The Glass Bead Game

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The Glass Bead Game (Das Glasperlenspiel) is the last full-length novel of the German author Hermann Hesse.


  • Although in a certain sense and for light-minded persons non-existent things can be more easily and irresponsibly represented in words than existing things, for the serious and conscientious historian it is just the reverse. Nothing is harder, yet nothing is more necessary, than to speak of certain things whose existence is neither demonstrable nor probable. The very fact that serious and conscientious men treat them as existing things brings them a step closer to existence and to the possibility of being born.
    • “Albertus Secundus”
  • It its our intention to preserve in these pages what scant biographical material we have been able to collect concerning Joseph Knecht, or Ludi Magister Josephus III, as he is called in the Archives of the Glass Bead Game. We are not unaware that this endeavor runs, or seems to run, somewhat counter to the prevailing laws and usages of our intellectual life. For, after all, obliteration of individuality, the maximum integration of the individual into the hierarchy of the educators and scholars, has ever been one of our ruling principles. And in the course of our long tradition this principle has been observed with such thoroughness that today it is exceedingly difficult, and in many cases completely impossible, to obtain biographical and psychological information on various persons who have served the hierarchy in exemplary fashion. In very many cases it is no longer even possible to determine their original names. The hierarchic organization cherishes the ideal of anonymity, and comes very close to the realization of that ideal. This fact remains one of the abiding characteristics of intellectual life in our Province.
  • If we have nevertheless persisted in our endeavor to determine some of the facts about the life of Ludi Magister Josephus III, and at least to sketch the outlines of his character, we believe we have done so not out of any cult of personality, nor out of disobedience to the customs, but on the contrary solely in the service of truth and scholarship. It is an old idea that the more pointedly and logically we formulate a thesis, the more irresistibly it cries out for its antithesis. We uphold and venerate the idea that underlies the anonymity of our authorities and our intellectual life. But a glance at the early history of that life of the mind we now lead, namely, a glance at the development of the Glass Bead Game, shows us irrefutably that every phase of its development, every extension, every change, every essential segment of its history, whether it be seen as progressive or conservative, bears the plain imprint of the person who introduced the change. He was not necessarily its sole or actual author, but he was the instrument of transformation and perfection.
  • Certainly, what nowadays we understand by personality is something quite different from what the biographers and historians of earlier times meant by it. For them, and especially for the writers of those days who had a distinct taste for biography, the essence of a personality seems to have been deviance, abnormality, uniqueness, in fact all too often the pathological. We moderns, on the other hand, do not even speak of major personalities until we encounter men who have gone beyond all original and idiosyncratic qualities to achieve the greatest possible integration into the generality, the greatest possible service to the supra personal.
  • We moderns are not interested in a hero’s pathology or family history, nor in his drives, his digestion, and how he sleeps. Not even his intellectual background—the influence upon his development of his favorite studies, favorite reading, and so on—is particularly important to us. For us, a man is a hero and deserves special interest only if his nature and his education have rendered him able to let his individuality be almost perfectly absorbed in its hierarchic function without at the same time forfeiting the vigorous, fresh, admirable impetus which makes for the savor and worth of the individual. And if conflicts arise between the individual and the hierarchy, we regard these very conflicts as a touchstone for the stature of a personality. We do not approve of the rebel who is driven by his desires and passions to infringements upon law and order.
  • The Glass Bead Game is thus a mode of playing with the total contents and values of our culture; it plays with them as, say, in the great age of the arts a painter might have played with the colors on his palette. All the insights, noble thoughts, and works of art that the human race has produced in its creative eras, all that subsequent periods of scholarly study have reduced to concepts and converted into intellectual property—on all this immense body of intellectual values the Glass Bead Game player plays like the organist on an organ. And this organ has attained an almost unimaginable perfection; its manuals and pedals range over the entire intellectual cosmos; its stops are almost beyond number. Theoretically this instrument is capable of reproducing in the Game the entire intellectual content of the universe.
