The Glass Bead Game by Hermann Hesse

Choosing my final read for Hermann Hesse Reading Week was very difficult; there are so many wonderful books by this author, and I could have gone for an early work, more poetry or autobiography. However, in the end, I felt I’d like to revisit his masterwork, “The Glass Bead Game” and so I dug out my old, frail Penguin Modern Class; as after my experiences with the “Steppenwolf” translation, I wanted to read again the work I’d read decades ago.

glass bead

My Penguin has nothing but the bare text of the book (as they did in those days) and I actually found it very refreshing to read an older book not riddled with note, forewords and afterwords. Instead, I was a left as a reader to judge the work in isolation on its own merits, and treated as having enough intelligence to look up or work out any reference I didn’t understand – which I enjoyed very much.

“The Glass Bead Game” was Hesse’s final work, the one specifically cited by the Nobel Board when awarding him his prize, and is regarded by many as his finest book. Set in the future, in the elite world of Castalia, it tells the story of Joseph Knecht, a Master of the Glass Bead game, and his life and experiences and philosophies. Hesse uses a similar framing narrative structure to “Steppenwolf”, placing himself as biographer and editor of Knecht’s surviving works, and at times employing a similar authorial tone.

Knecht (the word in English can denote servant or knight) is a man with no family; brought up as a scholarship school pupil, he’s picked out by a visiting Music Master to be sent to the Castalian schools to study. Joseph shows a talent for music and does well at the school, even being picked as a kind of debating champion to defend it in argument against a guest student from outside, Plinio Designori. The debates between the two are enlightening, and their friendship will have an important effect on Knecht’s life.

The book goes on to trace Knecht’s path through the hierarchy to reach the high title of Magister Ludi, Master of the Glass Bead Game. His way is not as straightforward as many a Master, taking in a period of study with a reclusive Elder Brother in his Bamboo Grove, and also a series of politically motivated visits to a Monastery in the outside world. Here he encounters Father Jacobus, a renowned historian, who gives him a wider perspective on life than he receives from just Castalia.

Interestingly enough, the further Joseph progresses up the ladder of status, the more he finds himself questioning the raison of Castalia; and when he becomes Magister he carries out his duties brilliantly, all the while with a mind that is perhaps yearning to be elsewhere. He eventually reaches a decision about his future which will have dramatic consequences for him, but may lead to Castalia surviving as a repository of culture for a little longer than it might otherwise…

People know, or dimly feel, that if thinking is not kept pure and keen, and if respect for the world of the mind is no longer operative, ships and automobiles will soon cease to run right, the engineer’s slide rule and the computations of bank and stock exchanges will forfeit validity and authority, and chaos will ensue. It took long enough in all conscience for realization to come that the externals of civilization – technology, industry, commerce, and so on – also require a common basis of intellectual honesty and morality.

I’m not going to give more than a plot outline here, because I’m sure hundreds of theses have been written on “The Glass Bead Game” which barely scratch the surface. This is one rich, complex book chock full of ideas and I can see why it would have been cited by the Nobel committee. Published in 1943, at the height of WW2, it’s in many ways a cry out for civilisation and humanity. Castalia came into being after a period referred to as The Age of the Feuilleton, which is pretty much the 20th century, full of its wars and crises. It’s a country where civilisation and study and education have reached a high peak; and yet it’s an oddly sterile place. For example, they study the greats of classical music but don’t try to create any, and the same goes for the other arts. In fact, Knecht is unusual in writing poetry (some of which is presented at the end of the biographical section, along with some of his other writings.) It’s rather as if you can have a lively, messy, vibrant but violent world that creates great works of art, or a civilised world of the mind that cannot create, only study.

The game itself is a unique synthesis of several different artistic disciplines which is never completely defined but of which mathematics and musical seem to be the strongest threads. It’s never given a tangible, physical structure; instead, it exists as an abstract concept, an ideal which unites all the arts and sciences in one complete whole.

Generations ago this famous Game had begun as a kind of substitute for art, and for many it was gradually developing into a kind of religion, allowing highly trained intellects to indulge in contemplation, edification, and devotional exercises.

But despite the heights that Castalian culture has reached, it is not enough to hold a man like Joseph Knecht. For all its admirable traits and achievements, the inhabitants are living in an ivory tower, too detached from the everyday world; and I did wonder if Hesse was making an analogy here with the 20th century intelligentsia, many of whom spent the 1930s ignoring the forthcoming conflict.

The wave is already gathering; one day it will wash us away.

There is a very strong sense of a civilisation in decline and Knecht (and the reader!) is aware of the inability of intellect to resist the tendency of war. Throughout the book I also felt the subtle influence of Eastern religions, which is prevalent in so many of Hesse’s works, and it adds another element to Knecht’s journey through life.

The one flaw I found in this glittering gem of a book was the fact that the world of the Elite and the Glass Bead Game is entirely male; the constant analogies to religious orders seems to reinforce the ascetic, restricted world view held by the Castalians. However, there were female religious orders, and at the time Hesse was writing, women were a prominent feature in art, literature, mathematics and the sciences. So why Hesse chose to make his order entirely male is something that’s up for speculation.

The biographical story of Knecht ends dramatically, and perhaps a little unexpectedly; however, this is followed by the sequence of poems I mentioned above, as well as three biographical sketches supposedly penned by Joseph as part of his studies. These could be read as alternative lives of Knecht, and covering the life of a pagan shaman, a Christian hermit and a Prince. All are fascinating in their own right, but also shed light on the man as he was and as he could have been. There is a common theme in all the stories – one perhaps that runs through all of Hesse’s work – of searching; it’s a trait we humans have of wanting to look for more and certainly it seems as if Hesse’s spent much of his life searching for knowledge and wisdom. And the poems attributed to Knecht share that same kind of longing as those in the collection of Hesse’s verse I reviewed earlier this week.

There’s so much more you could say about this wonderful, luminous book but I’ll stop here. Hesse created a rich and complex mythology of an intellectual pursuit and its champion; a book full of philosophy and speculation, debate about the best way to live your life, and with a central character who is alive and loveable. It’s no wonder that this book has become such a classic, as the issues it discusses are still vital and important. I’m so glad to have revisited “The Glass Bead Game” and it’s been a wonderful way to finish off Hermann Hesse Reading Week!