At the centre of Hermann Hesse’s Glass Bead Game is a grand vision of life in Castalia, a province of scholars. In this instalment in our series on Hesse’s book, we look at life in a scholar’s paradise.
This is the second part of a series on Hesse’s Glass Bead Game. Find the previous part right here:
Hermann Hesse’s ‘The Glass Bead Game’ may be his greatest novel. It combines a theory of history and education with Zen, and meditations on friendship and duty.
Castalia, the province of the mind
In the previous part in this series, we talked about Hermann Hesse’s book The Glass Bead Game and how clearly Hesse, in the early 1940s (the book was written from 1931-1943) already foresaw the shallowness and the problems of today’s Internet culture.
Surrounded by war, death and destruction, Hesse created a serene vision of a world that was as much removed of his own as possible: a vision for a province of the mind, a place that would not include politicians, money, commerce, weapons, violence and war. A place that would not even allow for strong emotions, for imagination, or for dreams. A society that would be built upon cool rationality, upon care and devotion to detail, upon monkish discipline, upon the ideal of serving, obedience and ascetic self-denial. A society of men, naturally, for the same reason that monasteries are gender-segregated places. If one wants to keep emotions at bay and a society in controlled order, it is better to keep the hormones out of it. Whether this can work is, of course, a valid question. Throughout the Glass Bead Game the topic is raised and discussed a few times, leading the main character at the end to question the legitimacy of the whole project.
Still, for most of the book’s 750 pages, the province of the mind, Castalia, is portrayed as a utopia, a place of eternal peace, a community of purpose and meaning, the very foundation upon the which “the world outside” (ours) relies for its existence.
By the way, I just noticed that the English edition on Amazon is advertised at having 250 pages, which cannot be true. The German original I’m holding in my hand right now (Suhrkamp hardcover, 1962) has 750 pages. I don’t know if the English version was shortened or perhaps Amazon calculated the pages wrongly. Anyway, if you want to buy the book, make sure you get the full, unabridged work. Much of the fascination that this book evokes is due to the detailed descriptions of Castalia and the Glass Bead Game, and cutting these down would take away most of the enjoyment of reading it.
And perhaps one more thing: looking at Amazon I noticed that in the comments many readers complain about the book:
Though excellent in compilation, The Glass Bead Game is a book that can exhaust even the most avid reader of philosophy, and leave the diligent reader bewildered by its abrupt, suggestive and yet seemingly inconsequential conclusion.
This one, which I expected to be the best since it is often lauded as his “masterpiece,” was a massive disappointment. It is a languid, long character portrait that offers no fresh insight, and is at times exceptionally boring.
Whew. I am glad that I am not the only reader who finds this a tough slog.
There are also others who disagree (and I am among them, or we wouldn’t be talking about the book now):
Of all the books I had read of Hesse, this one was by far his masterpiece.
This is not plot-based so much as a feast of mature reflection by men who think on a plane above most of us. The Glass Bead Game ties it all together, integrating the various threads of intellectual activity.
At over 500 pages, it is rich, insightful, and masterfully written with a moving conclusion. Not for the casual reader, this serious novel offers remarkable insights into the joys and dangers of a narrowly focused intellectual life that excludes emotional sensitivity.
I’m just saying this so that you are warned. This is a special book. It is not Dan Brown. It is a book to be enjoyed slowly, with attention to each word, each image. It is a book that one reads in a meditative mood, focusing on each sentence in turn; not a book that one would quickly skim through to reach the next action scene. It requires the will of the reader to immerse themselves into its world, to truly try and live within its pages, the willingness to spend a week, or a month, or however long it takes to read it, in Castalia, to share its world with its curious and quirky inhabitants.
To prove this point, here is how the book begins:
It is 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.
