Saturday, April 09, 2011

The Glass Bead Game by Hermann Hesse

In his contemporaneous review of The Glass Bead Game, Werner Vortriede suggested that, because of its length and because of Hesse’s age, it might be considered his last will. If it is not quite that, it certainly seems reasonable to reflect that it is a summation of Hesse’s life and thought. The Glass Bead Game is a humanist commitment to the vitality of everyday existence, a plea that learning and knowledge do not become ends in themselves but are harnessed to the furtherance of human society. Hesse describes the vision as encompassing ‘wise men and poets and scholars harmoniously building the valued and vaulted cathedral of Mind.’ A cathedral, then, something to be venerated, but a cathedral to enterprise, functional, reflecting the currents of human endeavour.

The Glass Bead Game of the novel’s title is, it initially appears, the ultimate achievement of human culture. The novel takes place some four or five hundred years in the future, in a world that has passed beyond what is described as the feuilletonistic age (that is, our own current society) in which war and conflict have predominated, and in which culture is trivialised and coarsened. The action is set in the broadly mid-European country of Waldzell, a secular state enjoying peace and prosperity. In particular, it focuses on Castalia, a pedagogical province where the academic pursuit of pure knowledge has become an aesthetic discipline, personified most significantly by the Glass Bead Game. This, although its precise nature is never fully explained, is a philosophical game in which glass beads are used to demonstrate the progress of the players through the days during which a game may take place. The goal is to find interconnectedness in the realms of arts and knowledge – the precise mathematical notation of a Bach fugue or Chinese influences in music and literature and so on. It calls for remarkable and wide-ranging cultural knowledge and an ability to make and demonstrate subtle connections. Essentially, it is an attempt to discover a grand unified theory. Games are played according to strictly prescribed rules, and are comprehensible only to a limited number of trained experts. These players are revered for their erudition and remain cloistered within the community of Castalia like medieval monks in a monastery, under the leadership of the Magister Ludi, the Master of the game. This pursuit of cultural perfection, then, has become a secular religion. And in all of this, it is music which is pre-eminent, the masterful art form from which everything else takes shape and meaning. Thus, our first introduction to Joseph Knecht, the hero of the novel, a young man who will rise through Castilian society to become Magister Ludi, is as a child learning from the Music Master and showing, from this early age, a remarkable aptitude and sympathy for music.

If all is peace and tranquility in the post-feuilletonistic age, and if the elite of human society is free to ruminate on the creation of aesthetic perfection through the Glass Bead Game, one might assume that the future vision being created by Hesse is therefore one of utopia. It is, though, far from that. Castalia is a state in decline and it remains, moreover, largely ignorant of the fact, even denying it when confronted with the truth in Joseph Knecht’s letter of resignation. Castalia, then, is reduced to stasis, a state going nowhere, achieving nothing. Perhaps, an idealist might argue, such a state of affairs is sufficient if it ensures contentment, wealth, peace for the inhabitants, some Benthamite idyll of the greatest good for the greatest number. But how does one judge what represents the greatest good for the greatest number? Do we mean those people living in the here and now? Or those to come? If what you are doing now, while creating an environment of stately comfort for the majority, will nonetheless undoubtedly lead to decay and downfall at some stage in the near future, can this action still be categorised as the greatest good for the greatest number? Hesse’s novel firmly answers in the negative.

Castalia may have overcome the Feuilletonistic age, but to what end? It has become a dry, sterile, solipsistic world, inward and devoted only to the glorification of art, dismissive of history, politics or anything of practical value. This is not, surely, something to be aspired to? And, furthermore, let us examine its approach to the arts, because it reveals a decidely unartistic, uncreative approach. Invention is deprecated, innovation is a foible only of the young and naive. True art, for the Castalian, does not involve creation as we would understand it: it is merely a form of intellectual exegesis, making connections, drawing parallels, using one form to shed light on another. But nothing is created as a result, only a game, mimesis. It is knowledge for the sake of knowledge, with no end product and no aspiration. That is not art, that is not culture, that is not the free enunciation of the human spirit. Further, this husk of creativity is presided over by a self-selecting elite, far removed from the interference of non-Castalians. That is nothing short of cultural despotism: Castalia, then, is a future-world fascist state in which all creative thought is restricted and channeled into official forms. It is a mirror of the Fascist world Hesse inhabited while he wrote The Glass Bead Game, in which the Nazi weltanschauung and its glorification of myth is replaced by the pointless glorification of art: a mirror, but the reflection is equally vile.

