The Glass Bead Game
Although some reviewers have gushed that the book had “changed their life,” The Glass Bead Game is by no means a comprehensive tract on philosophy despite lengthy character monologues on the contrary. Nor is it on the surface about the subject of the title. It’s a fictional biography of Joseph Knecht, the Magister Ludi or Master of the Game. However, Knecht isn’t simply good at playing the Glass Bead Game which is only vaguely sketched out as a mixture of chess, history, and a musical theory exam, he is the master at playing with life. He enters the rat race as an anonymous orphan in a public school and ends at the pinnacle of his career in the highest position that exists.
Hesse illustrates human nature in a way that the reader slowly realizes that he has known all along and has perhaps refused to acknowledge because it is neither pretty or ideal. Aren’t we all in some sort of rat race, looking forward to what is next on the hierarchy and ignoring our urges and fears and wants?
It took a very long time for me to finish this novel because every few pages I would have to put the book down just to think about what Hesse said and how relevant it was to me. I was stuck for a while after the section detailing Knecht’s life in his early twenties because I was a little apprehensive at what would come next. Up until that point, Knecht’s life bore an eerie similarity to mine–it was almost as if Hesse was going to write my future in the next pages.
There are also a couple of other points that struck me as valid. Knecht is cloistered in an academic environment that is inward-looking, arrogant, and isolationist. The type of academia described was as stark and fanatical as religious hermits who ignore the outside world. In fact, they disdain it, not unlike real life professors stuck in their ivory towers. Another point, although relatively minor in comparison, was the suppression of Knecht’s creative urge in favor of doing something more “intellectually worthwhile.” Is everything becoming so focused that anything that gives a hint of pleasure is regarded as frivolous?
The aspect of The Glass Bead Game that I didn’t like, however, was its lack of female characters. Yes, the author died before the time of major feminist movements and yes, the female characters were not major characters, but I didn’t see why he could paint such vivid characterizations of the men yet let the women languish in flat, cardboard states. All the female characters were wives and smothering mothers. They were also ambitious, selfish, and painted as distractions in the form of lust. To be spiritually and intellectually pure, the protagonist kept out of contact with them and didn’t think about them–much like, I suppose, a monk in a secluded monastery.
Nonetheless, I highly recommend the book, especially if you feel up to the task of wrapping your mind around something quite substantial.
If you’re curious, I first found out about the book on this website.