Puritan Board Post-Graduate
Thoughts on The Glass Bead Game
In 1946, some four years after I was born, this book written by Herman Hesse won the Nobel Prize for Literature (it is sometimes titled, Magister Ludi). It was described by his friend Thomas Mann as a “treasure of the purest thought,” and spoken of as “prophetic.”
Is there any significance in it for us in 2019? I had taken this book to Africa a while ago planning to read it in my spare time during a teaching assignment there, and to my surprise I had almost no spare time at all, but was in a routine of such tight scheduling that I was amazed at how God nonetheless provided for me and for my students in terms of spiritual vitality and the majesty and glory of His immediate presence. I walked away from that assignment at least as enriched as my students, proving the old saying of Solomon, “…he that watereth shall be watered also himself” (Proverbs 11:25). But I did not get to read a page, save in the airports going to Africa, and then on an evening in Nairobi killing 6 hours in a restaurant waiting for a flight to Cairo on my return home, and back at home quickly finished it. I had read it in my early 20s, but of it could only remember that I had loved it then.
It is a story by a serious spiritual seeker, and a great writer. It is about Illumination, that Enlightenment of mind and heart which frees one from the wheel of death and rebirth, in the terminology of the East and its concept of reincarnation. But it goes beyond that to a futuristic vision of what an enlightened man thoroughly imbued with the art, science, literature, music, mathematics, and diverse disciplines of knowledge of all the ages would do with this wealth of the mind in the context of meditation and the playful joy and power of illumined consciousness, in a community devoted to the development of such consciousness and learning. “The Glass Bead Game” of the title is a spiritual endeavor, mildly competitive, wherein vast fields of knowledge are organized into a coherent form of vital and exquisite spiritual art revealing the interrelatedness of all things and brought into a profound symmetry in the illumined being of the individual creator, and recorded in a sort of shorthand notation of symbols and ciphers. There are diverse themes used, and competitions for excellence in this endeavor. The Magister Ludi (literally, Master of the Game) is the most highly developed player in this community of seekers of knowledge and enlightenment. This short description does not do the story or the Game justice, but one must start somewhere!
It is a vision of the spiritual life contrasted with the Christian view — that of the Catholic or Orthodox — and that primarily through the story beginning with early adolescence of the protagonist, Joseph Knecht, who eventually became Magister Ludi in the seer-community of Castalia. In Hesse’s vision, it is the most intellectually gifted male youths, who also have a certain sensitivity and quality of heart, who are chosen to join the Castalian community and undergo their educational regimen. To be sure, he upholds the antipodal populist values as well, Knecht exemplifying this in dramatic fashion by leaving the Castalian brotherhood at the height of his attainment in order to be a simple tutor to the son of a friend “in the world.” There is something of the Buddhist bodhisattva — “an enlightened being who, out of compassion, forgoes nirvana in order to save others” — in Knecht’s forsaking the community of seers, a theme in Hesse’s work. Other themes of his are discipleship under a master, the sacrifice of the master for the wellbeing of the community he serves, and the arduous training and effort required to the attainment of enlightenment.
There is at the end of the book a section called “The Three Lives,” comprised of short creative works purportedly written by the young Knecht while a student in Castalia, each — as assigned to the students there — a study of a life in a definite historical period, and assumed by the narrator to possibly be an account of a previous incarnation of the author, this belief being held by many in the community. The choices are illustrative of Hesse’s interests: the first the training of a rainmaker or medicine man in a primitive prehistoric tribe, from his apprenticeship to his old age and apprenticing another; the second that of a desert saint in the ancient Christian tradition, and his discipleship to another; and then a young Indian prince and the adventures and passions of his life and his experiences with an old yogi master he discovers living in the forests. These are masterfully written, though, expectedly, the desert saint is the weakest part of the book. For here Hesse wrote of something actual which he did not comprehend. The other two life-stories, vividly told, are nonetheless pure fiction and deception with no bases in truth. By this I mean that the yogic powers and presence so remarkably described in the third life are attributed to the yogi’s participation in the cosmic energies — divine energies if you will — instead of their actual source, which would be a demonic entity or entities. And in the first, which is a fine act of imaginative power, ancient humans are seen as primitive, albeit immensely intuitive, yet this contradicts the ancient records we have of genuine seers (I speak of Moses primarily) who tell a different story of the lives and abilities of humans in the early days of the race, particularly those who see and know by the Spirit of the true God.