The whole book is framed as a reconstruction, by a Castalian scholar, of the life of a (for him) historical figure: Joseph Knecht, a master of the Glass Bead Game, who, in turn, lives in some unspecified time in our own future. Still, Hesse, as a romantic, is not interested in the future. His future does not contain space ships, machines, not even electricity. “Electricity” appears two times in the book’s 750 pages, and always as a metaphor (“as if charged with electricity”), not as a thing within the book’s world. Cars do exist, but mainly in the “outside” world. Only three times, as far as I could see, someone gets in or out of a car. Most of the movement within Castalia happens on foot – or not at all. Life in the Province proceeds at a medieval pace, or perhaps in the faux-medieval style of Hobbiton or other high-fantasy lands. Radio exists, but is used only to transmit official messages and to broadcast the yearly ceremonial games to all corners of the province. At one time, someone is said to listen on lectures on the radio, because he cannot be there in person. And that’s all for modern mass communication.
Hermits have always lived apart from the societies of their times. But do they have the secret key to happiness?
We talked previously about the world as it was before Castalia existed: essentially a world like ours. Loud, superficial, undisciplined, self-destructive. Out of this chaos at some point emerged Castalia, the province of the mind. Castalia was created as an attempt to restore sanity to the world, to provide it with a moral compass, but also with a refuge, a place where the mind could flourish, where real culture could exist, where deep research and attention to detail would be not only tolerated but required. The Castalian scholar could devote his life to whatever subject he wanted, for however long he wanted. As an academic today, one can understand the appeal of a world without journal lists, publication requirements and grant applications:
… The somewhat peculiar Chattus Calvensis II … has bequeathed to us four immense folio volumes on The Pronunciation of Latin in the Universities of Southern Italy toward the End of the Twelfth Century. This work was intended as Part One of a History of the Pronunciation of Latin from the Twelfth to the Sixteenth Centuries. But in spite of its one thousand manuscript pages, it has remained a fragment, for no one has carried on the work.
It is understandable that there has been a good deal of joking about purely learned works of this type. Their actual value for the future of scholarship and for the people as a whole cannot be demonstrated. Nevertheless, scholarship, as was true for art in the olden days, must indeed have far-flung grazing grounds, and in pursuit of a subject which interests no one but himself a scholar can accumulate knowledge which provides colleagues with information as valuable as that stored in a dictionary or an archive.
As far as possible, scholarly works such as the above-mentioned were printed. The real scholars were left in almost total freedom to ply their studies and their Games, and no one objected that a good many of their works seemed to bring no immediate benefits to the people or the community and, inevitably, seemed to nonscholars merely luxurious frivolities. A good many of these scholars have been smiled at for the nature of their studies, but none has ever been reproved, let alone had his privileges withdrawn. Nor were they merely tolerated; they enjoyed the respect of the populace, in spite of being the butts of many jokes. This respect was founded on the sacrifice with which all members of the scholarly community paid for their intellectual privileges. They had many amenities; they had a modest allotment of food, clothing, and shelter; they had splendid libraries, collections, and laboratories at their disposal. But in return they renounced lush living, marriage, and family. As a monastic community they were excluded from competition in the world. They owned no property, received no titles and honors, and in material things had to content themselves with a very simple life. If one wanted to expend the years of his life deciphering a single ancient inscription, he was free to do so, and would even be helped. But if he desired good living, rich clothing, money, or titles, he found these things inexorably barred. Those for whom such gratifications were important usually returned to “the world” quite young; they became paid teachers or tutors or journalists; they married or in other ways sought out a life to suit their tastes.
The book’s protagonist, Joseph Knecht (“Knecht” meaning “servant”), is in some respects untypical of the province. We begin by following him from the time he enters the province as a small boy, and we grow alongside him into the life of a Game Master. Knecht always keeps a distance to the others in Castalia, and he maintains a critical view on its structure and institutions, even when he defends them. Through him, the reader is able to enter into a dialogue with the book about the merits of an intellectual elite that has its own schools, its own political organisation, its own lands, its own, separate life. Would such an elite be a good thing? Does our world perhaps also need something like that?
