I am currently reading a book by one of my favorite authors, Hermann Hesse. It is called The Glass Bead Game (and yes, it is the inspiration for this blogs name). It is a wonderfully rich text and is resonating particularly strongly with me because of its relevance and similarity to the current stage of my life (graduate school). Below is a quick analysis of the novel, I plan to further develop the connection of the novel’s themes to more specific, contemporary discussions regarding public schools and higher education in a Part 2. My hope for this post is that it will inspire educators and learners to investigate this magical story for themselves.
“No noble and exalted life exists without knowledge of devils and demons, and without continual struggle against them.” (284)
Hesse’s The Glass Bead Game is widely considered the author’s magnum opus and an important achievement for justifying the award of his 1946 Nobel Prize in Literature. The novel lends itself to being read on several parallel and intersecting levels; however, its plot and primary content are particularly well suited to making connections with current trends and phenomena that appear in significant discussions of teaching and pedagogy, schools, the role and function they serve – or ought to – in the context of larger society, and the importance of institutions that are primarily devoted to the development of intellectual pursuits, the imagination and life of the Mind.
The story is largely about Castalia, the Pedagogical Province, set in the distant yet strictly unspecified future. It takes the form of a biography of an exalted member of this Province, Joseph Knecht, who attains its highest office: Magister Ludi or Master of the Glass Bead Game. The Glass Bead Game is important as it serves as a “perfect expression” or symbol for Castilian goals and ideals: “the conception of the inner unity of all man’s cultural efforts [and] idea of universality” (233). This “spirit of [the Province]… is founded on two principles: on objectivity and love of truth in study, and on the cultivation of meditative wisdom and harmony” (237). While the Game’s rules and structure defy precise description, Theodore Ziolkowski, in his forward to the text, describes the Game as, “an act of mental synthesis through which the spiritual values of all ages are perceived as simultaneously present and vitally alive” (xi). A more in depth description can be found in the ‘Layman’s Introduction’ preceding the biography:
The sign language and grammar of the Game, constitute a kind of highly developed secret language drawing upon several sciences and arts, but especially mathematics and music (and/or musicology), and capable of expressing and establishing interrelationships between the content and conclusions of nearly all scholarly disciplines. The Glass Bead Game is thus a mode of playing with the total contents and values of our culture…Theoretically this instrument is capable of reproducing in the Game the entire intellectual content of the universe… within this fixed structure, or to abide by our image, with in the complicated mechanism of this giant organ, a whole universe of possibilities and combinations is available to the individual player (15).
We are offered more insight into the enigmatic Game when the biographer later clarifies differences in styles of gameplay that hint at the significance, beauty, and sacramental reverence the Game holds in Castalian culture:
In the formal Game, the player sought to compose out of the objective content of every game, out of the mathematical, linguistic, musical, and other elements, as dense, coherent, and formally perfect a unity and harmony as possible. In the [pedagogical method of Game construction], on the other hand, the object was to create unity and harmony, cosmic roundedness and perfection, not so much in the choice, arrangement, interweaving, association, and contrast of the contents as in the mediation which followed every stage of the Game. All the stress was placed on this mediation. Such a… Game did not display perfection to the outward eye. Rather, it guided the player, by means of its succession of precisely prescribed meditations, toward experiencing perfection and divinity (197).
While it is obvious the Game is meant to be a metaphor for human intellect and creativity and Castalia “represents any human institution devoted wholly and exclusively to affairs of the mind and imagination” (xii). The Game is also described as a tool used
to arrange and sum up all the knowledge of [one’s] time, symmetrically and synoptically, around a central idea… not just [as] a juxtaposition of the fields of knowledge and research, but an interrelationship, an organic denominator… [a] way to channel all [one’s] various talents toward a single goal (166).
The goal being to experience “perfection and divinity,” to shift the experience of consciousness from the world of time and images into one of timelessness and tranquility, and “[extract] from the universe of accident and confusion a totally symmetrical and harmonious cosmos” (197).
Compared to his other works with which I am familiar (Steppenwolf, Siddhartha, and Demian), The Glass Bead Game stands out with its focus on an institution at least as much as its central individual. However, these novels are connected by the appearance of a character belonging to a group that Hesse referred to as “the Immortals” in Steppenwolf.
In The Glass Bead Game, the “Immortal” is the Music Master – Knecht’s mentor – who at the end of his “life of devotion and work, but free of obstructions, free of ambition, and full of music,” is described as an old man transforming in retirement into a “state of grace, perfection,… bliss,” surrounded with an aura of “cheerful serenity and wonderful peace,” and moving in “the direction his nature had taken, away from people and toward silence, away from words and toward music, away from ideas and toward unity” (257-260).
