Thoughts on The Glass Bead Game, with a P.S. attached

Discussion in 'Book Reviews' started by Jerusalem Blade, May 18, 2019.

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  1. Jerusalem Blade

    Jerusalem Blade 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)


    Postscript, On:

    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.
  2. alexandermsmith

    alexandermsmith Puritan Board Sophomore

    An interesting observation that Protestantism has produced few great works of art. And by Protestantism I mean truly converted Christians.
  3. BayouHuguenot

    BayouHuguenot Puritan Board Doctor

    That's a common trope in literary criticism today, but it's just not true.

    Edmund Spenser, Faerie Queene (parts of it are an open attack on Rome).
    Milton, Paradise Lost.
    Jane Austen.
    John Bunyan.
    C. S. Lewis.
  4. alexandermsmith

    alexandermsmith Puritan Board Sophomore

    Other than Bunyan were any of them converted? I have my doubts about Lewis based on his own account of his faith. But let's say he was. That's two. Any more?
  5. BayouHuguenot

    BayouHuguenot Puritan Board Doctor

    Austen was a devout Anglican, as was Spenser.

    Shakespeare is hard to say simply because there are plausible arguments that he didn't even exist. Nonetheless, he was formed by a Protestant context.

    Now, were they "really really" converted? Since I am not a hyper-calvinist Baptist, I really can't look into their hearts and say.

    And Milton was a Puritan in the broad sense of the word. If he isn't a Christian, then I am probably not one, either.
  6. alexandermsmith

    alexandermsmith Puritan Board Sophomore

    Instead of resorting to the usual trope of "we can't read men's hearts" let's actually use a little discernment. If there is evidence in their writings that Austen and Spenser considered themselves to be true believers I would be very interested in reading that. Milton was a Puritan in a cultural sense, as to his religious convictions my understanding is that they were heterodox and from a spiritual perspective Paradise Lost is problematic to say the least.

    You are correct to say they were informed by a Protestant context. But that's not how I defined Protestant in my first post. Obviously there is art which is distinctly, culturally Protestant as opposed to Romanist. What I'm interested in, which I think is what Steve was alluding to, is if there have been any great artists/writers which by the objective standards of judgment in conservative, Reformed churches could be considered true Christians.

    Steve talked about Hesse writing those fictional spiritual biographies of the three characters, the least convincing being the one of an actual Christian mystic. I think that's telling. Where are the great works of literature which represent an authentic, Christian (i.e. Protestant) spirituality and practice; a portrait of the genuine experiences of a born again Christian? The nearest thing I can think of would be George Eliot, which is also telling because she applied the evangelical ethos she was reared in in a specifically secular fashion and, one could argue, promoted an early form of the social gospel. So she doesn't really help the cause.

    I'm sure many Victorian writers were "good Anglicans" just as many people even up to the 50s and 60s went to church every Sabbath (morning) for an hour and didn't think about God again until the following Sabbath (morning).
  7. alexandermsmith

    alexandermsmith Puritan Board Sophomore

    You might want to rethink that statement:

    "Similarly, he believed that Christ, when incarnated, merged his divine and human identities, and that both of these identities died during his Crucifixion."
  8. BayouHuguenot

    BayouHuguenot Puritan Board Doctor

    I don't base my conclusions off of wikipedia. Unless you want to find the exact argument that Barker made and analyze it, I am just going to dismiss the wikipedia reference.
  9. BayouHuguenot

    BayouHuguenot Puritan Board Doctor

    Austen did, though I don't have the 1820s journal references at hand.
    I say yes. You say no. And when I bring up people who were Christians, you either question their Christianity or you say, "Well, we don't have any evidence that they themselves considered themselves to be Christian" (which is special pleading fallacy).
    And I know Presbyterians who will probably be in hell (and I speak as a Presbyterian), so unless there is an actual logical argument, I have no idea what that last sentence was supposed to mean except a slap at Anglican Christianit.
  10. ZackF

    ZackF Puritan Board Graduate

    I think Dorothy Sayers qualifies as a Christian artist.

    unrelated: I’m sitting in a Starbucks that is playing country music. That’s a first for me.
  11. BayouHuguenot

    BayouHuguenot Puritan Board Doctor

    And to take it a step further: Dorothy Sayers is probably the reason many homeschool and Christian school families are embracing classical education, and Sayers saw that as a direct outgrowth of her artistic worldview.
  12. alexandermsmith

    alexandermsmith Puritan Board Sophomore

    Agreed that Wikipedia is not the most robust source. However your basis for assuming Milton to be a reliable Christian appears to be the fact that he was culturally Puritan and wrote Paradise Lost which is extremely dubious grounds indeed.

