The Glass Bead Game

I forget which came first for me, the novel, Steppenwolf by Herman Hesse or the band, Steppenwolf and their single Born to be Wild, some of its disjointed words I would bellow out when I was hitch-hiking around Europe during my mid twenties ‘like a true Nature’s child, I was born, born to be wild, Heading out on the highway… ‘ or something like that and so on.

authoriana (2)Nevertheless, I remember enjoying Harry’s dilemma in Steppenwolf so much so that I went on to read Narcissus and Goldmund and then The Glass Bead Game. Recently, I came across an article which I wrote about the latter novel in the mid seventies. I have no recollection of the book now nearly 45 years later, and even less recollection of having written it so I decided to read the novel again, and (maybe change bits here and there) stick out this review and sit back and wait for other opinions. 

For an original counterpoint, see the review on The Glass Bead Game on Good Reads by Robin Tell-Drake.  What is below is my (slightly edited) original dating from April 1976. 

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I am NOT suggesting that this has anything to do with Hesse’s Game

On first reading The Glass Bead Game, I was disappointed, believing it to be a reiteration of Hesse’s philosophy as put forward in his earlier novels like Steppenwolf and Narcissus and Goldmund, a philosophy I believed, not only to be misguided  and mistaken but also totally false in its premise, not on Hesse’s part of course, but the philosophies and mode of thinking of his characters.

Once again in this, his last novel, Hesse seemed to engage in struggles as Stepenwolf’s Harry Haller had within himself as to whether he was wolf or man. In Narcissus, the struggle was between the sensuous and the pious and here, in The Glass Bead Game, the struggle was between the scholarly and contemplative life of Castalia and the rough and real life of the outside world. These attitudes were clearly wrong in that man is a composite being, no more capable of being solely a wolf, as Harry thought he was, than of being an intellectual, pure and simple. Instead, man can be a wolf, and he can also be an intellectual among many other roles. Never just one thing, he is many and all. (cf Dylan’s I contain Multitudes on his recent Album, Rough and Ready Ways). Greedy, passionate, spiteful, noble, petty, benevolent, generous, thoughtful, narrow-minded and much else as Hesse pointed out, and hammered home, in Narcissus. What then was the point, I wondered, in a further reiteration of his philosophy in the Bead Game?authoriana

However, it became clear that this was a much greater and far more detailed philosophical account of man and his possible positions in the world than Hesse had hitherto attempted in the other novels. Here, instead, was a cunningly devised and detailed account of a man, Knecht, who had been brought up and educated in one way of life but had the intelligence to see through its superficiality. While appreciating the greatness and value inherent in it, Knecht realises that the leaf does not make up the tree and man cannot live by intellect alone. Instead, he must be a man in all senses, partake in the roughness of the world, continually moving backwards and forwards among the many roles, while at the same time moving onwards and upwards to attain, in the fullest sense, the experience of life.

Early on in the novel, the ‘biographers’, in the initial section dealing with the history of the game for the uninitiated, give a valuable clue when they say the man can only be great when he is able to combine himself into the hierarchy of being, without, at the same time, losing the freshness and vigour of his individuality.

Throughout Knecht’s life, this is what he tries to do from an early stage, as is seen in his poetry and ‘Lives’ but unfortunately and inevitably, he fails, as do Carlo Ferromonte, Fritz Tegularius, Plinio Designori, all of them, to a far greater degree than Knecht himself, however. In the end it is Plinio’s son who remains the possible exponent of the weighty ideals which is what the novel and its philosophy aims at.

The ‘biographers’ examine Knecht’s growth, physical as well as spiritual and mental. Rising up from literal oblivion – his very name, in German, means serf or labourer, highlighting the ambiguity of his lowly origins while at the same time underlining the value and truth of labouring and serving – to his intellectual peak, not through unbridled ambition but through unpretentious talent, Knecht all along tries to submerge his individuality in the intellectual hierarchy but finds it is impossible for him to do so. The duality then arises of how can a man reach the peak of intellectuality while at the same time knowing that it is only half a life and can only provide partial happiness and satisfaction. 

