"Do you happen to know what a fugue is?"
The Music Master asks the boy. How Joseph Knecht ultimately answers is by playing his violin. And that is the clue to The Glass Bead Game.
The Glass Bead Game is the biography of Joseph Knecht, who is born in the 23rd century.
The novel has a richly dense theoretical introduction, which could be mercifully brief but is not; then a long middle section—the story of Knecht's life—and a final section consisting of some fragments of Knecht's own writings, including some poems. The three sections are written by Knecht's biographer, who lives in the 25th century and who yet may become another of the glass bead game players.
The Glass Bead Game creates a complex world of paradox and polarities.
Hesse lived in Switzerland from 1923, leaving Germany as a convinced and controversial pacifist. Later on he was hated by the Nazis. Hesse attempted to publish his novel in 1943, and in 1946 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature.
The Masters of the game
But who are these Masters—who the disciples—am I among them, me and my tutors?
As a young man, first an atheist, then a reluctant believer—didn't want to be an outsider, in C S Lewis's terms—then a high minded theological student and would be Methodist presbyter, I read the novel a number of times, along with Steppenwolf, Narziss and Goldmund, and Siddhartha.
Compelling stories, each of them, especially for a young person only just being formed in the theological arts, and by no means willing to conform to their explicit and implicit structures.
What are these? At first glance, Greek, Hebrew and a general desire to read, down the centuries, the theologians: lives, contexts, theologies. Theology in medieval times was the queen of the sciences, but only to be begun after years of a much wider education.
Young Joseph Knecht, later to be a Master of the Glass Bead Game mastered first the violin, or, more accurately, the violin played him. Felt in his core the art of the fugue. Became the fugue.
Hesse lays bare the problem. Is living to the full the life of the mind actually living life?
Sarah Lees, from FB All About Monotype Printmaking
I always thought of it as a parallel philosophical journey to Narciss and Goldmund: the one novel the life journey through art and the other the spirit. Steppenwolf being earthbound man attempting to find enlightenment without access to either release. All of his novels were based on journeys...read Hesse over and over, and feel he is part of that deep German socio-philosophical movement along with Jung and Mann who were interested in the spiritual development of the individual and how this could be somehow become part of a larger vision that encompassed Eastern religious theory (Maybe less so with Mann) - and how the individual is apart from / can fit into society.
Stuart Manins responds to Hesse's poem
I too have visited the past and future lands
Where somehow, sometimes, somewhat fancy brings
Together disparate icons of my life
And unifies the parts to fit the whole.
Performing music in the Glastonbury ruins,
Continuous repetition such as in a fugue
Harmonious sounds within a ruined hall
Built from mathematics' motives and ideals.
Glass beads to be reminders of the sacred
When heaven and earth embrace in fertile grasp,
And chaos melts to re-create a wholeness
Where love devours the bitterness of hate.
Singing from the music of the spheres
But playing in the spirit of the times –
Both once and yet to come again anew –
Link art and logic to the present from beyond.
A curious parallel
Hesse's Glass Bead Game is richly ironic, disturbingly complex, full of marvellous themes of the life of the mind. Yet, it is curiously Methodist in its plot. And this is deeper than a surface appearance.
The character of Knecht reminds me a lot of John Wesley the 18th century clergyman, the founder of Methodism.
Wesley as a character in history, and Knecht as a character in a novel, narrate over and over again the lives of characters from times past. It's how scholars and theologians work.
They pour over fragments of literature, dwell in texts and signs and symbols which exist, scattered here and there. Wesley and Knecht: each a linguist, a logician, a leader. Each an extraordinary word-smith, both makers of meanings, shaping cultures and communities.
Each reaching for an 'unsullied communion', a call to celebration. Knecht lives his communion with the other players of the game in the region of Castalia. Wesley lives his in the Methodist societies he placed within the Anglican communion.
Das Glasperlenspiel (Original)
Musik des Weltalls und Musik der Meister
Sind wir bereit in Ehrfurcht anzuhören,
Zu reiner Feier die verehrten Geister
Begnadeter Zeiten zu beschwören.
Wir lassen vom Geheimnis uns erheben
Der magischen Formelschrift, in deren Bann
Das Uferlose, Stürmende, das Leben
Zu klaren Gleichnissen gerann.
Sternbildern gleich ertönen sie kristallen,
In ihrem Dienst ward unserm Leben Sinn,
Und keiner kann aus ihren Kreisen fallen
Als nach der heiligen Mitte hin.
