Ştefan Borbély
Babes-Bolyai University, Cluj-Napoca, Romania

Hermann Hesse’s GLASS BEAD GAME

Abstract: Analysing the purely male spiritual enclave depicted in Hermann Hesse's novel 'The Glass Bead Game', the author traces the possible origins of this game to Leibniz's esoteric texts, in which the German philosopher imagined knowledge as the skill of detecting abstract and subtle correspondences between the different sciences and the divine plenitude of the cosmos, based on the art of a generalised calculus, or mathematics, which he called Characteristica Universalis. In Hesse's independent school system of Castalia, the glass bead game is practised by its participants as a universal science (mathesis universalis) of elaborated European and Oriental cultural symbols and analogies, governed by the pure and abstract equations of mathematics and music. Since Hesse's Castalia functions as a utopian, exclusively intellectual province, its vulnerability towards the everyday history and politics of the surrounding nations brings it inevitably to the bring of decline and future destruction. Hermann Hesse's protagonist, the skilled Josef Knecht reaches the highest rank of 'Master of the Game' (magister ludi), and then quits his office in an attempt to escape from collective mystification and inconsistency. 

Keywords: Hermann Hesse, Swiss German literature, literature and decadence, utopia.

The Swiss German novelist Hermann Hesse's last novel, The Glass Bead Game (1943) is a serene Bildungsroman (novel of formation) conceived in the form of an eutopia (positive, happy utopia) placed in the year 2200, somewhere in the German speaking Europe. The ideal geography of the author envisions a cloistered spiritual province, Castalia, living unharmed and protected from the vicissitudes of everyday history and politics within the borders of a wider state or nation. Its inhabitants form a highly respected male spiritual elite, governed by the strict laws of initiation within willingly obeyed intellectual hierarchies, which reflect the main disciplines of the humanities, although everybody acknowledges the serene organizational superiority of music and mathematics, as they only both combine in a comprehensive celestial harmony.

Each specialized discipline of humanities inside Castalia has as its ruler a master (or a "Magister"), who is elected by the community itself, as a sign of collective respect and as the recognition of a personal spiritual excellence. But apart from the particular disciplines, the very elite of the province gather in the community of the glass bead game players, which needs a special, interdisciplinary initiation. To play the glass bead game supposes the gift of linking apparently unrelated disciplines (like, for instance, medieval music and gardening, or Bach and mathematics) in a higher, sublime spiritual synthesis. The German philosopher Leibniz (1646-1716), who beyond his famous Monadology wrote also esoteric texts, imagined knowledge as the skill of detecting abstract and subtle correspondences among the different sciences and the divine plenitude of the cosmos, based on the art of a generalized calculus, or mathematics, which he called Characteristica Universalis. Accordingly, the glass bead game is practiced by its participants as a universal science (mathesis universalis), governed by the pure and abstract equations of mathematics and music. The cast of the glass bead game players form the generally admired extreme spiritual elite of Castalia, who serve also worldly values, as the general plan of the annual festival elaborated by the master of the glass bead game - Magister Ludi - is made public by radio and the press, in order to also implicate players from outside the province, in a feast of ethereal spiritual communion.

Hermann Hesse's novel presents the career of an outstanding glass bead game player, Josef Knecht (his name means in German "servant"), from his early classes in a grammar school up to the peak of the provincial hierarchy, as Magister Ludi. The novel of formation is paralleled by the description of the fall of a secular cultural system embodied by the spiritual province of Castalia. Meditating upon his condition of cloistered, ethereal intellectual, formed in an enclave willingly ignoring the perils of everyday life struggle and history, Josef Knecht finally decides to quit his appointment and the province itself, in order to become a teacher in a worldly, decadent aristocratic Italian family. Unfit for the outside world, he dies almost immediately, by swimming in an alpine lake. Hesse put much effort in insisting that Knecht's sudden death, provoked by the rising sun, must be interpreted as a ritual of sacrifice, performed by nature itself against an outstanding member of a community whose spiritual formation has always had as its prerequisite an inorganic and abstract aestheticism. Indeed, the members of Castalia - all men, no women - exclude love, instincts, psychology, sufferance and even death from their cycles of formation. Within the province, nature itself is a cultural object, similar to history, politics, war, diplomatic intrigue, distraction or sport. Accordingly, Castalia is presented by the author as an extremely sophisticated and impeccable artificial society, sustained as a kind financial burden by a state which remains unnamed throughout the text. Josef Knecht's unexpected demission is determined by the deep understanding that no society or person can live for ever outside history: in a letter addressed to the President of the Order, the quitting Magister Ludi points out that history will necessarily engulf Castalia in an unpredictable future, destroying the very sense of protected permanence and eternity which form the most cherished identity mark of the enclave.

