Book Review: Understanding Hermann Hesse’s Glass-Bead Game

This review probably shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise to those of you who read my entry “The State of my Blog.” You see? This is where digressions and tangents can lead you: to more book reviews!

I’d heard of Hermann Hesse in passing from a former coworker of mine before ever I picked up a copy of The Glass-Bead Game (or Magister Ludi as it is called in some translations). But it wasn’t until I found a copy of the book that someone was reading at a friend’s house that I actually looked through it and was fascinated by what I saw.

Imagine a game of Tetris that uses all of the world’s culminated and sum total of knowledge to create intricate and wonderful patterns of word, song, and image. That is what I first thought that the Glass-Bead Game–created and practiced by the Castalian Order–actually was. To be honest, we never really get a straight answer as to what the particulars of the Game actually are, but a whole lot of tantalizing generalizations do occur.

I suppose I will talk about the generalizations further before going into the characters. This story apparently takes place in the future–where wars have stalled for a while–and there seems to be a measure of global peace. A potent group of abstract scholars called Castalians have formed and “rediscovering the lost mysteries of the ancients,” gradually created the Glass-Bead Game: the ultimate in interdisciplinary reference-making. Again, that last statement is my opinion but it’s one that I wanted to make now before I make my other one.

Essentially, if you are a Humanities student or a University student of the Arts, this book will have some very eerie parallels to what is probably going on in your life right now. It also deals with a lot of issues as to what the importance of knowledge is to the world and how involved scholars should be in the world. It looks at that line between the university as a place to preserve knowledge, and as a place that shapes others to change the world.

But there are more personal connotations here than the age-old issue of knowledge and scholarship becoming stagnant or running the risk of becoming “corrupted by worldly politics.” There are three characters to consider: Joseph Knecht the protagonist, his teacher the Music Master and his rival Plinio Designori. Joseph starts out as a child chosen to become part of the Order and you get to watch as he has to wrestle with maintaining the code of his Order while alternatively having to challenge it within himself. You begin to see him grow as a person and as scholar into the Magister Ludi: or the Game Master and leader of the Order.

Plinio Designori, on the other hand, exists as an aristocrat student outside of the Order who still gets training by them because of his rank. He challenges Knecht’s potential orthodoxy at every turn with his knowledge and experiences of the outside world. At the same time, when his education is complete, Designori finds himself in a world that does not understand what he has learned, or care about the ideals he has argued with his friend and rival. In the end, his life becomes difficult as he is torn between two worlds: of ideology and reality.

Then you have the Music Master. He is one of the Order’s Masters that tests and ultimately mentors Knecht. He is a wise and serene old man–and much is made about him later being potentially a “Castalian saint”–but he was not always that way. There are four pages where the Music Master tells Knecht about his student days that are so reminiscent of how I felt doing my Master’s work at times that I almost cried: especially when he talked about suffering from a lack of focus and envying animals for simply being animals and not complicated human beings doing Master’s work. If it hadn’t been four pages long, I would have copied and pasted it for future reference as I read it over last summer when I was still doing my work.

This was an excellent book, but I’m not sure if it really could stand against the test of time. The Castalian Order is an all-male celibate order of intellectuals. There is no action in the narrative save for a whole lot of interesting philosophical debates with vague descriptions of the Game that can get confusing after a while. It was written in the 1930s and published in 1943 during a time of immense turmoil in Europe and when a lot of our contemporary institutions didn’t quite exist in the way that we recognize them now: an ironic statement to make because the book itself begins with its own historical digression on how the world and its perceptions have changed long after Knecht’s tenure as Magister Ludi. And it is long. It is very long to read and might not hold everyone’s attention.

It might not translate well as a film even though there are a lot of cinematic descriptions throughout the narrative: especially that very first scene where the old Music Master tests Knecht, as a young boy, on scale and the piano. Of course, I could be wrong. Films like Pride and Prejudice–based on their novels–do not have very many action scenes in them but can be excellent with expert cinematics and good acting. Certainly, a detailed display of scenery and the complex interplay between characters with good British actors like Derek Jacobi who plays as one of the characters in the radio play would make all the difference.

