The Long View: The Glass Bead Game

I don't think this counts as a prediction, but there is an interesting parallel to subsequent events. John says:

“The Glass Bead Game” is about the education and career of one Joseph Knecht, whose surname means “serf” or “servant.” He rises through the elite schools of his society to the pinnacle of intellectual life, the position of Magister Ludi, the Master of the Game. Though Knecht's career as a scholar and a diplomat owes something to his native charisma, his life is the tale of how he masters and perfectly embodies the traditional role for which he has been trained. Then, having reached the summit, he walks away from the whole structure, making a resignation rather more shocking than a papal abdication would be. Hesse tries to show that this withdrawal was not a rejection of Knecht's upbringing, but its fulfillment.

After Joseph Ratzinger became Pope Benedict XVI, John said that Pope Benedict is exactly the kind of man who would enjoy playing the Glass Bead Game. As it turns out, he is also exactly the kind of man who enjoys resigning from the Glass Bead Game.

Magister Ludi: The Glass Bead Game

By Hermann Hesse

German Original “Das Glasperlenspiel” (1943)

English Translation by Richard and Clara Winston (1969)

520 Pages; Approximately US$18.00

ISBN: 080501246X

Editions are available from Henry Holt and Bantam.

This book earned Hermann Hesse his Nobel Prize for literature in 1946. World War II had just ended then, so the novel's depiction of a debellicized future for Europe no doubt had special appeal in the German-speaking world. “The Glass Bead Game” is not an arbitrary Utopia, however. (The renderings of the title for some editions are arbitrary, unfortunately; sometimes it's “Magister Ludi” or the English equivalent, “The Master of the Game.”) What we have here is an example of speculative fiction that applies a humane gloss to the model of history in Oswald Spengler's “Decline of the West.” The result belongs to that small set of speculative futures that are both surprising and plausible.

Hermann Hesse was born in Germany, in 1877, where he achieved early success as a journalist and novelist. During the First World War he was an example of that modern conundrum, the pacifist activist. His career took off in 1919, when he published “Demian” and moved permanently to Switzerland. At his death in 1962, he was thought of as an esoteric and even somewhat obscure writer. Immediately afterward, however, his books gained wide popularity as guides to the path of spiritual enlightenment.

Because of the assimilation of his work by the Counter Culture of the 1960s, Hesse is often remembered, whether fairly or not, as the novelist of the truculent intellectual adolescent. This reputation is reflected in the four novels for which he became best known in the English-speaking world: “The Glass Bead Game,” “Siddhartha,” “Demian,” and “Steppenwolf.” The first three are Bildungsromane: novels about education and growing up. In all three, the protagonists eventually transcend cultural norms. The fourth is about a midlife crisis, but “Steppenwolf” deals, on the surface at least, with sex, drugs and rock-and-roll (well, with jazz; it was published in 1927). Perhaps for that reason, it has often served as the smart teenager's answer to “The Catcher in the Rye.”

The Counter Culture has long since become the middle-aged establishment, but Hesse's books still renew their readership. For one thing, they are informed by a Jungian interpretation of Chinese and Indian mysticism, features which are all perennial favorites for several audiences. Hesse's Spenglerian view of history fell out of fashion after the middle 20th century, but that does not seem to have hindered the reception of his books. Quite the opposite, in fact: without familiarity with Spengler, “The Glass Bead Game” in particular seems even more original and mysterious. I might also mention that Hesse's German is very accessible, and it translates well into English.

The text does not say just when the story takes place. However, Hesse let it be known that the principal narrator is supposed to be writing around the beginning of the 25th century, about a person who had lived long enough ago for legends about him to spring up. The action, then, is probably in the early 2300s. We learn pieces of the historical background, which we will discuss below, but part of the book's purpose is to depict an era that is anti-historical, or post-historical. Indeed, the book is largely devoid of the sort of things that novels set in the future often emphasize. We are told there are radios, telephones, ground cars, and trains: so much for technology. It is clear that a “Century of Wars” lies in the past, but the usual term for what we call modernity is the Age of the Feuilleton, of trivial and occasional literature. There are different states, or at any rate countries, which have parallel cultural and educational institutions. We learn almost nothing about the state of the world, except that Europe is extremely peaceful and has been so for longer than living memory.