Two main, intermingled thematic blocks structure the book. The first one relies on Josef Knecht's intellectual evolution, from his boyhood up to the high ranks of Castalia. The other one consists in the analysis of an enclaved cultural system challenged by a decadent crisis. Both meet in Josef Knecht's outstanding destiny as a very gifted member of the order of the glass bead game players and in his decision to quit the artificial, cloistered life in order to meet the true rhythms of nature. As such, a main topic of the novel is the relation between eternity and time. Castalia and its members live outside time, as the vicissitudes of the surrounding politics and history come sifted to its inhabitants through the sieve of a pure and crystal-clear inner tradition. To a certain point, Knecht's career is marked by the same certainty provided by eternity, but several of his personal experiences - like, for instance, his vivid debates about the existence of the order delivered with a visitor of Castalia, the "hospitant" Plinio Designori, or his long visit to a Benedictine monastery, in order to meet an influential Catholic figure, the historian Pater Jakobus - teach him that time cannot be swept apart in the evolution of the humanity, at least for the fact that it contains two basic elements of civilization: decadent erosion and death. Accordingly, the profound plot of the novel is built on the scheme of the archaic sacrificial rituals, by which the ferocious Time devours everything, including Eternity.

Back in the 19th century, the educational system of Germany was built on a general school hierarchy, accessible to everyone, and on a few elite schools, which could be approached only by strict intellectual selection and invitation. One of them was Pforta, specialized in the humanities, which hosted Hölderlin, Nietzsche and other highly qualified "geniuses". The rules said that no family was allowed to contact the gymnasium directly, but only after the student has gone through a very tough selection trial. The nomination procedure usually attracted the attention of the whole country, as they were towns (even regions) whose schooling system did not provide, for long and "shameful" years, any suitable candidate for the elite schools. Hermann Hesse described the system in an early, rather bitter novel, Unterm Rad (1906; Engl.: Beneath the Wheel), whose protagonist, the young Hans Giebenrath manages to enter the elite school but fails to meet its inhuman, extremely strict requirements, suffering a nervous breakdown followed by a collapse.

Being a rather gifted schoolboy with no parents, the young Josef Knecht is selected for the elite schooling system of Castalia by the venerable "master of music" (Magister Musicae), who pays a short visit to the student's small town, in order to verify his outstanding local references. Gently protected by his master, but recommended by his excellent personal qualities and intellect, Knecht goes up in the spiritual hierarchy of the province, being selected for the inner cloister of the glass bead game players, who finally make him their Magister Ludi, following the venerable Thomas von der Trave, whose name is actually an innocent pun, as it secretly refers to Thomas Mann, Hermann Hesse's great friend (Trave is the river which flows through Lübeck, Thomas Mann's native town in Northern Germany).

Becoming an outstanding glass bead game player, whose intellectual qualities go much beyond his colleagues' psychological uncertainties, symbolized by Fritz Tegularius, Knecht's very gifted but unruly friend, the future Magister Ludi is selected by the order as an "ambassador" for two special missions, which lead him up to the highest ranks of the hierarchy. At first he is encouraged to take up a debate with a clever visitor ("hospitant") of Castalia, the young Plinio Designori, offspring of an old patrician Italian family, who challenges the eternity and artificial rules of the province by contrasting them to the relative and changing dialectics of the outside politics and history. Later on, after leaving Castalia, Designori becomes a highly influential politician and member of the Parliament, still favorable to Castalia even though the financial burden represented by the province proves to be more and more difficult to sustain by the nurturing surrounding political body. Plinio Designori plays a definite role in Knecht's death too, as the dissident former Magister Ludi becomes the tutor of his unruly son, Tito, who indirectly kills Knecht by beating him in an uneven alpine swimming competition. Before entering the cold lake, Tito Designori performs an orgiastic dance honoring the rising sun; as already mentioned, Knecht dies assisted by the sun, which represents, in Hesse's symbolical intention, the everlasting ferocious energy of nature.

The second appointment makes Josef Knecht an ambassador to the very powerful Benedictine monastery of  Mariafels, whose abbot Gervasius asked the order of Castalia to send over one of his members to initiate the monks into the mysteries of the glass bead game. Castalia is happy to fulfill the requirement, hoping to get support from the Benedictines within the high ranks of the Catholic Church in the Vatican. Knecht's manages to complete the hidden task during his prolonged visit, by convincing the famous historian Pater Jakobus to further plead the cause of the province. The intellectual debate between the two gifted men occupy a big part of the narrative episode dedicated to Mariafels, and it has as a result a complete change in Josef Knecht's intellectual thinking. While getting some valuable information on the glass bead game, Pater Jakobus teaches Knecht historiography and determine him to think the evolution of cultural systems as part of a wider dialectics of time, death and history. Knecht's personal crisis concerning Castalia has its roots in the protagonist's debate with the Benedictine monk, who makes him understand that culture is an organic, vivid flow of inspiration, maturity and decadence, deeply rooted in the evolution of society and history. As a consequence, it cannot be contained in a spiritual province of cultivating artificial values, as Castalia does, by privileging the art of endless analyses and combinations of the past despite spontaneity and fresh creation. Such a collective existence - the learned monk suggests - proves to be a glamorous, but already decadent mystification, built on extremely fragile pillars, which will be easily destroyed with every sudden move of history and politics.

