Book Review: The Glass Bead Game

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I am about halfway through Herman Hesse’s 1946 novel The Glass Bead Game. It takes place in the distant future, some five centuries from now in which the 20th century is remembered like one remembers a bad dream from his childhood, vague and unpleasant.

Hesse imagines the distant future as a safe, stable world in which human creativity has died out: no more art, music or scientific breakthroughs are achieved: instead the intellectuals of the future dedicate themselves to studying the works of past masters or dead languages and mythologies. Bach, Mozart, and Confucius are celebrated, nothing new is created. They mostly study music, mathematics, classical physics, language and philosophy. The one discipline they mostly ignore is history.

The intellectuals have arranged a quasi-monastic lifestyle, complete with minor seminaries, rituals, vows of poverty and obedience (though not chastity) and hierarchies. These scholar-monks live isolated from the rest of society, and don’t have to worry about politics, working for a living, or caring for children. Technically they are allowed to have girlfriends, but not children, and in practice they are too busy with study to have serious relationships.

At the heart of the monastic system is the Glass Bead Game, a ritual in which contestants are expected to demonstrate encyclopedic knowledge of all fields of learning, in the form of public debates. The game is never completely described, just hinted at.

What is clear is that in this imaginary future all human knowledge is considered nothing more than a beautiful game. Concepts like truth and falsehood have become purely relative, the only thing that counts is the formal beauty of the intellectual system, not its truth, or even its usefulness. What Hess is describing is a world in which intellect has been completely divorced from real life.

 

I suppose this divorce between intellect and life is something we experience all the time: drop into your local Starbucks and behind the counter you will find a girl who majored in Anthropology, minored in Women’s Studies, and is really good at pouring coffee. There is an obvious disconnect between her life and the four years and six figures that her education cost her.

Another common disconnect between intellect and life is the fact that two well-meaning and intelligent people can believe in completely different ideas about life and the Universe. They have different experiences, different points of departure, and different definitions of words. They both play the game of logic well, but they inevitably come to different conclusions.

 

In Hesse’s vision, the intellectuals of the world decided to retreat from reality after the suicidal wars, holocausts and gulags of 20th century Europe were over: if two smart people come to different conclusions, then why fight about it? Why not just take pleasure in the beauty of the logic?

But renouncing truth and real life means embracing sterility, irrelevance, and a pleasant sort of living death.

Where do we find a balance?

 

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