His death was not so much a matter of dying as a form of progressive dematerialization, a dwindling of bodily substance…, while his life more and more gathered in his eyes and in the gentle radiance of his withering old man’s face” (279).
In his final days, the Music Master is described as “a manifestation, a personification”, or “only a symbol” of music (261) until, in death, he takes on the qualities of “a magical figure no longer readable but nevertheless somehow conveying smiles and perfected happiness.” As a Castalian, “the grace of such an old age and death, of the immortal beauty of the spirit” that the Music Maker represented, as well as the descriptions offered of the game are very suggestive of what Hesse believes may be the rewards of a contemplative life (280).
Father Jacobus, another of Knecht’s significant teachers, on the other hand
was far more than a scholar, a seer, and a sage; he was also a mover and a shaper. He had used the position in which fate had placed him not just to warm himself at the cozy fires of a contemplative existence; he had allowed the winds of the world to blow through his scholar’s den and admitted the perils and foreboding of the age into his heart. He had taken action and shared the blame and the responsibility for the events of his time; he had not contented himself with surveying, arranging, and interpreting the happenings of the distant past. And he had not dealt only with ideas, but with the refractoriness of matter and the obstinacy of men (192).
In Father Jacobus, Hesse provides a counter example to the Music Maker and creates a tension between the active life of engagement and a more scholarly life of discovery. And this is one of the important themes of the novel that is borne out in a variety of ways. For instance, Knecht’s outlines in one of his lectures that
Every Castalian should hold to only two goals and ideals: to attain to the utmost command of his subject, and to keep himself and his subject vital and flexible by forever recognizing its ties with all other disciplines and by maintaining amicable relations with all (233).
As he continues to praise The Game and highlight its historical importance, he describes its function as “repeatedly [having] to save the various disciplines from their tendency to self-sufficiency” (234). He emphasizes “the best and the most vital aspect of our institution is the old Castalian principle of selection of the best, the elite” (235). He explains to his elite students that they “are more than a reservoir of talented and experienced players” and commends them for being the only ones to play the Game “properly and correctly… shorn of all dilettantism, cultural vanity, self-importance, or superstition” (236). Knecht goes on to reiterate the dangers of disciplines but warns “that the Glass Bead Game also has its hidden diabolus, that it can lead to empty virtuosity, to artistic vanity, to self-advancement, to the seeking of power over other and then to the abuse of that power” (237).
A more striking example of this tension is in Knecht’s contemplation of the transitory nature of Castalia and the Game due to the Provinces’ reluctance to stay relevant to the outside world. While Joseph holds them both “sacrosanct,” he recognizes they have become
Vulnerable to the danger of aging, sterility, and decadence. The idea underlying them always remained sacred to him, but he had recognized the particular forms that idea had assumed as mutable, perishable, in need of criticism. He served a community of the mind whose strength and rationality he admired; but he thought… by forgetting its duties to the country and the outside world… it was doomed to fall into sterility (275).
Many tensions are resolved by Knecht’s transcending the false dichotomy of his reality. Instead of struggling to define himself using the arbitrary and passing values of his time, he comes to embrace polarities in life such as the contrast between the Music Maker and Father Jacobus in a larger unifying vision. We can see this when, as Magister Ludi, Knecht – during one of his meditations – recalls a childhood memory of meeting the Music Master for the first time. They are playing piano together. To Knecht,
it seemed to be the young man who showed honor and obedience to the old man, to authority and dignity; now again it was apparently the old man who was required to follow, serve, worship the figure of youth, of beginning, of mirth. And as he watched this at once senseless and significant dream circle, the dreamer felt alternately identical with the old man and the boy, now revering and now revered, now leading, now obeying; and in the course of these pendulum shifts there came a moment in which he was both (221).
Later on, we can see Knecht continue this move towards a more tempered education in his lecture to the elite Glass Bead Game players when he explains,
We need another kind of education beside the intellectual…, not in order to reshape our mentally active life into a psychically vegetative dream-life, but on the contrary to make ourselves fit for the summit of intellectual achievement. We do not intend to flee form the vita activa to the vita conteplativa, nor vice versa, but to keep moving forward while alternating between the two, being at home in both, partaking of both (237).
I think there are obvious parallels to be drawn between Joseph Knecht and contemporary educators – especially university faculty, as well as connections to be made regarding Castalia’s and the higher education system’s similarities. Specifically, I think Hesse’s novel offers lessons on what the role of intellectual should play in society? What constitutes a good teacher? A good student? It offers Joseph Knecht as an archetype for both. What is the purpose of education? Why is it worthwhile to pursue an education? And countless other quandaries.