Sunday, 27 March 2016

Hermann Hesse - The Glass Bead Game

The works of Hermann Hesse have the rare capacity to force the reader to reappraise his or her attitudes to life and the world around them.

Of Hesse's novels, The Glass Bead Game, which I recently read for the second time, is one of the longest and most intricate, but the questions which it poses can be very readily distilled. The story basically revolves around the character of Joseph Knecht and his life of study and teaching.

Knecht enters the "pedagogic province" of Castalia, and becomes well-versed in the book's titular pastime, although a detailed knowledge or grasp of the game's niceties is by no means essential to an understanding or enjoyment of the novel.

Essentially, the theme of the novel is the tension between the abstract and the worldly, between the ethos of rarefied,contemplative study and that of the more "sordid" and instinctive life outside Castalia. This conflict, and the conclusions which spring from it, are explored with reference to the author's fascination with Eastern concepts of duality, transitoriness, renewal and rebirth. Certain characters in Knecht's orbit are held to be symptomatic of the existing set-up, or precursors of the future.

The heart of the argument, as I understood it, is to what degree "esoteric" academic and cultural pursuits such as the Glass Bead Game have any value for the real world, but equally how much such undertakings contribute to man's reason and enlightenment, bestow practical applications , and therefore lead to a more peaceful and just world.

Of course, this intellectual "elitism" was in effect subsidized by the man in the street. Such "luxuries" would clearly be jeopardized when emergencies such as war arose. As I deciphered it, part of the message here was that Castalia should try to inculcate Castalian principles and values in society proper.  This presumably on the theory that a more stable society would help to ensure the survival of Castalia in some shape or form, by nurturing a more conducive social and economic climate.

Some of the passages which ruminate about intellectual and cultural developments remind me of Thomas Mann. Some of this was tough going when compared to the purely biographical bits, but they are important in the overall.

The Glass Bead Game works on more than one level. It is easy to dwell on the societal ramifications of the Castalian set-up and its relations with the outside world, but the effects on individuals are equally pertinent. The suffocating impact of the secluded existence, being cut off from "real life", as well as the nagging sense that their talents are not being used for the general good, or indeed for an individual's own spiritual well-being.

An abiding trait of Hesse's writing is that he touches the very essence of life, our make-up and our equilibrium, the soul and what animates it. He makes such things seem so elementary and tangible, but also induces a yearning for self-discovery in those of us who have found the equilibrium elusive and troublesome.

The Hesse works regularly take place in remote settings or situations, but the characters are invariably wrestling with universal turmoils and concerns. Hermann Hesse has been a major influence on my life, and my outlook, in recent years.  Just a few pages are sufficient to rekindle that feeling of serenity and hope, like a reconnection with some semblance of love and truth, if only fleetingly.

In a broader way, the story supports the notion that we benefit from a change of scenery, encountering different people, points of view, and atmospheres, and that we should not prolong phases of our life which have begun to decay and pall, and should move on. Of course, this is easier said than done for most people, and most would not rationalize such impulses in the "exotic" manner favoured by Hesse. We should also try not to entirely estrange ourselves from things which appear alien.

My feeling is that Hesse relied on the sensitivity and perspicacity of his readers to constantly juggle these levels of meaning, and to discern them in the first place. Otherwise, his writing would not possess its unique flavour and vitality. What first drew me to Hesse, when my life had been to a dark place, was the weight placed on self-discovery and enlightenment.  But knowing what we do about the man, it is apparent that he had an eye for wider social commentary, in addition to chronicling the journeys of individuals, the latter often serving as metaphors for the former. Matters of some moment were indirectly addressed in a digestible and "non-threatening" form, but the point was undeniably there.

The Glass Bead Game is grandiose by Hesse standards, and the occasional geopolitical tangent is atypical of the author's usual approach. Its depth renders it more demanding and draining on the reader's faculties. Contained within The Glass Bead Game is a conventional Hesse novel, but it is more "fleshed out".

To some less discerning observers it might seem that the story "tails off" or fizzles out, but one must remember that this is not a conventional novel, Hesse had said what he meant to say, and of course the manner in which the main bulk of the tale concludes encourages the reader to assess the possible interpretations. A whole vista of possibilities should really open up.

Admittedly, this book does not quite leave me with the warm and buoyant sensations engendered with some other Hesse works, but this is counter-balanced by the amount, and variety, of food for thought which it serves up. Thoughts about ourselves, our place in the world, and our responsibilities.

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