“The Glass Bead Game” is about the education and career of one Joseph Knecht, whose surname means “serf” or “servant.” He rises through the elite schools of his society to the pinnacle of intellectual life, the position of Magister Ludi, the Master of the Game. Though Knecht's career as a scholar and a diplomat owes something to his native charisma, his life is the tale of how he masters and perfectly embodies the traditional role for which he has been trained. Then, having reached the summit, he walks away from the whole structure, making a resignation rather more shocking than a papal abdication would be. Hesse tries to show that this withdrawal was not a rejection of Knecht's upbringing, but its fulfillment.

All this is expounded through long talks and little incident (there is one stinging memorandum). At school, Knecht is assigned to defend the educational system against a schoolmate named Plinio Designori (there are many Italian names in this book) who later facilitates his departure from his exalted status. Knecht receives precocious promotions. Knecht's mentor turns out to be a saint. Aside from Knecht's resignation, the most dramatic episode is a long stay in a Benedictine monastery. There Knecht is instructed in the neglected subject of world history by wise old Father Jacobus, whom critics say is supposed to represent the great Swiss historian, Jacob Burkhardt. (The most annoying character is a neurasthenic named Tegularius, who represents Friedrich Nietzsche.) There is just one, very minor, female character: Designori's wife. Knecht dies of heart failure on his first day as tutor to Designori's son, thereby giving the sulky good-for-nothing something to live up to. The conversations are really interesting.

One should note that the life of Joseph Knecht in “The Glass Bead Game” was planned as just one of a number of lives of the same man; Hesse had at first envisioned an anthology of incarnations, from the prehistoric past to the distant future. In the course of composition, however, the bulk of the book became a hagiography of the famous and infamous Magister Ludi. Just three other incarnations survive as appended stories, supposedly as examples of the school exercises the students of Knecht's time are assigned to develop the historical imagination. They deal with the life of an ancient shaman, a Desert Father, and a hard-luck Indian raja.

Hesse renders the Glass Bead Game of the title absolutely believable by not describing it in detail. We are never told just what a match consists of. Some early prototype of the Game used actual glass beads. The great annual Game matches are followed as closely and widely as international soccer (the latter isn't mentioned in the book, by the way). Those matches use some unspecified projection equipment. Calligraphy enters into it. So does music. On the other hand, people can and do play by themselves.

The Game seems to be about spotting and extending homologies in the phenomena of nature and in cultural history. The notes of a musical scale, for instance, can conform to the arrangement of the elements in the Periodic Table, or the growth pattern of a plant can conform to the expansion and leveling off of an animal population. Organic growth in general can be shown to have something in common with the efflorescence and exhaustion of an artistic style. Aquinas called these commonalities “intelligible elements”; Leibnitz actually tried to create a numerical language that could express them and even generate them. Hesse posits that some such project eventually succeeds and becomes institutionalized. The Game players seek to express all the phenomena of history and science in the Game language. An international authority oversees additions to the form and subject matter.

All in all, the Game sounds like a competitive jazz of literary and scientific allusions. It serves as an outlet among the finest minds for the creativity that in prior eras would have found expression in art. It is more than a mere trial of mental dexterity, however, because it contains a strong component of meditation. Indeed, many people pursue it as a path to spiritual enlightenment, as a way to perceive Being behind the shimmering veil of thought. The Game simply makes the veil visible, however; it is no business of the Game to suggest what may lie behind the veil.

The hints we get about the Game make it sound more than a little like the “I Qing,” the famous Chinese book of divination. However, Hesse goes out of his way to dispel any implication that they might be equivalent. One Sinicizing teacher of Knecht says this to his suggestion that a Game might be based on the “I Qing”:

“Anyone can create a pretty little bamboo garden in the world. But I doubt the gardener would succeed in incorporating the world into his grove.”

As Magister Ludi, Joseph Knecht presides over the Game center at Waldzell, which is located in an unnamed German-speaking country. The Magister Ludi is just one of the dozen Magisters of the national Board of Educators, however. There is also a “Magister Mathematicae,” for instance, and a “Magister Musicae,” and so on. The primary duty of the Magisters is to oversee the teaching of their subjects in the elite schools. The Magisters as a group oversee Castalia, the “province” (it is never clear to what extent the characterization is geographical or administrative) of all disciplines.

The students in the system of elite schools, all boys, are recruited as children. They normally serve as teachers, researchers or Game players for life. The Order to which they belong, in fact, holds them to a life of comfortable poverty and bachelorhood; to judge by this book, that also means celibacy after their student years. The people call them “Mandarins,” with some reason. Unlike the Mandarins of traditional China, however, their power does not extend beyond pedagogy.

