Sunday, January 10, 2010

The Glass Bead Game - The dream of the future never to happen ...

Some 35 years ago I first read Herman Hesse's "Das Glasperlenspiel - Magister Ludi" - at that time - in my mother tongue. It was one of my "formative" books of life...

Over last couple of weeks I returned to it, now in a beautiful English translation of Clara and Richard Winston and in remarkable audio narration by David Collaci.

The book is the last work of the prolific writer, and is often called his "Magnum Opus". In some sense the book is philosophical science-fiction, though there are no typical elements of sci-fi genre. The author predicts that the period in human history will come when the knowledge became wide-spread and popular, with multitude of authors writing multitude of stories. This period, called in the book as "The Age of Feuilleton" was intellectually "bourgeois" and in the same time highly individualistic. The main feature of the age was the passionate search of freedom of thought and the liberation of belief from the sway of all authority. The descriptions Hesse writes about this age, and the general feeling is that he, in some sense, predicted the early Internet as the medium for millions of people to indulge in something remotely called "feuilletonism".

At this moment comes the main prophecy of the book. Hesse predicts that on the ashes of the feuilletonistic age, new mysterious movement is born. Built along the patterns of medieval monasteries and religious societies, new unreligious, secular "order" arises. The purpose of the order is the preservation and cultivation of science, philosophy and music. The order, called "Castalia" creates a province, independent from civil authorities, modeled after religious abbeys. Inside, the order cultivates highly elitist structure and its rule is as strong as the rules of old religious orders. It also includes meditation and contemplation.

The culmination of the order achievement is the synthesis of all sciences and music in an instrument or rather a system called "glass bead game". A game or composition, was a like a computable symphony with deep scientific background. The games could be just about music, but also about logic, language or about the most secret mysteries of the Universe.

The main character of the book, Joseph Knecht, after beautifully described carrier, becomes the chief Glass Bead Game custodian and player (Magister Ludi), and his position equals that of a prior in a classical monastery. The most of the book is about his life and his path - first to the order of Castalia, than through the rungs of the order hierarchy - to the marvelous and startling decision to leave the order, and become "awaken" to the everyday life and the role of simple and modest teacher - in which he could not live too long...

Despite the end of the Jospeh Knecht story - Hesse, through the entire book, demonstrates the admiration to the concept of intellectual elitism, to the notion of "intellectual order" to the medieval concept of hierarchical knowledge, well organized, and integrated with the quintessence of art - with the classical music.

I was shocked when I compared my impressions from my secondary school years reading of The Book, to today's rendering, in my fifties...

When I was 16 I was fascinated by the monastic life, I even spent few months in Benedictine monastery (the one of which my friend Jan Bereza comes from). I shared the admiration to the intellectual elite of these places...

However, so much has changed around me since my school times. And the world has changed so much. I'm no longer a Christian, no longer 'am fascinated by the intellectual utopian elitism of monastic traditions. Though I'm still a friend to many wise monks of the Benedictine order, and I value their achievements - I no longer share the Hesse prophecy about the development of human intellectual life.

I think, we no longer need any "mental elite" - the current culture proved to be vibrant, colorful and precious. We do not have, nor need, strict rules. The human knowledge can, and is, built, on our eyes, by millions of people, yet no one could even think of our time as of "The Age of Feuilletonism".

Today, maybe, "Everything is Miscellaneous", perhaps the communal Wikipedia is not yet, for many of us, better than "Encyclopedia Britannica" - but I'm certain that our "miscellaneous" model of the intellectual and cultural life is much better....

In some sense the Hesse prophecy is dangerous. It promotes the strong hierarchy, strong elitism in education and culture, such concept of culture where the true value comes from anointed few. We already have witnessed where such utopia could lead us...

However, the greatness of the writer is demonstrated in that part of the plot when he puts the main hero out of the Order, giving us a very strong signal of his worries about the elitist foundations of XX century European culture. Reading of that part of the book was very rewarding...

Last, but now least - the book is a true page turner - beoynd everything I wrote here - it is just the great story...

BTW, I still read the last part of the book: "Joseph Knecht Posthumous writings" ... so some update may arrive here ...

3 comments:

  1. Hi Mike. It's Kris from 100 Books. You won the Vonnegut contest from my book blog. If you would like "Look At The Birdie" I need to know how to get it to you.
    Thx.
    bookreviewsbykris@gmail.com

    ReplyDelete
  2. Kris, I just sent the mail to bookreviewsbykris@gmail.com

    I sent it quite a long time ago, when you first notified me. If my mails do not arrive to you, drop me a commant again here.

    Cheers
    Mirek

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