This inner turmoil that Knecht continually undergoes is counterpointed by the differing lives his friends, Fritz, Carlo, but especially Plinio and Father Jacobus, the old Benedictine, lead. The latter two – and to a lesser degree, the brilliant but erratic Fritz – show Knecht a window into a world where people live and think so differently to the way in which he has been accustomed and trained. However, the life of Plinio has its obvious evils and he is far worse off than Knecht at the end of the novel. Partially trained as a Castalian but intended for a secular life, Plinio, while outwardly successful, is a total failure inwardly. Half Castalian and half worldly, he is totally unable to reconcile his differences which would at first appear to indicate a basic irreconcilability of opposites but this is not the case as further scrutiny shows. Plinio, soon after he leaves the Castilian environment, makes only half-hearted attempts to blend the two ways of life together in that he is embarrassed, partially by his feelings of inferiority and superiority and partially by the attitude of the worldly people who view him with scorn. Lapsing then from his Castalian ideals and bewildered by the deep waters he suddenly finds himself in, it is not surprising that this attempt to bridge the world of Castalia with the outward world fails. However, Plinio stimulates the student Knecht and making him questions the values and assumptions by which he lives. Even before he meets Plinio, Knecht had been feeling doubts about the way of life on which he is about to embark, as when he complains to his music master that everything seems contradictory and that there seems to be no truth or valid doctrines. Plinio, in his debates, with Knecht, drives him hard and forces him to question those values and continue the search for a valid doctrine that a life of the intellect alone cannot provide.

Continuing the attack on his ideas is the Benedictine, Father Jacobus who again causes Knecht to examine the ideals by which he lives. However, this time the attack is more subtle and widespread. Jacobus, a highly educated and clever man, goes to the core of Knecht’s intellectual life which he, in fact, shares, by his life devoted to study and to his order. The only difference between the two men is their seperate allegiances to their orders – that of Castalia and the Game and that of the Benedictines and Christianity.  Most importantly of all, Jacobus opens Knecht’s eyes to the myopia of Castalian life. By instilling an interest in history – a subject abhorred by Castalia – in Knecht he shows him that it is not just a brutish struggle for power, wealth, land and raw materials. In fact, as Knecht himself says, his stay in the monastery and his studentship with the monk has taught him a ‘tremendous amount but neither adding to my certainties …. only to my problems.’ 

This attack on his principles and ideals, supported by the earlier assaults Plinio had made, and along with the fact that Fritz found it impossible to live, even for three days, in the monastic environment, ensures a widening of Knecht’s intellectual horizons so that, for the first time, he begins to see the importance of the outside world and to experience the concept that man cannot live just one life alone – an idea earlier expressed, although in a hesitant way in his three ‘Lives”. especially in The Father Confessor and The Indian Life. 

Climbing, or being pushed ever higher, Knecht, for the first time, sees the dangers and the introvertness of the Glass Bead Game of the elite, when, prior to becoming Magister Ludi, he witnesses the failure of the annual festival and the awesome burden the deputy, Bertram, has to carry, which, in fact, kills him. 

Deeply concerned by this and the oncoming post of magister, it is only by intense meditation that Knecht can see himself not as an individual but as totally absorbed into the hierarchy, not as pupil or master, but as both seperate from and part of everything. 

When he realises that this paradoxical nature, of being both master and pupil, wisdom and youth, is the essence of Castalia, leading to a never ending cycle of progression, can he calm himself down and so accept the honour of becoming Magister Ludi.

However, he did so with grave reservations. The feelings and knowledge, the ‘transcendings’ aroused partially by Designori & Jacobus, but which were always latent within him, did not allow him to become complacent in his high office. Rather, he began to peer more closely into the meaning and symbolism of pure intellectuality and realise fully that just as Castalia was born out of turbulence, so too must it eventually end along with its exalted aims. The only thing that can be saved is the mind and this can only be saved, not by sheer intellectuality but by a mingling of the intellect  with the world and all its passions. It is only by being fully at home in both worlds, by taking and giving as much as possible, from and to each world, that man can truly exist.

As a result, Knecht begins to move further and further away from the sublime scholarship that was the mark of the Castlian elite and devote himself to education, especially to that of the young. This was the only way that Knecht saw of maintaining intellectualism and reality, by moulding still young and adaptable minds to both worlds instead, as had been the case with him, to one world only.

