Thursday, December 20, 2007

The Glass Bead Game (Magister Ludi)

I read most of Hermann Hesse's major works way back in High School (I was the odd kid wandering around with "unrequired reading" on top of the abhored textbooks). His novels appealed to my interest in eastern philosophy in general and Buddhism specifically, yet even then I feld that books such as Siddhartha and The Journey to the East were rather simplistic in their approach to eastern thought. I don't remember much about Steppenwolf, other than I had a greater appreciation for it than I had for the other works. Later, when I read Brecht, I thought some of his works had echoes of Steppenwolf (or was it the other way around?).

Hesse comes back again and again to the question of whether one should seek an ascetic path or, to paraphrase Blake, to approach the palace of wisdom by the road of excess. In his own life, Hesse seems to have tended towards the ascetic, although his writings sought to transcend the dualism. The Glass Bead Game is longer than Hesse's other novels (it was originally envisioned, per the Mann/Hesse correspondence, as a series of novels, or a multi-volume work) but the themes are the same. Hesse prosletyses for vegetarianism and meditation, but the duality of the meditative vs. the active life remains his subject.

The bulk of the novel takes place many centuries hence, in the province of Castilia, a mythical place where promising youth are taken for education and where the ritualistic pastime is the Glass Bead Game. The novel describes the early life and education of Joseph Knecht, who rises to the exalted position of Magister of Castilia. But Knecht has a crisis, and the life of splendid isolation, governed by ritual, becomes unbearable for him. He leaves the intellectual yet barren life of Castilia in order to go into the world and make his own small mark. He promptly drowns in ice-cold water. Tragically, swimming was one of the practical arts not studied in Castilia.

Hesse is not, regrettably, a first rate author. The vignettes of life in Castile are interesting, if somewhat stilted, but Hesse's concerns and his expressions of them seem to be a restatement of themes from his earlier novels. Hermann Hesse was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature following the release of this book.