The Glass Bead Game

In case anyone was wondering why I list the books, films and music (or recently, podcasts) that I’m interested in at the moment down the right hand side of this blog, it’s not to show off my excellent taste or anything like that. It’s to encourage anyone who’s also interested in any of those things to discuss them with me. So far, this has happened precisely zero times. But I live in hope.

You may have noticed that The Glass Bead Game by Herman Hesse was my current read for quite a long time, recently. I’ve finally finished it, so now I’m going to post some thoughts on it.

I bought it in Varanasi, when I thought that I was going to finish the book I was then reading – Hemingway‘s For Whom the Bell Tolls – before I left India. Browsing in a bookshop near the Dashashwamedh Ghat, I found TGBG, with its striking cover and the following blurb:

“In the remote Kingdom of Castalia, the scholars of the Twenty Third century play the Glass Bead Game. The elaborately coded game is a fusion of all human knowledge – of maths, music, philosophy, science, and art. Intrigued as a school boy, Joseph Knecht becomes consumed with mastering the game as an adult. As Knecht fulfils his life-long quest he must contend with unexpected dilemmas and the longing for a life beyond the ivory tower.” (From the back of the Vintage edition)

From the basis of this, and its title, I thought the book would be mainly about the eponymous Glass Bead Game, the ‘elaborately coded fusion of all human knowledge’. I imagined it would be like the works of Jorge Luis Borges, many of which explore curious ideas and intellectual puzzles in a fictional setting. But it isn’t. Whereas Borges would have taken the concept of a scholarly game linking different areas of human knowledge, explored it inside out and upside down within a 20 page story, and surprised you with new ideas on every page, Hesse spends 544 pages hardly talking about the game at all.

I was misled by my own fascination with games, took too much notice of the first half of the blurb, and mistook that to represent the book as a whole. In actual fact, the text of the book doesn’t elaborate on the Glass Bead Game itself much more than the blurb. It’s the second half of the blurb which truly represents what the book is about: a biographical description of a man’s ascent to the top of an academic hierarchy, and its psychological effect on him.

The book can be divided into four distinct parts: introduction, biography and two appendices: poems and Lives.

INTRODUCTION

In the introduction, the history of Castalia and the Glass Bead Game is sketched out. Written from the perspective of the 25th century, looking back on the 23rd, it describes a world which emerged from the intellectual triviality and debasement of the 20th century, in which intellectual culture is rebuilt through a rigid system of elite academic schooling, centred around the Glass Bead Game. No more cultural output is produced by humanity, since it is recognised that the art, music and mathematics of the 17th to 19th centuries represent an unimprovable pinnacle. Instead, the highest cultural aim is to represent syntheses and parallels between those cultural products via the mechanisms of the Game.

It makes more sense understood as a product of its time: Hesse was a German intellectual exile, living in Switzerland during the Second World War. While art and culture were being subverted and abused by fascism, and Europe tore itself apart around him, Hesse imagined an alternative: an austere and peaceful country where the values of the 20th century were rejected, and intellectual pursuits were followed in the purest and noblest manner possible.

Hesse’s Castalia is a portrait of the ‘ideal’ of scholarship, what you get if you take the concept of ‘academia’ to its logical extreme. In this world, ‘universities’ exist to provide training in the professional disciplines – medicine, law, engineering – while the elite schools of Castalia, which look down on such worldly activities, allow their members to pursue pure academic study for its own sake, and then let them go one of three ways: teaching, administration, or further study.

Most go into teaching, and are farmed out to schools across the wider region, providing Castalia with its justification for existence, and ongoing financial support from the worldly powers. Those with leadership potential are identified and guided into the hierarchy of Castalia. The remaining option is for Castalians to remain perpetual scholars: if they choose this, they are allowed to live on a modest grant, indefinitely pursuing whatever topic interests them, with no questions asked or justification required. It’s the academic’s dream-come-true: none of the sordid, stressful business of grant applications, pressure to publish, career manoeuvring and tenure. It’s also the source of possibly the only humorous passage in the whole book:

“A good many [Castalians] have devoted their lives to highly abstruse and sometimes peculiar subjects, such as Lodovicus Crudelis who toiled for thirty years translating all extant ancient Egyptian texts into both Greek and Sanscrit, or the somewhat peculiar Chattus Calvensis II who has bequeathed to us four immense folio volumes on The Pronunciation of Latin in the Universities of Southern Italy toward the End of the Twelfth Century. This work was intended as Part One of a History of the Pronunciation of Latin from the Twelfth to the Sixteenth Centuries. But in spite of its one thousand manuscript pages, it has remained a fragment, for no one has carried on the work.”

Meanwhile, they all play, or at least, follow, the Glass Bead Game. As I mentioned, the Game isn’t elaborated in the book much more than it is in the blurb, although we are told a few more details. For a start, it’s not really a ‘game’ in the competitive sense. It can be, and generally is, played by more than one player, but it’s more a sort of collaborative intellectual endeavour than a game. Also, it doesn’t involve any glass beads. Its name is an Artifact Title, left over from the game’s roots as a bead-and-abacus-based method of representing musical themes. At the time of the narrative, the beads have been replaced with a complex language of written symbols.