  • This same eternal idea, which for us has been embodied in the Glass Bead Game, has underlain every movement of Mind toward the ideal goal of a universitas litterarum, every Platonic academy, every league of an intellectual elite, every rapprochement between the exact and the more liberal disciplines, every effort toward reconciliation between science and art or science and religion. Men like Abelard, Leibniz, and Hegel unquestionably were familiar with the dream of capturing the universe of the intellect in concentric systems, and pairing the living beauty of thought and art with the magical expressiveness of the exact sciences.
  • Since the end of the Middle Ages, intellectual life in Europe seems to have evolved along two major lines. The first of these was the liberation of thought and belief from the sway of all authority. In practice this meant the struggle of Reason, which at last felt it had come of age and won its independence, against the domination of the Roman Church. The second trend, on the other hand, was the covert but passionate search for a means to confer legitimacy on this freedom, for a new and sufficient authority arising out of Reason itself.
  • In the course of the aforementioned Age of the Feuilleton, men came to enjoy an incredible degree of intellectual freedom, more than they could stand. For while they had overthrown the tutelage of the Church completely, and that of the State partially, they had not succeeded in formulating an authentic law they could respect, a genuinely new authority and legitimacy.
  • Among the favorite subjects of such essays were anecdotes taken from the lives or correspondence of famous men and women. They bore such titles as “Friedrich Nietzsche and Women’s Fashion of 1870,” or “The Composer Rossini‘s Favorite Dishes,” or “The Role of the Lapdog in the Lives of Great Courtesans,” and so on. ... When we look at the titles that Ziegenhalss cites, we feel surprise that there should have been people who devoured such chitchat for their daily reading; but what astonishes us far more is that authors of repute and of decent education should have helped to “service” this gigantic consumption of empty whimsies. Significantly, “service” was the expression used; it was also the word denoting the relationship of man to the machine at that time.
  • Interviews with well-known personalities on current problems were particularly popular. Ziegenhalss devotes a separate chapter to these. Noted chemists or piano virtuosos would be queried about politics, for example, or popular actors, dancers, gymnasts, aviators, or even poets would be drawn out on the benefits and drawbacks of being a bachelor, or on the presumptive causes of financial crises, and so on. All that mattered in those pieces was to link a well-known name with a subject of current topical interest.
  • If the bearer of an aristocratic name was involved in a scandal, the readers of many thousands of feature articles at once learned the facts. What is more, on that same day or by the next day at the latest they received an additional dose of anecdotal, historical, psychological, erotic, and other stuff on the catchword of the moment. A torrent of zealous scribbling poured out over every ephemeral incident, and in quality, assortment, and phraseology all this material bore the mark of mass goods rapidly and irresponsibly turned out.
  • Thousands upon thousands of persons, the majority of whom did heavy work and led a hard life, spent their leisure hours sitting over squares and crosses made of letters of the alphabet, filling in the gaps according to certain rules. But let us be wary of seeing only the absurd or insane aspect of this, and let us abstain from ridiculing it. For these people with their childish puzzle games and their cultural feature articles were by no means innocuous children or playful Phaeacians. Rather, they dwelt anxiously among political, economic, and moral ferments and earthquakes, waged a number of frightful wars and civil wars, and their little cultural games were not just charming, meaning to close their eyes and flee from unsolved problems and anxious forebodings of doom into an imaginary world as innocuous as possible. They assiduously learned to drive automobiles, to play difficult card games and lose themselves in crossword puzzles—for they faced death, fear, pain, and hunger almost without defenses, could no longer accept the consolations of the churches, and could obtain no useful advice from Reason. These people who read so many articles and listened to so many lectures did not take the time and trouble to strengthen themselves against fear, to combat the dread of death within themselves.
