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.

16 Responses to “Hesse: The Glass Bead Game”

  1. Filia Artis Says:

    To start with, I love Hesse and have for a long time. We keep a limited library collection here in preference for public library books and borrowed tomes, but there are 4 of Hesse’s novels in the home collection, 1 in original German. He is a well-represented author on our shelves.

    The Glass Bead Game is one of the few that I haven’t read yet, so appreciate your synopsis and comments. Some of my high school friends created a live-reenactment version of a glass bead game many years ago, but I never understood the correlation to the book – there probably wasn’t really one.

    As for Hesse’s interest in eastern religions, I assume you’re aware of Siddartha? http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Siddhartha_(novel)
    It was on the prescribed reading list for Ontario high schools.
    Perhaps his background as the child of Christian missionaries to India would explain some of it.

    It’s been a long time since I researched Hesse, so I don’t remember the details of his life, but I do remember that he was resident in Tuebingen and all around Schwabia, which is where my university student exchange was. I enjoy the books partly because so many of the stories reference places that I’m now familiar with.

    The connection-next suggestion for reading along this line would be “Memories, Dreams, Reflections” by Carl Jung.

  2. cburrell Says:

    Thanks, Filia. Sorry for taking so long to say something back to you; I’ve been away for a spell.

    It seems that you like Hesse quite a bit more than I do, generally speaking. Have you tried Demian? Gosh, I disliked that book. Perhaps I will try Siddhartha, but I feel more inclined toward Narcissus and Goldmund for my next Hessian outing. I have no good reasons.

    If you’ve a taste for German ‘intellectual’ novels (which I think is an apt description of The Glass Bead Game), then I wonder if you also like Thomas Mann? He tills a field somewhat similar to Hesse’s, but he is, in my opinion, about 100 times better. He’s pretty much unbeatable.

    • Filia Artis Says:

      I have read Narziss and Goldmund (and own it). I think you will enjoy it. It contrasts the ascetic vs. the Dionysian through the two characters and asks readers to judge whether living a stable, moral life is of a higher order than following ones passions to “fulfillment”.

      I think I started the Magic Mountain (Mann?) this summer, was enjoying it, and it probably went back to the library before I got too far into it thanks to a hectic schedule in July/August.

      Filia Artis a.k.a. Christina A.

  3. Mac Says:

    As you probably know, there was quite a fad for Hesse in the ’60s (when I was in college). Siddhartha was the big favorite: it was right down the hippie alley, with its fairly simple tale of enlightenment. I read it and wasn’t much taken with it, and am really not sure whether I read anything else. If I did, it was either Demian or Steppenwolf and it made no impression. They were both fairly popular, too, especially the latter. I remember hearing people mention The Glass Bead Game and seeming not to know what to make of it–shaking their heads and saying it was really weird. So: the point of all that is that it has never occurred to me to return to Hesse. But this certainly sounds worthwhile. I’m not surprised, from your description, that it went completely over the heads of 20-year-old hippies.

  4. cburrell Says:

    Ugh, hippies.

    Filia, that description of Narcissus and Goldmund sounds appealing. I think I will make it my next Hessian outing. Good luck with The Glass Bead Game. I hope you enjoy it.

  5. Janet Says:

    I think that I read both Narcissus and Goldmund and Siddartha and I don’t remember one thing about either one.

    Some hippies have grown up to be okay.


  6. cburrell Says:

    Didn’t Hesse win the Nobel Prize for Literature? Why can’t anybody remember anything about his books? Well, I still think I will make Narcissus and Goldmund my next, but I’m not going to rush to it.

  7. Janet Says:

    My brain wasn’t very good back then.


  8. cburrell Says:

    That I do not believe.

  9. Janet Says:

    Well, let us say that I was not using it to its full capacity.


  10. Mac Says:

    Yeah, that’s kind of sad, isn’t it? Presumably my brain, properly speaking, worked better at age 20 or so than it does now. But there was an incompetent and irresponsible driver at the wheel.

  11. Kyo Nissho Says:

    I’m trying the Glass Bead Game.

    Capability of an universal idea. An inspirational console.
    Foreseeing about the shift of a paradigm.

    Diagram Method.

  12. I had a dream of where I was racing on a beautiful brown horse. At first I had to catch up to it but once I did, I easily jumped on it’s back and we rode together. It was a smooth ride and quick. Although I didn’t win the race, I wasn’t upset. I was in awe at the experience I had. Is this a positive dream?

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