So, far from being a game played with glass beads (which I’d initially imagined as something like Go, or Stricken, the fictional game played in an early chapter of Iain M Banks‘s The Player of Games), the Glass Bead Game is an exercise in academic calligraphy, and even then it doesn’t play much part in the narrative. It’s a part of the background, a symbol standing for the ultimate intellectual pursuit, which influences the life of the protagonist.

BIOGRAPHY

By far the largest part of the book is the biography, written in a very dry academic style, of Joseph Knecht, who eventually rises to the position of Glass Bead Game Master. That isn’t even the top position in Castalia – the President of the Board of Masters is. He’s essentially Head of the Glass Bead Game Department, although given the preeminent status of the game, the position is regarded as symbolically representative of Castalia as a whole.

The story of Knecht’s rise to power is another interested artefact of its time, and Hesse’s world-view. Taking the maxim that ‘those who desire power, shouldn’t have it; and those who are most suited for power, don’t want it’ to its logical conclusion, Hesse imagines a selection procedure for the leadership hierarchy of his fictitious academic paradise which is based on this principle. Candidates for leadership are identified amongst the scholars by their personal qualities (in Knecht’s case, his charisma and innocence) and nurtured with assignments (defending Castalia in a debating contest, an embassy to a Benedictine monastery) to prepare them for positions of authority.

This is the part that I found most unsatisfactory about the book. If Knecht had shown any interest in a management position, he would never have been given it. By the nature of Castalian assignments, he necessarily had no relevant experience before being put into the top role. Hesse’s motivation for this conceit is understandable: he was exploring the idea of a system diametrically opposite to the one which existed in his time, where (in his perception) those with the greatest, most desperate craving for power inveigled their way into it, with catastrophic consequences.

However, this alternative system is presented uncritically as a utopian success. At no point do the narrator or any of the characters question its premises, and if the author does, it’s done so subtly as to be unnoticeable. One assumption that’s needed is that leadership and management are a kind of black art, rather than simply a set of activities which can be improved through practice; that an aptitude for performing them can only consist in the possession of an obscure set of qualities, rather than (as seems more plausible) a practical capability which grows progressively with training and experience.

Another one is that the dictatorships of the twentieth century proved that an unbalanced lust for power itself, in the absence of any practical ability, or beneficent vision of the projects one wants to achieve, is a recipe for disaster. That may be the case, but it’s also highly implausible that someone who has no ambition, and takes no interest or enjoyment in the marshalling of people and resources towards a greater task, would be a good choice for that role. More implausible still is that such a person would, upon assignment to it, immediately find within themselves precisely the level of ambition and managerial enthusiasm required, and not just in one case, but consistently, as a recruitment policy proven over centuries and generations.

The climax of the book, such as there is one, is the recounting of Knecht’s time in office and its effects upon him: the ‘dilemmas’ and ‘longing’ which the blurb had promised, and which I’d overlooked when choosing. As a psychological study of an academic administrator, it’s about as gripping as you’d expect. Even the final chapter of Knecht’s life, which has become ‘The Legend’ by the supposed biographers’ time, is a bit of a damp squib.

APPENDICES

The final two sections are meant to be the work of Knecht himself, included by the biographers as appendices: his student poems, and three ‘Lives’, fictional biographies written (by the subject of a fictional biography – how meta!) as a compulsory creative exercise for young scholars. These last pieces are the most entertaining part of the entire book. They echo the themes of Knecht’s own biography, although they have far more compelling narratives and, crucially, are much shorter.

VOCABULARY

One nice thing about reading The Glass Bead Game was the number of new words I learned, and not all long, intellectual words, either. In fact, the majority of them were from the least intellectual part of the book, the Lives, and in particular the Life of the prehistoric medicine man, and his crafts of animal tracking and hunting. As my own appendix to this review, here they are for your benefit.

Hortatory – tending or intended to exhort (something from someone)

Matutinal – of or in the morning

Entelechy – Aristotelian property of actuality, as opposed to potentiality

Bast – thread made from plant fibre

Spoor – the trail left by an animal, followed by a hunter

Fewmets – animal droppings, used by a hunter to track the animal

Simple – medicinal herb

Lave – to wash

Eremite – religious hermit

Incommode – to inconvenience (someone)

As in, ‘Suffering from an illness, I made a hortatory visit to the wise eremite, but he incommoded me with his absence. I followed his spoor of matutinal fewmets to a place he was likely to be laving. There I confirmed his entelechy, and bound him in bast. For his release, he offered me the medicinal herbs I needed: simples!’

3 thoughts on “The Glass Bead Game

  1. So a convenience is a commode, and inconvenience means incommode? I wonder if that’s an etymological anomaly, or if there’s some underlying reason for the link between the two/four words.

    • Yes. Their Latin roots are distinct: one from ‘convenire’ (assemble, agree; cf ‘convene’) and the other from ‘commodare’ (adapt, provide; cf ‘accommodate’). But once they converged on the similar meaning of ‘being adaptable, fitting, pleasing’, their fates were linked. To inconvenience someone is to incommode them. Similarly, the most useful room in the house is both a convenience and a commode.

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