I discovered Hermann Hesse on 1 January, 2005. To be fair, his name had been introduced to me by a good friend several years before, which was why his...moreI discovered Hermann Hesse on 1 January, 2005. To be fair, his name had been introduced to me by a good friend several years before, which was why his books were on my shelves in the first place, yet when searching for a way to fill a few lonely, late night hours I pulled the thin volume of DEMIAN off the shelf, only the word "discovered" adequately explains the feelings I underwent in the next twenty-four hours, to be amplified in the subsequent twenty-four when I read SIDDHARTHA. We all have similar feelings of personal discovery, when at just the right moment something that has existed for years, perhaps for generations before us, enters our realm of perception and triggers precisely the right sensations. January of 2005 was a momentous time for me, a time when I was shedding off past mistakes and embracing new ideals. Hesse's bizarre worldview--educated yet mystical, studious yet worldly, optimistic yet sinister--helped me to attune all the jarring, hectic, changing events of my life. I plowed through Hesse's works chronologically, reading them whenever I had a break from my busy schedule. But when I reached the end of the line, his last work and his supposed magnum opus, THE GLASS BEAD GAME, I stalled. All of Hesse's life and philosophy compressed into one dense volume? For whatever reason I couldn't handle it.
Seven years passed. I took it with me on a plane to South Korea and was intrigued by a world in which the follies of academics are the source of great scandal, a future in which society reaches a fundamental breaking point simply because of overspecialization, an obsession with trivia, and a quest for entertainment rather than enlightenment. I found this future very prescient, and I found what came next incredibly unique, for the vapidity of society does not lead to a dystopian, postapocalyptic hell but to a second Middle Ages. I mean that in a literal, historical sense--fraternal scholastic monasticism takes hold of Europe. While the normal dregs of society continue as they have always, a key class of intelligent minds retreats to the mountains in order to study... everything. Everything at once. The Glass Bead Game is a fascinating concept and perhaps a symbol for the terrifying obsession of my own life--it is an attempt to learn and synthesize and correlate all of human knowledge and expression into one symphonic language. It is a secular polytheism in which the characters of a novel from Equatorial Guinea, the melody of an ancient folk song from Bolivia, the geology of a moon of Jupiter, and the square root of infinity are all seen to be variations of the same cosmic theme.
A fascinating concept, yet one which the novel's legendary protagonist, Joseph Knecht, attempts to unravel, scrutinizing the fissures until finally he escapes from it altogether. He realizes that researching the wonders of the universe, attempting to get a grasp around all of them, and condensing them into one all-purpose, manageable shorthand, while impressive, is also meaningless--to capture the universe within one mind is a fool's game. The universe is far too vast, too complicated, too mysterious, too mercurial, too beautiful. Better to contribute to it, to be a part of it, than to pretend that you can ever figure it out.
The book is interesting and worth several reads. The "Three Lives" at the end, supposedly written by Knecht about his past incarnations, are particularly intriguing and can perhaps stand alone. The bulk of the novel, however, the biographical information about Knecht, is written in an overlong and tedious manner via a bureaucratic historian's voice, and the style can be quite laborious at times. Hesse's prose is typically succinct and his novels are generally short. One might assume that a novel of this great length would maintain its author's succinctness and, as a result, be densely packed with endless wisdom. This is not the case. The book has no more insight than any of his previous, shorter novels--it is simply less succinct. I'm not going to suggest that Hesse should have spent more time editing his "masterpiece," but I will say that while this book is as intelligent as any, it is not his greatest work. (less)