Joseph had no doubt that he belonged in Castalia and was rightly leading a Castalian life, a life without family, without a variety of legendary amusements, a life without newspapers and also without poverty and hunger … No, [the outside] world was not better and sounder. But it was there, it existed, and as Joseph knew from history it had always been and had always been similar to what it now was. Many nations had never known any other pattern, had no elite schools and Pedagogic Province, no Order, Masters, and Glass Bead Game. The great majority of all human beings on the globe lived a life different from that of Castalia, simpler, more primitive, more dangerous, more disorderly, less sheltered. And this primitive world was innate in every man; everyone felt something of it in his own heart, had some curiosity about it, some nostalgia for it, some sympathy with it. The true task was to be fair to it, to keep a place for it in one’s own heart, but still not relapse into it.
For alongside it and superior to it was the second world, that of Castalia, the world of Mind — artificial, more orderly, more secure, but still in need of constant supervision and study. To serve the hierarchy, but without doing an injustice to that other world, let alone despising it, and also without eying it with vague desire or nostalgia — that must be the right course. For did not the small world of Castalia serve the great world, provide it with teachers, books, methods, act as guardian for the purity of its intellectual functions and its morality? Castalia remained the training ground and refuge for that small band of men whose lives were to be consecrated to Mind and to truth. Then why were these two worlds apparently unable to live in fraternal harmony, parallel and intertwined; why could an individual not cherish and unite both within himself?
This is the central question of the book: Which world is better? The refined, intellectual, orderly discipline of Castalia, or the wild, anarchic, loud, dangerous world outside? And why can one person not live in both? Why do we have to decide between them, embrace the one and give up the other?
The outside world is represented in Castalia by Plinio, Knecht’s friend and opponent. A boy from the world, sent to Castalia to get an education, he always knows that one day he will return to take up his place among the powerful, the politicians and merchants of the outside world. Between the two develops a friendship that is also a rivalry, a fight of each one to prevail in argument, but also a fight of both of them to better understand the value of their respective worlds and to find their places in each one.
At one point, Plinio confesses to Knecht:
“Of course I’ve known for a long time, Joseph, that you are not the credulous Glass Bead Game player and Castalian saint whose part you have been playing so splendidly. Each of us stands at an exposed spot in this battle, and each of us probably knows that what he is fighting against rightfully exists and has its undeniable value. You yourself take the side of intensive cultivation of the mind, I the side of natural life. In our contest you have learned to track down the dangers of the natural life and have made them your target. Your function has been to point out how natural, naive living without discipline of the mind is bound to become a mire into which men sink, reverting to bestiality. And I for my part must remind you again and again how risky, dangerous, and ultimately sterile is a life based purely upon mind. Good, each defends what he believes to be primary, you mind and I nature. But don’t take offense — it sometimes seems to me that you actually and naively consider me an enemy of your Castalian principles, a fellow who fundamentally regards your studies, exercises, and games as mere tomfoolery, even though he briefly joins in them for one reason or another. How wrong you would be if you really believed that, my friend. I’ll confess to you that I am infatuated with your hierarchy, that it often enthralls me like happiness itself.”
But not only Plinio is unsure about which world is the best. Knecht himself is writing poetry in secret (something that the Order does not encourage), and he also yearns to see the outside world, being both terrified and fascinated by it.
