On Hermann Hesse and "The Glass Bead Game"

Hermann Hesse, born July 2, 1877, might be best known today as that European author who wrote a lot about Buddhism. And that’s true. His most famous novel, Siddhartha, is about the search for enlightenment set in the time of the Buddha, and has been widely read by anyone in the west who’s curious about eastern religions. 

Siddhartha is an excellent book, but alone it gives a limited view of Hesse and the issues he explored in his fiction, many of which remain prescient today. Steppenwolf and Narcissus and Goldmund get readers a little bit further into what Hesse was about, but his magnum opus, The Glass Bead Game, is the deepest expression of his ideas, and it provides some insight on how artists can approach the issues we face in 2022.

The plot and structure of The Glass Bead Game is heady, to say the least. It takes place about 300 years in the future where there is a region, Castalia, that is removed from the rest of society. Its residents engage in a life of the mind: basically, they study, teach, and play the Glass Bead Game. There is little technology or politics in Castalia so the residents can focus.

The Glass Bead Game itself is also strange in the sense that it involves no glass beads. Readers never get a full explanation of the game, but we do find out that it’s evolved over the years (it used to have glass beads), and now involves a complex synthesis of human ideas, from music to philosophy. The game is, essentially, about making elegant and new connections between concepts.

Can an intellectual do more good by engaging and becoming more practical, or by removing themselves and focusing on big-picture understanding?

All of that is interesting, and there are various technical ways that the plot and language serve to draw readers in, which is all worth exploring. It’s a different topic than what I want to dive into, however, which is the main character and how he shows us some of the struggles artists and intellectuals face when it comes to interacting with societies.

The novel centers around Joseph Knecht, who is brought to Castalia as a child and eventually becomes Magister Ludi, a master of the Glass Bead Game. Knecht, though, is not like other players and residents of Castalia; he spends a lot of his time out of the province and sees how the rest of the world lives. Basically, he leaves the ivory tower and experiences what one might call real life. He interacts with other cultures and religions (including eastern traditions, as one would expect in a Hesse novel), learns new languages, and questions whether the intellectually gifted people in Castalia have a right to withdraw themselves from the world’s problems.

Much of this exploration comes from Hesse’s own experience in World War Two. Hesse lived in neutral Switzerland, and he was deeply opposed to Nazi ideology. He spent over a decade during the 30s and 40s, as Hitler rose to power and then wielded it in the most horrific ways, working on The Glass Bead Game.

Hesse helped other authors escape the Third Reich, and made sure to review authors that were banned by the Nazis. Nonetheless, he spent much of his time writing, and a part of the content of that writing is questioning what an author ought to do given ills in society. Can an intellectual do more good by engaging and becoming more practical, or by removing themselves and focusing on big-picture understanding?

This is one thing Knecht struggles with in The Glass Bead Game. We can take some notes from him today.

As I write, we are faced with nothing like the rise of the Nazis in 1930s and 40s Germany, as Hesse was. We are, however, faced with our own issues, which are too numerous to list here. Many of them have to do with the life of the mind. Discussions about echo chambers, confirmation bias, and platforming (or de-platforming) abound, and Hesse’s Castalia gives us some clues about how to explore them.

On the most basic level, Knecht struggles with whether the Glass Bead Game and Castalia have any kind of effect on the world. The Game is beautiful, but what does it do? Is it an end in itself? Is that worthwhile?

As Knecht comes to his conclusions, readers today can take note of his process, which is to get out of Castalia. We might apply that today to getting out of our Twitter echo chambers, or, if you’re an academic like me, getting off campus for a while. Or simply reading book you wouldn’t otherwise pick up, by an author you don’t know much about, who is someone you wouldn’t otherwise read. Maybe The Glass Bead Game by Hermann Hesse.

If you’ve read other Hesse novels, you’ve seen the same ideas at work. The titular character in Siddhartha leaves his home and goes on a journey to find enlightenment. In Steppenwolf, Harry Haller wanders around the city experiencing new people and sites. Each novel is quite different, but those fundamental ideas of exploration via leaving are there.

I don’t have the answers to many of the questions intellectuals face in 2022. Neither does Hesse. However, there tends to be wisdom in those great books of the past, and Hesse hit on many prescient topics. While the texts don’t have the solutions, they do offer some guidance on how we might find some: exploration, curiosity, consistently questioning what we’re doing. It’s the process that counts for Knecht, and for us.

If you haven’t read Hesse before, The Glass Bead Game is not necessarily the place to start. Some of his earlier work is a better introduction. But The Glass Bead Game is an incredibly rewarding novel, with a modernist structure and linguistic allusions galore. Also, if you’re a philosophy nerd like me, there’s plenty of fodder for you.

Hesse never could have predicted the specifics of issues like social media or the nature of being a public intellectual in the 21st century, but through his work we can get some guidance on how to explore ideas. The Glass Bead Game brings all of Hesse’s thoughts together, which is why it’s often considered his magnum opus. It’s worth taking a shot on an author who I’d consider one of the wisest of the 20th century, so much so that he can provide a little guidance for our tumultuous times 80 years on.

Get The Glass Bead Game at Bookshop or Amazon

Joshua Isard

Column by Joshua Isard

Joshua Isard is the author of a novel, Conquistador of the Useless (Cinco Puntos Press), and his stories have appeared in numerous journals including The Broadkill Review, New Pop Lit, and Cleaver. He studied at Temple University, The University of Edinburgh, and University College London.

Joshua directs Arcadia University’s MFA Program in Creative Writing, and lives in the Philadelphia area with his wife, two children, and two cats.

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