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.

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.

Naming the Unnameable and a Tangent about Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein

So despite what it looks like, this story was not inspired by my “The Tragedy of Kishuna” entry: or at least not directly. I will admit it is convenient that way though and I do think that there is some kind of theme forming and uniting this entire Writing Blog as I keep going at it.

A night or so before I wrote “Unnameable,” I had an idea about Frankenstein’s creature and how–because he had his creator’s Journal–he had the potential to make more of his own kind. To be honest, aside from that thought I didn’t give the matter much more thought beyond that and went on to other things. Then the next morning I found myself compelled for the first time in a while to write the story down in my actual Mythic Bios notebook and as I was writing it more chains of ideas continued to form. It’s funny how a half-awake, tired state can influence the creative process. Then I realized that my story was not completely about Frankenstein’s creature at all and went even further.

So there were two twists of the plot-knife as it were followed by a moment of attempted profoundity at the very end of the piece. I could almost make that into a formula in its own right and I have to say that I’ve also always been good at creating parodies of my own work. I parody myself well: though I’m always still learning more.

That said, I’m not sure if the ending works well. I did want to make something of a transcendent moment or even a catchy statement. I always thought that Victor Frankenstein was an irresponsible, dysfunctional, and stupid parent for making something and then abandoning it when it quite inevitably did not fulfill his unrealistic aesthetic expectations. Seriously, man, don’t expect something made out of dead body-parts to smell like roses after just a bit of galvanization!

And he’s an idiot too for not looking at the details, but I digress. I think in some ways this story and its end was also my response to something I read once which said that there was “no way” Mary Shelley could have written Frankenstein: that it was really her husband the poet Percy Shelley that did so. Well, I think I would be understating my response if I said I think that is total bullshit.

Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein. The end. Did she have critical and editorial help from her husband? I’m sure. Did she have access to her father’s library growing up, his tutelage, and then her own even without a university or college education? I’m also sure of that. Did she participate in intimate Victorian writing circles of friends and develop her craft? What do you think? And whose mother was Mary Wollenstonecraft: feminist writer and creator of A Vindication of the Rights of Women? Whose writing Percy Shelley even said he admired? Yes, that’s right and even if Mary Shelley hadn’t read her mother’s work, her influence was there.

So I guess in some creative way some of my opinions got in there, though that’s obviously not what my story is about. It’s really just a story about something that interests me. I also always wondered what the creature’s bride would have looked like if she had been completed: aside from the Hollywood image of the hysterical woman with the frizzy dark hair with the white streak that we all have of her now.

I’m also really fascinated with stories about how people try–and sometimes succeed–in creating life in an artificial way, and what that means. I know that I have and I will return to this theme in various ways. In any case, I notice I got somewhat ranty this time around, so I will just go back to rambling in my next post if that’s all the same to you. I make no promises though. 😉 I never do.

Ice-Nine Mornings and Vonnegut Nights

I’d only heard his name in passing as I read other works of fiction and science-fiction. I’m not even sure how my girlfriend got me to start reading Kurt Vonnegut: what the precise details of that moment were like but I remember other details.

It was summer of last year. I was still in the process of (procrastinating) writing my Master’s Thesis and driving myself crazy. I’d finished reading Hermann Hesse’s Glass Bead Game–or Magister Ludi if you’d like–and I found that once I did I wasn’t really interested in reading anything else of his. But I was starving for reading material: so much so I didn’t even know that I was.

I don’t exactly remember when my girlfriend and I started talking about Cat’s Cradle, but we did and I really wanted to read it. But as I write this I remember that it had to do with her introducing me to Vonnegut’s made-up religion of Bokononism–of the concept of a karass as a strange unification of people under God or divine influence, and especially a granfalloon: the creation of a forced or “false” group of people who really have nothing in common whatsoever but–again–something forced or artificial. I’d had some personal experiences with both–and it is hilarious and fitting just how fictional concepts make human nature and interaction easier to understand–and I wanted to know more about the book from where it all came from.

Unfortunately, despite our best efforts, we couldn’t find her copy. So I gave in and borrowed it from York’s library. As I was reading it and making commentary on the way as I usually do, all my girlfriend really told me at the time was that she found it “cute” that I thought I could predict how a Kurt Vonnegut novel would end or even continue.

She was right.

What can I tell you? That summer, Kurt Vonnegut–or “Grandpa” as my girlfriend likes to call him–exposed me to a world of black, black humour and rendered spectacularly the banal frailty and stupidity of the human race in such a way that was immensely entertaining. His “what-the-fuck” moments were plenty and awfully true to the strangeness of life. I started Cat’s Cradle slow. It was a deceptive little bugger: with each chapter little more than a few pages for the most part. Then as I got towards the middle I consumed each page with voraciousness and a notable lack of mercy or pity.

After that there was an old, tattered, and well-loved copy of Mother Night for my consideration: where what we consider war crimes and human atrocity, stupidity, and uniqueness essentially and cunningly “fuck you the fuck up” and your preconceptions too. The best lesson I got out of the thing that I read as I took the bus to school, lay in our bed, and even rode with my friends to a table-top role-playing game session with Lego is to be careful of what you pretend to be, because you might become it.

I remember mornings where my girlfriend forced me to go meet my friends for gaming weekends and those books accompanied me with lunch. I didn’t think about my looming school project, but I learned from Grandpa Vonnegut instead–my cynical, grumpy, literary grandfather–about life. I don’t remember the last Vonnegut book I read. It was about a man who was a former soldier and he taught at a college close to a prison. I never got farther than the chapter with him and his class looking at old and failed perpetual motion machines found in an attic.

I remember that part well. I was riding by myself back down two buses from York Region back downtown from said gaming session and the serious work around it  :). It was the bus I took on Bloor in the late warm summer night: under the amber artificial lighting of the bus, the ambiance of the passing streetlights outside, the fading blue darkness in the sky. and a metal framed red-purple seat. I put that book on hold to read A Song of Ice and Fire–based on my friends’ constant pestering that I needed to–and I never picked it up again. I wish I had.

My Vonnegut education is not complete. I didn’t finish that book and my girlfriend doesn’t have Slaughterhouse Five. I hear Vonnegut likes to break the fourth wall so much after a while that he just gets fed up and it is less a spectacle and more a matter of a “I don’t give a damn” course. I can sympathize with that. I think I will be a grumpy old man like that when I’m old. I’m already half-way there with the grumpy part. Or maybe that’s crazy I’m thinking about.

I do think that you need to have time between readings of Vonnegut: just like you don’t want to eat bitter-sweet chocolate all the time: just occasionally and when the summer times come, and when you have a long bus ride far past two in the morning and you need some black therapeutic entertainment on the TTC … all the way home.