Hermann Hesse - The Glass Bead Game

Review :

There's a scene in Antonio Tabucchi's Indian Nocturne in which the narrator meets an Indian intellectual who asks him, among other things, what he thinks of Hermann Hesse. The narrator, resenting the interruption and perhaps with a sense he is being mocked, heaps scorn on the German "spiritualist", calling him sentimental and likening him to a sweet liqueur, and only later realises he hasn't said what he thought of Hesse at all. In some way, these days, I suspect there's a little of this narrator in many of us. Hesse - unlike Kafka or Beckett or Mann - is not an intellectual's badge of honour. Frequently, I've approached one or another of his books again after a hiatus half-expecting that this time I will have grown out of him, but I never do. The Journey to the East has enthralled me since I first read it in my teens - and probably I understand only marginally more of it now than I did then. The "Treatise on the Steppenwolf" (unlike much of the rest of that most famous of his novels) I likewise revere. The early novella Knulp is a small masterpiece, touching and true. Demian has its moments, Siddhartha too (though again its fame is out of proportion to its content), and Klingsor's Last Summer and many of the short stories and even Narziss and Goldmund if you're on a roll and don't want to stop. But looming over all of them, dwarfing them and pulling together most of what's best in each of them is The Glass Bead Game, a book which, despite myself, and though I doubt I'll be able to convey why without reading it again (a fourth time), I count among the five or so most transformative reading experiences in my lifetime.

Like The Journey... or "The Treatise...", the "General Introduction [to the Glass Bead Game] for the Layman" is Hesse at his finest - not so dissimilar to Borges in his essayistic tone and otherworldly humour, and throwing out mindbending concepts with casual aplomb.
The Glass Bead Game is thus a mode of playing with the total contents and values of our culture; it plays with them as, say, in the great age of the arts a painter might have played with the colours on his palette. All the insights, noble thoughts, and works of art that the human race has produced in its creative eras, all that subsequent periods of scholarly study have reduced to concepts and converted into intellectual property - on all this immense body of intellectual values the Glass Bead Game player plays like the organist on an organ.
In other words, an early glimpse of post-modernity, but telescoped into an imaginary future (after what Hesse dryly characterises as "The Age of the Feuilleton") in which - for the purposes of players of the Glass Bead Game - artistic production has stopped or gone underground, and the highest cultural calling is to manipulate what has been left behind by former ages, to create - in a hyper-ritualised setting and for the benefit of worldwide audiences - these "games" that are part music, part mathematics, and use a futuristic brand of calligraphic characters to sample and integrate their component parts into a quasi-equation that can later be studied and reproduced. At the centre of this enterprise, the Magister Ludi - or master of the Glass Bead Game - is treated like a priest or deity by devotees of the game. But there is none of the rock- or movie-star "cult of personality" about these figures; not only are their identities kept secret except from a few close initiates, but their study in biographies or histories is discouraged.
Certainly, what nowadays we understand by personality is something quite different from what the biographers and historians of earlier times meant by it. For them, [...] the essence of a personality seems to have been deviance, abnormality, uniqueness, in fact all too often the pathological. We moderns, on the other hand, do not even speak of major personalities until we encounter men who have gone beyond all original and idiosyncratic qualities to achieve the greatest possible integration into the generality, the greatest possible service to the suprapersonal.
Nevertheless, The Glass Bead Game is, for the most part, a biography of one earnest if somewhat rebellious Magister, Joseph Knecht - a man whose early brilliance followed by his ultimate resignation is a touchstone for all who question the value of life behind the cloistered walls of Castalia, the "pedagogical province" in which his story takes place. What do we have here then, if not the old, "pathology"-based form of a biography A kind of everyman story, the story of a type. But Hesse's type - and I think this is beautiful in light of the leader of his former homeland when he wrote this - is a leader, the ideal leader, and the culmination of a search which runs throughout Hesse's work. Joseph Knecht is a kind of holy man, but with none of the pomp or self-importance which, maybe, these days, that implies. "Knecht" in German means "servant", and throughout his short life Knecht impresses us as just that, a servant both to those he governs and to some other voice - or "calling" - which comes to him from beyond. Like all of Hesse's characters, Knecht exists to "find himself", but unlike Harry Haller or Knulp or Emil Sinclair or even Siddhartha, he does not despair (at least not in these pages); like Leo, the leader-in-disguise of the Journeyers to the East, he remains tranquil and alert to his duties. Throughout the book Knecht's own writings are quoted, and at the end of the "Introduction...", in speaking of classical music, he writes the following:
[...] always there may be heard in these works a defiance, a death-defying intrepidity, a gallantry, and a note of superhuman laughter, of immortal gay serenity. Let that same note also sound in our Glass Bead Games, and in our whole lives, acts, and sufferings.
Earlier Knecht's biographer had warned us:
The poets told horrific fables about the forbidden, diabolic, heaven-offending keys, [...] the "music of decline"; no sooner were these wicked notes struck in the palace than the sky darkened, the walls trembled and collapsed, and kingdom and sovereign went to their doom.
People fault Hesse for what they see as his sentimentality. Sometimes, I can see their point (as in the relationship of Harry Haller to his young prostitute friend in Steppenwolf, for example). But when he manages to rise above all the doubts and complaints of that lonely wolf of the steppes, there is actually something quietly heroic in Hesse's stance. In Switzerland, in 1943, along with his friends Paul Klee and Hugo Ball of the Cabaret Voltaire, this man refuses absolutely to play the "heaven-offending keys". Whatever he creates will partake only of that "superhuman laughter" and "death-defying intrepidity", no matter what horrors his homeland can spew forth (and, as his writings on the war show, Hesse was far from ignorant of these). And so, on the surface, his may seem a fantasy for which the modern (or post-modern) world has little use: escapism, idealism, even (amid the destruction of Europe by guns and explosives) lyricism. But read more closely and it's evident that the despairing, human Hesse is passionately present in almost every word of this. Yes, the characters in The Glass Bead Game - like Beckett's characters, like Kafka's - can seem more or less than human. No, there is no sexuality in their world (nor in Waiting For Godot, for that matter), and as if to foreground this lack Hesse writes his "Introduction..." entirely from a genderless "we" standpoint, which while not spelling it out seems to suggest (or has always suggested to me, anyway) that we are to treat these characters as beyond or outside of the ordinary realm of the sexual. (Why Perhaps because, to a German in Europe in 1943, sexuality did not seem that crucial a topic.) Me, I've never demanded "realism" from fiction; in fact, I like writers who alert me to the fact that the beings they create are not human. Likewise, I don't care in the least that the end section of the book - "Joseph Knecht's Posthumous Writings" - is probably just a series of sketches done in warm-up for the task of creating Knecht. To me, at least one of these novellas ("The Father Confessor") is easily among the best of Hesse's works in its own right and never fails to have me in tears by the end of it. And even the poetry (poorly-suited to translation as it is) is illuminating in showing the genesis of the conception.

If I haven't said much about the substance of Knecht's story, the truth is I don't remember much of it, but for snatches of scenery (which Hesse describes so well) and a general feeling of the excitement of a young man following his calling. If you read for plot, this isn't the book for you. But if you want to hear the wisdom of a wise, possibly heartbroken man determined, despite everything, not to hit the jarring notes of the diabolic keys but to sing with the laughing voice of an angel, this is it. I don't care if that sounds sentimental. The world needs artists who are willing to speak calmly from the storm, and Hermann Hesse was one of them. I take my hat off to you, Herr Hesse. Thank you, from the bottom of my heart, for your guidance.


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