In the novel, then, we follow Joseph Knecht from being a frightened but hopeful child falling under the spell of the Music Master through to his assumption of the great office of Magister Ludi, the culmination of his aspirations. His journey is not straightforward and, along the way, he encounters wise and able men who will greatly inform his future career. Doubts settle in his mind. While still a young student he confronts Plinio Designori, the son of a wealthy industrialist who, because of his family’s standing, is being educated in Castalia. An outsider, he is highly critical of Castalian ways and the two boys engage in lengthy philosophical debates and finally, through their confrontations, become friends. Later, Knecht makes a pilgrimage to visit the Elder Brother, a mystical hermit steeped in Chinese philosophy, from whom Knecht begins to learn self-knowledge and transcendence. On an ambassadorial trip to the Benedictine monastery in Mariafels, Knecht encounters Father Jacobus and is confronted by the narrowness of Castalian vision, the shortcomings of their renunciation of history as any meaningful field of study, their insularity and consequent naïve vulnerability to the machinations of the rude world beyond. His doubts increase.

The Music Master and the Elder Brother are, in complementary ways, Knecht’s guides to spiritual peace and understanding; Plinio Designori is his link to the real world; Thomas van der Trave, Knecht’s predecessor as Magister Ludi, is his guide to the ways of Castalia and the dignified performance of civic duty. By comparison Fritz Tegularius, the wayward Nietzschean outsider, shows Knecht that there is an alternative to the stultified, tradition-bound ways of Castalia, a free-thinking but highly dangerous, possibly mad, approach to life and order. While those in Castalia deprecate such activity, Knecht accepts, even encourages it. He is of Castalia, but not wholly subsumed by it. And this sets the template for all of his relationships, while making inevitable his eventual renunciation of high office and retreat into real life.

Thus, Knecht stands at the centre of a series of binaries – Castalia and the world, the Glass Bead Game and realpolitik, secular reason and religious observance, pedagogy and pragmatic action, teachers and students, servitude and mastery, self and others, inwardness and outwardness, yin and yang, the vita activa and the vita contemplativa. Castalian – and western – society tends to exaggerate these binaries, forcing them to stand in opposition to one another. This is the way to dogma, Hesse warns. In the case of Castalia it will lead, as Knecht comes to realise, to its inevitable decline, divorced as it is from reality. For the real world, brute forces – military or economic – stand isolated from the culture that can be derived through an understanding of aesthetic beauty. Secularity loses an element of grace, while monastic life underestimates the importance of the human. Individuation at the expense of connection with society leads, as with the Elder Brother, in his remote hermitage, to meaningless isolation. Knecht, placed between these binary opposites, cognisant of the strengths and weaknesses of each, comes to understand how a path may be established which avoids their extremes and instead achieves a state of harmony.

It is Father Jacobus, however, who is the key to the novel. The knowledge which
permits Knecht’s ultimate leap in understanding is initially latent, undeveloped. It is through Father Jacobus that Knecht truly comes to understand that the rarefied study of aesthetics and art, divorced from realpolitik, can only end in terminal decline, while pragmatism is the key to understanding how true harmony must be achieved by the synthesis of the discrete world views offered by Castalia, the monastery, the world and the searchers for self-knowledge. Without Father Jacobus, it is likely that Knecht would have remained a successful Magister Ludi for the rest of his days, presiding unknowingly over the decline of the organisation he loved. Instead, he renounces his magistracy and, in so doing, saves both Castalia and himself.

