Analysis of Hermann Hesse’s The Glass Bead Game

The last novel by the Swiss German author Hermann Hesse (1877–1962), The Glass Bead Game is a serene bildungsroman conceived in the form of a “eutopia” (positive, happy utopia) set in the year 2200, somewhere in the German-speaking areas of Europe. The English translation by Richard and Clara Winston appeared in 1969. The author’s portrait of an ideal geography envisions a cloistered, spiritual province, Castalia, flourishing unharmed and protected from the vicissitudes of everyday history and politics within the borders of a wider state or nation. Its inhabitants belong to a highly respected male elite, governed by the strict laws of willingly obeyed intellectual hierarchies that reflect the main disciplines of the humanities. Everybody, however, acknowledges the serene organizational superiority of music and mathematics as the sole pathways to a comprehensive celestial harmony.

Each specialized discipline of the humanities inside Castalia is ruled by a master (magister), who is elected by the community itself as a sign of collective respect and in recognition of his spiritual excellence. In addition to these particular disciplines, the elite of the province also gather in the community of the glass bead game players, which needs a special, interdisciplinary initiation. To play the glass bead game supposes the gift of linking apparently unrelated disciplines (for instance, medieval music and gardening, or Bach and mathematics) into a higher, sublimely spiritual synthesis. The German philosopher Leibniz (1646– 1716), who besides his famous Monadology also wrote esoteric texts, imagined knowledge as the skill of detecting abstract and subtle correspondences between the different sciences and the divine plenitude of the cosmos, based on the art of a generalized calculus, or mathematics, which he called characteristica universalis. Accordingly, the glass bead game is practiced by its participants as a universal science (mathesis universalis), governed by the pure and abstract equations of mathematics and music. The cast of the glass bead game players form the generally admired extreme spiritual elite of Castalia. They also serve worldly values, since the general plan of the annual festival elaborated by the master of the glass bead game—Magister Ludi— is advertised on the radio and in the press, in order to rally the players from outside the province in a feast of ethereal spiritual communion.

Hermann Hesse

Hermann Hesse. Keystone-France / Gamma-Rapho / Getty

Hesse’s novel presents the career of an outstanding glass bead game player, Josef Knecht (his name means “servant” in German), from his early classes in a grammar school up to the peak of the provincial hierarchy, as Magister Ludi. Meditating on his cloistered, ethereal existence within an enclave that willingly ignores the perils of everyday struggle and history, Knecht finally decides to quit his appointment and become a teacher to a worldly, decadent aristocratic Italian family. Unfit for the outside world, however, he dies almost immediately, while swimming in an alpine lake. Hesse seems to take great lengths to point out that Knecht’s sudden death, provoked by the rising sun, must be interpreted as a ritual of sacrifice, performed by nature itself against an outstanding member of a community whose spiritual formation has always had as its prerequisite an inorganic and abstract aestheticism.

Indeed, the members of Castalia—all men, no women—exclude love, instincts, psychology, suffering, and even death from their cycles of existence. Within the province, nature itself is a cultural object, similar to history, politics, war, diplomatic intrigue, entertainment, or sport. Accordingly, Castalia is presented by the author as an extremely sophisticated and impeccable artificial society, which, though a financial burden, is sustained by a state that remains unnamed throughout the text. Josef Knecht’s unexpected resignation is determined by his deep awareness that no society or person can live outside history forever. In a letter addressed to the president of the Order, the abdicating Magister Ludi claims that history will necessarily engulf Castalia in an unpredictable future, destroying the very sense of protected permanence and eternity that form the most cherished identity marks of this enclave.

Two main, intermingled thematic blocks structure the narrative. The former relies on Knecht’s intellectual evolution, from his boyhood up to the high ranks of Castalia. The latter consists in the analysis of an enclaved cultural system experiencing a decadent crisis. Both meet in Knecht’s outstanding destiny as a very gifted member of the order of the glass bead game players and in his decision to quit his artificial, cloistered life in order to encounter the true rhythms of nature. As such, a main topic of the novel is the relation between eternity and time. Castalia and its members live outside time: The vicissitudes of the surrounding politics and history come sifted to its inhabitants through the sieve of a pure and crystal-clear inner tradition. To a certain point, Knecht’s career is marked by the same certainty provided by eternity. However, several of his personal experiences—such as his vivid addresses on the existence of the order delivered before a visitor of Castalia, the hospitant Plinio Designori, or his long visit to a Benedictine monastery, where he meets an influential Catholic figure, the historian Pater Jakobus—teach him that in the evolution of humanity, time cannot be obliterated since it contains two basic elements of civilization: decadent erosion and death. In view of that, the novel’s plot is built on the scheme of archaic sacrificial rituals, whereby ferocious Time devours everything, including Eternity.

