience of the characters — the experience, in this case, being that of young love:

The nightdamp laid the dust going up the ciénaga road and they rode the horses side by side at a walk, sitting the animals bareback and riding with hackamores. Leading the horses by hand out through the gate into the road and mounting up and riding the horses side by side up the ciénaga road with the moon in the west and some dogs barking over toward the shearing-sheds and the greyhounds answering back from their pens and him closing the gate and turning and holding his cupped hands for her to step into and lifting her onto the black horse’s naked back and then untying the stallion from the gate and stepping once onto the gateslat and mounting up all in one motion and turning the horse and them riding side by side up the ciénaga road with the moon in the west like a moon of white linen hung from wires and some dogs barking. (All the Pretty Horses, 140)

The trilogy, though in a sense rather loosely connected, works well as a whole. Of the three volumes, I judge the last, Cities of the Plain, to be the weakest. The first two books are quest stories; the third lacks that satisfying shape, and, despite a strong finish, seems to me to lack direction. The first quarter of The Crossing could be carved off to stand on its own, and I am not entirely sure what role it serves in the trilogy as a whole, but I will say that it was one of my favourite sections. In each panel of the trilogy, but especially in the second, there is an element that reminded me, if you can believe it, of Homer: the quest is interrupted at intervals by strangers, encountered on the road, who deliver speeches and then move on.

The books are more or less full of violence and lawlessness, though not so much as to confuse the distinction between good and evil. The Mexico of McCarthy’s world is a land where justice can hardly be hoped for, where civilization itself has only a precarious hold. The viciousness of the Mexican criminal set is balanced, however, by the consistent generosity of the Mexican poor, who repeatedly take the Americans into their homes and under their wings. And at a deeper level, too, there are glimmers here and there of a more foundational goodness:

That night he dreamt of horses in a field on a high plain where the spring rains had brought up the grass and the wildflowers out of the ground and the flowers ran all blue and yellow as far as the eye could see and in the dream he was among the horses running and in the dream he himself could run with the horses and they coursed the young mares and fillies over the plain where their rich bay and their rich chestnut colors shone in the sun and the young colts ran with their dams and trampled down the flowers in a haze of pollen that hung in the sun like powdered gold and they ran he and the horses out along the high mesas where the ground resounded under their running hooves and they flowed and changed and ran and their manes and rails blew off of them like spume and there was nothing else at all in that high world and they moved all of them in a resonance that was like a music among them and they were none of them afraid horse nor colt nor mare and they ran in that resonance which is the world itself and which cannot be spoken but only praised. (All the Pretty Horses, 161-2)

The significance of such passages is ambiguous, however, for threaded through the trilogy, and growing more prominent as it proceeds, is a streak of fatalism, a sense that the good or evil that happens is inevitable, and that nothing can be done to help or hinder it — the destruction of the specifically moral dimension of life, in other words. Arguably, this is expressed implicitly in McCarthy’s avoidance, mentioned above, of psychological detail about his characters. The dream sequence above is an exception to the general rule, which might be called a behavioural approach to fiction: a veil is drawn over the inner life, including the moral life, and while we might infer intention or desire from action, we never experience them directly, and so could, if so inclined, doubt their reality. More explicitly, too, the role of fate is given expression on numerous occasions:

For me the world has always been more of a puppet show. But when one looks behind the curtain and traces the strings upward he finds they terminate in the hands of yet other puppets, themselves with their own strings which trace upward in turn, and so on. In my own life I saw these strings whose origins were endless enact the deaths of great men in violence and madness. Enact the ruin of a nation. (All the Pretty Horses, 231)

This view of life reaches an apotheosis in the Epilogue to Cities of the Plain, which is an extended dialogue on the ultimate sovereignty of fate, and serves as a rather dispiriting conclusion to the trilogy as a whole. In McCarthy’s next novel, No Country for Old Men, this fate found personification (arguably) in the character of Anton Chigurh. But that is a tale for another time.