I said there was more than a surface appearance of parallels.
It so happens that Hesse spent some 14 years researching and writing the Glass Bead Game. He had tried to locate Joseph Knecht in various historical epochs, so that he was effectively reincarnations of the game Master. The way the novel is finally staged, however, isn't what Hesse originally intended when he began it. Its iconography draws from a very deep theological well.
Hesse uses the life and experience of Count Zinzendorf, a founding Bishop of the community of Moravian Brethren at Hernnhut. That is the theological origin of Knecht's 'unsullied communion', a living pietistic community straight out of 18th century Germany.
Who, in real history, should be drawn into Zinzendorf's orbit of Christian community and communion? Wesley, and—as virtually every Methodist can recite by heart—feeling dejected, down-trodden, a failed Christian missionary, on May 24, 1738, friends compelled him to attend a Moravian society meeting, Aldersgate Street, London. As they read Martin Luther's preface to the book of Romans, Wesley records, "I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ alone for salvation."
But in that moment of truth, also the seeds of an illusion.
The icon of Christian Perfection
Knecht's philosophy is modelled on the life lived by Count Nicolaus Zinzendorf. Wesley's theology, the same.
Hesse was the grandson of Christian missionaries who served in India. Hesse's mother was born at just such a mission station. The family breathed in the air of German piety, and although Hesse rejected it, he was steeped in it. In a real sense, Hesse has breathed into the character of Knecht both the psychological comfort and the distressing pain of piety. What is that? It is classical Christianity's imposition of guilt and failure.
The stage of the novel is set, the game is to be played. Now, who will play it?
Wesley was one such player. He, too, brought up in an atmosphere of piety, brought up to believe his life had been spared for God's purposes, growing ever aware of his gifts, and the relentless desire to create the unsullied communion in an unsullied community.
But such a community requires unsullied players. Were any such to be found in the theological colleges?
The Age of the Feuilleton
Wesley believed all Christians could live blameless, sinless lives of perfection. He argued it was attainable.
In reality it was the most obtuse doctrine, and he was never really able to live it down. It subsequently morphed into what has been described as the holiness movement, which has become a defining feature of Pentecostal and Protestant evangelicalism.
How did this happen? Wesley had certain character flaws that made him imperious, overbearing: hence, he was unwilling to let go of a dogma of Christian perfection, arguing that his early sermons and observations were simply not well-expressed. Decades on he wrote a substantial account of how to live it out. He couldn't quite grasp its inherent absurdity. Nor could many of his followers. So he continued to defend the indefensible.
Knecht, however, reached the opposite point of inflection, the tipping point of embracing life, not fleeing it. The sinless world of Christian perfection and the life of the mind in Castalia are akin in more ways than one. But there is just one opposite to them both. A different kind of master said, "I have come that ye might have life."
The religious genius of Wesley was preoccupied by this. Possibly Hesse. But so also Tolstoy. And, in distant times, Augustine. Maybe none more than Tolstoy, however. In the age of the utterly trivial magnified by social media, these voices are almost lost: Augustine, Zinzendorf, Wesley, Tolstoy, Hesse. Why?
The age in which I have lived was characterized by Hesse as the age of the feuilleton. Social media today amplifies it to the nth degree: the opinions of the masses, myself included, making one loud, ugly noise. No music of the spheres in our era, just a cacophony.
What is the glass bead game exactly? A storm in a teacup or the truth?
Initially the reader absolutely wants to know, almost desperately feels the need to understand the rules of the game, in order to understand the book. Sooner or later comes the answer: s/he will never be initiated into its secrets.
Far more importantly, however, a second insight: the player has to live through and beyond the storms of existence, has to discern and engage with life's paradoxes, the hard contra-indications, the play between the poles of the personality, find both enlightenment and detachment. Thus is lived the inner life of the glass bead game players.
From these raw energies and tensions come knowledge of how to set the beads, how to create the shards of meaning, how to influence the outcomes of the game :—a total influence on how culture operates, how it develops, how it evolves.
Hesse wrote a collection of fairy tales over many decades. Except they are not conventional, they don't fit easily into the genre.
One of these fairy tales was called The European, and it describes life on Noah's Ark sometime after the Second World War. God had become so angry and despaired of the human race so much that he turned his back on all prior covenants. There was a new flood, a drowning of the world of wars, and a new Ark sailed forth with the usual collection of animals, and representatives of the races and tribes of the human species.
