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Customer Review

on 6 April 2006
The Glass Bead Game (1943) is a confounding but fascinating SF novel/biography/spiritual treatise.
Hesse (1877-1962) was born in Germany, a rebellious - and, for a period, apparently mentally-ill - son to a pair of missionaries who rejected theological education in favour (eventually) of becoming a bookseller's apprentice and writer. He became alienated from his homeland during WWI, attracting opprobrium for writing an essay in protest at German militarism and calling upon his fellow writers to stop supporting the war. In 1919 he left Germany for Switzerland, and never returned. He was fascinated by Jung and by Eastern spiritual thought (specifically Buddhism, I think), and travelled in Sri Lanka and Indonesia.
The Glass Bead Game, widely seen as his greatest work, is a fictional biography set at some unspecified point in the future. It deals with the life and death of Joseph Knecht, one of the greatest players of the titular Game that the world has ever known, and who rose to become its Magister Ludi (master of the Game).
The Game, we are told in the (narrator's) preface, arose out of an impatience with the frivolity and shallow nature of pseudo-scholarship and mass media/entertainment during the "Age of the Feuilleton" (broadly, an extrapolation of Hesse's own). It was a drive for a purer, higher use of intellectual energy, influenced by Eastern thought; an attempt to find a universal symbolic language through which all scholarly pursuits could be expressed, explored and, ultimately, harmonised: music, maths, philosophy, religion. It began with glass beads strung on wires, like a complex abacus, but soon evolved into a much broader set of representations, becoming,
"[W]hat it is today: the quintessence of all intellectuality and art, the sublime cult, the unio mystica of all separate members of the Universitas Litterarum. In our lives it has partially taken over the role of art, partially that of speculative philosophy."
The novel takes place largely in Castalia, a province given over to the furtherance of the Game, the intellectual pursuits of its players, and the education of future Castalians. This isn't Plato's Republic, though; the philosophers don't manage society for its own benefit with all their considerable intellectual resources. Rather, they leave the world to its own devices, supported by the revenues of an unnamed state and enjoying sole occupancy of their province. They maintain a monastic existence in their favoured little world, eschewing worldly attachments and devoting themselves to the life of the Mind.
The tale of Joseph Knecht takes us through all levels of this rarefied world, from young Joseph's first introduction to the Music Master who teaches him a new way of listening to music and is his first mentor, through his intellectual growth and development, his conflicted (and always unequal) relationships with friends and teachers, and his discovery of the value of meditation, up to his appointment as Magister Ludi, and beyond. It's a dazzling, inspiring world - albeit one with nary a woman in sight (only men can play the Game, it seems). It's also a terribly isolated one, anchorless in undifferentiated time, devoid - as the Benedictine monk Father Jacobus helps Knecht to see - of context, of contact, of a true awareness of the outside world and what it means. Of history. It occurs to me now that this may be a reason behind the unspecified timeframe.
In the course of the telling, Hesse naturally plays all sorts of games with the biographical format - a genre that, we are told, is distinctly frowned upon in Castalian culture for its tendency towards both hagiography and needless wallowing in the psychological 'roots' of its subjects. The prose thus strives for dry detachment, modelled on what we later learn is the Castalian authorities' 'house style' - impersonality to the extent of burying the narrator within a first-person plural viewpoint. Nevertheless - as probably will surprise no-one - even as he/they evince a fastidious disdain for such philistine practices, the narrator(s) can't help but indulge in all the traits described as lamentable about biography: psycho-analysis, speculation, foreshadowing, direct speech; even the exploration of Joseph's own thought processes. It's something of a comfort in the midst of this alien society.
The narrator draws back, however, when the climax of the novel approaches: Joseph's decision to leave his position, his responsibilities, and Castalia itself, behind. What remains is legend, we are told; only the bare facts, such as are known, can be presented. (There is a little more, but I don't want to spoil the very end). The reader is left to reach their own conclusions. For my part, I see it as an admission that the life of the Mind cannot exist in such rarefied air, forbidden contact with the world that produced and still nurtures it, without becoming stagnant - but your impression may differ...
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