Friday, August 15, 2014

The Glass Bead Game (a.k.a. Magister Ludi) by Hermann Hesse

Deep waters run still
Hermann Hesse’s 1943 novel The Glass Bead Game, also known by the title Magister Ludi, is set in a utopian future. Following the brutal wars and cultural decay of the 20th century, mankind sanctions the formation of a brotherhood to act as stewards to the world’s intellectual heritage. This secular priesthood is headquartered in the European province of Castalia, a sort of secular Vatican. The Castalians do not create new art, science, or literature, but rather analyze, interpret, and preserve existing cultural artifacts. Their highest ceremonial act of intellectual “worship” is the Glass Bead Game. This Game utilizes a sort of gigantic alphabet in which various intellectual concepts like a passage of music, a mathematical theorem, or a philosophical postulate are signified by graphic symbols akin to Chinese characters. With this vocabulary of symbols, the players artfully construct a drawing or map which illuminates parallels and relations between interdisciplinary fields of thought. The novel relates the fictional biography of Joseph Knecht, a member of the order who rose to the high office of Magister Ludi, or Master of the Glass Bead Game. The future biographer expresses admiration for Knecht as a model Castalian, but illustrates that he was also in many ways a rebel and an iconoclast.

Shortly after publishing this book, Hesse won the Nobel Prize in Literature. This was his final book, and it definitely feels like the culmination of his career, as it combines so many themes from his earlier novels. Here we have the critique of the educational system from Beneath the Wheel, the coming of age story from Demian, the spiritual journey of Siddhartha, and the conflict between scholarly and worldly pursuits from Narcissus and Goldmund. The Journey to the East can be seen as a sort of prelude to this book, and events from that earlier novel are in fact mentioned in the first chapter of this one. The Glass Bead Game is the quintessential Hesse novel, summing up his life’s work, but that doesn’t mean it’s his best piece of writing.

Four words continually sprang to my mind as I read this novel: Get on with it. Hesse delves so deeply into the minutiae of Castalian hierarchy and policy that often the book reads exactly like what it pretends to be—an institutional history. Hesse examines Knecht’s personal life with the same fine-toothed comb. Knecht has four or five close friends over the course of his life, each of which brings out certain qualities in him, and vice versa. While these relationships are important elements of the book, Hesse belabors them to the point of tedium. The novel could have been shortened considerably by eliminating all the redundant conversations. The idea of Castalia is a brilliant concept, and Hesse does a great job establishing setting and atmosphere, but he doesn’t put the same degree of effort into the plot, and the novel suffers as a result. Though the philosophical concepts are quite thought-provoking, the story itself is a bore.

Following the conclusion of the novel, there is another hundred pages of supplemental materials, billed as the writings of Joseph Knecht. Included among these are several poems and three “lives”—short stories penned by Knecht during his student days. Each is a piece of historical fiction that describes the personal spiritual and ethical journey of its protagonist. These three stories are better than the actual novel itself and call to mind Hesse’s great novels Steppenwolf and Siddhartha. While The Glass Bead Game is a good book, it’s not quite in the same league with those two exceptional works.

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