Yet I will say that as the winner of the 1946 Nobel Prize for Literature, this book was–and is–a masterpiece. It is a long one, but if you have a lot of time to read something and you find philosophical discussions interesting, this book is definitely one for you.

I think I will end this off by stating that Castalia is actually an ancient Greek name for a nymph that was changed into a fountain of pure inspiration. The thing to understand about a fountain though is that it has to keep flowing in order to remain one. For me, that is a pretty good warning against a place of learning, or a mentality of learning becoming too insular and specialized to the point where it has no relevance at all on the outside world.

It’s a good lesson to keep in mind no matter where you might find yourself. I’d give this book a four out of five.

12 thoughts on “Book Review: Understanding Hermann Hesse’s Glass-Bead Game

    1. Hello Susan. You are very welcome. I was just telling someone earlier that it’s amazing how a Nobel Prize winning book from the 1930s (given its award in 1946) can apply to so much of what is going on in our world and endeavour even now. It is definitely worth the re-read. And thank you for taking the time to read my article. 🙂

  1. Interesting tidbit: apparently when literally translated, “Castalia” means “sewing needle” or “sewn together”. It fits with the whole imagery of glass beads, and the idea of “weaving the world’s intellectual tapestry”.

    1. *That* is really fascinating Gyhanana. It a weaving together of different information into different kinds of patterns: different creations.

      This book influenced me in ways more than I could ever know.

  2. I thoroughly enjoyed reading Matthew’s review of The Glass Bead Game. It is a difficult book to read and also difficult to leave. It took me almost a decade to read it ! Every time I returned to the narrative I picked it from the point I had left it. Matthew’s second last paragraph truly sums up the message of the book. I wonder what Herman Hesse had in mind when he wrote this book, is it a criticism of organised religions for not being able to reinvent themselves that led to the strife and chaos the world faced at the time the book was written?
    Thank you for the thought provoking review

    1. Ranjan, I’m sorry I didn’t respond to your comment earlier, but I’m glad you got so much out of this article and, in particular, that second last paragraph of mine. I feel it was one of the strongest parts of this piece and I firmly believe in its content as well. I think that Hermann Hesse had a few things in mind when writing this book and part of it was a criticism of the developing twentieth century: in particular nationalism and the form of scholastics that existed then and perhaps even up until this day. And perhaps he was saying something about the limits of human religion as well: even the Castalian Order was not exempt from this but it does something about human creativity and spirituality.

      And thank *you* for your kind words. Take care. 🙂

  3. Great review. I read this book in my late 20’s while a musician in NYC. I completely identified with Knecht, virtually overlooking Designori. Now in my 50’s and a return to the book, I view Knecht as out of touch and sympathize with Plinio. Hesse manages to capture this progression so well within the separate characters, but also in the overall arc of the story. I keep having to remind myself that I previously connected only with the character of Knecht, and that this view on life paralleled my own.

  4. I find the lack of female characters in the novel to be very distracting. I know this aspect of the novel could be seen as a product of time in which it was written, but I think it is interesting that the Castalian scholars are only interested in studying and commentating on pre-existing art & thought, not on creating art or knowledge. One could argue that the absence of women & children in Castalia is a deliberate choice of Hesse to underline the sterile nature of the intellectual pursuits of the Castalian Order, there is no creation, only commentary among the Order’s scholars.

    You’ve incorrectly characterised the Order as celibate in your article, when in fact there was a passage describing that the Order was not bound by puritanical attitudes about sex, and that it was not unusual for the students to take lovers from the educated women of the province; they did not marry or have children however, which again seems to underline the sterile nature of Castalian Order.

    I think it’s interesting that Knecht’s first assignment is in the Benedictine monestary; an environment so different and yet in opposition, but also essentially similar in the primacy of commentary & contemplation rather than creation as being the main intellectual pursuit; the difference from Castalia being Father Jacobus was engaged in the world politically.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s