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Re-reading the book now, I notice how much my own younger self’s world was different from that of my students today. In 1980s Germany, I was able to study for over 10 years, to change from law to German language, to chemistry and biology, and to finally finish a master’s degree in biology and philosophy. I don’t think that something like that would be tolerated today. From where I’m sitting right now, at the corner of my bed in a flat in 21st century Hong Kong, the academic world of 1980s Germany seems like a distant dream. And passages like this make me feel that perhaps, in a way, we did live in a sort of Castalia back then, a world that my students and my children will never know:
After graduation from the preparatory schools the elite student truly enjoys a remarkable degree of freedom and self-determination in choosing among the fields of knowledge and research. Unless a student’s own talents and interests dictate natural bounds from the start, the only limit on this freedom is his obligation to present a plan of study for each semester. The authorities oversee the execution of fhis plan in only the mildest way. For young men of versatile talents and interests — and Knecht was one of these — the scope thus allowed him is wonderfully enticing and a source of continual delight. The authorities permit such students, if they do not drift into sheer idleness, almost paradisiacal freedom. The student may dabble in all sorts of fields, combine the widest variety of subjects, fall in love with six or eight disciplines simultaneously, or confine himself to a narrower selection from the beginning. Aside from observing the general rules of morality that apply to the whole Province and the Order, nothing is asked of him except presentation once a year of the record of the lectures he has attended, the books he has read, and the research he has undertaken at the various institutes. His performance comes in for closer check only when he attends technical courses and seminars, including courses in the Glass Bead Game and at the Conservatory of Music. Here every student has to take the official examinations and write the papers or do the work required by the head of the seminar, as is only natural. But no one forces him to take such courses. For semesters or for years he may, if he pleases, merely make use of the libraries and listen to lectures. Students who take a long while before deciding upon a single field of knowledge thereby delay their admission into the Order, but the authorities show great patience in allowing and even encouraging their explorations of all possible disciplines and types of study. Aside from good moral conduct, nothing is required of them…
If Plinio represents the outside world and Knecht the reader’s questions and doubts, it is the Music Master, the old man who initially discovers Knecht and recognises his talent, who represents the clearest, most refined, most obedient version of a Castalian Master:
Every so often Knecht found time for a brief visit to the aged former Music Master. The venerable old man, whose strength was now visibly ebbing and who had long since completely lost the habit of speech, persisted in his state of serene composure to the last. He was not sick, and his death was not so much a matter of dying as a form of progressive dematerialization, a dwindling of bodily substance and the bodily functions, while his life more and more gathered in his eyes and in the gentle radiance of his withering old man’s face. To most of the inhabitants of Monteport this was a familiar sight, accepted with due respect. Only a few persons, such as Knecht, Ferromonte, and young Petrus, were privileged to share after a fashion in this sunset glow, this fading out of a pure and selfless life. These few, when they had put themselves into the proper frame of mind before stepping into the little room in which the Master sat in his armchair, succeeded in entering into this soft iridescence of disembodiment, in sharing in the old man’s silent movement toward perfection. They stayed for rapt moments in the crystal sphere of this soul, as if in a realm of invisible radiation, listening to unearthly music, and then returned to their daily lives with hearts cleansed and strengthened, as if descending from a high mountain peak.
Castalia, a utopian dream
Late in the book, Knecht meets again his childhood friend Plinio, the one with whom he had engaged in heated debates about the merits of Castalia versus the outside world. Plinio now is a powerful man of the world, but he remains sympathetic to Castalia and its aims, and perhaps, sometimes, he looks back at his earlier life, wondering what could have been had he not left to follow his own destiny.
“And let me say one word more,” the Glass Bead Game Master resumed, again in his low voice. “I would like to say something more to you about cheerful serenity, the serenity of the stars and of the mind, and about our Castalian kind of serenity also. You are averse to serenity, presumably because you have had to walk the ways of sadness, and now all brightness and good cheer, especially our Castalian kind, strikes you as shallow and childish, and cowardly to boot, a flight from the terrors and abysses of reality into a clear, well-ordered world of mere forms and formulas, mere abstractions and refinements. But, my dear devotee of sadness, even though for some this may well be a flight, though there may be no lack of cowardly, timorous Castalians playing with mere formulas, even if the majority among us were in fact of this sort — all this would not lessen the value and splendor