[Religion, tame and otherwise]
“And the priest? A man of broad principles. Of liberal sentiments. Even a generous man. Something of a philosopher. Yet one might say that his way through the world was so broad it scarcely made a path at all. He carried within himself a great reverence for the world, this priest. He heard the voice of the Deity in the murmur of the wind in the trees. Even the stones were sacred. He was a reasonable man and he believed that there was love in his heart.

There was not. Nor does God whisper through the trees. His voice is not to be mistaken. When men hear it they fall to their knees and their souls are riven and they cry out to Him and there is no fear in them but only that wildness of heart that springs from such longing and they cry out to stay His presence for they know at once that while godless men may live well enough in their exile those to whom He has spoken can contemplate no life without Him but only darkness and despair. Trees and stones are no part of it. So. The priest in the very generosity of his spirit stood in mortal peril and knew it not. He believed in a boundless God without center or circumference. By this very formlessness he’d sought to make God manageable. This was his colindancia. In his grandness he had ceded all terrain. And in this colindancia God had no say at all.

To see God everywhere is to see Him nowhere. We go from day to day, one day much like the next, and then on a certain day all unannounced we come upon a man or we see this man who is perhaps already known to us and is a man like all men but who makes a certain gesture of himself that is like the piling of one’s goods upon an altar and in this gesture we recognize that which is buried in our hearts and is never truly lost to us nor ever can be and it is this moment, you see. This same moment. It is this which we long for and are afraid to seek and which alone can save us.” (The Crossing, 152-3)



Death at Pemberley

October 25, 2011

I am not in the habit of perusing lists of forthcoming books, but one particular book recently caught my eye: Death Comes to Pemberley, by P.D. James. James, looking to do something a little different after all these years, I suppose, has written a murder-mystery ‘sequel’ to Pride and Prejudice, with my beloved Elizabeth Bennet — or, should I say, Elizabeth Darcy — in the role of sleuth.

Is it a silly idea? Sure, sort of. Is it presumptuous to trespass in this way on sacred literary ground? We’ll see. James is a good enough writer that she just might — might — be able to pull it off.

Anyway, my eyebrows have gone up. The book is to be published next week, on November 3.

Great moments in opera: La bohème

October 24, 2011

It is one of the most popular operas in the repertoire, and has been since its 1896 premiere. It is a wonderful piece: tender, tragic, big-hearted, yet written to a human scale, and awash in gorgeous melodies. There are few operas that I enjoy more than this. In my opinion it is Puccini’s best.

The first Act is a marvel. It opens with a scene of warm, intelligent, and heartening male camaraderie, the likes of which we do not often see in our contemporary popular entertainments. This yields to the first meeting of the opera’s principal romantic leads, Rodolfo and Mimi. Mimi knocks on the door of Rodolfo’s flat, her candle having gone out. The two arias in which they introduce themselves to one another must be among the greatest back-to-back arias in the operatic tradition. Rodolfo begins, singing Che gelida manina (What a cold little hand), and, with hardly a beat wasted, Mimi responds with Si, mi chiamano Mimi (Yes, they call me Mimi). The music of both arias is integral to the score of La bohème, reappearing in various guises as the story develops.

Here is Che gelida manina, sung by Luciano Pavarotti, with English subtitles. This clip is long; the aria begins at 4:25.

And here is the young Mirella Freni singing the response, Si, mi chiamano Mimi.

After a short transitional section, the first Act closes with a famous duet for Rodolfo and Mimi, O soave fanciulla (O gentle maiden), in which the pair sing of the love that has suddenly blossomed between them. It is probably my favourite section of music in the opera. It is sung here by Jussi Bjorling and Renata Tebaldi, in a performance from 1956. No subtitles, but you can find the text and translation here. Don’t neglect to listen to the off-stage high notes at the end!

Act II takes place in an open air Parisian cafe, and introduces us to Musetta, a fiery beauty whose on-again, off-again relationship with Rodolfo’s friend Marcello plays as counterpoint to the tender romance of Rodolfo and Mimi. The big showpiece in this Act is “Musetta’s Waltz”, Quando me’n vo’ (When I go along), sung here by Adriana Martino in a performance from 1965, with English subtitles.