  • In those days the citizen of a medium-sized town or his wife could at least once a week (in big cities pretty much every night) attend lectures offering theoretical instruction on some subject or other: on works of art, poets, scholars, researchers, world tours. The members of the audience at these lectures remained purely passive, and although some relationship between audience and content, some previous knowledge, preparation, and receptivity were tacitly assumed in most cases nothing of the sort was present. There were entertaining, impassioned, or witty lectures on Goethe, say, in which he would be depicted descending from a post chaise wearing a blue frock-coat to seduce some Strassburg or Wetzlar girl; or on Arabic culture, in all of them a number of fashionable phrases were shaken up like dice in a cup and everyone was delighted if he dimly recognized one or two catchwords. People heard lectures on writers whose works they had never read and never meant to, sometimes accompanied by pictures projected on a screen. At these lectures, as in the feature articles in the newspapers, they struggled through a deluge of isolated cultural facts and fragments of knowledge robbed of all meaning. To put it briefly, they were already on the verge of that dreadful devaluation of the Word which produced, at first in secret and within the narrowest circles, that ascetically heroic countermovement which soon afterward began to flow visibly and powerfully, and ushered in the new self-discipline and dignity of the human intellect.
  • At the end of and era of apparent victory and success they found themselves suddenly confronting a void: ... an accelerating distrust of the intellect itself, of its own virtue and dignity and even of its own existence.
  • Although it is easy to fit any given segment of the past neatly and intelligibly into the patterns of world history, contemporaries are never able to see their own place in the patterns.
  • The allegation that the culture he had only yesterday been proud to possess was no longer alive, that the education and art he revered could no longer be regarded as genuine education and genuine art, seemed to the bourgeois as brazen and intolerable as the sudden inflations of currency and the revolutions which threatened his accumulated capital.
  • In prehistoric times, music, like dance and every other artistic endeavor, was a branch of magic, one of the old and legitimate instruments of wonder-working. Beginning with rhythm (clapping of hands, tramping, beating of sticks and primitive drums) it was a powerful, tried-and-true device for putting large number of people “in tune” with one another, engendering the same mood, co-coordinating the pace of their breathing and heartbeats, encouraging them to invoke and conjure up the eternal powers, to dance, to compete, to make war, to worship. And music has retained this original, pure, primordially powerful character, its magic, far longer than the other arts.
  • At various times the Game was taken up and imitated by nearly all the scientific and scholarly disciplines, that is, adapted to the special fields. There is documented evidence for its application to the fields of classical philology and logic. The analytical study of musical values had led to the reduction of musical events to physical and mathematical formulas. Soon afterward philology borrowed this method and began to measure linguistic configurations as physics measures processes in nature. The visual arts soon followed suit, architecture having already led the way in establishing the links between visual art and mathematics. Thereafter more and more new relations, analogies, and correspondences were discovered among the abstract formulas obtained in this way. Each discipline which seized upon the Game created its own language of formulas, abbreviations, and possible combinations. Everywhere, the elite intellectual youth developed a passion for these Games, with their dialogues and progressions of formulas. The Game was not mere practice and mere recreation; it became a form of concentrated self-awareness for intellectuals. Mathematicians in particular played it with a virtuosity and formal strictness at once athletic and ascetic. It afforded them a pleasure which somewhat compensated for their renunciation of worldly pleasures and ambitions. For by then such renunciation had already become a regular thing for intellectuals. The Glass Bead Game contributed largely to the complete default of feuilletonism and to that newly awakened delight in strict mental exercises to which we owe the origin of a new, monastically austere intellectual discipline.
  • The life of the mind in the Age of the Feuilleton might be compared to a degenerate plant which was squandering its strength in excessive vegetative growth, and the subsequent corrections to pruning the plant back to the roots.
