After I graduated from university, the time I spent reading in my free time skyrocketed. This is ironic given that I studied a course full of reading (History), and that I was sick of academic journals by the end of it, but the enjoyment I found in texts that I read out of choice – philosophy, poetry, and fiction – blossomed. An author that I fell in love with in the process was Hermann Hesse.
I thoroughly enjoy the beautiful prose, dreamy characters, and life-changing ideas found in novels such as Steppenwolf, Demian, Siddhartha, and Narcissus and Goldmund. This set me in good stead to read Hesse’s opus The Glass Bead Game, the final novel he wrote before his death. Published in 1943, this year would mark its 80th birthday. Having read it twice, I’m beginning to see why it’s considered his most consummate work despite the renown of novels such as Siddhartha and Steppenwolf. For instance, it’s clear from the detailed, comprehensive introduction that Hesse crafted this work to be a pinnacle of sorts (it took him 12 years to write the book), and I do believe he reached it.
The Glass Bead Game is about a brilliant individual named Joseph Knecht who seeks to master the titular game (ill-defined by the text’s own admission). The game combines maths, music, science, art, and philosophy, to establish an inner harmony, a “totally symmetrical and harmonious cosmos” within oneself. It takes place in a fictional province called Castalia in the twenty-third century, home to highly intelligent, gifted, learned scholars However, Knecht desires something more: he wishes to realise himself, to develop past the point the castle walls of Castalia can facilitate, to be truly human.
Structurally, the novel is interesting in that takes a biographical form – a series of lost manuscripts compiled together that follow the omniscient narrator examining the life trajectory of our protagonist, revealing the discussions and decisions he makes throughout, and leaving the judgement of the characters up to the reader. This works very well given that it provides Knecht’s character with a mysterious and folkloric air, which makes his Nietzschean superman-esque exceptionalism more believable. Plus, the non-linear narrative has shades of Hesse’s previous works a la Steppenwolf, which is particularly close to my heart.
There are so many excellent aspects to The Glass Bead Game, and I dare say it has all the best aspects of Hesse’s work, amplified; the luscious descriptions, the psychological insights of characters, the ideas concerning art and freedom, for example. But, what I found most impressive about the novel is its engagement with the theme of the mind versus reality, more precisely: the limits of the life of the mind, and the underrated significance of the quotidian aspects of human existence.
This is chiefly explored in discussions regarding the study of history. For instance, in chapter eight, Knecht and Fritz Tegularius (an embodiment of the Castalian culture) discuss the validity of world history compared to intellectual history, with Tegularius espousing that the former is just a catalogue of human lunacy, avarice, and brutality, whilst the latter is transcendental and inspirational. This prompts Knecht to reply that world history, despite its vulgarity, deals with reality.
A powerful episode, because this serves as a prolepsis for Knecht’s eventual break from the Castalian order to the outside world – exemplified in the beautiful circular letter in chapter 11 – and it involves the idea of how reality is much grittier and more underwhelming than our imagination or aesthetic preferences would admit. This is fostered by how social media, programming such as reality TV, and the increasing isolation among young people, have instilled unrealistic expectations in us regarding how life should be.
Knecht’s letter of resignation is a wonderful exclamation mark on such an idea. In this letter, he recognises how the order, that represents the ideals, the beauty, the greatness, derived from the human mind, is built on the subsidy provided by the vulgar and fickle outside world. That their existence (and the ideas that they value) is circumstantial, and exists to the extent to which the state allows it. I found the passages brilliant because the level of self-awareness on Knecht’s part humbled me, making me acknowledge how my values, tastes, and capabilities, are in many ways circumstantial. This chapter encouraged me to understand that society is very much an ecosystem, and those who happen to be blessed with more advantages cannot live without those who allow for such advantages to carry weight – for instance, would reality TV stars have as much social and financial capital if we were more courageous and profitable in our own lives?
The Glass Bead Game depicts a privileged scholar realising that one cannot be fulfilled or self-actualised if he doesn’t embrace the beauty and the ugliness of reality. The acceptance of the fragility of being divorced from the hideousness that life can expose you to is very much apt currently: writing during the world wars, Hesse was exposed to human nature’s gross depravity. And given that we’re on the cusp of another world war in 2023, we may be seeing such ugliness first-hand.
This novel invites the reader to remain steadfast in its own way. Through Knecht, the book inspires us to be courageous enough to escape our own castle walls that keep at bay the insights or realities we feel may injure us. The Glass Bead Game is beautiful and insightful, ambitious and stirring: it’s a novel that any writer, dead or alive, would consider as their crowning achievement.
Words by Keith Mulopo