The third Act takes place on a cold, wintry night at a lonely toll gate to the city. It is a wonderfully atmospheric segment of the opera. Several months have passed, and Mimi has grown ill with tuberculosis. Rodolfo, overcome with grief at her suffering, is tempted to separate from her, fearing that he will be unable to bear her further deterioration. But he resists the temptation, and he and Mimi vow to remain together, at least until the spring. The Act closes with a splendid quartet, Addio, dolce svegliare (Goodbye, sweet awakening), in which the faltering but resilient love of Rodolfo and Mimi is celebrated against the background quarreling of Marcello and Musetta. Neil Shicoff and Ileana Cotrubas sing Rodolfo and Mimi, and Thomas Allen and Marilyn Zschau sing Marcello and Musetta, from a Royal Opera House (London) performance from 1982.

In the fourth and final Act Mimi’s illness has worsened. She and Rodolfo have a lovely duet, Sono andati? (Have they gone?), in which they reminisce about their first meeting (from Act I). Their recollections are happy ones, but sorrow hangs over them; as listeners, we suspect that they have turned to memories because the looming future is so unbearably sad. Here are Luciano Pavarotti and Fiamma D’Amico, from 1986. This clip actually continues straight through to the end of the opera.

The closing pages of La bohème are devastating. For the first time since the opera began, the orchestra falls silent for an extended period, so that we begin to hear stage noises, footsteps scuffling on the floor. The singers drop into spoken dialogue, frantic and halting. By these means, Puccini achieves something quite remarkable: he conveys something of the sheer eeriness of death. When it is done well, the effect is unforgettable.

The Ig Nobels

October 21, 2011

I am a few weeks late on this, but did anyone notice that the 2011 Ig Nobel Prizes were given out recently? These prizes, awarded each year in advance of the Nobel Prize announcements, acknowledge scientific research “that cannot, or should not, be reproduced”.

The prizes this year went to a remarkable set of studies, running the gamut from the yawning habits of tortoises to the mating habits of beetles. One research group discovered that spinning in circles can make people dizzy, and another found that ‘urge to void’ affects decision making. The Peace Prize went to the insane mayor of Vilnius, who has no patience with illegally parked cars.

See the full list of winners.

Chesterton: The Outline of Sanity

October 20, 2011

The Outline of Sanity
G.K. Chesterton
(Ignatius, 1987) [1926]

210 p.

This is Chesterton’s main work on his economic ideal, which went under the name of ‘Distributism’. This is a side of Chesterton’s thought to which I have not had much exposure, in part because I am not really interested in (and don’t really understand) economics, and so haven’t sought it out.

Distributism was proposed as an economic “third way” between capitalism and socialism. Chesterton believed that both capitalism and socialism had monopoly as their telos, tending to concentrate ownership and wealth in the hands of a few. Distributism, on the contrary, is a scheme for distributing property and private ownership on as large a scale as possible. Property, Chesterton believed, promoted liberty and was a bulwark to protect the family and private life against the intrusions of the state. In practical terms, the Distributist ideal bears a certain resemblance to a peasant society, each family owning a home and a small plot of land, supporting itself by growing food and plying a trade or running a small business. This resemblance gave Chesterton a clever riposte to the complaint that Distributism is an impossible ideal: on the contrary, he says, it has already been realized in history.

Of course, many other objections spring to mind quite readily, and much of The Outline of Sanity is given over to Chesterton’s attempts to answer them. One criticism is that the Distributist scheme is unstable: even were widespread property ownership realized, the natural dynamics of the market would tend to destroy it. A powerful and intrusive state would be required to maintain the status quo, and this is incompatible with the Distributist idea. But Chesterton counters that in fact a Distributist state on the model of a peasantry could be stable if people were unwilling to sell, if there were a kind of social stigma against forsaking one’s land:

You do not make laws for a peasantry. You make a peasantry; and the peasants make the laws. I do not mean, as will be clear enough when I come to more detailed matters, that laws must not be used for the establishment of a peasantry or even for the protection of it. But I mean that the character of a peasantry does not depend on laws. The character of a peasantry depends on peasants. Men have remained side by side for centuries in their separate and fairly equal farms, without many of them losing their land, without any of them buying up the bulk of the land.