  • The young people who now proposed to devote themselves to intellectual studies no longer took the term to mean attending a university and taking a nibble of this or that from the dainties offered by celebrated and loquacious professors who without authority offered them the crumbs of what had once been higher education. Now they had to study just as stringently and methodically as the engineers and technicians of the past if not more so. They had a steep path to climb, had to purify and strengthen their minds by dint of mathematics and scholastic exercises in Aristotelian philosophy. Moreover, they had to learn to renounce all those benefits which previous generations of scholars had considered worth striving for: rapid and easy money-making, celebrity and public honors, the homage of the newspapers, marriages with daughters of bankers and industrialists, a pampered and luxurious style of life. The writers with heavy sales, Nobel Prizes, and lovely country houses, the celebrated physicians with decorations and liveried servants, the professors with wealthy and brilliant salons, the chemists with posts on boards of directors, the philosophers with feuilleton factories who delivered charming lectures in overcrowded halls, for which they were rewarded with thunderous applause and floral tributes—all such public figures disappeared and have not come back to this day. Even so, no doubt, there were still plenty of talented young people for whom such personages were envied models. But the paths to honors, riches, fame, and luxury now no longer led through lecture halls, academies, and doctoral theses. The deeply debased intellectual professions were bankrupt in the world’s eyes. But in compensation they had regained a fanatical and penitential devotion to art and thought. Those talented persons whose desires tended more toward glory or comfortable living had to turn their backs on the intellectual life, which had become so austere, and seek out occupations which provided opportunities for comfort and money-making.
  • Experience soon showed that a few generations of lax and unscrupulous intellectual discipline had also sufficed to inflict serious harm on practical life. Competence and responsibility had grown increasingly rare in all the higher professions, including even those concerned with technology. To remedy this, supervision of the things of the mind among the people and in government came to be consigned more and more to the “intellectuals” in the best sense of the word. ... Although public opinion occasionally decries the strictness and the reputed arrogance of this caste, and although individuals have occasionally revolted against it, this leadership stands unshaken. Its integrity, its renunciation of all benefits and advantages other then intellectual ones, maintains and protects it. But it is also supported by what has long since become common knowledge, or at least a universal sense, that the continuance of civilization depends on this strict schooling. People know, or dimly feel, that if thinking is not kept pure and keen, and if respect for the world of the mind is no longer operative, ships and automobiles will soon cease to run right, the engineer’s slide rule and the computations of banks and stock exchanges will forfeit validity and authority, and chaos will ensue. It took long enough in all conscience for realization to come that the externals of civilization—technology, industry, commerce, and so on—also require common basis of intellectual honesty and morality.
  • To return now to the Glass Bead Game: what it lacked in those days was the capacity for universality, for rising above all the disciplines. The astronomers, the classicists, the scholastics, the music students all played their Games according to their ingenious rules, but the Game had a special language and set of rules for every discipline and subdiscipline. It required half a century before the first step was taken toward spanning these gulfs. The reason for this slowness was undoubtedly more moral than formal and technical. The means for building the spans could even then have been found, but along with the newly regenerated intellectual life went a puritanical shrinking from “foolish digressions,” from intermingling of disciplines and categories. There was also a profound and justified fear of relapse into the sin of superficiality and feuilletonism. ...
  • There was a passionate craving among all the intellectuals ... for a means to express their new concepts. They longed for philosophy, for synthesis. The erstwhile happiness of pure withdrawal each into his own discipline was now felt to be inadequate. Here and there a scholar broke through the barriers of his specialty and tried to advance into the terrain of universality. Some dreamed of a new alphabet, a new language of symbols through which they could formulate and exchange their new intellectual experiences.
  • He invented for the Glass Bead Game the principles of a new language, a language of symbols and formulas, in which mathematics and music played an equal part, so that it became possible to combine astronomical and musical formulas, to reduce mathematics and music to a common denominator, as it were. ...
  • The Glass Bead Game, formerly the specialized entertainment of mathematicians in one era, philologists or musicians in another era, now more and more cast its spell upon all true intellectuals. ... After Joculator Basiliensis' grand accomplishment, the Game rapidly evolved into what it is today: the quintessence of intellectuality and art, the sublime cult, the unio mystica of all separate members of the Universitas Litterarum. In our lives it has partially taken over the role of art, partially that of speculative philosophy.