The analysis of Castalia as a dying cultural system will obsess Magister Ludi Josef Knecht's mind while in office, and it will finally determine him to resign in order to try his forces in the outside world, as the tutor of Plinio Designori's son Tito. In Hesse's mind, Castalia is a "pedagogical province", as defined by Goethe in his Wilhelm Meister. On the other hand, it is a post-modern form of purely spiritual collective existence, as Hesse places his order in a period consecutive to our modernism, which is defined in the book as "the Age of the Feuilleton", that is: the period of a sketchy and hyper-personalized, exacerbated form of culture, entirely dominated by the urge of novelty which does not allow ideas to solidify and structure into eternal and universal strata. Our modernist period - the historians of Castalia used to say - deepened the collective unrest by privileging wars, politics, sport and distraction, apart from the future province which is built on abstract, purely spiritual - that is: universal - humanistic values, concentrated in a superior but necessarily cloistered cultural body. In order to train his members, Castalia has carefully eliminated the organic turbulences living within their souls, like love, family life, psychology or fear, devoting them to a highly sophisticated science of interdisciplinary cultural associations based on numerology and music. No member of Castalia generates fresh creation, as originality is conceived only as the art of detecting magical interrelations between apparently unrelated topics, like European music and Chinese philosophy, or medieval architecture and scholastics.

One must not forget that Hesse published his work in the midst of the violent rage of WWII, presenting Castalian life as a serene spiritual alternative to collective hate, bloodshed and sufferance. But apart from being a mild political manifesto, the novel relies on the German philosopher Oswald Spengler's famous Decline of the West (Das Untergang des Abendlandes, 1918-1923) in order to define its main categories. In his seminal work Spengler said that the history of antiquity stipulated the existence of two kinds of societies, defined by their representation of time. The so-called "happy", "eudemonic", a-historical  societies (like ancient Greece, for instance) understood time as a succession of present moments of energetic plenitude, which actually obliterated the sense of evolution and history. On the contrary, profoundly historical civilizations, like the Egyptians and the Jews, kept strict records of their traditions, developing a sharp sense of caducity or progress. Spengler also demonstrates that the collective sense of time has always been associated to the representation of death. For the Greeks, who mostly incinerated the corpses, the underworld was but a mere counterpart to the existing world, apart from the Egyptians who developed a sober culture of death based on the idea of continuity, or apart from the Jews, who brought into the Mediterranean culture the logic of a future coming of a Messiah, and the image of the apocalypse.

In Spengler's terms, Castalia is conceived by its author as a a-historical, artificial society, built on the logic of the spiritual "province". In The Decline of the West, Spengler also stipulated an antithesis between two destinies of culture, defined respectively as the culture of the city and the culture of the province. Both represented in their author's mind a way of spiritual survival within the organic process of turning the organic "culture" into a hyper-organized "civilization", which consists the decadent end of each culture. The culture of the city - Spengler asserted - is based on the social logic of the impulsive and faceless mob, which fixes the destiny of cultural evolution by turning it into distraction and intelligence, as contrary to the culture of the province, which keeps tradition alive, preserving its organic vividness through wisdom and originality. Spengler imagined that in a hyper-socialized, incessantly massifying Europe, the spiritual cloistered enclave can be a solution for culture, by the natural tendency of the "cultural province" to produce a highly qualified and dedicated elite. Spengler's idea has always been very familiar with Hesse, whose other great novels - Demian, Journey to the East, Steppenwolf or Narcissus and Goldmund  - have been built on the logic of the spiritual elite. Hesse also considered that the Oriental way of serene, absolute life can save European culture from disintegration. Josef Knecht is himself attracted by the call of the East, as a chapter of his formation consists in a voluntary obeisance to a Buddhist monk, who lives outside civilization in a tiny oasis of bamboo trees planted by himself. Knecht eventually introduces the Chinese I-Ching book in his spiritual meditation, and proposes it later as the main combinatory topic of a surprisingly original annual glass bead game.

The very meaning of the glass bead games remains a mystery, although there are in the world millions of people who try to solve his logic. Initially the game was played with tokens, but later on the pure spiritual formulas prevailed. The game is an exquisite and almost magical art of combination (ars combinatorial), which was specific to the decadent phase of different cultures, seized by an aesthetic fatigue experienced as a lack of genuine creativity. In order to explain the cultural logic of the combinatory decadence, Hesse used to evoke the antique Alexandria and the fall of the Greek spirituality into magic and mysticism. Another analogy is the dawn of the Renaissance, driven into the flamboyant effervescence of the Baroque or the exquisite skill of inventing magical, unpredictable resemblances between humans, things and symbols, like the manieristic concettos. Many people also say that the functioning principles of the Internet lend to the classical glass bead game imagined by Hesse new and unexpected meanings. Therefore, by simply searching the Web, one can find a lot of sophisticated people who engage in a worldwide community of the glass bead game players. As he died in 1962, Hesse could not think, of course, about postmodernism and the WWW, but his novel still project in the future a fascination considered to be, by many, the serene, purely spiritual solution to our everyday wars, sorrows and disasters.

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by Stanley J. Antosik

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Uploaded 29 September 2019

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