[The first of a series.]
It is not an action or suspense novel; and it has, in keeping with its themes, a scholarly, cerebral, and dispassionate tone.
Though set generations in the future, it is not “science fiction”: but if “science“ is construed most generally, as “knowledge or a system of knowledge,” the book definitely qualifies.
It was first published in 1943 in Switzerland, as Das Glasperlenspiel, a year after Nazi authorities had banned its publication in Germany.
Eighty years later, its resonances and relevance remain.
Hermann Hesse’s thought-provoking The Glass Bead Game (sometimes titled, Magister Ludi) addresses the nature and role of academics and theoreticians, and their responsibilities not only to preserve and expand knowledge and insight, but also to engage with and contribute to their surrounding societies and cultures.
The novel, presented as a biographical and investigative profile of the fictional Joseph Knecht, takes place in Europe, long after an Age of Wars (or, Century of Wars), “which began approximately with the so-called First World War.”
That era is also referred to as the Age of the Feuilleton, whose popular newspapers featured diverting, but intellectually empty, “anecdotes taken from the lives or correspondence of famous men and women,” “historical background piece[s] on what was currently being talked about among the well-to-do,” and “interviews with well-known personalities on current problems.”
Just as Yeats, in 1919, famously wrote, “The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity,” during the “cynicism” of the Age of the Feuilleton, “Among the good there prevailed a quietly resigned gloom, among the wicked a malicious pessimism.”
After the Age of Wars, British and German scholars (notably those of music and mathematics, but also those influenced by Eastern philosophy) “gradually withdrew from the bustle of the world” and devoted themselves to rigorously refining and redeeming the “deeply debased intellectual professions [that] were bankrupt in the world’s eyes,” and to ensure the survival of civilization itself.
Their ultimate achievement, a unique method of “expressing and establishing interrelationships between the content and conclusions of nearly all scholarly disciplines,” is the Glass Bead Game, whose name refers by analogy to an abacus-like device on which the notes of musical patterns can be represented as different types of glass beads strung on wires.
The Game’s complexities and strategies are not detailed for the reader. Indeed, “The only way to learn the rules of this Game of games is to take the usual prescribed course, which requires many years; and none of the initiates could ever possibly have any interest in making these rules easier to learn.”
However, the Game ultimately serves as an all-encompassing “universal language through which the players could express values and set these in relation to one another. . . . It represented an elite, symbolic form of seeking for perfection, a sublime alchemy, an approach to that Mind which beyond all images and multiplicities is one within itself—in other words, to G-d.”
Sustained by mystical, meditative, and monastic (though not explicitly religious) practices, students and players of the Game seek to “assure stability for the spiritual foundations of moderation and law everywhere,” and, in a degraded but rebuilding world, “to preserve the purity of all sources of knowledge.” (The players’ perspectives “had in earlier times been sought and listened to even, for example, on important cases of law.”)
The report of Knecht’s life traces his early promise; his initiation into the Castalian Order, the ultra-selective society of students and practitioners of the Game, and his ascension to the position of Magister Ludi, or Master of the Game, where he “reached the summit and achieved the maximum. . . . [H]e became the leader and prototype of all those who strive toward and cultivate the things of the mind.”
Although most graduates of the Castalian school system “end up as subject teachers in the public schools and universities,” the most accomplished remain, to “devote themselves to free study for as long as they please. . . [although] a good many of their works seemed to bring no immediate benefits to the people or the community and, inevitably, seemed to nonscholars merely luxurious frivolities.”
As a student, Knecht staunchly defends the Order’s goals and operations, in debates before the entire school, against one of his most talented friends, who from the beginning has planned to return to the outside world.
Having attacked Castalia as a sterile, self-centered, and disengaged ivory tower, his friend will ultimately become disillusioned with the actual practice of law and politics, and confess to Knecht that “’[P]eople in the world. . . . regarded themselves as no less precious, sanctified, and elect in their narrow-minded crudity than the most affected [Castalian] show-off could ever have done.’”
Decades after the debates, and from the perspective of his participation in Castalia’s political intrigues and in the highest levels of its administration, Knecht will reconsider the Order’s role in and relation to the society that supports it; will reach disturbing conclusions about Castalia’s future; and, after carefully examining the Order’s own rules, will pursue a surprising course of action.
