A Review of The Glass Bead Game

09:50 Tue 15 Aug 2006. Updated: 07:31 26 Aug 2009
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Last night I finally finished Herman Hesse’s The Glass Bead Game, after fourteen days of slogging through it. It contributed to his winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1946, and has a host of admirers (as seen in the Amazon reviews, for example). I couldn’t stand it.

I consider it well-written (despite not knowing what that means), but also tiresome and profoundly unrealistic. Further, the “utopia of the mind” that Hesse spends so much time setting up and defending (even though he ultimately considers it insufficient) strikes me as profoundly objectionable.

Hesse apparently feels positively towards a rigidly hierarchical, extremely controlled and controlling socio-academic body—a feeling I cannot bring myself to share. This body, called “Castalia” in the text, is apparently filled by highly learned, wise, unselfish, types who are unfailingly able to determine the right place for each individual in their hierarchy. That, by itself, is so totally unlikely to me as to make the rest of the book (which depends on this setup) very difficult to take seriously at all.

The foreword to my edition, written by Theodore Ziolkowski, makes much of the fact that the book is written in an ironic tone, and that it is not meant to be taken entirely seriously. That the serious tone of the main section’s narrator is one that the author himself is laughing at, that this narrator may be unable to see the true meaning of the events that they are describing. This is not sufficient to deflect my misgivings, because I can’t see anything there apart from a mild chiding that this society takes itself too seriously. Which it clearly does, of course, but that would be a late, and minor criticism, whereas (if Ziolkowski is correct, and I suspect that he is) it’s one of Hesse’s two main problems with Castalia. The other being a sadness on Hesse’s part that such a society simply cannot survive if it remains unengaged with the world.

Oh, and there are no women in Castalia. It’s an all-male world. This is barely commented on in the book, and is aparently taken as entirely natural. From a realism point of view, it’s true that if one is positing a science-fictional scenario of this kind, then none of the narrators would comment on something they’ve probably internalized over generations. But Hesse having his protagonist criticize in other ways and not mention that makes it seem to me that he doesn’t regard it as problematic.

In a number of ways, Hesse’s take on the matter is irrelevant… the text itself clearly doesn’t view the lack of women as a problem, whereas it stands out to me as a constant feature of the book, and of almost all the relationships involved in it. Hesse does comment on the fact that many Castalian students take lovers, but apparently this is almost always casual, and apparently none of the senior members of the society have any relationships with women. The viewpoint that shouts itself out here is: “Women are a distraction from matters of the mind!” To be more charitable, the text is also saying that sex is a distraction from matters of the mind. I don’t have much time for a society based on either view. (Note: there are no overtly homosexual relationships, either—at least not in terms of sex qua sex, and again sex is an unwanted distraction from the weighty intellectual matters being pursued.)

And again, the hierarchical aspect… As I wrote above, the idea that such a group could exist, a perpetuating circle of wise sages who never do anything but selflessly further the interests of the organization—that is utterly unbelievable. There are politics, but they are between the highest circle and their “nobility”, and the “nobility” are to be soothed, placated, won over, by the higher-ups, in a fashion that struck me as a cross between dealing with unruly children and recalcitrant pets.

It is a profoundly elitist book, in other words, a charge that Hesse would probably not deny, and perhaps it is an overly simplistic accusation to level, but it was something I found it very difficult to ignore while reading it.

The relationships between people struck me as amazingly unrealistic also. The book is filled with these relationships between younger men and their incredibly wise, nigh-omniscient elders (or “betters”, as in the case of Knecht and Tegularius) who see immediately what their problem is and set them on the right tracks. Perhaps that is unfair, and there are counter-examples. Not many. That relationship model is held up throughout the work, and it stuck me repeatedly as unrealistic and in a certain sense terribly simplistic.

The last section of the book is probably the most interesting, and the last story, almost a parable, I found more compelling than the rest. Of the poetry included (presented as a sampling of work by the protagonist of the first section, Knecht), I was quite impressed by “Stages”.

Overall I cannot recommend it. I’m glad I finished it, but I can’t really hold it up to others as a book clearly worth reading.

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One Response to “A Review of The Glass Bead Game

  1. John Rigler Says:

    A great review. I haven’t yet finished reading the book, but I do find it a little tiresome. I really prefer ‘Narcissus and Goldmund’ where Goldmund actually does stuff and lives a real life. I have also read Ziolkowski’s foreword. If this is all some sort of joke, its a little too subtle and almost vanishes along with so many other normal conventions of storytelling. Maybe this is just an elaborate essay about Nietzsche. On the up side, this does still feel like Hesse and his voice is quite unique.

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