Whenever we read a book we bring ourselves to it; our whole lives, experiences, prejudices, views, our place in the world. I cannot avoid the fact that I am a woman born in a country that is relatively free, but where women have had to struggle to earn equal wages to men for the same work, and where they are still struggling to break through the glass ceiling in employment and to combat sexism in many other areas.
That is the baggage I bring to my reading of The Glass Bead Game. The author, Hermann Hesse, does not need my approval; he received the Nobel Prize in 1946. His works are considered to be about the search for peace and the individual’s search for spiritual awakening. There are many many reviews online, both from literary bloggers and critics, but very few allude to the fact that The Glass Bead Game has no active female characters. There is a passing mention of the mother and the wife of the main character’s friend, Plinio Designori, but neither of the women are named and they serve as plot devices rather than as active characters.
The story concerns the life of Joseph Knecht and is set in the Twenty- third Century. Joseph is a promising student, an orphan, who at an early age was sent to an elite school where the possibility of his becoming a scholar in Castalia and devoting his life to the Glass Bead Game is very high. Girls are never sent to Castalia or ever seem to play the Glass Bead Game. It is not clear if they have any education at all, they just don’t register.
Joseph’s life is told through different documents, but they all have very much the same voice, that of the author. The last three sections of the book are said to be the work of Joseph himself throughout his education. They take the form of a section of poems, mainly concerning his life and ideas growing up, a tale about The Rainmaker, and the last where the character does wrong, but eventually goes into the forest with his guru. It is worth quoting the last paragraph of the book to show the tone of the writing that is fairly consistent throughout.
By this look alone, this look which contained a trace of benevolent sympathy and the hint of a relationship that had come into being between them, the relationship between master and disciple – by this look alone the yogi accepted the disciple. This one look banished the fruitless thoughts from the disciple’s head. It bound him in discipline and service … He never again left the forest.
Joseph Knecht has three master-disciple relationship that are important in his life; the first with the Music Master, the second with the Chinese scholar Elder Brother, and the third with the Benedictine monk, Father Jacobus. He has a few friendships, but these are the key relationships of his life. They all have the element of an unspoken benevolent communication, ‘a look’, followed by Joseph’s acceptance of the role of disciple.
It seems the society in Castalia gives the highest value to conformity, and non-questioning of its values. When Joseph himself, as Magister Ludi, comes to feel that the cycle of Castalia, like all things, will come to an end one day, his fellow Castalians do not want to hear it.
And what of the Glass Bead Game itself? It remains a vague entity. Lives are devoted to it, scholarship in areas of music, mathematics, science, every possibly area of study, can come into play in the designing and playing of a game, but how remains a mystery.
Hesse was said to be influenced by Spengler’s Decline of the West in his approach
According to Spengler, the meaningful units for history are not epochs but whole cultures which evolve as organisms. He recognizes at least eight high cultures: Babylonian, Egyptian, Chinese, Indian, Mesoamerican (Mayan/Aztec), Classical (Greek/Roman), Arabian, and Western or European. Cultures have a lifespan of about a thousand years of flourishing, and a thousand years of decline. The final stage of each culture is, in his word use, a “civilization“.
Does Hesse see a society in which the elites devote themselves to a monkish life of learning as an alternative to the cut and thrust of capitalist society? If so, he also says it can only exist with the support of that society, and like it, is doomed to pass way.
This is a huge book, and quite an absorbing read. It had its limitations, some of which I have listed, others not (how long have you got) but for me its magic resided in the dream-like quality of the story telling. Here is Knecht on his journey to Elder Brother
Joseph Knecht, then, tramped toward this hermitage, making frequent stops to rest, delighting in the landscape that lay smiling beneath him as soon as he had climbed through the mountain passes, stretching southward in a blue haze, with sunlit terraced vineyards, brown stone walls alive with lizards, stately chestnut groves, a piquant mingling of southland and high mountain country. It was late afternoon when he reached the Bamboo Grove. He entered and looked with astonishment upon a Chinese pavilion set in the midst of a curious garden, with a splashing fountain fed by a wooden pipe.
This is the second book on my Great Twentieth Century reads venture. It follows Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus, both hugely complex and ambitious books well worth reading.
I must say my I am glad March book Robinson by Michel Tournier, the French author, is quite slender.
Go here to read an excellent article about Hesse and his work by the critic Adam Kirsch.