… 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.