Stephen Bird's Reviews > The Glass Bead Game

The Glass Bead Game by Hermann Hesse
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's review
Mar 12, 2012

it was amazing
Read from March 12 to August 17, 2012

Previous to "The Glass Bead Game" -- I had only read "Siddhartha" by Hesse. Having enjoyed that book -- When a friend suggested GBG -- I didn't hesitate to start it. The principal protagonist, Joseph Knecht (German for "servant"), in attaining the position of "Magister Ludi", becomes successful with minimal effort on his part in his life in Castalia, the province of the intellectual elite in GBG. Although this novel is set in the 23rd century, there are no obvious clues in the text that render the environment of the book to be futuristic. Thus one can read this work as if it had been set in the present day. A complementary world of organized religion exists along with Castalia -- In that world, Knecht comes into contact Father Jacobus and expands his knowledge of history. Both societies appear to be monastic -- And both view one another with suspicion. The only female character I can recall is the wife of Knecht's classmate from his youth (Plinio Designori) -- She is described as being cold and lacking in compassion [Knecht has 3 major friendships in this work -- All of which are meaningful and important at various points in the novel - Though they suffer due to Knecht's inaccessibility in his role as Magister Ludi]. At one point early on in the book -- Castalia is described as being a place where women are available to young men. But this element of Castalian society is never spelled out in detail. And so the Castalians seem to live as monks. Which comes as no surprise given that the "Glass Bead Game" is an ultimate synthesis of the philosophical, the intellectual, the artistic and the spiritual -- As opposed to the physical, the carnal and anything that could qualify as a baser element of human expression. The entire concept of The Glass Bead Game is veiled in mystery -- Which makes it all the more intriguing -- As the reader can only imagine how this game ultimately manifests, in the context of a technology existing 200 or more years from the present day.

Knecht is blessed with an easy-going, pragmatic personality and is perhaps naive in his reactions to how his success has been thrust upon him. He is a "servant" who follows the path that has been presented to him. He does not stray or rebel, he takes advantage of every opportunity along the way, he masters whatever task is presented to him that will be necessary for him to move forward to the next level. At the same time Knecht appears to be genuinely creative and enough of a people person so that he can sublimate his energies into the social realm -- Thus minimizing any major professional conflicts. He is all business, he avoids and / or manipulates those who could be a threat to his career -- While simultaneously exhibiting compassion for his fellows. Knecht seems to be the envy of his subordinates and yet all is not well within his inner paradise, where his doubts and misgivings about Castalian society continue to multiply -- Via an expansion of knowledge gained through experience. He ultimately realizes that in the philosophical-intellectual-artistic-spiritual confluence that defines life in Castalia -- Its inhabitants live an over-protected, privileged world where they will never rub up against the shoulders of the common man living "outside Castalia". Most Castalians (with the exception of Knecht, who at one point is utilized by the Castalian hierarchy as a kind of ambassador-envoy) are unlikely to visit the world beyond their borders and to know the particular suffering of the "Outsider". If the reader were to see the world of GBG in a futuristic context, it could be viewed as a kind of "Star Trek" where the Castalians, in the manner of the Vulcans, have mastered baser human emotions via "meditation" (which could also be interpreted as "mind control"). The Castalian practice of meditation has taken the place of organized religion and their society is therefore technically godless.

That being said -- Knecht is a spiritual man -- As well as one who wears masks for the sake of his career. As humble as he seems to have been portrayed in GBG -- Perhaps Knecht overreaches his grasp and ultimately tries too hard to be good. Thereby he attempts to share his goodness in situations where it is not called for or even desired. He may even be suicidal and unaware of it. He is after all a man blessed with so much good fortune that it would be easy for him to delude himself into thinking that no achievement exists that is beyond his grasp. Thus the end of the book is devastating: Although a tragedy is alluded to by the narrator, I had no idea what form it would eventually take. There are layered / multiple meanings inherent in the ending that I pondered over for days after finishing this novel -- There are so many ways that its conclusion can be interpreted. Fortunately the 3 chapters that ended the book (following a short addendum of Knecht's poetry), entitled "The Three Lives", helped me to recover from the unfortunate yet realistic conclusion of "Magister Ludi" Joseph Knecht's biography -- As well as to gain an understanding of the work in its entirety. Knecht has a lifetime of good luck behind him when he finally "disappears". Why this happens is as much of a mystery as the mystery of life and death itself. In the end the message that this book relayed to me is as follows: Even if one has everything planned out perfectly in one's life, and even if one successfully executes everything that one has planned -- All of that can be lost via the misfortune of one random event, through a thrust of fate, or by means of a miscalculation based on human error.

In closing: The character who best represents the attribute of "goodness" in this novel is actually the Music Master -- Who guides Knecht forward in life -- Beginning in Knecht's childhood and onwards to his success in Castalia. In one haunting section of the book -- The Music Master is dying and essentially transforms into a blazing sunset of serenity. In this moment -- One can see the arc of a truly fulfilled life and the effect is almost chilling. The Music Master enters into a Nirvana-like state during his last days on the planet and Knecht is a witness to this metamorphosis. It is probably in this moment that Knecht realizes that this is how he would have wanted to be himself. But at this point it is too late -- Knecht has virtually been locked into his position as Magister Ludi -- A position he will be expected by the Castalian hierarchy to retain and maintain until the end of his days. Knecht, whether inadvertently or not, has chased power and fame, has been granted the gifts of its privileges, and will ultimately pay a price for having made that decision. His life becomes both a blessing and a curse. Though he becomes a master of "The Glass Bead Game" -- The game that he does not master, and that no man can master, is "The Game of Life".

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03/12/2012 page 11
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