In the 19th century, Germany’s educational system was built on a general school hierarchy, available to everyone, and on a few elite schools, which could only be accessed by strict intellectual selection and invitation. One of them was Pforta, a school that specialized in the humanities and was attended by Friedrich Hölderlin, Friedrich Nietzsche, and other highly qualified “geniuses.” Its rules went against any family contacting the gymnasium directly; that was possible only after the student had gone through a very tough selection trial. The nomination procedure usually seized the attention of the entire country, as there were towns (even regions) whose schooling system had been unable to provide, for long and “shameful” years, any suitable candidate to qualify for the elite schools. Hermann Hesse described the system in an early, rather bitter novel, Beneath the Wheel (Unterm Rad, 1906), whose protagonist, the young Hans Giebenrath, had managed to enter the elite school but failed to meet its inhuman, extremely strict requirements, suffering a nervous breakdown.

In The Glass Bead Game, a rather gifted, parentless schoolboy, the young Josef Knecht, is selected for the elite schooling system of Castalia by the venerable master of music (Magister Musicae), who pays a short visit to the student’s small town in order to verify his outstanding local references. Gently protected by his master, but recommended by his excellent personal qualities and intellect, Knecht rises in the province’s spiritual hierarchy and is selected for the inner cloister of the glass bead game players. They finally make him their Magister Ludi, following the venerable Thomas von der Trave, whose name is actually an innocent pun, secretly referring to Thomas Mann, Hermann Hesse’s great friend. (Trave is the river that flows through Lübeck, Thomas Mann’s native town in northern Germany.)

Becoming an outstanding glass bead game player, whose intellectual qualities go far beyond his colleagues’ psychological uncertainties, symbolized by Fritz Tegularius, Knecht’s very gifted but unruly friend, the future Magister Ludi is selected by the order as an “ambassador” for two special missions, which enable him to reach the highest rank in the hierarchy. At first he is encouraged to take up a debate with a clever visitor (hospitant) of Castalia, the young Plinio Designori, offspring of an old patrician Italian family, who challenges the province’s eternity and artificial rules by contrasting them to the relative, changing dialectics of the outside world’s politics and history. Later on, after leaving Castalia, Designori becomes a highly influential politician and member of Parliament, still favorable to Castalia, even though the financial burden represented by the province proves to be more and more difficult to sustain by this nurturing political body. Plinio Designori plays a conclusive role in Knecht’s death as well: The dissident Magister Ludi is employed as the tutor of Designori’s unruly son Tito, who indirectly kills Knecht by beating him in an uneven alpine swimming competition. Before entering the cold lake, Tito Designori performs an orgiastic dance honoring the rising sun. Knecht dies because of the sun, which represents, in Hesse’s symbolical intention, nature’s everlasting ferocious energy.

On his second ambassadorial mission, Knecht is an envoy to the powerful Benedictine monastery of Mariafels, whose abbot, Gervasius, has asked the order of Castalia to send over a member who might initiate the monks into the mysteries of the glass bead game. Castalia is happy to fulfill the request, hoping to get support from the Benedictines at the Vatican. Knecht manages to complete this secret task during his prolonged visit, persuading the famous historian Pater Jakobus to further plead the cause of the province. The intellectual debate between these two gifted men occupies a considerable part of the narrative episode dedicated to Mariafels, and it effects a complete change in Josef Knecht’s intellectual thinking. While getting valuable information on the glass bead game, Pater Jakobus teaches Knecht historiography and determines him to envisage the evolution of cultural systems as part of a wider dialectic of time, death, and history.

Knecht’s personal crisis concerning Castalia springs from his debate with the Benedictine monk, who makes him understand that culture is an organic, vivid flow of inspiration, maturity, and decadence, deeply rooted in the evolution of society and history. As a consequence, it cannot be contained in a spiritual province that cultivates artificial values, as Castalia does, by privileging the art of endless analyses and combinations of the past to the detriment of spontaneity and fresh creation. Such a collective existence, the learned monk suggests, is a glamorous but decadent mystification, built on extremely fragile pillars, which might easily collapse because of a sudden historical or political move.

The analysis of Castalia as a dying cultural system will obsess Magister Ludi Josef Knecht’s mind while in office and will finally determine him to resign in order to try his powers in the outside world. In Hesse’s mind, Castalia is a “pedagogical province,” of the kind defined by Goethe in his Wilhelm Meister. On the other hand, it is a postmodern form of purely spiritual collective existence, as Hesse places his order in a period consecutive to modernism, which is defined in the book as “the Age of the Feuilleton,”—that is, the period of a sketchy and hyper-personalized, exacerbated form of culture, entirely dominated by the urge of novelty, which does not allow ideas to solidify and structure into eternal and universal strata.