In other words, the Distributist state relies not only on a body of law, but also on a particular kind of citizen: responsible, self-reliant, possessing a sense of pride in his labour, and unwilling to relinquish his way of life for financial gain. His ideal citizens, someone once said, would be “devout Catholics, keen patriots, and heavy drinkers.” You and I may maintain some doubt as to whether this describes our friends and neighbours, but this is Chesterton’s vision.

Another objection is that an economy structured around small-scale family businesses and agriculture could not support large-scale industrialization and all that comes with it. This is quite true, and Chesterton does not try to deny it, but he again counters that the object of economic activity is, or should be, to increase human happiness, not necessarily to increase human wealth or display human ingenuity. It may be best to turn the machines off and shut the refineries down if it results in greater happiness: “If we can make men happier, it does not matter if we make them poorer, it does not matter if we make them less productive, it does not matter if we make them less progressive, in the sense of merely changing their life without increasing their liking for it.” (More.) This objection is true as far as it goes, but again I have some doubt as to how popular such a proposal could be. Charges of “Luddite!” would be flying so thickly that one would have to be careful not to get hit.

The Distributist state is largely static, and so would be anathema to those who, for reasons that I have never quite been able to fathom, believe that the economy must grow every quarter, month, week, and day of the year. Granted, the economy must grow at the same rate as the population in order to maintain the standard of living, but beyond that the constant stress on growth strikes me as bizarre.

All of this is to say that the economic state of affairs proposed by Distributism is vastly different in many respects from the current state of affairs. Even I, who profess a capacious ignorance of the theory and practice of economics, can see that much. Certain things which we currently possess and value would have to be forsaken in order for something like Distributism to be realized. Chesterton is again very candid about this, saying that it would require, especially in the beginning, a spirit of renunciation.

In the economic battle of the titans in the twentieth-century, capitalism has been the big winner, socialism the big loser, and Distributism — well, Distributism has neither won nor lost, because it has not really been tried. In that sense I suppose it has lost. But there are signs here and there that something like Distributism might be gaining some traction. The economic turmoil of the last few years has provoked some to ask whether there might be another way. The backlash against “globalization”, against big corporations, and against factory farming in favour of local, organic foods and family-scale farms and businesses is certainly in the spirit of Distributism. Farmer’s markets are Distributist. The “crunchy conservatives” are tilling a nearby field. These account for only a small ripple in the overall economy, but they are there nonetheless, and I imagine Chesterton would have seen them as a sign of hope.

The Mill & The Cross

October 17, 2011

It has long been a dream of mine to see a film made in the visual style of a favourite painter. My particular wish has been for a film on the life of St. Francis filmed in the style of Giotto, and I am still waiting. (Also, it has to be made by a film-making genius and a saint, so I will probably be waiting for a while yet.)

In the meantime, a film in the style of Peter Bruegel would be a close second choice, and I can hardly believe that my dream may have come true. The Mill & The Cross, directed by a Polish filmmaker named Lech Majewski, takes us inside Bruegel’s painting The Road to Calvary, retaining the look of his characters and landscapes. I do not know what the film is actually about. It seems too good to be true that it could actually be about Calvary. I notice from the Wikipedia page that one of the central characters is Mary, so that is encouraging. But the trailer doesn’t give many clues to the story.

The visuals in this trailer are breathtaking, especially if you are a lover of Bruegel, but be warned that some of the imagery is unusually gruesome for a trailer. The film was shown at Sundance earlier this year, but I have no idea when, or if, it will get a wide release. Maybe never. In any case, this is terribly, terribly tantalizing.

