The Glass Bead Game, by Hermann Hesse
By far his third greatest, I mean, ahem, greatest of works The Glass Bead Game is a depiction of the contrast between the intellectual elite who spend their lives understanding and analyzing music, history, art, math (among other areas of study) with that of the worldly populace. Being far from dull, the main character in the book is Joseph Knecht whose friends, all of whom are drawn to him but don't seem to be drawn to each other, are Plinio Designori, Fritz Tegularius, Carlo Ferromonte, and Father Jacobus.
Joseph's life is one which has been mostly decided for him. He is a good student, and is recognized by his teachers of his brilliance. He is visited by a Music Teacher who has a great influence on him and they become friends easily. Joseph is later accepted into an elite school called Escholz in the elite sphere of Castalia. Escholz is renowned for its ability to produce future glass bead game players. Basically, the glass bead game is the manipulating of a questionable language that all areas of study such as philosophy, mathematics, or music are reducible to such that the understanding and ability to attain insights and wisdom from one area of study produces insights and wisdom in another area of study completely different - to the extent that we in our day and age would find such associations schizophrenic, but are perfectly sound in the language the Glass Bead Game utilizes. For obvious reasons, the language the Game purports to utilize is never explained, and is ignored so many times to the point where one is reduced to laughter as the narrator of the story, who is a typical Castalian, praises the Glass Bead Game. The Game is alluded to in other ways though. Its history is explained, and how it evolved and matured which is meant to draw parallels with the reality we face today in the scholarly world. The dynamics of the game are also talked about briefly, though no actual example of a game is performed in the book.
Castalia is situated away from society and the "worldly" as Hesse liked to put it. Joseph Knecht earns his way up the ranks of Castalia and eventually becomes the Magister Ludi who is the official master of the Glass Bead Game. He does what no other Glass Bead Game player had ever done, that is, he eventually resigned from his office, and decided to go into the world with a career as a schoolmaster. He first decides to help Plinio raise his son. As to what happens next, well I've spoiled too much already.
The Book's concerns
- I found the book wanted to deal with the distinction between the world and the scholarly lifestyles, and why simply one or the other is not good enough. Hesse uses Knecht's friends as exemplars of the failures to achieve a healthy balance between these two worlds, and Knecht himself as the one who up to the end of the book it seems has achieved the right balance. Tegularius, the one who despises history, is also reluctant to go anywhere near the worldly life, and can't seem to live without anxiety before the its touch of reality. In the school of Mariafels, where Castalia's political confrontations are situated, Tegularius couldn't bear being within its walls. Plinio represents a transition of character between a former youth who studied briefly in Castalia then went back happily into the world. He is like Knecht in that he has the ability to attract people to him. He did not choose his friends. However, an important distinction to be made is that Plinio drew groups of people, Knecht drew individuals. Plinio, perhaps destined for a political career is not prepared to go back into the world. He carries with him a precocious countenance, and a feeling of superiority and disgust of the world and its inability to reconcile with Castalia's 'reality'. He becomes rebellious and then when his youth dissipates and nothing has been achieved becomes somewhat cynical, gets married - though perhaps not in that order- and settles down to raise a son.
- The Glass Bead Game and how it is handled in the book also hints upon Hesse's intentions in writing the story. In a sense, one can view mathematics as a private language if it were to be related to that of another subject such as music. One plays the game to gain insight from one by understanding the other. The game is the tinkering with the idea of setting these private languages as equal to each other so as to see what emerges as the language reducible of the two formerly private languages, their practical relation to one another. Hesse is saying something like, "we're getting out of hand with this game of ours", referring to things like philosophizing, and scholarly pursuits. The fact that the story takes place in the future adds to Hesse's intentions as something of a warning or maybe even a premonition. He might be criticizing the idea of having a language where themes and ideas can be the symbols being manipulated, that 'themes' can be the pieces of meaninglessness coalesced in ways to produce meaningfulness.
Why I liked it
- The book is also concerned about how people cope with change and the extent to which people desire familiarity. In a sense Joseph Knecht's balance of character may -ironically- have resulted partially due to how much freedom he had to choose his path in life, that is, his lack thereof. Knecht had to transcend his need for familiarity, a quality philosophers will (before Wittgenstein) purport to have mastered, and what brought them to the likes of philosophy in the first place. One can take this train of thought further and even assert that philosophy is a neurosis which leads certain minds towards familiarity, but of a different kind, one which can have its benefits and drawbacks, but nevertheless, is not a sign of self-mastery or superiority, but of limitation, of knowing one's limits. In Hesse's Narcissus and Goldmund, there is a parallel between Joseph Knecht and Goldmund in this way. They both give themselves to the situation. Goldmund let the world take him, and Joseph let the intellectual sphere take him.
- Having read some of Nietzsche I enjoyed reading this book as it offered an analysis of parts of Nietzsche's character the way Hesse saw it, and also invoked much of Nietzsche's principles into the character of Joseph Knecht, and Father Jacobus who is in many ways a foil of Tegularius, the character Hesse wanted to mirror Nietzsche with. In Thus Spoke Zarathustra there is a quote in the "On Friendship" chapter which highlights how one must not want to choose his friends. This is certainly a contradiction to Tegularius's character who attracts no friends.
- Like any great book there were many quotes which are pleasing and relieving to read, if I may say, reading Hesse almost feels like cheating.
- Hesse adds clarity to what would otherwise be emotional confusion. To not be able to reflect back upon one's own words and say to oneself, that is exactly what I was thinking, no matter how hard you try or however many days you sleep on it, for sometimes sleeping on things only makes matters worse, Hesse helps with that by situating philosophical ideas and concepts formerly disposed to abstract systems inside literary plot-driven texts. Clarity is brought about, and all that is once felt as opposed to thought, all that was once intuitive but lacking presence in rationality now has the voice of a language far more suited to lucidity and communication.
Concerns towards the book Itself:
- In Hesse's works, especially the Glass Bead Game there tends to pop up the theme of pride vs. humility, and yet there is the constant realization of how unsuited society is for such a virtue as humility. Democracy is in a sense, treating a leader as the opposite of a teacher. In much of his works, Hesse examines the influence role-models have on the maturation of youths. It is hard to lead a person to reconcile himself with both the worldly and intellectual spheres when there seem to be hardly any great role-models to help exemplify such a refinedness of character. In the Glass Bead Game, Hesse uses the Music Master as the exemplar of a refined person of the intellectual and spiritual life, the "life of music" where in his last moments the Master says notably, "You're tiring yourself" when Joseph tries to start a conversation to revive the feeling of friendship. Hesse then uses Father Jacobus as the exemplar of a refined person of the worldly and political life, one who wishes to get things done through good conversationalism, rigorous debate, and politics. Joseph now has the right role-models to make the leap towards a maturity the Magister Ludi lacks officially, because his teachers knew their role as keeping Joseph from a path of arrogance, or cynicism, and other haughty aberrations of temperament.
- The Glass Bead Game was written in the style of a narrator whose name is not mentioned, writing a biography on the life of Joseph Knecht. The narrator collects fragments of conversations, letters, and experiences told to the reader indirectly through the knowledge of the lives of Knecht's friends and acquaintances. Consequently if you like the sort of passive, background aura you get when reading and which is only able to be recognized upon reminiscing the reading of it, the voice is perhaps too amoral, and analytical. Then again, this can always be a plus too. The book is very clear, and there aren't too many hard words.
- One has to be driven more by the development of the characters and philosophical questions aroused here and there as opposed to a dramatic plot. The plot is not dry, but neither is it suspenseful.
Overall, The Glass Bead Game is a masterpiece.