    • describing the invention of “Joculator Basiliensis”
  • Up to that time every game had been a serial arrangement, an ordering, grouping, and confronting of concentrated concepts from many fields of thought and aesthetics, a rapid recollection of eternal values and forms, a brief, virtuoso flight through the realms of the mind. Only after some time did there enter into the Game, from the intellectual stock of the educational system and especially from the habits and customs of the Journeyers to the East, the idea of contemplation.
  • This new element arose out of an observed evil. Mnemonists, people with freakish memories and no other virtues, were capable of playing dazzling games, dismaying and confusing the other participants by their rapid muster of countless ideas. In the course of time such displays of virtuosity fell more and more under a strict ban, and contemplation became a highly important component of the Game.
  • The Game was closely allied with music, and usually proceeded according to musical or mathematical rules. One theme, two themes, or three themes were stated, elaborated, varied, and underwent a development quite similar to that of the theme in a Bach fugue or a concerto movement. A Game, for example, might start from a given astronomical configuration, or from the actual theme of a Bach fugue, or from a sentence out of Leibniz or the Upanishads, and from this theme, depending on the intentions and talents of the player, it could either further explore and elaborate the initial motif or else enrich its expressiveness by allusions to kindred concepts. Beginners learned how to establish parallels, by means of the Game's symbols, between a piece of classical music and the formula for some law of nature.
  • For a long time one school of players favored the technique of stating side by side, developing in counterpoint, and finally harmoniously combining two hostile themes or ideas, such as law and freedom, individual and community. In such a Game the goal was to develop both themes or theses with complete equality and impartiality, to evolve out of thesis and antithesis the purest possible synthesis.
  • Games with discordant, negative, or skeptical conclusions were unpopular and at times actually forbidden. This followed directly from the meaning the Game had acquired at its height for the players. It represented an elite, symbolic form of seeking for perfection, a sublime alchemy, an approach to that Mind which beyond all images and multiplicities is one within itself—in other words, to God. Pious thinkers of earlier times had represented the life of creatures, say, as a mode of motion toward God, and had considered that the variety of the phenomenal world reached perfection and ultimate cognition only in the divine Unity. Similarly, the symbols and formulas of the Glass Bead Game combined structurally, musically, and philosophically within the framework of a universal language, were nourished by all the sciences and arts, and strove in play to achieve perfection, pure being, the fullness of reality. Thus, “realizing” was a favorite expression among the players. They considered their Games a path from Becoming to Being, from potentiality to reality.
  • Pope Pius XV, who as a cardinal had been and excellent and ardent Glass Bead Game player, a pontiff followed the example of all his predecessors in bidding the Game farewell forever; but he went a step further and actually attempted to put the Game on trial.... A widely read biography of this rather important man had represented his attitude toward the Glass Bead Game as one of deep passion which in his pontifical office he could vent only in the form of hostility.
  • We consider classical music to be the epitome and quintessence of our culture, because it is that culture’s clearest, most significant gesture and expression. In this music we possess the heritage of classical antiquity and Christianity, a spirit of serenely cheerful and brave piety, a superbly chivalric morality. For in the final analysis every important cultural gesture comes down to a morality, a model for human behavior concentrated into a gesture. As we know, between 1500 and 1800 a wide variety of music was made; styles and means of expression were extremely variegated; but the spirit, or rather the morality, was everywhere the same. The human attitude of which classical music is the expression is always the same; it is always based on the same kind of insight into life and strives for the same kind of victory over blind chance. Classical music as gesture signifies knowledge of the tragedy of the human condition, affirmation of human destiny, courage, cheerful serenity. The grace of a minuet by Handel or Couperin, the sensuality sublimated into delicate gesture to be found in many Italian composers or in Mozart, the tranquil, composed readiness for death in Bach—always there may be heard in these works a defiance, a death-defying intrepidity, a gallantry, and a note of superhuman laughter, of immortal gay serenity. Let that same note also sound in our Glass Bead Games, and in our whole lives, acts, and sufferings.