Great moments in opera: Anna Bolena

October 16, 2011

Yesterday I was able to attend, for the first time, one of the Met Live in HD broadcasts. (This is a programme whereby the Metropolitan Opera in New York broadcasts live via satellite to movie theatres around the world.) I saw Donizetti’s Anna Bolena, with Anna Netrebko singing the title role. I enjoyed myself thoroughly. It’s a good way to see an opera: you get the excitement of a live performance, but with close-up visuals of the singers, plus some backstage footage, including interviews with the principals. I’d like to go again someday.

Anna Bolena is not one of Donizetti’s most popular operas, though it does retain a toe-hold on the periphery of the repertory. He wrote 70-odd in total, so it is not surprising that not all are in wide circulation. Anna Bolena was his 35th, and was, I am told, his first big success. That’s resilience for you. The story is about the fateful last days of Anne Boleyn. There are five main roles: Anne, as the troubled Queen; Henry VIII, her (gratifyingly) villainous husband, who is looking for an excuse to rid himself of Anne in order to make room for Jane Seymour; then there is Jane, of course, a confidant of Anne but also secretly carrying on with Henry; Lord Percy, in love with Anne for many years and now returned from exile; and Smeaton, a royal page, also in love with Anne, whose fantasies become the occasion for her downfall.

I am not a connoisseur of bel canto opera; though I may listen for ever so long, I cannot really tell my Donizettis from my Bellinis and my Rossinis. There is certainly something formulaic about the music of Anna Bolena, but it’s a winning formula, and I am not complaining. Donizetti wrote the entire thing in about a month. It falls easily on the ear, is full of beautiful lines and brilliant high notes, and includes a smattering of dramatic duets and trios. At just under three hours in performance, the argument could be made that it goes on longer than it needs to, and the second act (of two) in particular could be profitably edited for brevity.

The relative rarity of this opera translates into few available video clips, and none (as far as I can find) with English subtitles. Here is a duet, called Va’, infelice (Go, unhappy one), for Anne and Jane, from Act II. Anne, condemned by Henry and awaiting her fate, offers forgiveness to Jane for her betrayal, but Jane receives the forgiveness like a burden. “Your pardon is worse than the scorn which I feared.” The two roles are sung here by Anna Netrebko and Elina Garanca, from a Viennese production staged earlier this year. It would be hard to imagine two more glamorous sopranos in these regal roles!

The most famous scene in the opera is probably the ‘mad scene’ from near the end of Act II. It is not so famous as Donizetti’s other mad scene, from Lucia di Lammermoor, but it is fair to say that it is Anna Bolena‘s big hit. Anne is in prison, and has gone mad. She sings about how her wedding day has finally arrived, the king awaits her, and so forth. A chorus of ladies comments on how sad is her plight. Then she thinks of Percy, and of death, and imagines a scene of pastoral beauty: a quiet river, and green trees, where she can forget her troubles. Anna Netrebko sings again, from the same Viennese production.

Finally, here is the last scene in the opera, in which Anne, facing execution, and in response to pitying comments from the crowd, asks God’s mercy on those who are taking her life. It’s a moment of heroic magnanimity, played rather too vengefully by Anna Netrebko here. But I like the final gesture. The closing moments of the Met production were even better: Anna exposed her neck, and then began to rise, on a platform, toward the menacing figure of the executioner, high above the stage, as the curtain fell. Terrific.

Of neutrinos and systematic errors

October 14, 2011

Since the surprising ‘discovery’ of faster-than-light neutrinos was announced a few weeks ago, quite a few people have brought the topic up in conversation with me. My response has been that the experimentalists, despite their diligence and expertise, have undoubtedly overlooked a systematic error in their analysis, and that the ‘finding’ will go away when the experimental method is analyzed more closely.

Earlier this week an interesting paper was published by Ronald van Elburg of the University of Groningen that seems to be exactly the sort of thing I was expecting. He argues that the experimentalists overlooked a subtle relativistic effect that affects the synchronization of the clocks used to measure the speed of the neutrinos. His back-of-the-envelope estimate for the resulting error is almost exactly what is needed to bring the neutrinos velocity back below the speed of light where it belongs.