At issue here is our understanding of the identity — the nature — of the authentic spiritual man or woman. Other themes brought to our attention by this excellently-wrought tale are, the process of discipleship, the nature of the community of seers, this latter’s relation to the community of the world without, the place and function of the arts in the community of seers, and last but not least the nature and function of the master-teacher, the one who disciples and leads his followers into the realms he himself is in.
First and foremost it needs to be pointed out that the spiritual person is not some elite Nietzschean wunderkind, the cream of the race, the apex of (supposedly) evolutionary development, but those souls the Lord of history saves through the love they have of Him, He having loved them first, not according to their wisdom, stature, birth, strength or any merit or quality of their own, but simply the free choice of His love, incomprehensible and unegalitarian as that may seem to us. Second, a person becomes spiritual upon receiving the Spirit of Christ to indwell them, which Spirit is given those who cleave to the Lord Jesus, to find refuge in His name, and are baptized in obedience to His command (Acts 2:38, 39).
Hesse was early enamored of Nietzsche, but became disillusioned of this elitism, “spiritual” as his version of it was, and eventually moved to a reflective and compassionate social involvement, and one may see the history of his changing views by the way the story turns. It is Knecht (German for “servant”), the artist, seer and intellectual, who leaves the community of the elite to pour his life into the community of the world, having realized — and warned the Castalian leaders concerning — that to neglect the larger community outside its precincts, yes, and even to despise them for their commonness and relatively low intellects, was to invite estrangement from them, and their own eventual dissolution, as it was the larger outside community which supported Castalia. In some respects Hesse meant this as a warning to artists of his (and our) day, not to have an art for art’s sake, but one that was involved in the human community and its life.
Now to us, the community of seers and artists (whatever the world outside thinks of us) who even now live in the New Creation, the spiritual kingdom established by the Lord Christ, as we ponder this world-class and highly acclaimed work of art, it is proper that we ask if there is anything in it that may benefit, may edify us?
My own spiritual community, the Protestant — and within that, the Reformed — has produced no world-class artists, save perhaps Milton, unlike the Catholics and Eastern Orthodox, at least not yet. As I have indicated elsewhere, I hold that the work of art for these days must be real, that is, not fictional, and that a protagonist must be actual, a genuine human being authentic in his or her consciousness. We have had wonderful stories, fictional renditions of eternal realities that, while they thrill our hearts, we cannot enter into them because they have no direct and actual correspondence in reality. I think of one of my favorites, Lord of the Rings.
Another matter: regarding the motive of the artist, is it for the glory of the Supreme Being we create, and the good of our fellow humans? We need also to keep in mind that apparent success in such endeavors is not the indicator of worth, for that is not the case with the church of Christ, which is the community of His spiritual kingdom, nor was it the case with the Lord Himself, who died a criminal’s death, the record of whose resurrection is laughed at by many, and it does not yet appear to the eye that “all power is given to [Him] in Heaven and in earth” (Matthew 28:19), as the world remains full of evil and madness. The spiritual Kingdom of God — Christ’s church — is not the temporal manifestation of religious institutions, despite their claims to such, but His reign in the hearts of His faithful people, and their victory in this world is that which pertains to their faith, holiness, and union with Him, even though they be accounted as lambs for the slaughter.
And yet another: from what I understand of the apostles’ concerns (cf. Galatians 1:8, 9; 2 Corinthians 11:3, 4; Jude 3), one of the most important things to them was maintaining the integrity of the Gospel of Christ. In these days even this is highly controverted.
It remains that an authentic contemporary spiritual man or woman as literary protagonist does not exist in the world of letters today, in a major — a classic — work. Hesse gave an excellent rendition of his view of it, though I have critiqued it as not only mere fiction, but deception, for in the spiritual realm that is what counterfeits of the real are. As a study in character I consider his Knecht an extraordinary achievement — quite worth pondering — yet even so it does not meet the standards I have suggested are vitally necessary for a spiritual art.
I don’t recall much of two other Hesse books I read and loved: Siddhartha, and The Journey to the East. I think I was in my early 20s with them also — and in tune with their thought. The character here, Joseph Knecht, may well be Hesse’s ideal man, the illumined sage, beyond the turmoil of “Maya”. But strangely he is more than a sage, he is also an artist. Knecht said something about the art of the Glass Bead Game that struck a chord in me,
We must shape and cultivate our universality, our noble and perilous sport with the idea of unity, endowing it with such perennial freshness and loveliness, such persuasiveness and charm, that even the soberest researcher and most diligent specialist will ever and again feel its message, its temptation and allure. [But if we] were to…become dull and superficial…[and] our great annual Game were to strike the guests as an empty ceremony, a lifeless, old-fashioned, formalistic relic of the past….How quickly then, the Game and we ourselves would be done for… * [emphasis mine — SMR]
Tolkien did this in his work: freshness and loveliness, persuasiveness and charm. That seems an aspect very important. And I would add, The drama inherent in existence, though many do not see it.
