This is the first of a series of posts about Hermann Hesse’s novel The Glass Bead Game and its relation to hacker culture and modern times.
Hermann Hesse’s Glass Bead Game
Hermann Hesse’s ‘The Glass Bead Game’ is probably his greatest novel, his deepest, most intriguing, most hackerish in spirit. It combines a theory of history and education with lessons in Zen, meditations on the enduring power of institutions, friendship, duty and excellence, forays into the psychology of genius, a description of life at a hacker paradise like the 1960s MIT, and an intriguing vision of a fictional game that seems like a cross between a unified field theory, a lisp s-expression tree, predicate calculus and generative art, all in one: a unified, grand Lego of the mind, the ultimate programming language of the universe.
He published the book in 1943. Bombs were falling all over Europe, Hitler’s armies had been defeated in Stalingrad, the first digital computers were just being put together from hundreds of mechanical relays and miles of cable, taking up whole rooms (Zuse’s Z3 was destroyed in a bombing raid at the end of that year). Universities all over Germany had been turned into places of racial hate and indoctrination, opponents of the Third Reich were being deported to concentration camps, politics was being made with tanks, fighters and U-boots. The paradise islands of the Pacific were in flames, Hiroshima would soon disappear in a mushroom cloud of death and the North-African desert was littered with burning tanks and crashed airplanes. As the war was nearing its crazy paroxysm of death, a lonely man with short-cropped hair and round spectacles, looking more like an oriental monk than a Swiss intellectual, was hiding out in his villa above the placid lake Lugano, creating a vision of a new, a better, an unheard-of world. A world as it should be, or should have been, or perhaps would sometimes be, if things for once went right.
Utopia and the hacker mind
Hesse’s vision belongs among the great utopias of any age. It sits right up there with Plato’s Republic, More’s Utopia, and Huxley’s Island. I don’t know if the US hacker culture ever directly took notice of the book, but it certainly belongs also among the great visions of hackerdom, of how a world of hackers could work: half a century before Eric Raymond, Richard Stallman and Douglas Hofstadter, Hermann Hesse was driven by a dream that was very close to theirs, and based on very similar principles: freedom of research, freedom of information, non-commercialisation and global sharing of knowledge; along with a fascination with the complex beauty of formal systems, of algorithms, of ideas, and of everything to do with Eastern meditation, Zen, and the mystical mathematics that underlines the universe.
Like the other thinkers of hacker culture, Hesse saw very sharply what was wrong with the world. And like them, he wasn’t one to complain. He rolled up his sleeves and created a whole world that fixed the problem. He called his fictional paradise Castalia, and its spiritual soul: the Glass Bead Game.
We will come back to the game itself in a future post. For the moment, let’s look how Hesse diagnoses what’s wrong with our society. Looking back from the future (for the Glass Bead Game is essentially science fiction, in which the future narrator, at some time around the 25th century, looks back at our own time, which in turn is Hesse’s future), Hesse describes just our world, as he imagined it 75 years ago. He calls it the “Age of the Feuilleton,” the essayist age: our age.
The Essayist Age
“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. Ziegenhalss [a future historian of our age] recounts some truly astonishing examples of the intellect’s debasement, venality, and self-betrayal during that period.”
Then Hesse goes on to describe, in the words available to someone who didn’t know the Internet, the blogosphere in astonishing clarity:
“We must confess that we cannot provide an unequivocal definition of those products from which the age takes its name, the feuilletons [read: blogs, or social media]. They seem to have formed an uncommonly popular section of the daily newspapers [social media], were produced by the millions, and were a major source of mental pabulum for the reader in want of culture. They reported on, or rather “chatted” about, a thousand-and-one items of knowledge. It would seem, moreover, that the cleverer among the writers of them poked fun at their own work. Ziegenhalss, at any rate, contends that many such pieces are so incomprehensible that they can only be viewed as self-persiflage on the part of the authors. Quite possibly these manufactured articles do indeed contain a quantity of irony and self-mockery which cannot be understood until the key is found again. The producers of these trivia were in some cases attached to the staffs of the newspapers; in other cases they were freelance scriveners. Frequently they enjoyed the high-sounding title of “writer,” but a great many of them seem to have belonged to the scholar class. Quite a few were celebrated university professors.
“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 Fashions of 1870,” or “The Composer Rossini’s Favorite Dishes,” or “The Role of the Lapdog in the Lives of Great Courtesans,” and so on. Another popular type of article was the historical background piece on what was currently being talked about among the well-to-do, such as “The Dream of Creating Gold Through the Centuries,” or “Physico-chemical Experiments in Influencing the Weather,” and hundreds of similar subjects. 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.”
The list of topics is, as negatively as Hesse looks at it, quite flattering compared with what the blogs of our times are about. Hesse didn’t quite foresee the self-improvement and self-help craze that would take over publications like Medium: 55 ways to be more productive, 10 things to do first thing in the morning, the twenty-seven secrets to a more fulfilling life. I guess we’d be happy to have an Internet as intellectually satisfying as Hesse derisively describes it.
But there’s more:
“In some periods 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 these pieces was to link a well-known name with a subject of current topical interest.
“The great majority, who seem to have been strikingly fond of reading, must have accepted all these grotesque things with credulous earnestness. If a famous painting changed owners, if a precious manuscript was sold at auction, if an old palace burned down, 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.”
Twitter and Facebook anyone?
“Incidentally, there appear to have been certain games which were regular concomitants of the feature article. … 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 [read: mobile game apps in today’s world], 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 Pheeacians. 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, meaningless childishness. These games sprang from their deep need 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; they moved spasmodically on through life and had no belief in a tomorrow.”
It is almost frightening how well Hesse foresaw our world and its frame of mind. Blogs and endless distraction, superficial chatter, social media, terrible wars and people embracing games in order to forget. He doesn’t mention the American President, but one can see him right between the lines, obtaining no useful advice from reason, moving spasmodically on through life, destroying all belief in a worthwhile tomorrow.
So, what is Hesse’s solution to the problem of the feuilletonisation of culture? What can we do, what did people do in his fictional world to escape those terrible, oppressive, meaningless times? Is there anything the intellectual monk from Switzerland can teach us about ourselves?
In the world of his book, those who were looking for real education, for wisdom, for understanding, for depth, just went away from it all. They left all the others behind and locked themselves up in a province of the mind. A place with a strict hierarchy, a hermitary of the sciences, an utopian Mount Athos of learning and hacker culture deep in the forests of the world, the Shire of mental wizardry, populated by dusty researchers, archivists, historians, musicians, linguists, and, most important of all, its elite circle of hackers: Castalia.
Read the next post in this series to see how Castalia worked and how its elite of intellectuals lived their lives of meaning and seclusion, of freedom and purpose, of research and learning, but also of a bittersweet sense of longing for what they’d left behind forever.
All quotes from Hermann Hesse: “The Glass Bead Game,” translated from the German “Das Glasperlenspiel” by Richard and Clara Winston. Online at archive.org.