The paper is short and not hard to read. An even more accessible summary can be found here. I like the way the summary concludes:

If it [the proposed explanation] stands up, this episode will be laden with irony. Far from breaking Einstein’s theory of relatively, the faster-than-light measurement will turn out to be another confirmation of it.

Exactly so. It would be nice if this turned out to be the answer to the riddle.


October 12, 2011

As I was driving to work this morning I found myself parked behind a city bus sporting an ad for something called JesusWeen.

The idea — due, as I am sure is clear, to our evangelical Protestant friends — is that there should be a wholesome alternative to Halloween and that it should have a ridiculous name. They would like to replace the dark and evil overtones of Halloween with something more within the ambit of Christian culture.

I am not saying this is a bad idea, but does it fall to me to suggest the obvious?

Hesse: The Glass Bead Game

October 2, 2011

The Glass Bead Game
Hermann Hesse
(Jonathan Cape, 1970) [1943]
Translated from the German by Richard & Clara Winston
558 p.

The Glass Bead Game is a cultural practice of great elegance and virtuosity. Though in the beginning it was played with glass beads as props to mark the stages of the game’s progress, it evolved into a purely mental art — the mental art par excellence. Each game consists of an extended, creative meditation on themes from intellectual history. Like any intellectual endeavour, it can be a mere playground for savants, with dazzle and brilliance as the objectives, but in its highest forms it achieves the grace and beauty of true art, passing over into contemplation of truth, and may even be a means of spiritual awakening. The Game is intellectual music, modeling itself on the poise and finesse of great baroque masters: Couperin, Scarlatti, and Bach; and it proceeds by elaboration of themes, development of variations, flights of improvisation, and so forth. A player describes the Game and its ideal player in this way:

Scholarship has not been cheerful always and everywhere, although it ought to be. But with us scholarship, which is the cult of truth, is closely allied to the cult of the beautiful, and allied also with the practice of spiritual refreshment by meditation. Consequently it can never entirely lose its serene cheerfulness. Our Glass Bead Game combines all three principles: learning, veneration of the beautiful, and meditation; and therefore a proper Glass Bead Game player ought to be drenched in cheerfulness as a ripe fruit is drenched in its sweet juices.

The finest Glass Bead Game players devote themselves entirely to it, training from a young age in a quasi-monastic environment of study and aesthetic refinement. They are celibates, living in community, and they need not labour for their bread. Their Order, with its hierarchical authorities and elaborate ritual, has self-consciously modeled itself on the Benedictines. In fact, the Game itself has the status of something like a secular religion, existing alongside the Catholic Church, and in tension with it, but paying it the honour of imitation.

The Church appears to be the only cultural institution from our own time that has survived to the period in which Hesse’s story takes place — which, as I deduce from various hints that are dropped, is about 500 years in the future. All else has burned up in a great series of wars, the details of which are hardly sketched, but which can be plausibly linked to the wars raging around Hesse as he wrote. Little of modernity survived the cultural conflagration: at one point a character makes fleeting reference to Kant, who is described only as a philosopher ‘not well known’, and, as I already mentioned, it is the music of the baroque that is revered, with everything from Beethoven forward having passed into happy forgetfulness. (Too bad about Schubert, though.) Within the Province of the Glass Bead Game, at least, life has returned to a model informed more by traditional societies, both Eastern and Western, than to anything resembling our own times.

Such is the premise of Hermann Hesse’s thoughtful and profoundly interesting novel. At the center of his story is Joseph Knecht, who, like many others, enters the Order as a boy, but who, unlike most, has gifts above and beyond mere virtuosity. He is a pensive man, alive to the inner life, highly disciplined, highly intelligent, and possessed of a disarming simplicity of spirit. His special qualities lead to his rapid promotion, quite without his contrivance, and also against his wishes. As he rises, Joseph sees further. He befriends several men from outside the Order, spends some years living with Benedictines, and becomes interested in the history of his Order and its future prospects in a society (we learn) that increasingly honours the virtues of the Game only reflexively and half-heartedly. Eventually Joseph is elected Magister Ludi, Master of the Game, the highest position to which a player can rise, and he attempts to use his influence wisely for the benefit of the Game. (In sketching this trajectory, I trust I spoil nothing: the subtitle of the book is Magister Ludi).

