The Glass Bead Game: Surprisingly appealing

The Glass Bead Game (or Das Glasperlenspiel or Magister Ludi) by Hermann HesseThe Glass Bead Game (or Das Glasperlenspiel or Magister Ludi) by Hermann Hesse

The Glass Bead Game (or Das Glasperlenspiel or Magister Ludi) by Hermann HesseThe Glass Bead Game (1943), written by Hermann Hesse, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1946, is a finalist for a Retro Hugo Award this year. I picked up the audio edition produced by Blackstone Audio and pleasantly read by David Colacci. It’s more than 21 hours long.

The first section of the novel, which lasts 1.25 hours in the audiobook version, is titled “The Glass Bead Game: A General Introduction to its History For the Layman.” In this section, the book’s narrator explains why this book was written, some general problems with published biographies, and some history and background of the Glass Bead Game, including its origin and purpose and how it was responsible for changing culture. (How the game is played is something we never actually learn — we just need to understand that it’s an abstract and intellectual game requiring high levels of intelligence, education, and creativity.) From the perspective of “we moderns,” and with many examples, the narrator criticizes the intellectual pursuits and cultural decay of the 20th century. (This critique is, of course, the real purpose of this introductory essay.)

After finishing the introduction, I thought I was going to have to give up on The Glass Bead Game. It is excessively dry, pedantic, and cynical, and I didn’t relish the thought of 20 more hours of it. I’m glad I pushed through, though, for the content and tone switches abruptly as we move on to the section called “The Life of Magister Ludi Joseph Knecht.”The Glass Bead Game (or Das Glasperlenspiel or Magister Ludi) by Hermann Hesse

In this biographical section, which constitutes most of the book, we meet an orphan named Joseph Knecht who was recognized as a promising young musician and given scholarships to attend Castalia, the most elite of educational institutions. He eventually rose to become the Master of the Glass Bead Game, the highest of academic positions. But during the process he gradually began to question the ethics of pursuing intellectual achievement that was disconnected from the rest of the world.

For many readers, The Glass Bead Game will not appeal. There is not much plot, excitement, tension, or action. It’s mostly about education and the evolution from student to teacher. It tends to be slightly dry and academic. However, since I happen to be a slightly dry academic, I did find The Glass Bead Game surprisingly appealing. As a college professor, mentor, developer of courses, and creator of a new curriculum at my institution, I found much to think about. I particularly enjoyed the examples, thoughts, and discussions about how studying changes the mind, the importance of being broad-minded and having multiple intellectual interests, the joy of mentoring students, the difference between teaching and educating, the delight of teaching students at different levels, and the method of focusing and training the mind through meditation.

The Glass Bead Game (or Das Glasperlenspiel or Magister Ludi) by Hermann HesseAn important point of the The Glass Bead Game is to denigrate the “Ivory Tower.” What use is the personal pursuit of intellectual achievement if academics are walled off in their institutions and don’t apply their knowledge and skills to alleviate the ills of the larger society? Hesse challenges these elite institutions to be partners with, rather than escapes from, the outside world, and to connect their studies with history, politics, and public health.

Readers who enjoy the pursuit of knowledge and thinking about the purpose of knowledge will probably get the most out of The Glass Bead Game, but it’s not all about education. Other things to think about include how our relationships change as we grow older, how our character and thoughts reciprocally influence each other, how we develop the ideals we choose to champion, the purpose of courtesy and hierarchy, how we view and interact with various institutions in our society, and how those institutions require a collective dedication to upholding their morality.

Despite being set in our far future, The Glass Bead Game feels hopelessly old-fashioned. The settings mostly include academic institutions and monasteries where girls and women, as well as people of color, are non-existent. The story is full of intellectuals, but all of them seem to be white men. Characters mostly walk instead of taking cars (even long distances), they write letters instead of calling, emailing, or texting (or whatever we’ll be doing 200 years from now), and there are no signs of any forms of other high technology. It feels much like A Canticle for Leibowitz (which I loved) except that it doesn’t acknowledge a regression from a former higher state of culture and technology. None of this is surprising considering that the novel was written by a German man in the 1930s, but I’m perplexed about his choice to set his story in the far future. It was occasionally jarring, but I didn’t find it too difficult to just pretend that the setting was in our past instead of our future.