Increasingly then, spurred on by the thoughts and words of Jacobus, Knecht began to see the imbalance of the life he was leading and the dangers inherent in it for him and the world.

Knecht is forced, from his childhood by external events, to be the continual defender of the Castalian order, first against the worldly Plinio and then against the astutely intellectual Father Jacobus and the latter’s historical onslaughts. This feeling of the inevitable collapse of the Castalian order was to be further borne out by the actions of his friend, Fritz Tegularius who seemed, possibly even more than Designori and Jacobus, to point out the instability of such an order as Castalia which only lived for the pure cultivation of the intellect and nothing else. 

As Knecht’s ‘biographers’ tell us, he saw in Tegularius two things – an example of the finest flowering to be found within the order but secondly and conversely, a symbol of the demoralisation and decadence of these abilities which made him outstanding. Fritz, like Designori and Knecht himself, was an oddity. Purely Castalian in his intellect, he was more erratic and tempermental in his attitudes as are all men from the external world. Consequently, Knecht saw in him the dangers of two worlds and a thousand attitudes harnessed unfittingly together. 

Summing up then, as his ‘biographers’ do so neatly, Knecht, by the time he has arrived at the position of Magister Ludi, had also arrived at a paradoxical  crossroads in his life. On the one hand was his love for the hierarchy along with his loyalty and service to it while on the other hand was the deep awareness that it could not last, as it only offered, in the long run, a stunting, suffocating and sterile approach to life. Knecht had to move on and we are told that he often felt  a wild, almost animal, craving to experience life as other ordinary people felt it. Fritz reminded Knecht that, while intellectuality is an important and vital part of life, it is just that, only a part and that to live, one must eat other things beside abstractions and concepts. Slowly but surely, Knecht is beginning to approach the true reality, the reality that Jacobus had touched upon and, in a dissimilar manner, the reality the aged music master had also found, through his acceptance of a real divinity other than the idol of the Glass Bead Game.

It is at this crisis point that Plinio Designori makes his reappearance and finally shows Knecht the way to go, while being unable to go that way himself. The product of a semi-Castalian and semi-worldly education, Plinio is a total failure not in the material sense but in the worldly sense instead. Trying to bring a balance between the two, the Castilian and the secular, Plinio failed because he was an oddity, an outsider in the world, looking in.  Being neither purely Castalian nor purely secular, but instead a crude bastardisation of both, he could no longer understand his fellowman. Unable to move freely between worlds, he was unable to go back and undo his life; as a result, he stagnated and seemed to highlight the failures of both Castlaia and the external world.

In a casual conversation between the two men, so different in background but now so similar in desires, Plinio puts his finger on Knecht’s problems by claiming that neither of them are integral human beings and that both their seperate ways of life have been fake and sterile. His in the sense that he failed utterly in his attempt to reconcile the two ways of life and instead only found defeat and unhappiness; Knecht’s in that he deliberately cut himself off from the seamier sides of life, from the passions and desires that contribute to making up a man.

Knecht, while understanding Plinio and his unhappiness can only do so in a partial way, seeing him, as Haller in Steppenwolf saw himself, as equally divided in two parts, Castalian and secular. Instead, as he later realises, the problem is much greater when Plinio explains that he became too proud to submerge himself fully in the Castilian way. Instead, he frittered himself away in a ‘passionate, childlike, crude ungoverned life, vacillating forever between happiness and fear.’It is only then that Knecht realises the full difference between life in Castalia and life in the world; that it is not a clear cut and two-fold division. Gradually, by visiting Plinio in his home outside Castalia, Knecht begins to understand these differences and the immense problems Plinio faced and that which he must face too, soon enough.

Talking to Plinio’s son, Tito, he tells the boy, and clarifies for himself, the dangers of living a single-minded life. Tito, upset that his father had sold the family house, claims that he is determined  to get is back, and is warned by the sombre Knecht that if a man knows no other goal in his life than one, he becomes obsessed and fanatical and becomes unable to grasp the conflict of life which is the vital and stimulating force. Greatness and strength can only come  from those people who serve greater goals than the aims of family or country.