    It's very interesting how certain Christians will abandon all objective standards of an orthodox profession of Christianity, which they have no problem in applying when it comes to theological works, in order to sanctify artistic and literary works. And I'm the one who is guilty of special pleading. Very interesting.
  13. alexandermsmith

    alexandermsmith Puritan Board Sophomore

    Didn't she also write plays which portrayed Christ?
  14. ZackF

    ZackF Puritan Board Graduate

    She was probably the most brash and prescriptive of the ‘Inklings’ though I admit that I’m not an expert on them. Tolkien was fuddy-duddy and reclusive. Lewis was somewhat in between.
  15. BayouHuguenot

    BayouHuguenot Puritan Board Doctor

    I don't know. Despite my defense of fiction, I don't read that much fiction, and certainly not from the mid 20th century.
  16. BayouHuguenot

    BayouHuguenot Puritan Board Doctor

    Yep. I abandoned my Christian standards in those last two posts.
  17. alexandermsmith

    alexandermsmith Puritan Board Sophomore

    Tolkien was also a Romanist.
  18. ZackF

    ZackF Puritan Board Graduate

    Yes but that wasn’t my point.
  19. alexandermsmith

    alexandermsmith Puritan Board Sophomore

    You abandoned them in ascertaining their Christian credentials.
  20. BayouHuguenot

    BayouHuguenot Puritan Board Doctor

    So was St Anselm (who wrote prayers to Mary). So was Thomas Aquinas (the current hero of Reformed scholastics), who thought God was a cookie. Augustine wrote manuals on how to pray and care for the souls of the dead.
  21. alexandermsmith

    alexandermsmith Puritan Board Sophomore

    No but it's mine.
  22. alexandermsmith

    alexandermsmith Puritan Board Sophomore

    What's your point? And is it not technically anachronistic to describe Augustine and maybe even Anselm as Roman Catholic?
  23. alexandermsmith

    alexandermsmith Puritan Board Sophomore

    I could also point out that despite its flaws as a source I've still provided more evidence for Milton's heretical views than you have for the soundness of any of the persons you mentioned.
  24. BayouHuguenot

    BayouHuguenot Puritan Board Doctor

    No. You haven't. You quoted wikipedia, which based its argument off of Barker's source, but neither one of us knows what Barker said, so we really can't make an argument.
  25. BayouHuguenot

    BayouHuguenot Puritan Board Doctor

    How many bible Christians pray to Mary and for the dead?
  26. BayouHuguenot

    BayouHuguenot Puritan Board Doctor

    Probably because I know that whomever I set forward, you will probably find a good reason why they aren't really a Christian.
  27. ZackF

    ZackF Puritan Board Graduate


    In some degree I may have been answering a question you didn’t ask. My apologies for that. If I understand you correctly you want to know if any Reformed Christians have contributed a ‘great artistic work’ to posterity besides Bunyon. In that vein, I’m drawing a blank. George MacDonald was a Presbyterian but I think he found himself under discipline for doctrinal aberrations and his literary works were how he supported himself.

    There are also considerations I want to make about the question. Firstly, by all accounts there are much fewer Reformed Christians than others these days and in former times. I expect fewer artistic works to begin with let alone ‘great’ ones. Secondly, non-conformist (Puritans, Pilgrims, Congregationalist, Covenanters and so on) didn’t have the same access to the mainstream (education and publishing) in times past. One can even make the same argument about English Roman Catholics. It’s not until the late 1800s and early 1900s where you see English (UK) Catholic writing mainstreamed unless they were maybe published in Ireland. Chesterton’s regular newspaper column wouldn’t have been possible 50 or 100 years before. I’m guessing there were more English Roman Catholics in those days than confessed Reformed. Thirdly, I’m curious if there are not more great Reformed artistic works in other languages like Dutch, French or German.

    Iconoclasm and the Reformed tradition may have something to do with artistic reservation but the numbers game has seldom been won by Calvinists.
  28. BayouHuguenot

    BayouHuguenot Puritan Board Doctor

    I forgot about Samuel Johnson. He wrote Rasselas. Now, the question remains: was Johnson a Christian? Well, he was Anglican, so his odds don't look good. Yet, the prayers and meditations he left are far superior to anything I've ever prayed, so I think he might have been a Christian.
  29. alexandermsmith

    alexandermsmith Puritan Board Sophomore

    Apologies I think you were making a separate point to the one I was making. I responded about Tolkien because I have seen him used previously as an example of profitable literature. By the by I do think his significant role in Lewis' "conversion" is problematic. I'm also sceptical of professed Christians working alongside Roman Catholics thinking they are involved in the same enterprise.
  30. alexandermsmith

    alexandermsmith Puritan Board Sophomore

    The standards I'd apply to ascertaining a writer's or artist's Christian credentials are the same standards I'd apply when deciding which theological writer to read. You mention Samuel Johnson because of his affiliation with the Anglican church and the literary quality of his prayers. Affiliation with the Established church in the 18th century does not seem to me to be enough to establish someone's Christian bona fides. And you're right to be sceptical of the Anglican church. Did he have a reputation for godliness? For piety? Did his conversation and writings manifest spiritual life? These are things I would look for as evidences of someone being a true believer.

    And my point about people attending church was that formalism is a very deceptive thing. And especially in the past when it was the "done thing" to attend church.
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