The modernist period—the historians of Castalia used to say—had deepened collective unrest by privileging wars, politics, sport, and entertainment. In contrast, the future province would be built on abstract, purely spiritual—that is, universal—humanistic values, concentrated in a superior but necessarily cloistered cultural body. In order to train its members, Castalia must carefully eliminate from their souls such organic turbulences as love, family life, psychology, and fear, committing them to a highly sophisticated science of interdisciplinary cultural associations based on numerology and music. No member of Castalia can generate fresh creation: Originality is the art of detecting magical interrelations between apparently unrelated topics, like European music and Chinese philosophy or medieval architecture and scholastics.

One should not forget that Hesse published his work in the midst of the violent rage of World War II, presenting Castalian life as a serene spiritual alternative to collective hate, bloodshed, and sufferance. But apart from being a mild political manifesto, the novel relies on the German philosopher Oswald Spengler’s famous Decline of the West (Das Untergang des Abendlandes, 1918–23) in order to define its main categories. In his seminal work, Spengler claims that the history of antiquity stipulated the existence of two kinds of societies, defined by their representation of time. The so-called happy, eudaemonistic, a-historical societies (like ancient Greece, for instance) understood time as a succession of present moments of energetic plenitude, which actually obliterated the sense of evolution and history. On the contrary, profoundly historical civilizations, like those of the Egyptians and the Jews, kept strict records of their traditions, developing a sharp sense of caducity and progress. Spengler also demonstrates that the collective sense of time has always been associated with the representation of death. For the Greeks, who incinerated corpses, the underworld was but a counterpart to the existing world; the Egyptians, on the other hand, developed a sober culture of death based on the idea of continuity, while the Jews brought into the Mediterranean culture the logic of the future coming of a Messiah and the image of the apocalypse.

In Spengler’s terms, Castalia is conceived by its author as an a-historical, artificial society, built on the logic of the spiritual “province.” In The Decline of the West, Spengler also stipulates an antithesis between two cultural destinies, defined respectively as the culture of the city and the culture of the province. Both represent a way of spiritual survival within the organic process of turning organic “culture” into a hyper-organized “civilization,” which represents the decadent end of each culture. Spengler asserts that the culture of the city is based on the social logic of the impulsive and faceless mob, which fixes the destiny of cultural evolution by turning it into distraction and intelligence. In contrast, the culture of the province keeps tradition alive, preserving its organic vividness through wisdom and originality. Spengler imagines that in a hypersocialized, incessantly massifying Europe, the spiritually cloistered enclave can be a solution for culture, given the natural tendency of the “cultural province” to produce a highly qualified and dedicated elite.

Hesse was familiar with Spengler’s idea. His other great novels—Demian, Journey to the East, Steppenwolf, and Narcissus and Goldmund—are built on the logic of the spiritual elite. Hesse also believed that the Oriental way of serene, absolute life could save European culture from disintegration. Josef Knecht is himself attracted by the call of the East, as a chapter of his development centers on his voluntary obeisance to a Chinese monk, who lives outside civilization in a tiny oasis of bamboo trees he planted. Knecht eventually introduces the Chinese I-Ching book (The Oracle of Predictions) into his spiritual meditation and proposes it later as the main combinatory topic of a surprisingly original annual glass bead game.

The very meaning of the glass bead games remains a mystery, although millions have tried to solve its logic. Initially the game was played with tokens, but thereafter pure spiritual formulas prevail. The game is an exquisite and almost magical art of combination, which is specific to the decadent phase of various cultures, seized by an aesthetic fatigue which they experience as a lack of genuine creativity. In order to explain the cultural logic of combinatory decadence, Hesse evokes ancient Alexandria and the fall of Greek spirituality within magic and mysticism. Another analogy is the dawn of the Renaissance, driven into the flamboyant effervescence of the baroque or the exquisite skill of inventing magical, unpredictable resemblances between humans, things, and symbols. It might also be said that the functioning principles of the Internet lend new and unexpected meanings to the classical glass bead game imagined by Hesse. Therefore, by simply searching the Web, one could find many sophisticated surfers belonging to a worldwide community of glass bead game players. As Hesse died in 1962, he could not, of course, foresee postmodernism and the World Wide Web, but his novel projects a future fascination for what is considered by many to be the serene, purely spiritual solution to our everyday wars, sorrows, and disasters.

Hermann Hesse

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