of genuine serenity, the serenity of the sky and the mind. Granted there are those among us who are too easily satisfied, who enjoy a sham serenity; but in contrast to them we also have men and generations of men whose serenity is not playful shallowness, but earnest depth. I knew one such man — I mean our former Music Master, whom you used to see in Waldzell now and then. In the last years of his life this man possessed the virtue of serenity to such a degree that it radiated from him like the light from a star; so much that it was transmitted to all in the form of benevolence, enjoyment of life, good humor, trust, and confidence. It continued to radiate outward from all who received it, all who had absorbed its brightness. His light shone upon me also; he transmitted to me a little of his radiance, a little of the brightness in his heart, and to our friend Ferromonte as well, and a good many others. To achieve this cheerful serenity is to me, and to many others, the finest and highest of goals. You will also find it among some of the patriarchs in the directorate of the Order. Such cheerfulness is neither frivolity nor complacency; it is supreme insight and love, affirmation of all reality, alertness on the brink of all depths and abysses; it is a virtue of saints and of knights; it is indestructible and only increases with age and nearness to death. It is the secret of beauty and the real substance of all art. The poet who praises the splendors and terrors of life in the dance-measures of his verse, the musician who sounds them in a pure, eternal present — these are bringers of light, increasers of joy and brightness on earth, even if they lead us first through tears and stress. Perhaps the poet whose verses gladden us was a sad solitary, and the musician a melancholic dreamer; but even so their work shares in the cheerful serenity of the gods and the stars. What they give us is no longer their darkness, their suffering or fears, but a drop of pure light, eternal cheerfulness. Even though whole peoples and languages have attempted to fathom the depths of the universe in myths, cosmogonies, and religions, their supreme, their ultimate attainment has been this cheerfulness. You recall the ancient Hindus — our teacher in Waldzell once spoke so beautifully about them. A people of suffering, of brooding, of penance and asceticism; but the great ultimate achievements of their thought were bright and cheerful; the smile of the ascetics and the Buddhas are cheerful; the figures in their profound, enigmatic mythologies are cheerful. The world these myths represent begins divinely, blissfully, radiantly, with a springtime loveliness: the golden age. Then it sickens and degenerates more and more; it grows coarse and subsides into misery; and at the end of four ages, each lower than the others, it is ripe for annihilation. Therefore it is trampled underfoot by a laughing, dancing Siva — but it does not end with that. It begins anew with the smile of dreaming Vishnu whose hands playfully fashion a young, new, beautiful, shining world. It is wonderful — how these Indians, with an insight and capacity for suffering scarcely equalled by any other people, looked with horror and shame upon the cruel game of world history, the eternally revolving wheel of avidity and suffering; they saw and understood the fragility of created being, the avidity and diabolism of man, and at the same time his deep yearning for purity and harmony; and they devised these glorious parables for the beauty and tragedy of the creation: mighty Siva who dances the completed world into ruins, and smiling Vishnu who lies slumbering and playfully makes a new world arise out of his golden dreams of gods.
“But to return to our own, Castalian cheerfulness, it may be only a lateborn, lesser variety of this great universal serenity, but it is a completely legitimate form. Scholarship has not been cheerful always and everywhere, although it ought to be. But with us scholarship, which is the cult of truth, is closely allied to the cult of the beautiful, and allied also with the practice of spiritual refreshment by meditation. Consequently it can never entirely lose its serene cheerfulness. Our Glass Bead Game combines all three principles: learning, veneration of the beautiful, and meditation; and therefore a proper Glass Bead Game player ought to be drenched in cheerfulness as a ripe fruit is drenched in its sweet juices. He ought above all to possess the cheerful serenity of music, for after all music is nothing but an act of courage, a serene, smiling, striding forward and dancing through the terrors and flames of the world, the festive offering of a sacrifice. This kind of cheerful serenity is what I have been concerned with ever since I began dimly to sense its meaning during my student days, and I shall never again relinquish it, not even in unhappiness and suffering. …
He sat down and carefully, very softly, played a movement from the Purcell sonata which was one of Father Jacobus’s favorite pieces. The notes fell into the stillness like drops of golden light, so softly that along with them the song of the old fountain in the yard could be heard. Gently, austerely, sparingly, sweetly, the lovely separate voices met and mingled; bravely and gaily they paced their tender rondo through the void of time and transitoriness, for a little while making the room and the night hour vast as the universe. And when the friends bade each other good night, the guest’s face had changed and brightened, although his eyes had filled with tears.
This is the second part of a series on Hesse’s Glass Bead Game. You can go on reading right here: