Book Review: The Glass Bead Game

by Steve Lancaster11/5/18
by Herman Hesse  •  Das Glasperienspiel  or Magister Ludi is one of Hesse’s most interesting and sophisticated works. It is fiction, science fiction, philosophy, satire and political science. Hesse is one of a prodigious group of German writers of the first half of the 20th century; Heinrich Boll, Gunter Glass and Thomas Mann are counted as fellow recipients of Nobel Prizes.

Hesse is best known for his novels, Steppenwolf and Siddhartha, both are counter-culture anti-war favorites in the 60s and 70s. Both of these novels deal with individual enlightenment and feature existential themes. I doubt many of the counter-culture would or did find much in Magister Ludi to satisfy their craving for revolution then, nor would they do so today.

The book is set in an undetermined future, someplace in Europe. The few landmarks mentioned suggest Germany, but it could be Switzerland or Austria. The setting is Castalia, a utopian sanctuary established for philosophical and intellectual contemplation. Additionally, as a training school for teachers.  It copies the cloistral style of Christian monasteries and retreats. Castalia exists for a second purpose; to play the glass bead game. It is the exercise of dexterity playing the game at the highest levels that players achieve metaphysical insight into the symmetry of literature, art, music, painting, mathematics and science. (must be true, says so right here on the label)

The book begins with a long introduction by a very haughty and patronizing narrator who knows and tells you, that you the humble reader, that you will not be able to comprehend all, perhaps none, but continues nonetheless in the hope that you might grasp a small bit of insight into Castalia and the game. Think, Big Bang Theory Sheldon Cooper without the empathy.

The story is about the most famous Master of the Game, Joseph Knight. How he came to Castalia, his friends, promotion through the ranks of the bureaucracy, advancement to Master, his subsequent revelations, and unapproved departure from Castalia and death.

Hesse is an excellent wordsmith and the story of Knight is entertaining reading, but the long introduction contains the heart of Hesse’s thoughts and philosophy. A reader will find much about the late 20th century and our second decade of the 21st century in the account of Castalia and the social and political that created the conditions for Knight’s ultimate betrayal of Castalia. To that end, perhaps it is best to let the writer speak for himself.

For us, a man is a hero and deserves special interest only if his nature and his education have rendered him able to let his individuality be almost perfectly absorbed in its hierarchic function without at the same time forfeiting the vigorous, fresh, admirable impetus which make for the savor and worth of the individual.

Hesse, Hermann. The Glass Bead Game: (Magister Ludi) A Novel (p. 13). Henry Holt and Co.. Kindle Edition.

On all this immense body of intellectual values the Glass Bead Game player plays like the organist on an organ. And this organ has attained an almost unimaginable perfection; its manuals and pedals range over the entire intellectual cosmos; its stops are almost beyond number. Theoretically this instrument is capable of reproducing in the Game the entire intellectual content of the universe.

Hesse, Hermann. The Glass Bead Game: (Magister Ludi) A Novel (p. 15). Henry Holt and Co.. Kindle Edition.

The beginnings of the intellectual movement whose fruits are, among many others, the establishment of the Order and the Glass Bead Game itself, may be traced back to a period which Plinius Ziegenhalss, the historian of literature, designated as the Age of the Feuilleton, by which name it has been known ever since. We must confess that we cannot provide an unequivocal definition of those products from which the age takes its name, the feuilletons. They seem to have formed an uncommonly popular section of the daily newspapers, were produced by the millions, and were a major source of mental pabulum for the reader in want of culture. They reported on, or rather “chatted” about, a thousand-and-one items of knowledge. (In today’s terms think social media and the internet)

Hesse, Hermann. The Glass Bead Game: (Magister Ludi) A Novel (pp. 18-19-20). Henry Holt and Co.. Kindle Edition.

These people who read so many articles and listened to so many lectures did not take the time and trouble to strengthen themselves against fear, to combat the dread of death within themselves; they moved spasmodically on through life and had no belief in a tomorrow. People heard lectures on writers whose works they had never read and never meant to, sometimes accompanied by pictures projected on a screen. (PBS Television?)

Hesse, Hermann. The Glass Bead Game: (Magister Ludi) A Novel (p.22- 23). Henry Holt and Co.. Kindle Edition.

The life of the mind in the Age of the Feuilleton might be compared to a degenerate plant which was squandering its strength in excessive vegetative growth, and the subsequent corrections to pruning the plant back to the roots. The young people who now proposed to devote themselves to intellectual studies no longer took the term to mean attending a university and taking a nibble of this or that from the dainties offered by celebrated and loquacious professors who without authority offered them the crumbs of what had once been higher education. (Hesse would be shocked and saddened that his view of education fits so well today)

Hesse, Hermann. The Glass Bead Game: (Magister Ludi) A Novel (pp. 33-34). Henry Holt and Co.. Kindle Edition.

Hesse manages to work into the story brief sketches of other late 19th and early 20th century intellectuals, among them, Nietzsche, Burckhardt, and his close friend Thomas Mann. There is a brief mention of Marx and communism, but only as a failed system. Not because of economics, but because of the thin cultural values. The book concludes with three short stories, allegedly written by Knight, that embrace Hesse’s obsession with the East and personal enlightenment. Hesse’s work presents some insight into the mindset of the 60s radicals and today’s Antifa and elitists who advocate personal freedom, but only on their permitted terms.

The one area where Hesse gets it very correct is as Knight advances to Magister Ludi, the more he is constrained by the system and is forced to conform against his instincts. Knight discovers that leadership is a burden that requires service to those he leads. A concept that is in agreement with Sun Tzu, Clausewitz, and Musashi. Additionally, Caesar, Alexander, and even Patton. The idea of the leader as servant does not exist in totalitarian cultures like, USSR, Nazi Germany, or N. Korea.

If you can read it in German, I have been told there is more insight conveyed, however if you suffer from 50 years since you took high school German, very little is missed in translation. This is not a book for the casual reader. Hesse went through Jung analysis and IMHO discovered that crazy actually was a lifestyle. But, the first 50 years of the 20th century really were irrational.

If you have not read early 20th century German literature I recommend Hesse, Mann, Boll, and Glass. The English translations are excellent, and the stories give insight into how a most cultured, literate people, home of Goethe, Heine,  Bach, Hyden, Mozart, Beethoven, Mendelssohn  and Mahler descended into hell and have not recovered. • (94 views)

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2 Responses to Book Review: The Glass Bead Game

  1. Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

    Pls note the link to Amazon has the title mis-spelled. It should read, “Glasperlenspiel.”

  2. Timothy Lane says:

    I read Demian and Siddhartha in high school, and enjoyed the latter better than the former. It was part of the Indian subsection of Advanced English, which included Hesse as well as actual Indian literature (such as the play Shakuntala as well as some religious works). (Demian was actually summer reading for Advanced English students.)

    The Castalia is the river at Delphi. When I was in New York for a week studying the basic printer costing system at Olivetti, I went to the Castalia Inn twice. I doubt that’s where this was set, of course, and probably not at Delphi, either, but hopefully Hesse knew the background of the name. There were lots of philhellenes all over Europe — which didn’t help Mussolini when he invaded Greece on October 28, 1940 (the date is known as Okhi Day in Greece and was a holiday when we were there).

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