The Glass Bead Game, by Hermann Hesse

… For although in a certain sense and for light-minded persons non-existent things can be more easily and irresponsibly represented in words than existing things, for the serious and conscientious historian it is just the reverse. Nothing is harder, yet nothing is more necessary, than to speak of certain things whose existence is neither demonstrable nor probable. The very fact that serious and conscientious men treat them as existing things brings them a step closer to existence and to the possibility of being born.

Thus begins The Glass Bead Game, a sprawling and monumental work of fiction by the German writer Hermann Hesse. My “review” of this book will be short: The Glass Bead Game is an astounding literary achievement. Its genius is not in its prose, but in the story and the fictional edifice that Hesse manages to erect. So sublime and so complete is his creation, that in my opinion it transcends literature to become simply an astounding artistic achievement, an example of what art can be, of what art ought to be. But the book is still more than that, for it is in the broadest sense a human achievement, a testament to the intellectual health and vibrancy of our species. To its credit, the Nobel Committee awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature to Hermann Hesse in 1946, three years after the publication of The Glass Bead Game.

That is my review. What follows are my spoiler-laden reflections on this book. I have purposefully refrained from reading its foreword and any other commentary to prevent the contamination of my thoughts. The following is a stream of consciousness meaningful only to those who have read Hesse’s masterpiece.

The Glass Bead Game is a collection of fictional texts, the primary one being a biographical sketch of an individual by the name of Joseph Knecht. Born some time in the 23rd or 24th century, and soon thereafter recruited to join an elite schooling system that had become a sort of de facto international academe, Joseph rises through the ranks to become the Magister Ludi, or Master of the Game. One of the two co-leading positions within the secular intellectual Order (Castalia) that runs the academy, the position of Magister Ludi is considered by those within the Order, and many outside it, to be its supreme intellectual seat. Nonetheless, soon after rising to this exalted position, Joseph resigns himself to the possibility that one day he will retire from it, an unprecedented move in the Order’s history. He does live to see his wish realized, but only vacuously, for no sooner than having made his exit from the Order, his life meets a sudden and meaningless end, although one that in retrospect is not entirely unexpected.

The first thing I want to tackle is the book’s primary subject matter. If my reading is correct, the Glass Bead Game is fundamentally about the struggle to find meaning and purpose in a human life, on the individual level, and in human life collectively. The book does not directly provide an answer to this question. Instead it chronicles the struggle involved in one man’s attempt to discover his own purpose, and the struggle of his larger world in articulating and creating a meaningful human society. There are no real resolutions; only transient and incomplete victories and setbacks. The book, to be sure, focuses on a particular type of life, that of the mind. But one has the feeling that this is only an accident, a consequence of Joseph Knecht’s personality. A similar book could have been written about Plinio Designori for example.

Secondary to the question of purpose, but only marginally so, is the topic of apprenticeship, the way in which human knowledge, about life in general and the meditative experience in particular, is transmitted from one generation to another through the relationship of the apprentice with his master. This relationship is given almost sacred attention in the book, through the life of Joseph Knecht himself, first as an apprentice to the Music Master and eventually as a master himself, and second through the crucial role that apprenticeship plays in all of the Three Lives. Initially I found this focus interesting if a little overwrought. The Order is in many ways an idealization and super-instantiation of today’s academia. And in that sense, in the scholastic sense of learning and acquiring technical knowledge, the concept of apprenticeship rung hollow, as so much of modern learning is insular and individualistic. But as I read through the Three Lives it dawned on me that his conception of apprenticeship is much broader. It is not just about learning how to compose music, or how to play the Glass Bead Game. Apprenticeship in the book is construed in the broadest terms possible. It is about the process of learning about the world, of learning about the struggle to define one’s purpose and sense of being. In that sense, apprenticeship is sacred. In that sense, I could deeply relate, for I too had my mentors.