The novel’s central preoccupations are mainly the life of the mind and spirit, and the ways in which the world both shapes and is shaped by our inner life. Like a monastic, Joseph believes that he has a vocation, understood in the sense both of a natural inclination and a destiny (which is as close as he gets to a concept of Providence), to the Glass Bead Game, and his life is an example of an attempt to live out a consistent vocation, obedient to its demands, under changing circumstances. Joseph wrestles especially with the relative merits of the active and contemplative life, with the nature and value of intellectual life, and with the relationship between aesthetics and ethics. Another common thread, assuming different aspects as he grows older, is that of the importance of teaching and of mentorship, and the book has a good deal to say about healthy and fruitful pedagogy.

(If I make the book sound more like an essay than a novel, this is closer to the truth than you might expect: the book is written as a biography, attributed to a fictional author, complete with an introduction and appendices. In some interesting ways it departs from novelistic conventions; I was halfway through before it dawned on me that it contains almost no dialogue, for instance.)

Hesse is evidently interested in Eastern religion, especially (I divine) Hinduism. The book bears a dedication to ‘travelers to the East’, and the notion of ‘awakening’ is threaded through the pages. I have no idea how serious Hesse was about religion, nor am I sure how faithfully he portrayed the principles of the religions of the East in his writing. There were times when I had to hold my nose as Oprah seemed to intrude (‘The deity is within you, not in ideas and books. Truth is lived, not taught.’), but at other times it was more appealing. At several points the spiritual ideal of ‘cheerful serenity’ was proposed, and the description was winsome:

Such cheerfulness is neither frivolity nor complacency; it is supreme insight and love, affirmation of all reality, alertness on the brink of all depths and abysses; it is a virtue of saints and of knights; it is indestructible and only increases with age and nearness to death. It is the secret of beauty and the real substance of all art.

That’s a bit airy, perhaps, but it gives one something to think about. The attainment of such serenity is memorably portrayed, in one of the best sequences in the book, in the person of the Music Master, Joseph’s mentor.

I mentioned above that the book has disguised itself as a biography, and includes a number of appendices. This end matter deserves comment, because it includes what is, in my judgement, some of the best material in the book. There are several poems, none of which made much of an impression on me — poems are hard to translate, of course — but these are followed by three brief, fictional lives, each of which is fascinating. We are told that these were written by Joseph Knecht as assigned exercises during his education. One is about a shaman in an ancient tribal society, another about an early Christian desert hermit, and the last about an Indian prince and his guru. Each is intensely interested in religious experience and in conversion. There are certain ways in which these stories could be related to the book’s main narrative, but they also stand on their own as separate stories, and they succeed brilliantly. I can see myself returning to them again soon.

My previous experience with Hesse had not prepared me for the quiet beauty of this book. Steppenwolf, which I read almost fifteen years ago, did not made much of an impression at the time, and Demian left an enduring bad taste in my mouth. But perhaps I should have known better, for The Glass Bead Game was recommended to me by a sensible friend nearly ten years ago. Fool that I am, I shelved it away, thinking I would get to it ‘some day’. Mea culpa.

Part of the appeal of the book is the way in which it seems to swims clear of the turbulent historical circumstances under which it was written, and in which even modernity itself seems to sink and disappear from its view. Glancing at the book’s Wikipedia entry, I notice that this seeming may not be entirely so; apparently some of the characters’ names are veiled references to modern figures, and even the four-fold biographical structure of the book may reflect the structure of certain modern psychological theories. I confess that I am not interested in hearing such things, which strike me as distractions. The same certainly cannot be said of the book itself.

[A manifesto]
Times of terror and deepest misery may be in the offing. But if any happiness at all is to be extracted from that misery, it can be only a spiritual happiness, looking backward toward the conservation of the culture of earlier times, looking forward toward serene and stalwart defense of the things of the spirit in an age which otherwise might succomb wholly to material things.