Feeling motivated and spurred by the thought that he can progress no further in the spiritual sense within it, Knecht tends his resignation claiming that all Castalians are doomed by their insightness, for they have no conception about who they really are and their real function, not just in the order but also, and just as important, in the world. Too often man forgets he is a part of history, that man is the product of growth and is condemned to die if he loses the ability for further growth and change. Unfortunately, Castalians lack this awareness and their responsibility to the world as a whole. 

Knecht, however, has this awareness, gained firstly from Jacobus and then, later on, from his own private studies of history. Magister Alexander and the rest of the Board of Magisters reject his resignation in terms of its wilfulness and as an absurd quest for ‘freedom’. It was, in reality, from Knecht’s point of view a continuation of service and obedience, not only to the dictates of his conscience but also to nature, which had, all along, propelled him towards taking these final steps.

So, Knecht’s quest, started so long ago when he asked the Music Magister whether there was no ‘dogma to believe in …isn’t there any truth? Is there no real and valid doctrine?’ Agreeing to help Plinio with the education of his headstrong and wilful son, Tito, Knecht for the first time feels that this is what he wanted to do and is, indeed, what he is meant to do, as his title magister Ludi originally meant schoolmaster. Knowing that the boy is sensitive and acute, with all his father’s brilliance and clearance, it is a joy for him to take on the task of his education.

However, unlike Plinio with only a partial grounding in Castalian education and thus able to survive, even if unhappily in the world, Knecht, with his full and most complete Castalian background, cannot last long out of his rarified atmosphere. Meeting Tito in the mountains, he feels unnaturally tired and assumes that it was the rapid climb in the car to the peaks along with the thin air of the high mountain ranges.

In the final scene, on the side of the lake as the sun rises, Knecht understands what must be done. The Castalian system marred Plinio by not educating him sufficiently to bridge the gap between the worlds and cultures but here, with Tito, Knecht sees an opportunity to repair the damage. More importantly, Tito was the only son of an old and patrician family and undoubtedly he would also be one of the future leaders, one of the social and political shapers of the country and nation, destined to command and be imitated.

Standing there on the edge of the lake, Tito performs his heathen Pan dance to the rising sun and the awakening day. Paying homage to the power of the elements, Knecht realises that this boy is more subtle than he had imagined. His dance is not a rehearsed thing, a daily event preparatory to the sun rising  but a spontaneous outburst of love, of sacrifice, of surrender. Standing there, watching him, Knecht knows that his task will be all the harder but the joys in attaining it all the greater. Plunging into the glacial waters of the lake, however, his body cannot resist the biting cold and, fighting to the last, his heart gives out, leaving the boy, Tito, alone, bathed in sunlight.

So Hesse ends the novel with Tito’s premonition that much more will be expected of him from now on than he had ever expected of himself. Knecht having got so close to the desired peak of truth and validity had, at the last minute, failed to attain it. However, through the boy, his best friend’s son, his spirit and influence will live on, and it is to be hoped that Tito himself will attain those heights for which his father and Joseph Knecht strove in vain.

Throughout the novel, Knecht’s course is clearly laid out. In his posthumous writings, Three Lives, there is a premonition of what will take place. Knecht’s life is mirrored in this remarkable Life, written while he was still a student and long before he attained the honour of becoming Magister Ludi. Both men, Knecht and Dion finally reach their apoogee and come in sight of how far they can go and then die before they can go further.

The Glass Bead Game reaches out and deals with material only lightly touched upon in the previous novels and consequently must be seen as his best and most important novel. Man can, and never should be seen as two, three, ten or a hundred souls. Rather his souls are innumerable but together form one and it is together they must cohere.This then was the mistake of Fritz Tegularius and Plinio Designori who all tried to live their lives devoted to an ideal without attempting to see the overall pattern in which their lives were wrought. Only in Tito is there reason for hope for he has the awesome burden to carry now, unaided except for the memory of the man who could, and did, help him. On Tito’s shoulders rest the continuity, not only of Castalia and her institutions but also of the world with all its mad, pell-mell passions.

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  • In this classic bead game, the centre bead is removed and play takes place when one bead is ‘jumped’ over another and removed. The object is to end up with just one bead in the currently empty hole.