The last to come aboard was the sole, surviving European. What he had to learn was his punishment.
It is similar in the glass bead game.
Do it well and you master the game, but do it poorly and one is at best a feuilleton, a time-waster, a noise generator. But is mastering the game living life? Is order from chaos enough?
What the psyche constellates is the game
The composer Richard Strauss used three of Hesse's poems in his song-cycle Four Last Songs. Words constellate rhythms, and voices harmonies.
Singing a pattern constellates geometries of time and space. As above, so below.
Hesse was immersed in Carl Gustav Jung's analytical psychology. The glass bead game is like the action of a rosary but the prayer, the spirituality invoked is of the east, of ancient times hidden in the depths of the psyche.
Jung said, “When a man is fifty years old, only one part of his being has existed for half a century. The other part, which is also in his psyche, may be millions of years old.” This is the felt pattern, the singing pattern, Hesse's attention on the Cosmic Soul. Whether in the subliminal realm or the active awareness which comes in conscious pursuit of excellence in the glass bead game, the architecture of the singing geometries is always heard.
Axiom? The community is more than the sum of individuals
This is the one point of agreement between Hesse, his character Knecht, the Wesleyans and Pietists, the would be players of the game, you and me. "When we tell our beads, we serve the whole."
Two institutions, theological colleges—St John's for the Anglicans, Trinity for the Methodists—tried once to do this.
The tutors were of that generation which lived through the great depression, the second world war, saw such as the rise and fall of nations, the collapse of empire, the march of Stalinism, apartheid in South Africa, deplorable racism in the USA, the despicable development of nuclear, biological, and chemical warfare.
Against this was a backdrop of patriarchy, privilege, and that peculiar Christian drive towards self-sanctification, that is, the affirmation of 'call' validated by the church as ordination.
Their glass bead game was the peculiar product of those worlds of discourse colliding. In whatever way these themes played out in the individual's own psyche, collectively they and their students for ministry chanted a common affirmation – the universal chord.
Universal truths and universal illusions
Can universal truths be dislodged? Can they be misdirected?
In this poem the game is explicit: the truths are fixed, immutable. In the other poem about game, The Last Glass Bead Game Player, the ground shifts. Chronologically it precedes, but psychologically it follows on from this poem. And the succession confers the truth, that although the game can truly create order from chaos, ultimately, as a final destiny, each player of the game, who masters the game, becomes the last player of the game. The beads turn to sand in their hands.
“All, all are gone, and the temples, libraries,
And schools of Castalia are no more.”
So much for permanence. Those universal truths were illusory, they have ceased to have relevance.
We are presented with a highly charged polarity, an all or nothing.
Yet Hesse has Knecht exploring a significant variation in a different poem, Stages. Here, it is as if the emphasis is no longer on an 'excluded middle', this or that, but an inclusive middle ground: truth and illusion together creating the universal.
The patterns of the individual psyche are wider, not constraining. Otherwise, we would certainly be “the slaves of permanence.”
Or, put another way, this time in the Fairy Tales, “The truth has a million faces, but there is only one truth.”
Isolated in the communion of theologians of the glass bead game
Music opens the emotional possibilities of the game. Yet the game is more than the music.
Mathematics, the logical. Again, the game is more than the mathematics of time and space.
Maybe this is what the 'Cosmic Soul' might be, the union of these two aspects of the mind, or are they merely effects of its operation?
Hesse was a painter as well as a writer. He painted some 3,000 or so water-colours, and demonstrates a meticulous eye for blending transparency layers. Yet the Cosmic Soul is more than light, more than enlightenment. It holds all things in their orbits, yet, as the last glass bead game player suggests, disciples no longer come to be blessed. And there are no more Masters of the game inviting contestation of ideas. Nothing and no one is any longer held in that orbit.
Once more, the paradox of what life is; simultaneously being and non-being. Before we were, we were not. After we are, we are not. We live in the inclusive middle. And living here at the intersection, is the constant preparation for taking our leave from it: this—no illusion.
This is our ordination and it applies to both lay and ordained. Zinzendorf taught it, different spiritualities for different stages in the human life cycle. That is the truth in the pattern, that is the truth constellated into the depths of the psyche, collectively in community, and individually into the one.
I suppose one final question deserves an answer: did all of us who stepped up in the theological disciplines master the game? Of course not, but the truth was, nevertheless, insistent:—they alone knew that the game had mastered them. All of them.