    • Joseph Knecht
  • Although he was not spared the perplexities of the life of the mind, it was given to him to experience without personal bitterness the tragedy inherent in every life consecrated to thought.
    • describing Joseph Knecht
  • As Magister Ludi he became the leader and prototype of all those who strive toward and cultivate the things of the mind. He administered and increased the cultural heritage that had been handed down to him, for he was high priest of a temple that is sacred to each and every one of us. But he did more than attain the realm of a Master, did more than fill the office at the very summit of our hierarchy. He moved on beyond it; he grew out of it into a dimension whose nature we can only reverently guess at. And for that very reason it seems to us perfectly appropriate, and in keeping with his life, that his biography should also have surpassed the usual dimensions and at the end passed on into legend.
    • describing Joseph Knecht
  • When he stepped out of the building, he found the town and the world far more transformed and enchanted than if there had been flags, garlands, and streamers, or displays of fireworks. He had experienced his vocation, which may surely be spoken of as a sacrament. The ideal world, which hitherto his young soul had known only by hearsay and in wild dreams, had suddenly taken on visible lineaments for him. Its gates had opened invitingly. This world, he now saw, did not exist only in some vague, remote past or future; it was here and was active; it glowed, sent messengers, apostles, ambassadors, men like this old Magister.
    • Joseph Knecht’s reaction upon the conclusion of his interview with the Music Magister
  • In his examination he was not so much interested in Joseph’s Latin or his fingering (in these matters he relied on the teachers’ reports, which he nevertheless spent an hour going over) as whether the boy had it in him by nature to become a musician in the higher sense of the word, whether he had the capacity for enthusiasm, subordination, reverence, worshipful service.
  • Joseph had occasionally heard talk in school about this list, and in a great variety of tones. The pupils called it “the golden book,” but sometimes they disrespectfully referred to it as the “climbers’ catalogue.” Whenever a teacher mentioned the list—if only to remind a pupil that a lout like him could never hope to win a place on it—there would be a note of solemnity, of respect, and also of self-importance in his voice. But if the pupils mentioned the catalogue, they usually spoke in a jeering tone and with somewhat exaggerated indifference.
  • At first it did not enter his mind that there might be practical consequences and tangible effects of the episode upon his general destiny or his daily life. While for his teachers he was already marked by distinction and on the verge of departure, he himself was conscious of his call almost entirely as a process within himself. Even so, it made a clear dividing line in his life. Although the hour with the sorcerer (as he often thought of the Music Master) had only brought to fruition, or brought closer, something he had already sensed in his own heart, that hour nevertheless clearly separated the past from the present and the future.
  • There are many types and kinds of vocation, but the core of the experience is always the same: the soul is awakened by it, transformed or exalted, so that instead of dreams and presentiments from within a summons comes from without.
  • Almost without words he had shown him what music really was.
  • For the present Joseph was incapable of reflecting on possible practical consequences, on all that might flow out of this event, for he was much too preoccupied with the immediate reverberations of it within himself. Like a young plant hitherto quietly and intermittently developing which suddenly begins to breathe harder and to grow, as though in a miraculous hour it has become aware of the law which shapes it and begins to strive toward the fulfillment of its being, the boy, touched by the magician’s hand, began rapidly and eagerly to gather and tauten his energies. He felt changed, growing; he felt new tensions and new harmonies between himself and the world.
  • He no longer felt that he was among equals in his school and his town. He was no longer in the right place. Everything he had known had become permeated by a hidden death, a solvent of unreality, a sense of belonging to the past. It had all become a makeshift, like worn-out clothing that no longer fitted. ... Now it had come; his raptures were confirmed, made legitimate; his suffering had had meaning; the clothing he had worn, by now unbearably old and too tight, could be discarded at last. A new suit was waiting for him.
    • describing Joseph Knecht

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