As Hesse worked on the book in neutral Switzerland, from 1932 to 1942, he found his own mental and spiritual refuge in a threatening, and then war-torn, Europe. According to one biographer, he wrote to his son in late 1943 that “in all the many hundreds of hours that I spent writing The Glass Bead Game, I encountered nothing but a totally pristine world which I could inhabit, completely free of all immediate concerns.” In 1946, Hesse was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.
Among the many themes that the book explores are:
● The identification, selection, training, and responsibilities of the “elite,” including leaders of august institutions;
● The contrast between the deep study of a specialized field and the attempt to correlate and connect elements of many different areas of knowledge;
● The nature of creativity;
● Personal, versus universal, truths;
● The limits, and possible incompleteness, of systems of knowledge;
● The ability of individuals and institutions to draw lessons from (and to create philosophies of) history, even as they participate in and are affected by the events of the day and the era;
● The interdependence of the histories of thought and culture with those of power and war;
● The evolution and evanescence of individuals, organizations, countries, and cultures;
● Written versus unwritten (and perhaps unwriteable) information, rules, insights, and wisdom;
● The stabilizing, but possibly enervating, effects of meditative techniques;
● The preservation and accurate transmission of knowledge, and of values, between individuals and/or over generations;
● Methods of teaching, including by presence (or, by spiritual grace) alone;
● Methods of learning, including by inspiration or mystical awakening/ enlightenment;
● Balancing personal and professional independence/individuality with one’s duty to an organization and/or country; and,
● The relative roles of the student, the teacher, the scholar, the administrator, and the politician.
Knecht’s first mentor, the Music Master, counsels him:
“Each of us is merely one human being, merely an experiment, a way station. But each of us should be on the way toward perfection, should be striving to reach the center, not the periphery. Remember this: one can be a strict logician or grammarian, and at the same time full of imagination and music. . . . The kind of person we want to develop, the kind of person we aim to become, would at any time be able to exchange his discipline or art for any other. . . .
“[T]he doctrine you desire, absolute, perfect dogma that alone provides wisdom, does not exist. Nor should you long for a perfect doctrine, my friend. Rather, you should long for the perfection of yourself. The deity is within you, not in ideas and books. Truth is lived, not taught.”
Lawyers, and their own teachers, might take as a role model another of Knecht’s mentors, “perhaps the most eminent historian of the Benedictine Order.”
Father Jacobus was “not only far more than a scholar, a seer, and a sage, [but] also a mover and shaper. He had used the position in which fate had placed him not just to warm himself at the cozy fires of a contemplative existence, he had allowed the winds of the world to blow through his scholar’s den and admitted the perils and forebodings of the age into his heart. He had taken action, had shared the blame and the responsibility for the events of his time; he had not contented himself with surveying, arranging and interpreting the happenings of the distant past. And he had not dealt only with ideas, but with the refractoriness of matter and the obstinacy of men.”
Knecht himself, as Magister Ludi, advises the teachers of beginning students: “We do not intend to flee from the vita activa to the vita contemplativa, nor vice versa, but to keep moving forward while alternating between the two, being at home in both, partaking of both.”
Similarly, in 1925—seven years after the end of World War I, eighteen years before the publication of The Glass Bead Game, and seven years before he would become an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States— Benjamin Cardozo, then Chief Judge of the Court of Appeals of New York, himself characterized the law “as a ‘game’. . . , though it will depend upon your notion of a game whether the metaphor shall elevate or cheapen. It is a game, but it is a game of skill. . . It is in truth a fascinating process, baffling, elusive, infinite in the variety of its aspects, and yet infinite also in its appeal to the heart and mind and spirit of generous and ambitious youth.”
In “The Game of Law and Its Prizes,” his commencement speech at Albany Law School, Cardozo warned that, to formulate effective legal rules, “One must be historian and prophet all in one—the qualities of each united in a perfect blend. . . . [L]ike every game worth playing, [the law] exacts something more important, and that something is the sportsman’s spirit, which is only another word for character.”
“This is no life of cloistered ease to which you dedicate your powers. This is a life that touches your fellow men at every angle of their being, a life that you must live in the crowd, and yet apart from it, man of the world and philosopher by turns.
“You will study the wisdom of the past, for in a wilderness of conflicting counsels, a trail has there been blazed.
“You will study the life of mankind, for this is the life you must order, and, to order with wisdom, must know.
“You will study the precepts of justice, for these are the truths that through you shall come to their hour of triumph.
“Here is the high emprise, the fine endeavor, the splendid possibility of achievement, to which I summon you and bid you welcome.”