In 1943 Hermann Hesse published his last major work, Das Glasperlenspiel (The Glass Bead Game). It was first published in English in 1949 under the title Magister Ludi, which is the novel’s Latin designation for the chief controller and premier player of a complex and esoteric intellectual endeavor, the Glass Bead Game, which a dedicated monastic cult will have perfected in a peaceful and rational world about three hundred years from now. The book was important to Hesse’s winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1946, maybe because it was so long (892 pages in the original German edition). Hesse began writing it in 1931, and it asks to be read in the context of its time, though it has no overt connection to politics—in that respect resembling James Hilton’s Lost Horizon, 1933, also a vision of peace, possibility, and virtue somewhere else than here and now.
It’s not easy to imagine what reading it must have been like for German speakers in 1943 (Hesse’s books were banned by the Nazis by then). I read it, like many people my age, when a new translation (restoring the original title) appeared in 1969—a different sort of year, not three hundred years on, though sometimes it seemed to be: like living in the future, or far away. We’d already read the hallucinatory Steppenwolf and the mild Siddhartha; the theosophy and Jungian esotericism Hesse had grown up with were coming back hotly, the onset of new-old possibilities that somehow yoked renunciatory asceticism with personal liberation and indulgence, mild peaceableness with violent rejection of the status quo and its masters. It may seem strange that so many could have read this often tedious and peculiarly arid book, but they did—or at least enough of it to get the idea, the gist, of an all-encompassing, all-absorbing game that can be played but never finished, mastered but never won.
It evolves, or will evolve, in this way. In the Age of the Feuilleton—a period that seems to encompass both Hesse’s time and our own—though people have acquired “an incredible degree of intellectual freedom,” culture has degenerated into a mess of pandering to mass taste, superficiality, showing off, and a lack of rigor such that the very notion of “rigor” has vanished; truth is diluted to opinion and maundering, art is deprived of connection to profound practices of the past, writing and education deal with ephemera. This time of confusion and excess leads to, or is at any rate followed by, the Century of Wars, after which, through the dedication and labor of a few remarkable individuals, discipline and order are returned to intellectual pursuits. Formal mathematics and classical music from Michael Praetorius to Mozart are rediscovered. And while creativity and originality in art and other intellectual pursuits never recover from the bad ages, a new power begins to emanate from reviving intellectual centers, as from the monasteries of the ages formerly known as Dark. A strictly regulated brotherhood upholds scholarly standards of such purity that they gradually win admiration for standards in themselves. Teachers trained in the new institutions, called Castalia collectively, go out to instill a new elite with enduring values, and while the common pursuits of mankind—marrying, making money, politics—continue, at least they are pursued rationally and temperately.
(This sort of elaborated summary is actually the mode of the book, which is one long violation of the creative-writing teacher’s “show don’t tell” rule.)
Anyway, in the isolation of Castalia, a new art or science will be perfected. It will arise first in the music academies, where a system of glass beads of different sizes and colors, strung on a frame like an abacus, is used to represent musical themes and the rules of counterpoint, allowing themes to be reversed, transposed, and developed. Problems and challenges in music theory can be set and solved with the game in interesting ways. Soon other disciplines, philology, physics, begin to see ways to employ and expand the symbol sets. “Mathematicians in particular played it with a formal strictness at once athletic and aesthetic.” (“Strict” and “strictness” are ubiquitous words in the book.) From Chinese beliefs that music can model the structure of heaven and earth—and from the expressive possibilities inherent in Chinese ideograms—come further developments, until it will be possible for players of the evolved game to deploy a language of symbols (the glass beads themselves long since given up) to unveil the real relations among far-flung products of intellectual endeavor: perhaps a first theme of a Scarlatti sonata evoking an equation mentioned in an Arab manuscript, answered by an oddity of Latin grammar in one direction, a fragment of Parmenides, or a rule in Vitruvian architecture in another. When players begin to practice meditation techniques, games will become at once more personally expressive and more universal. Top players will introduce new symbol sets—alchemical emblems, the I-Ching; in weeks-long festivals their games induce in observers ineffable experiences of insight.
Wow. However all this was understood in 1943, when I came upon it, the idea that a single reality underlies music and mathematics, art and science, expressible only in a nonverbal language of very cool hieroglyphs, was irresistible, attracting the serious psychedelic vanguard and the daily dope smokers alike. It was easy to feel that our late-night speculations in aromatic Hoboken lofts or Topanga cottages were games of the same kind, and we were players (though doubtless we more closely resembled the vain and fatuous spielers of the Feuilletonist Age). But we were drawn also by a game “played” more as music is played than as a sport is played, a game that players spend a lifetime learning and yearning to excel in, but in which they can excel only by cooperating, not competing: you triumph at the Glass Bead Game only insofar as other players do too. No one is defeated. That’s what got to me, and what I talked about with others, when I first read the book.
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