There are also ordinary schools, up through the university level, which prepare their students for the practical professions. Castalia provides many of the teachers for the public system, but the Magisters do not control it. Castalia is wholly dependent on public funding. The Magisters even spend a fair amount of time lobbying.

It is a measure of the distance that the West has traveled by the Age of Castalia that the 20th century idea of biography has become a historical curiosity. The narrator of Knecht's life puts it this way:

“[F]or the writers of those days who had a distinct taste for biography, the essence of a personality seems to have been deviance…We moderns, on the other hand, do not even speak of major personalities until we encounter men who have gone beyond all original and idiosyncratic qualities to achieve the greatest possible integration into the generalities.”

In the age of Castalia, the West has again become a Traditional society, in the special sense of “tradition” coined by René Guénon. Though he does not say this, Hesse seems to have tried to map out a trajectory for the West like that of China after the Sung Dynasty. After several centuries of dramatic growth, chaos, and experimentation, Chinese culture turned toward consolidation under the banner of Neo-Confucianism. Like the Glass Bead Game, that philosophy is as comprehensive as it is final. However, Hesse is at pains to emphasize that a comparable transition in the West need not produce an alien world, much less the fascist outcome that some followers of Tradition favor. In the Age of Castalia, there are still political parties, elections, and newspapers. Nonetheless, the creativity of the modern era is over, as well as its violence and instability.

The Age of Castalia understands the prior thousand years in this way. Two trends had been in play since the end of the Middle Ages. One was the liberation of thought from authority, particularly from the Church of Rome. The other was the “covert but passionate search” for legitimacy for this freedom, for a new and sufficient authority arising from reason itself. The result was disaster, followed by recovery:

“[T]hey were already on the verge of that dreadful devaluation of the Word which produced, at first in secret and within the narrowest circles, that ascetically heroic countermovement which soon afterward began to flow visibly and powerfully, and ushered in the new self-discipline and dignity of the human intellect.”

The reformation of the life of the mind began, clandestinely at first, even in the 20th century. This was done under the impetus of musicologists and of the loosely organized religious movement called the Journeyers to the East (a reference to Hesse's novel of similar name, published in 1932).

After the crisis of civilization, intellectual life became monastic. People understood that their culture was no longer creative, but they also understood that there were still worthy goals to pursue. There was still the work of pious preservation, of systematization and sympathetic critique. The liberal arts began to aspire to the rigor of engineering. The Glass Bead Game was just part of a general turn toward synthesis.

By Knecht's time, no one is much impressed by Enlightenment philosophy anymore. Kant is little known, while the High Scholastics are part of the regular curriculum. On the other hand, everyone is familiar with the music of the 18th century. That's the only reason they think the 18th century is important. As Spengler predicted, the controversies of the modern era have become literally incomprehensible. A Castalian refers to a long-defunct economist sect, for instance, that is probably supposed to be Marxism, but it's hard to tell; the ideology is just too alien to mean anything to him.

Knecht's society is by no means a theocracy, but neither is it secular in the modern sense. This is, no doubt, a nod to another of Spengler's prophecies: the “Second Religiousness.” The Vatican, based on its moral authority, is again a force in culture and in world politics. (Knecht spends that time at the monastery to help Castalia negotiate an agreement to send an ambassador to the Holy See.) Protestantism has died out. However, historians within the Church remember Protestantism rather fondly. As Father Jacobus puts it: “They were unable to preserve religion and the Church, but at times they displayed a great deal of courage and produced some exemplary men.”

One might think that all this hierarchy and authority would provoke a backlash, but no. The elite schools and the hierarchy of Castalia are tolerable precisely because society is not going anyplace. The qualities of a great musician, for instance, are said to be “enthusiasm, subordination, reverence, worshipful service.” Maybe only superior people have those qualities, but their superiority does not include the sort of genius that demands attention for its novelty. The Magisters do not conceive avant-garde ideas and expect people to follow. The hierarchy is the embodiment of a consensus by which the hierarchs themselves are the most strictly bound.

However, though history may have ended, time has not stopped. In preparation for his resignation, Knecht warns the other Magisters, “The world is once again about to shift its center of gravity.” Ominous but unnamed developments in the Orient threaten not just peace, but life and liberty. Serious rearmament could be just a generation or two away. When that happens, Castalia may seem an over-expensive luxury, unless its spirit can be communicated to society as a whole.