Essentially then, the novel revolves around the need to ‘know thyself’, the continuous, often painful, always difficult process of attaining self-awareness. This can only be achieved, Hesse argues, through disicplined discipleship under sages who can teach the way to enlightenment, and through consequent renunciation of all but the intellectual pursuit of self-knowledge. It is an ascetic life, to be sure. Thus, Knecht believes himself to be following his calling throughout his career, devoting himself first to the Music Master, learning at the feet of the Elder Brother, Father Jacobus, the Magister Ludi and so on, all the while progressing seamlessly through the echelons of Castalian society. But this, he finds, is not his destiny, this is not his road to self-awareness. On the contrary, all the trappings of office, the strictures of rigid Castalian life, they serve only to obscure from Knecht his true purpose. And that, he realises finally, is to teach, to pass on the harmonious understanding of life and existence to a new generation, to boys as yet untouched by formal learning and discipline. It is now that Knecht finally reaches some accommodation with his own self and reaches a degree of serenity. In the process, his demeanour changes from polite servility into equally polite assurance. He outgrows Castalia, the Glass Bead Game, the cloistered life of aesthetic reason.

In the end, Knecht gives up the sterility of Castalia as, one feels from the outset, this free-thinking man would inevitably have had to do. He does not turn, however, to the world of the religious order in Mariafels and to the implicit suggestion of politicking that underlies organised religion. Instead, he decides to leave for the real world and do something useful, worthwhile, but still in keeping with his temperament, training and background. He agrees to act at personal tutor to the troublesome son of his old friend Designori. Thus, this, the main section of the novel ends with another master-pupil relationship, this time with Knecht as the master. Or is he?

The novel is in five parts, of which the first is the longest and most important. The style of this first part is a challenge, but one which Hesse manages superbly. It is written in a deliberately dry manner, mimicking academic prose and thus always remaining objective and restricting itself entirely to facts. Given this approach, it is inevitable that a certain distancing must be effected between the reader and the protagonist and, it is true, Joseph Knecht, although evidently a good man, does not endear himself to the reader. There is, in his asceticism, something remote about Knecht. And yet, by the end of the Knecht section, Hesse has managed to bring out his essential humanity to the extent that we feel comfortable in the presence of Joseph Knecht. It is an impressive feat of writing.

The remainder of the novel is given over to “writings” by Knecht himself, in which he imagines himself to be a character from a different age and society. In this way, the novel tells four stories relating four reincarnated lives of the same man, Joseph Knecht. In each, what is most important to the human soul and human destiny is the transference of knowledge, understanding and wisdom from person to person, generation to generation. Knowledge can only come from within, but that knowledge can only be released from without.

In truth, these latter stories have nothing of the power of the main narrative, and there is a sense of repetition in them, the feeling that we are being unnecessarily lectured by an author who has already eloquently made his point. But the first part of The Glass Bead Game is an astonishing piece of literature.


Douglas Bruton said...

Thanks for this detail examination... I am putting this book on my list of 'To Reads'... sounds like it has something to say, and something worthwhile.

celawerdblog said...

I am currently reading this now for a book club. I am still in the first section of the book. It is very dense. Thanks for this post. I needed a road map for this book.

Rog said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Rog said...

Well said...: ) I had the opportunity to take a couple of astrology lessons with Marion March, who as a girl shared a dinner table with Hesse; he was a friend of the family. The working of the astrological planets in angular relationships--to form any type of possible discovered unifying significance--seems implied in the bead game; this while also implying the incorporation the largest possible frames of philosophical inclusiveness. Though it frustrates the astrologist to see his art go unnamed for fear of alienating the general public, it is a wonderful piece, as you said, in the main. I also liked Mann's "Magic Mountain" which shows the movement of the mind from pragmatic Technic to the search for the awareness of perennial identifications and values, and abruptly back again. Rog