Hermann Hesse’s The Glass Bead Game is a 20th Century classic has been on my ‘to read’ list for some time: its sheer importance, known density and obscure topic just put me off. It was a lot easier to pick up something from the latest Man Booker shortlist than it was do educate myself with “one of the most important books of the 20th Century in any language”. Hesse’s final book, his magnum opus, the Nobel Prize winner. Heavy.
The novel is pitched as a biography, the preface setting the context: it is centuries into the future, the author is relating the life and times of Magister Ludi – of all the Masters of the glass bead game, one of the most important and remembered. The author is ostensibly providing a light introduction to the principals of the game, and some basic facts in history to outline how we got to the world that the Magister, born Joseph Knecht, lived in.
The glass bead game is philosophy wrought real, evolution and ideas literally played out in a match, art and mathematics fused, beauty and tactics together. Description is beyond language; it remains enigmatic. And the world? It is a kind of pan-European remote enclave called Castilia – a place where academia is prized above all, where the most promising young men across the country are taken for their education and then for the rest of their careers, as teachers, students, or into the upper echelons sworn to protect and preserve this valued way of life. It is one of utter privilege and isolation.
And Joseph? He is a canvas upon which Hesse exercises his tale of morality, philosophy, and growth. This book is a bildungsroman following his life: a boy plucked from poverty and orphaned obscurity, to student, to Master of the glass bead game itself, to actualisation. His actual character development is somewhat secondary to the telling of his psychological development: he is flat, preachy, often cruel to fellow humans for the sake of principles.
This entire set up is a very interesting thought experiment. An entire society sheltered from politics, war and hunger for the pure purposes of education. A certain kind of academic utopia – very classical, strict. The only recreation a highly cerebral game of philosophical strike and counter strike. Staying within that society for life, older members of that society either studying particular specialisations or teaching the next generation. Instead of art for art’s sake, is this education for education’s sake?
But where’s the interruption, the joy, the pain; where do new ideas come from? There are no women, no science, no discovery; this is a glorified ghetto of older white guys teaching younger white guys the same stuff that old white guys taught young white guys centuries ago. Sometimes I complain about fantasy novels that don’t take the fantasy far enough: we have dragons and magic, but apparently women still have to clean the kitchens? Boring. The Glass Bead Game is set centuries into the future and I’m not expecting hoverboards or aliens, but perhaps some acknowledgement that gender roles may have changed since the 1940s? Perhaps there are some new philosophical or artistic ideas that have emerged in the intervening hundreds of years? No, it’s still all about white guys and Mozart.
That being said, there are some very essential ideas and experiences of humanity that do not change across centuries into the past or future that become the guiding light of Joseph’s life. The very thrumming underneath our existences connecting us all; the energy that is around is and through us and makes us up and always has and always will. The scenes where Joseph experiences and reflects on this most basic and vital part of our being are wondrous.
So in the end while The Glass Bead Game is a novel, what I got out of it was the philosophy: the thought experiment, the psychological realisation, the human actualisation. The Castilian utopia of Joseph’s world doesn’t work for me and in the end didn’t work for him either, but the exploration and the interrogation of it is very interesting. This book is very important, yes, but not necessarily always very enjoyable.