The third focus, according to my reading at least, is meditation and spirituality. Eastern spirituality heavily influences the book, and this too only became fully obvious to me in the Three Lives. One of the most brilliant aspects of the book, and in some ways its most provocative, is the juxtaposition of the intellectual with the spiritual. The Order is a secular institution, founded on rationality and scientific inquiry. Yet its members freely speak of things like meditation, spirituality, and even piety. Much of the organization and structure of the Order mirrors religious orders, and contact and relationship with the Catholic Church is made explicit in the book. This “alternative future” in which secular institutions intertwine with the Catholic Church is a curious idea, but it is not what I found interesting. Rather it is the twin notions of secular spirituality and piety. And it is piety, the book’s own word, and not ethics. The Order seems to espouse something that is beyond mere ethical reasoning. It appears to make moral judgments about the good life, about how one ought to dedicate one’s self for its own sake, above and beyond one’s relationship with others. Central to this is the meditative experience, both in the life of a regular Castalian, and in the practice of a Glass Bead Game player. To play the game is to meditate, to consider and to reflect on its symbols. I found this intriguing because on some level I believe it to be ultimately necessary for a healthy future for humanity, and for a fuller understanding of consciousness. A science and a species that does not take seriously the matter of objectively describing the subjective experience in a replicable manner can only go so far. It is an argument that has been made before, from Erwin Schrodinger to Sam Harris, and one that The Glass Bead Game synthesizes in a very intriguing way. The book may have gone too far to my liking, in particular in the reincarnatory overtones of the Three Lives, but the formulation of the Order itself is something that merits further consideration.

The fourth theme in the book is the imposition of community upon individual liberty. The future imagined in The Glass Bead Game, at least within the confines of the Castalian Order, is a communistic one. The will of the one is subjugated to the needs of the many. For example, the position and vocation of an individual within the Order is not determined by the individual himself (the Order is a strictly male institution) but by senior members of the Order. The notion of individual contribution itself is maximally minimized. Joseph Knecht’s biographers go to great lengths to explain that their enterprise is highly unusual, and to defend it on special grounds while reaffirming the necessity of the Order’s vehement opposition toward individual attribution. The society of the future, that “of the mind” and of “the moderns”, is one whose members simultaneously strive for individual excellence and maximum integration into the hierarchy. It is clear that, on the whole, this does not quite work out, and Joseph’s life is ultimately a testament to that. But it is not clear that anything else has really worked out either, and Joseph’s (and Plinio’s) life is a testament to that as well.

The fifth and final aspect of the book that I want to tackle is the Glass Bead Game itself. I have so far avoided discussing it, as I do consider it secondary to all the aforementioned topics. Nonetheless it would be inaccurate to describe the Game as being in anyway tangential, as a mere metaphorical exercise. The Game is central; it is the glue that holds all the book’s threads together; the palette upon which the story is drawn; the author’s imaginative idea for how all the aforementioned pieces can be realized. It is through the Glass Bead Game that the players find purpose, be mentees and become mentors, meditate and acquire spiritual insights, and ultimately, in particular for the Magister Ludi, sacrifice their lives for the greater good. The Glass Bead Game is the modern and futuristic incarnation of all those ideas.

I think the Game is an intriguing concept, and I think it may one day be realized. In fact I think we are already on our way toward realizing it. In the simplest and most general sense, mathematics and programming languages allow us to formalize all knowledge. Contenders for the language of the Game already exist, at least in principle. But we are further along than that. Search engines like Wolfram Alpha have already begun the process of formalizing diverse pieces of knowledge, unifying them in a single medium, and providing the means to connect and reason about them. A repeated example in the book, the mapping of musical compositions to mathematical formulas or even historical events, is eminently doable within Wolfram Alpha. Much remains to be done of course, and there is no “game” yet that can be played across the vast sea of all human knowledge, but some enterprising individuals have already gotten started on creating it.

There is much more that I can write about. The austerity of the Order, the fact that its members are not allowed to marry, that they basically lead an almost child-like existence (they are actively schooled until their early to mid-30s, much like modern academia!), and most provocatively, the prohibition on creating any new art of any form, except for the life books, are all extremely fascinating topics worthy of much thought and reflection, something that I suspect I will continue to do for some time to come.

I think that the penultimate question a reader ought to ask one’s self after reading any book is: “Has this book changed me?” With respect to The Glass Bead Game, my inclination is to answer in the affirmative, although to be sure it is too soon to make this declaration with any definitiveness, as the permanence of such a change can only be ascertained with time. What I can say however is that in all my encounters with fiction, in its literary form or otherwise, I have never cared about a character as much as I did about Joseph Knecht.


