The Glass Bead Game

(Spoiler alert: do not continue reading if you plan to read the book)

In my youth, after reading Hermann Hesse’s Steppenwolf, Demian and Siddhartha, which I loved, I enthusiastically started The Glass Bead Game. I found it incredibly slow and boring. I made two new attempts later, still boring. After re-reading those three books again recently plus his Strange news from another star, I decided to give it another try.

I was fascinated by its beautiful serenity, its depth, its contained passion. I could feel that the book had somehow gripped me with its relentless slow flow and was rearranging something inside me, an integration of some sort, a shared fundamental seed. As if throwing a stone into the void finally returned an answer. There is something very human in this book, like a core human string. It vibrates subtly, but perceptibly, with the rhythm of the book, guiding it.

The main character is named Knecht, which means servant in German and is also cognate with the English word knight. As with other books by Hesse, I had the feeling that all the characters in the book form one united mind. Especially in the way the outer world and Castalia are portrayed, two sides of the same brain. In the XXIII century, Castalia is a small province focused on intellectuality. Their inhabitants (all men) are carefully chosen and some of them become part of the Order in a position in which they can serve Castalia best. Contact with the outer world is kept to a minimum. Creativity is frowned upon. Emotions are controlled. Interestingly, music is allowed, but only up to neoclassicism, no romanticism (save for Schubert). Purity is pursued in the quest for knowledge as a path to finding the Truth. Some succeed in achieving an inner plenitude. But for others, like our protagonist, something is missing. A connection to the outer world. The other half of our brain.

Joseph Knecht realises the profound isolation of Castalia, its disconnection from the world, while the rest of the Order despises his concerns in the very best tradition of denial. As the second law of thermodynamics states: in an isolated system, entropy (chaos, disorder) can never decrease. Foreseeing the Province’s not so distant dark future and unable to steer Castalia in a different direction, Knecht leaves the Order and everything he has ever known and plunges into the outer world.

A few days after his voluntary ‘unrooting’, he lays dead at the bottom of a mountain lake, without having had the opportunity to live that external life he craved for so much. In a strange epilogue, Hesse provides three ‘parallel’, alternative lives for Joseph Knecht, each in a completely different time and space. To atone for the sin of abandoning Castalia, Knecht is dragged through the three ages of men: the life of the primitive man instinctively connected with nature, the life of the religious and pious man turned to doubt, and the fully materialistic life that results tasteless. The novel is a sort of tilted ‘T’, with a straight line that ends in a perpendicular line. A cross of sorts.

Each had been a theme which needed to be developed and dismissed; each had been a space to pass through, to transcend. […] My life, I resolved, ought to be a perpetual transcending, a progression from stage to stage; I wanted it to pass through one area after the next, leaving each behind, as music moves on from theme to theme, from tempo to tempo, playing each out to the end, completing each and leaving it behind, never tiring, never sleeping, forever wakeful, forever in the present.

Hermann Hesse, The Glass Bead Game

In the book, we only get generic hints about how the glass bead game is played. In my first attempts at reading the book, I really missed some more information. Now, however, I believe it was the best way to present the Game. Yesterday, I found myself looking for a piece of music called “The unanswered question” by Ives, from there I moved to Emerson’s poem The Sphynx, to another of his poems, Brahma, and from there I somehow jumped to an article on intuitionist mathematics and how it may affect our concept of chance and time in the universe. I realised that, inadvertently, I had been playing something like a Glass Bead Game evolving around the concept of doubt.

Every transition from major to minor in a sonata, every transformation of a myth or a religious cult, every classical or artistic formulation was, I realized in that flashing moment, if seen with a truly meditative mind, nothing but a direct route into the interior of the cosmic mystery, where in the alternation between inhaling and exhaling, between heaven and earth, between Yin and Yang, holiness is forever being created.

Hermann Hesse, The Glass Bead Game

I wonder if we are all playing a common Glass Bead Game in our quest for inner truth, each from our own perspective. Often, I find writings by people who have clearly discovered something relevant to them, what Hesse would call awakening. Even if what they write may not entirely relate to me, it does resonate a bit. I wonder if we are all constructing the same Game, each with our own contribution from our side, forming a large structure that will house us all.

For in us too is part of that Eternal Mind Which through the aeons calls to brothers of its kind: Both you and I will pass, but it survives.

Hermann Hesse, The Glass Bead Game

If I ever met Hesse in a distant time and space, after much hesitation, I would resolve that there is only one thing I really want to say to him: Thank you.