* (page 234, Owl Book Edition, Henry Holt & Co., 1990; translated by Richard and Clara Winston; ISBN 0-8050-1246-X)
Authentic Spiritual Character
Sure, there are spiritual autobiographies of sorts, but none that have grabbed my attention. What I looked for was spiritual – or visionary – adventure non-fiction. I thought Hesse’s The Glass Bead Game was brilliant, but, as I’ve written, it was rife with spiritual deception (in spirituality, what is not true – or reflects false principles – deceives).
When I say “adventure” I mean in touch with the drama of human existence. What drama, you ask? You don’t know? If you’re a disciple of Christ you should. Let me put it this way (this is for Americans – though Brits can relate), here we are in the very headquarters of spiritual Babylon, the intoxicating wine of her spirit everywhere, and it takes a highly disciplined saint to avoid drinking and taking it into their heart. Why would one not want to drink deeply of the most technologically advanced and entertainment-rich cultures in the world? Well, in sufficient draughts it would diminish one’s consciousness of the Lord, leaving one bereft of His presence on the besieged planet, where it is needed to survive spiritually.
“ ‘Consciousness of the Lord’? ‘Survive spiritually’? What do they have to do with adventure? Aren’t they but the domain of religion?” Well, consider our consciousness: what is the focus of our attention? What are we most aware of? The onslaught of stimuli designed to take us away from remaining aware of the Lord Jesus’ presence may be near overwhelming. It may come in many forms. It may be food, drink, entertainment – literary or visual – sexual allure, work so as to make money (the whole show pretty much depends on having money!), technological devices, and so on. Not that any of these things are bad in themselves, if engaged in judiciously, with godliness, and balance.
But if we who depend on the presence of our Savior for our life – and all that pertains to said life – lose His presence, then we are overcome of the world. I don’t mean that if we get so busy we don’t think of Him – for that may easily happen to an industrious person – but that our attention is drawn away from Him by the attractiveness of rival beauties or pleasures, and enticed to stay away from Him as far as intimate communion is concerned. The things in themselves may not be sin, but they may lead us to cease living by faith if we bury ourselves deeply enough in them, and sin will not be wanting there!
I didn’t read Sartre or Camus or Nietzsche for “pleasure”, but for understanding (in those days I wasn’t saved), for light on the human condition. I could read them now if I had a mind to, but don’t have the need or desire. I will read secular authors or poets if it will serve my purposes of gathering knowledge, technique of craft, or simply coming across a unique sensibility. A few years ago, anticipating some long plane rides and layovers to and from a teaching assignment in Africa, I brought with me Herman Hesse’s Magister Ludi (aka The Glass Bead Game) as I remembered loving it as a youth, and wanted to look it over again. In that book he attempted to posit the epitome of a spiritual and artistic character – a saint. He’d tried to do a similar thing in his earlier book, Siddhartha (which I also reread), a remarkable fictional account of Gautama Buddha and a young independent seeker on a different path. This is my field – what is authentic spiritual character? And – what is the human condition apart from the life of God? In this latter area I read with interest stories of the “living dead”, such as Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles (until I couldn’t stomach them anymore). I also will watch films in this genre upon occasion, as well as a rare fantasy or sci fi.
I posit the existence of a global arena of consciousness, where multitudes of voices are lifted up promoting visions of what is real. It is like a gladiatorial combat, only the weapons are spiritual and mental. Our Lord Jesus is the Champion and Victor on this vast field, although He is absent personally and is represented by whomever would wield His sword effectively.
There are excellent preachers in the arena but it’s generally the language artists – with poetry the highest of the language arts – who stand tall, as the arts are more suited to this type of combat than preaching. Preachers and their preaching are the most formidable weapon of Heaven on the face of the earth, for they directly attack the strongholds of Hell, seeking to snatch souls from thence that they be translated into the Kingdom of God’s dear Son. Poets and writers, on the other hand, function in the realm of the arts and seek to impact entire cultures, having to contend with other individual poets and purported seers for mastery of the vision of the real. This is accomplished by excellence of craft, power of voice, and the actuality of vision. Only those raised of the Lord to this task can do it. The dust has not settled in the arena, and not all contenders have yet been counted. There may be as long as a decade or more for things to become clear in it. This arena is above all a place of high art and mortal combat.