Creativity and Academia: The Glass-Bead Game That Never Ends

It’s amazing–to me–that I forgot to talk about this at all in my review of Hermann Hesse’s The Glass-Bead Game. I was originally going to write this as an addendum to the piece, but then I realized that the issue I want to address actually covers some much broader ground.

One that that is always stressed in Hesse’s novel by the Castalian Order that developed the Game is that it is not their role to create new things. Castalians are not supposed to be artists, but scholars of a spiritual bent and–according to them–anything that comes from the Game is simply to be contemplated and there is great discouragement against changing the rules that create and make up the Game proper. Basically, the Game itself seems to have been developed from pre-existing knowledge and there is usually great resistance from the Order itself in altering any of the rules or guidelines that were made to create it.

However, it is not only this. As I said before, creativity apparently is discouraged in Castalians in general: but that is simply not true. At one point in his studies, Joseph Knecht is encouraged–like other developing students in his Order–to write creative pieces about what they could have been in their lives. Also, he makes many changes to the rules of the Game even before he is Magister Ludi and they are accepted. Knecht could–of course–be the exception due to his gifted nature and not the rule–but it goes further than that.

To combine different disciplines together to create different patterns of expression is creation. There is analysis and study involved, but there is a synthesis of the parts into something new. Therefore, even during Knecht’s time before his reforms and his demise, the Glass-Bead Game–a contemplation exercise of intellectuals and academics–is a creative venture.

It reminds me of why I chose to pursue the Humanities at my University and why I pursued them in the way that I did. I learned about a great many things to do with literature, philosophy, history, social theory, and even to an extent art and expression. My program was by its nature very interdisciplinary and it looked not only at how certain philosophies and conventions work, but what forces make them and why.

Humanities also encourages scholars or humanists (as they are apparently called) to apply a plurality of “lenses” or “frames of reference” to a particular subject. For instance, when looking at a book we would look at the history of the culture that it was written in, the philosophical movements that existed then, the potential other sources that might have influenced its creation, the writer’s life, and how that book influenced other books and other cultures even and what the implications of what that book says might mean and how it might have meant different things to different people. So instead of looking at it from one view or lens, the theory was that we were to look at a thing with different mental tools or perspectives. We are even encouraged to look at how those tools and “lenses” were created: and why they exist the way they currently are.

All of that can be really difficult to articulate and sum up into a few sentences. Indeed, when people asked me what my Major was and I told them it was Humanities, more often than not they didn’t know what I was talking about: or they had a very different understanding as to what the Humanities actually is. For instance, the University of Toronto’s Humanities is different from York University’s: in that the former has certain divisions of Humanities, while the latter has an entire program that combines all those elements together: or tries to.

The fact is, for me, it often seemed like my Program–and maybe even Humanities as I know it–seeks to justify its existence by trying to be a discipline like Science or English. Sometimes even I feel it is just a “jack-of-all-trades while mastering none” perspective or that I personally just possess a whole lot of “party-cocktail trivia” and nothing more compared to the specialists of different fields. Personally, to make a gaming digression, I think of it as multi-classing and spreading certain dots or numbers of Experience Points out that–while it may take a while–will eventually pay off a very well-rounded character.

My role-playing game analogy and tangent aside, sometimes I felt like–just with the Glass-Bead Game of Castalia, the Humanities is very stringent on its guidelines of scholarship and what scholarship is because it is a “relatively young” discipline as we understand it and it wants legitimacy. The thing is I think both are already legitimate and allowing for flexibility in what scholarship and academia can be–by allowing for change–they distinguish themselves. I know sometimes I really wanted to say that I shouldn’t have felt like I had to apologize for my choice of Program and–more specifically–the Humanities shouldn’t have to apologize for what it is.

As an interesting side-note, apology originally was derived from the concept of defense: defending your perspective through logical debate known as argument. I also think there are many other ways to make your point instead of being defensive or not testing what your discipline–or your medium–can do. Film and comics were very similar to that regard in that both wanted to “fit in” and be accepted but they are different. I know I’m making a lot of very potentially bad analogies here in equating disciplines with media, but in my mind they are very similar if not one and the same.