16 comments

  1. I ordered Hesse’s book from the local library and read your article in preparation. Years ago I read Siddhartha, so I’m somewhat familiar with HH. One other fact I dug up that you didn’t mention is the book was published in Switzerland because the Nazi party did not approve of the work. For good reason, perhaps. Could it be HH modeled the Order after the innermost circle of the German state at that time, Himmler and his SS? Like the order, the Nazi party tried its best to sustain and improve relations with the Vatican. What do you think? – CW

    • That’s interesting. I am not sure, but I suspect that’s not the case. The Order is portrayed in a somewhat positive way. More a flawed hero than a villain. It is detached and even unsympathetic to the plight of the outside world, but that is the extent of it. Also, Theodore Ziolkowski’s foreword of the book suggests that HH originally intended to portray the Order as a sort of perfect utopian society, and only later on (due to his disillusionment with the intelligentsia’s response to the events in Europe) did he decide to portray it in a much more qualified light.

      • Thanks, Mohammed. That makes sense. He had in mind the German intelligentsia who were silent about, or even complicit in, the activities of the Fascists. He too was a prominent German intellectual. As you say, he’s sympathetic to their predicament and perhaps disillusioned with their reluctance to step outside their highly regarded universities. I’m inclined to proceed with the book, when it arrives at my local library, on this assumption.

        The other thing I’m tentatively planning, is to avoid trying to make sense of the game itself. Instead, I’ll look for Hesse’s message to literate Europe in 1943. That was my approach to reading T. Mann’s Magic Mountain. There, I had the pleasure of watching the German language miniseries with English subtitles, after nearly finishing the book. For Das Glasperlenspiel, there is no film rendition I know of. When I’m well along with The Glass Bead Game, I’ll report my preliminary conclusions here. ttyl – CW

          • I’m sorry to be so vague, but I’m unlikely to actually follow up on this and it’s possible one of you gentlemen will. I can’t turn it up on IMDB or Google, but there was a film version at least being thought about when I first heard about The Glass Bead Game. I’m 59 and I read Hesse’s book a long time ago, after Time Magazine reviewed it – presumably when a new or first English translation was published, although of course it could have been in an article about Hesse’s work in general. I sometimes remember things that didn’t happen, but it seems to me the review said that there was in the making/had been made a movie based on the book and that it was a (or the first) collaboration between two countries, at least one of them Asian, and that the review made a connection between the Glass Bead Game and the “real world” game Go. The two countries could have been China (Taiwan or Mainland) and Japan, or any of those three countries and Germany. And of course I saw Time Magazine because I think I read the book before I got married in 1974, while I was still living with my parents, and that’s the most likely of the magazines they subscribed to for me to have been leafing through.