I found The Glass Bead Game challenging, thought-provoking, and interesting and recommend it to readers who are in the mood to do some thinking, and especially to those who are educators.

Published in 1943. The Glass Bead Game is an ultra-aesthetic game which is played by the scholars, creamed off in childhood and nurtured in elite schools, in the province of Castalia. The Master of the Glass Bead Game, Joseph Knecht, holds the most exalted office in Castalia. He personifies the detachment, serenity and aesthetic vision which reward a life dedicated to perfection of the intellect. But can, indeed should, man live isolated from hunger, family, children, women, in a perfect world where passions are tamed by meditation, where academic discipline and order are paramount? This is Herman Hesse’s great novel. It is a major contribution to contemporary philosophic literature and has a powerful vision of universality, the inner unity of man’s cultural ideals and his search for personal perfection and social responsibility.

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KAT HOOPER, who started this site in June 2007, earned a Ph.D. in neuroscience and psychology at Indiana University (Bloomington) and now teaches and conducts brain research at the University of North Florida. When she reads fiction, she wants to encounter new ideas and lots of imagination. She wants to view the world in a different way. She wants to have her mind blown. She loves beautiful language and has no patience for dull prose, vapid romance, or cheesy dialogue. She prefers complex characterization, intriguing plots, and plenty of action. Favorite authors are Jack Vance, Robin Hobb, Kage Baker, William Gibson, Gene Wolfe, Richard Matheson, and C.S. Lewis.

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8 comments

  1. That does sound dry! I’m glad you were able to find the good stuff in it!

  2. I remembered the central issue being the “intellectualism divorced from the world, or in service to the world” question, so I’m relieved I remembered that right. It would never have occurred to me to reread this. I still might not, but it’s pleasant to see some discussion of it again.

  3. Hesse’s work is always thought-provoking, if not always easy to read!

  4. Paul Connelly /

    Older books set in a future that doesn’t have cell phones, the Internet, personal cars, or frequent air travel often get derided as short-sighted, lacking in imagination, etc. I guess if it’s the near future, like a couple of decades, that’s not unreasonable.

    Another possibility is related to a quote (probably made up rather than real) from a supposed Arab oil tycoon. He says:

    “My father rode a camel.
    “I ride in a Rolls-Royce.
    “My son rides in a Lear Jet.
    “His son will ride a camel.”

    Two possible interpretations: One, all our technological marvels depend on resources, supply chains and infrastructure that are potentially finite and quite fragile. As hard as that is for us to believe, in our era of abundance. Two, we live in a culture that places supreme value on those marvels, but our values may be judged unbalanced and ill-conceived by future generations. Which again is hard to believe for every generation that, in the flush of youth, looks at its values as universal and unarguable.

    And 200 or 300 years is a long time. Perhaps Hesse, whose life crossed the divide of two centuries filled with enormous technological change, was dubious about the staying power of our marvels, for reasons like one or both of the above.

    • Thanks for the comment, Paul. I thought of these interpretations but the problem is that, unless I missed it (which is possible in the sometimes dry and wordy narrative), the regression from a higher state of technology isn’t mentioned and, with so much discussion of culture, you’d think it would be.

      I know that I can’t expect Hesse to have foreseen the future but, if you don’t even try, why set the story so far in the future?

      It wasn’t really a problem that reduced my enjoyment of the story, but I kept noticing it, so it was in the back of my mind the whole time.

  5. I love your review, Kat. You make me want to reread the book. It’s been over twenty years now since I read it.

  6. I’ve never read any of Hermann Hesse’s works, but you’re making me want to read this too. :)

  7. Great review, Kat! I’m glad you enjoyed it and found it relatable to central issues of teaching and education! I’ve only read Siddharta and Steppenwolf (no clue whether these are also the English titles) by Hesse so far but I really loved the philosophical insights and genuine interest in and observation of people and society!

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