What I love about the Humanities is that it let me put so many things together–it let me be analytic and synthetic–and I think I had more opportunity to do so in that discipline than anywhere else. I got to look at my favourite authors and writings. I got to analyze some of my own stories in a final paper. I even wrote a comic book script as a final assignment in another course: using my knowledge of the course material and comics media. I know York has an Interdisciplinary Studies Program as well where students are encouraged to do independent work and even create art as their final project.

As you can see, I feel very passionately about this. I think that gathering and critiquing knowledge is important, but that once you try to look at the why of something–to contemplate it and its application to yourself … to look at the human in it–creating something can be just as important. I like that my Program allowed me that freedom, for the most part, and it’s just amazing how The Glass-Bead Game applies to so many of these issues that I’d been thinking about for a very long time now.

I firmly believe that when you make a work of any kind, you create knowledge: and that viewpoint challenges not only what scholarship is, but what art is as well. There was a time in history when apparently there was no division between what was art and what was science. They were all apparently unified under Philosophy along with a whole other lot of disciplines we separate and specialize now. I’m obviously not saying that other disciplines are not as important or that their distinctions should be eliminated: specializations can be very important because they focus on a particular subject or task quite efficiently and with necessary detail.

But I like the differences in the discipline I chose and that potential for growth that I always felt there. It certainly feels like it fit my mindset: at least at the time. The best part is that even when school is out, you still keep learning about the Humanities. You can still keep making things. The Game doesn’t end after you graduate college or university. It doesn’t end when you leave Castalia for the unknown. You keep playing and, you know, I think that is a very good thing.

3 thoughts on “Creativity and Academia: The Glass-Bead Game That Never Ends

  1. Don’t you think that often creativity lies in recombining what is already there in new and original ways? To take a very well-known example, nobody thought of combining magical fantasy and boarding school stories until JK Rowling came up with Harry Potter.

    I envisage the GBG being played in three dimensions. To me, that’s really important, because you’d be able to walk around it and see patterns in a completely different way. In fact, I like to imagine superior alien beings figuring out how to take it a lot further – but then I’m a Doctor Who fan.

    In Narziss and Goldberg, Hesse really delves into the tension between the analytical and the experiential approach – and how both are vitally important to artistic creation. You have to live to create, he seems to be saying, but if you don’t also have self-discipline and order, you’ll never create anything outside your own head.

    There’s a deep beauty in the concept of a Castilian intellectual elite being freed to contemplate art and culture, but if nothing new is ever created, there’s a real risk of such a society becoming inward-looking, formalised, corrupt and decadent. I felt that the Castilia of TGBG was very much a society past its zenith, and therefore exposed to these dangers. You can’t just keep raiding the back catalogue of culture without opening yourself to new influences, which you may initially find unpleasant or even repulsive. The Castilian elite is sterile, both biologically and intellectually. It is ultimately unsustainable.

    But isn’t it interesting that when Knecht finally does escape and begins his new life, it physically kills him? Is there another message there – that if you spent too long in withdrawal from the world in all its messiness, you’ll eventually be unable to confront it? It was a very strange and abrupt ending, suggesting that there’s no easy resolution to the dichotomy Hesse explores.

    1. Actually, it’s interesting because just as you have those re-combinations–of using things that already exist in different ways–you also have different variations of those same patterns. There is a book that became a television show called The Worst Witch made by an English author named Jill Murphy: which is about girls learning how to be witches at a boarding school and where boys have a separate school for wizards. The idea has existed before, though Rowling and Murphy have obviously taken somewhat different approaches. I actually find John Bellairs’ A House With a Clock in its Walls similar but different in a lot of ways: the protagonist Lewis isn’t a wizard, but he knows people who are and he goes to a private or Christian-taught school. It was much less “cartoonish” than Rowling and again different, but I grew up with that and I liked it and the subsequent books a lot.

      I have heard of Narziss and Goldmund: it seems really fascinating because apparently both characters go in exact opposite directions with their lives from asceticism to passion and may even meet in the middle. As for the ending of The Glass-Bead Game, though Knecht may have died, my interpretation was that his death made him the ultimate teacher for Designori’s estranged son: who learned the ultimate lesson from it. He learned that he had to learn more but that also needed to value and use all the time that he was given to do so: to one day equal and surpass Knecht in that way. But whatever interpretation you have, there is no easy answer and I guess good literature never tries to give you one.

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