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  5. MAQ: It took a while, but I finally finished The Glass Bead Game, Richard and Clara Winston’s 1989 printing. I also read The Rainmaker to see what the Lives were about. For starters, I took care to read Ziolkowski’s foreword. Good thing I did, otherwise the odd tone of the narrator in the General Introduction would have put me off again. Armed with Ziolkowski’s explanations, I understood the narrator’s quaint tone of voice to be a comical device used by Hesse to create a special tone to the narrative, reflecting the mindset of The Order. Ziolkowski also helped me understand the biographical and autobiographical threads found throughout the novel.
    The following is a short description of my interpretation of Hesse’s message to the reader. I’ll begin by touching on the five points you raised in your own review of the book.
    1. I concur the story is fundamentally about the role of human lives, individually and collectively, in the world of their times. But not just any human life, rather the message is about the role of intellectuals (professors, pundits, artists, writers, et al) in the world they are part of, whenever that might be. This was a hot topic in Europe of the 1930s and 40s. Intellectuals, like Hesse, were either under attack or willing to remain silent. Hesse helped Thomas Mann and Berthold Brecht emigrate from Germany in the 30s. Hesse himself moved from Germany in 1912 and set up residence in an isolated corner of Switzerland. He was a known pacifist and openly critical of the anti-Semitism rampant in Europe at that time.. His books were banned by the Nazis.
    2. Your comments on the theme of apprenticeship are well taken
    3. I too caught the heavy emphasis on meditation, plus many other references to Eastern philosophies, religions and lifestyles. My takeaway was the importance of personal habits that lead to calmness instead of anxiety and pointless action. I also took interest in the Elder Brother living in his Bamboo Garden. To me, that part of the story is a clear reference to Hesse’s rather confined existence in rural Switzerland. It is important to the overall story, an example of how to become irrelevant to the world, even to your own elite community of scholars.
    4. The hierarchy of the Order and its method of operation are salient aspects of the novel. Hesse clearly admires this state of affairs for the intellectual class. He also makes plain the danger, even inevitability that such a community will eventually fade away by stifling creativity and growth. Knecht is the ultimate rebel, leaving the Order and leaping into the civilian world of his nation. But only after conveying a clear warning to his fellow masters, reform or die. The tragic ending is not inconsistent with other great novels of the 20th Century, including The Magic Mountain. It’s the author’s way of putting an exclamation point on his story after a short denouement.
    5. As I stated before, I don’t believe Hesse intended for anyone to actually conduct a glass bead game such as he describes. People have created mathematical treatments of music, which is fine as far as it goes, but taking in other disciplines and turning it into a game that participants and spectators can enjoy, is simply not possible. Nor did Hesse describe it in a way that implied it was possible. Instead, it’s an allegory, a literary tool used to create an environment, e.g., the Vicus Lusorum, which conveys a feeling of what it would be like to live in a separate community of the nation’s elite intellectuals. Very effective.
    After reading The Glass Bead Game, I prefer to describe the novel as a utopia: A description of a future society where most everything is as it should be. Hesse’s German-speaking nation of the 25th Century supports an elite caste of scholars, thinkers, etc., in an idyllic province of their own. In return, the nation gets to staff its schools and universities with world-class professors, who presumably don’t demand high salaries.
    Unlike most utopias, Hesse offers a convincing critique of its flaws and a prescription for its continued existence. This makes sense, since he started writing the story in 1931 and worked on it for almost 12 years. By all accounts, during that time he revised the storyline to include his critique about being cut off from society at large. Interestingly, Hesse makes no reference to advanced technologies, carefully avoiding any hint of science fiction. About all we get are oblique references to radios and automobiles.
    Hesse’s story has another layer, on top of the utopian account. Knecht in his sojourn at Mariafels and afterward, examines history and historical research at length. Not just 20th Century history, but all human history, from the distant past to the distant future. Hesse’s point, I believe, is that human history is an endless succession of golden ages, followed by brutal periods of war, followed by dark ages, followed by golden ages again – the Eternal Recurrence.
    To sustain the periods of national contentment and happiness, intellectuals must be active in community affairs, even politics. They must provide continuity of culture, especially historical research, and thereby guide the nation and its leaders to balanced lives and wise decisions, a radical thought in Europe of the 30s.
    So his message is about the timeless flow of human affairs. There is little that can be used as commentary on current affairs of the 30s and 40s. I did notice that Plino’s wife is the daughter of a left-of-center “party leader”. At the end of the story, we are left with the feeling that his son Tito has benefitted from his association with Joseph Knecht, and that Tito is destined to national leadership himself someday.
    In summary, I concur with your assessment of The Glass Bead Game as an astounding literary achievement. I highly recommend it to the short list of great books people should read as part of their intellectual development, provided they first read the foreword and do a little research about Herman Hesse’s life. The Poems and Lives at the end of the book are strictly optional. – CW
    http://www.amazon.com/The-Glass-Bead-Game-Magister/dp/0312278497
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hermann_Hesse

  6. MAQ: Correction, in the second paragraph of my review, I said Hesse was a known pacifist and anti-Semite. I meant to say he was open critical of the anti-Semitism rampant in Europe at that time. His 3rd wife was Jewish. Please edit the post I left to correct this error, before someone concludes I’m crazy.

    • To add on this, the Glass Bead Game was something I’d recommend to anyone who’s interested in early 1900’s literature. Mr Hesse created Joseph Knecht perfectly, full of human qualities.

      Joseph Knecht arrested
      Joseph Steven Knecht Arrest
      Joseph Knecht Arrested

  7. Books by Herman Hesse were very much in fashion back in the sixties and early seventies. Like many others, I fell willingly under his spell, and he was one of the literary masters of the 20th Century. “The Glass Bead Game” absorbed me for two months perhaps, when I was nineteen. His intense interest in Buddhism wasn’t made explicit until the end of the book with the depiction of the reincarnated lives. But the meditation required to even learn how to play The Glass Bead Game is introduced into the novel quite early, as I recall.

    This is quite a good précis of the book, balanced, informative, and insightful.

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