The Glass Bead Game
(Jonathan Cape, 1970) 
Translated from the German by Richard & Clara Winston
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.
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.