Hermann Hesse, The Glass Bead Game (Magister Ludi), 1943. Trans. Richard and Clara Winston, 1969.
The Glass Bead Game was a revelation to me in high school: it was a tome that made sense of life, that drew me toward academia and study in what I now know was a dramatically over-idealised way. Given its importance to the earlier me, I’m surprised that, until this fall, my copy has been sitting on shelves, un-reread, the story only half-remembered.
Hesse’s novel follows Joseph Knecht, a young man who is so dedicated to his music that he is plucked from his virtually un-described normal life and sent to the elite schools in Castalia—the region where the real scholars are made. Hesse follows Knecht’s career through two sets of schools, and then into the “order” of scholars and his leadership position in the order. You now know almost everything that “happens”: this story is about ideas, and the reader experiences debates between characters and musings on knowledge, politics, social responsibility, the proper role of study to the state, and more.
There are some peculiar features to this book. I read it as a sort of gedankenexperiment, an attempt to dream as near-to-possible a utopia as might exist, complete with the challenges it would face in relating to the “real” world. The form of the book is also unusual: it’s almost an anthology. It begins with an introduction to the glass bead game (the central conceit of the book and Castalia, the game is an elaborate formal way of representing the inter-relationship of various aspects—well, of all aspects—of knowledge*), and continues with a dry, academic biography of Knecht with a tone that Hesse deliberately writes in a way that skirts close to hagiography. Then we have the poems Knecht wrote as a student, followed by three of his gedankenexperiments: imagined lives he might have lived in other times and places in the world. We learn much about Castalia, and it seems awfully close to the monastic scholarship ideal (so the scholars can have affairs in their youths, sure, but otherwise they’re celibate, and there’s a disturbing absence of women that is hard not to read as misogynistic in this era—strange that teenage me wasn’t disturbed or upset by that absence/misogyny). In fact, it veers so close that it’s really only possible to distinguish it because of an extended section of Knecht’s career when he’s sent to be a game tutor to a leading Benedictine monastery, to advance Castalia’s hopes of permanent relations with the Vatican.
It’s not a book one would pick up to be riveted by story, but in the extended character study, Hesse reveals in Knecht both an idealist and an ideal. We’re asked both to empathize with the kenosis of true scholarship and civic identity (reinforced by an opposing pair of friend and mentors: Tegularius, whom Hesse based on Nietzsche, who sees little of such responsibilities; and Father Jacobus, based on Jakob Burckhardt, who is the ideal monk and scholar. The universality of the individual’s struggle between these poles is revealed not just in Knecht, but also through Knecht’s ‘secular’ non-Castalian friend, Plinio Designori). We’re forced to engage with just how much an individual has an obligation to be true to himself, and at what cost, when part of society. It’s a theme we see in much of Hesse’s work, but in The Glass Bead Game it plays at a nearly constant fortissimo, unmuted by a need for story.
Just what did teenage me see in this book? I think it likely that I saw in it, in a way that I could articulate nor fully comprehend at the time, a paradox I couldn’t then resolve between creativity and scholarship, and found myself drawn to a place and milieu where I imagined I would be free to live in a way that could explore that paradox. Now, that’s a misreading of the book—Castalia and Knecht show little freedom from the world I remember in high school—but it’s what I half-remembered, before I reread The Glass Bead Game. It also explains why I was so fascinated by the I Ching after reading the book for the first time, given its allusive and elusive way of making sense of what is to come that functions in a book as a symbol of that paradox.
I’m less sure, outside of what’s certainly a more nuanced reading, what I got out of my reengagement with the text. There remains something seductive about the utopia of Castalia, and a slim desire to emulate Knecht (and a wishing that I lived his self-discipline!); at the same time, I find myself more intrigued by the gulf Hesse depicts between scholarship and the world: Castalia can exist after a long, nightmare-like period of war and desolation, but it’s an ill-understood beacon to the rest of the world: a place to be vaguely proud of in a nebulous way, without having any sense of what it’s actually for or about. Despite being on the other side of the “Age of the Feuilleton”, a time when people were more interested in crosswords and diversions than real learning, Castalia is more what lets the rest of the world claim they’ve moved past that age than the epitome of a shift of culture. Hesse’s prophetic (not forecasting, but prophecy à la the Hebrew Scriptures, warning of a loss of purpose, understanding, and right-living) depiction of the world is no less true of our time than it was of a world in the throes of the Second World War—and will likely continue to go unheard.
* Perhaps it was my fascination with the game that led me to become as fond as I am of the work of Northrop Frye: the game imagines that all aspects of human knowledge may be studied as a system, and that the interrelations may be displayed: this is strikingly close to Frye's concept of a verbal universe with a structure that it is the critic's job to study, describe, and comment upon.