The Order is not impressed:

“In the view of the majority, the calm that descended upon our Continent must be ascribed partly to the general prostration following the bloodlettings of the terrible wars, but far more to the fact that the Occident has ceased to be the focal point of world history in which claims to hegemony are fought out.”

Oddly for men who must convince their government every year of the indispensability of their institution, the Magisters also have little patience with Knecht's argument that the calm and sanity of Castalia has itself been a force for peace. Instead, the Magisters reply that Castalia, and indeed the life of the mind, are not historical factors:

“Rather, culture or mind, or soul, has its own independent history – a second, bloodless, and sanctified history – running parallel to what is generally called history.”

Knecht does not resign as Magister in order to sell war bonds. The short explanation for his departure from Castalia is that he had exhausted his own capabilities. There was nothing left for him but the “eternal recurrence” of routine. More important, though, was the characteristic way in which he fulfilled his destiny as a servant. Like St. Christopher, he possessed “a self-reliance which by no means debarred him or hampered him serving, but demanded of him that he serve the highest master.” Because of his introduction to history, he understands that the Glass Bead Game is not the final truth. The Game, too, will prove to be ephemeral:

“Yes, Castalia and the Glass Bead Game are wonderful things; they come close to being perfect. Only perhaps they are too much so, too beautiful. They are so beautiful that one can scarcely contemplate them without fearing for them.”

“The Glass Bead Game” is the story of the progressive “awakenings” in Knecht's life. He comes to realize that these gates through which he passes do not lead to any inner sanctum. Rather, they are awakenings to the reality of each new situation. The same can be said for the progress of the spirit in history. The lack of linearity, however, does not imply a lack of exigency:

“In history, too, moments of tribulation or great upheavals have their element of convincing necessity; they create a sense of irresistible immediacy and tension. Whatever the consequence of such upheavals, be it beauty and clarity or savagery and darkness, whatever happens will bear the semblance of grandeur, necessity and importance and will stand out as utterly different from everyday events.”

In some ways, “The Glass Bead Game” represents the road that Spengler did not take. At one point in the 1920s, Spengler replied to the charge that “The Decline of the West” advocated nothing but pessimism and despair with the assertion he could fittingly have called the book “The Fulfillment of the West” or the “Perfection of the West.” His thesis, after all, was that the West may have exhausted its creative potential, but that modernity was the age in which it would fashion the final forms of Western Civilization in art, science, politics and religion. His model of history was quite consistent with a future that was humane, peaceful, and orderly. Sadly, he was distracted from pursuing this insight by Nietzsche's nihilism and the sour politics of the Conservative Revolution. More and more, he foresaw a Faustian future of disaster and tyranny.

In “The Glass Bead Game,” however, Hesse took the hint. The most intriguing story in the book deals with the final stage in the life of Knecht's old mentor, the Magister Musicae:

“He certainly does not seem to me to be close to his life's end, but his way of taking leave of the world is unique…[I]t is as if he has been on his way elsewhere for some time, and no longer lives entirely among us…
[H]is cheerfulness, his curious radiance…While his strength is diminishing, that serene cheerfulness is constantly increasing.”

Many legends later grew up about the Transfiguration of the Magister Musicae, we are told. The interesting point is that the episode seems to relate Spengler's prediction of the Second Religiousness to the palpable aura of eternity said to surround some living saints. Knecht remarks:

“Even though whole peoples and languages have attempted to fathom the depths of the universe in myths, cosmologies, and religions, their supreme, their ultimate attainment has been this cheerfulness.”

The old Magister, however, was not just any kind of saint, but a specifically Castalian saint. The sanctity he manifested was intrinsic to the Game, which is the final form of the spirit of the West:

“With us scholarship, which is the cult of truth, is chiefly allied also with the cult of the beautiful, and also with the practice of spiritual refreshment by meditation. Consequently it can never entirely lose its supreme cheerfulness.”

Good Spenglerians (among whom we must number Spengler himself) tend to imagine the final stage in the life of the West as a heroic last stand, perhaps lasting centuries but ending in defeat. Evil Spenglerians, not a trivial class, hope for conquest and domination. Hesse's book hints at the possibility that the same insights into historical morphology might be put to quite a different use. Is the world ready for holy Spenglerians? Maybe someday.

Copyright © 2002 by John J. Reilly

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