definitionGlass Bead Game

The Nobel Prize for Literature that Hermann Hesse won in 1947 was due in a great part to his last novel, published in 1943: Das Glasperlenspiel [The Glass Bead Game]. In this book, he writes of a future world that has abandoned the making of art, due to the exhaustion and degradation of the creative spirit in the twentieth century - what Hesse's narrator calls "The Age of the Feuilleton" [pamphlet]-

".....that age appears to have had only the dimmest notion of what to do with culture. Or rather, it did not know how to assign culture its proper place within the economy of life and the nation." 1

" came to enjoy an incredible degree of intellectual freedom, more than they could stand. For while they had overthrown the tutelage of the Church completely, and that of the State partially, they had not succeeded in formulating an authentic law they could respect, a genuinely new authority and legitimacy." 2


"If I am right, what we are witnessing in all the arts, and in all that the arts refer to, is the liquidation Of 500 years of civilization - the entire modern age dating from the Renaissance. . . . Great periods of art and thought have to come to an end. How do they do it? By exhaustion and self-destruction combined. Artistic forms wear out. Nothing more can be squeezed out of the intentions or techniques. After their full positive exploitation, the subtle art of allusion, parody, and inversion also gives out. There is then nothing to do except declare bankruptcy. That is the meaning of anti-art. The anti- applies not to Art viewed as universal occurrence, but to the art we are familiar with and capable of. In our modern era, so rich historically, this means a great deal of art."

- pg. 141 "Art in the Vaccuum of Belief", "The Use and Abuse of Art", The A. W. Mellon Lectures in the Fine Arts - 1973, The National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C., Bollingen Series XXV - 22, Princeton University Press 1974

Jacques Barzun

Fifty years before "Information Age" became a buzzword, Hesse's narrator comments on puff-piece journalism:

"They bore such titles as "Friedrich Nietzsche and Women's Fashions of 1870", or "The Composer Rossini's Favorite Dishes," or "The Role of the Lapdog in the Lives of Great Courtesans,..........we feel surprise that there should have been people who devoured such chitchat for their daily reading; but what astonishes us far more is that authors of repute and of decent education shoud have helped to "service" this gigantic consumption of empty whimsies." 3

He predicts how we've become lost in a flood of information:

"These people who read so many articles and listened to so many lectures did not take the time and trouble to strengthen themselves against fear, to combat the dread of death within themselves; they moved spasmodically on through life and had no belief in a tomorrow" 4

He writes of the "music of decline":

"like a thrumming bass on the organ its reverberations faded slowly out over decades; its throbbing could be heard in the corruption of the schools, periodicals, and universities, in melancholia and insanity among those artists and critics who could still be taken seriously; it raged as untrammeled and amateurish overproduction in all the arts." 5

Analogous to the way Siva must dance the world to destruction before a new creation can begin, Hesse alludes to the way World War II destroys Europe, destroys all the faith in the transformative power of "-isms". Our present day "-isms" have shorter and shorter lives. As soon as they're defined - they're old, tired, has-been. "Neo-this", "Post-that" - "Whatever-ism". But as with Pandora's Box, there's a fragile compensation:

"After sufficient bloodletting and debasement, it came to its end; there arose a more and more powerful longing for rationality, for the rediscovery fo a common language, for order, morality, valid standards, for an alphabet and multiplication table no longer decreed by power blocs and alterable at any moment.
A tremendous craving for truth and justice arose, for reason, for overcoming chaos. This vacuum at the end of a violent era concerned only with superficial things, this sharp universal hunmer for a new beginning and the restoration of order, gave rise to our Castalia.
The insignificantly small, courageous, half-starved but unbowed band ot true thinkers began to be aware of their potentialities. With heroic asceticism and self-discipline they set aobut establishing a constitution for themselves. Everywhere, even in the tiniest groups, they began working once more, clearing away the rubble of propaganda. Starting from the very bottom, they reconstructed intellectual life, education, research, culture."

Hesse believes that the first individuals to form this cultural guardianship will be historians of music, joined later by scholars of Eastern religion and ethics, who all share:

"....that courageous new attitude, compounded of serenity and resignation, toward the aging of cultures." 7

So people cease producing art. The guardians of culture retreat to an "Intellectual Province" named Castalia, after the sacred spring of the Muses. And there, they channel their creativity into the "Glass Bead Game". Initially they use displays of colored glass beads to represent systems of relationships. Each bead has a distinctive shape and color that symbolizes one concept , similar to a Chinese ideogram.

As the player adds beads to the display, it's relationship to the previous beads is meditated upon. Though the permutations of the game's relationships are infinite, the games' "winning move" is always the same: a unity, a system of interconnectedness, a yin-yang, serpent-biting-its-tail, unified-field-equation, oneness. The one-time theme of the University would be contemplated in a quasi-monastic, though purely secular, society of intellectuals.


The protagonist of the novel, Joseph Knecht , explains that:

" the spirit of the Glass Bead Game, everything actually was all-meaningful, that every symbol and combination of symbols led not hither and yon, not to single examples, experiments, and proofs, but into the center, the mystery and innermost heart of the world, into primal knowledge. Every transition from major to minor in a sonata, every transformation of a myth or a religious cult, every classical or artistic formulation was, I realized in that flashing moment, if seen with a truly meditative mind, nothing but a direct route into the interior of the cosmic mystery, where in the alternation between inhaling and exhaling, between heaven and earth, between Yin and Yang, holiness is forever being created." 8

Knecht alludes to pure numen, the spirit of a god, a god of Beauty and Order, the God of Job, and Confucius, and Plato. But not a personal God, not a Jesus, not a Redemptor.

In Knecht's time, the use of actual beads within the game has been superceded with written symbols. He attains the most glorious position in Castalia, the "Magister Ludi" or Game Master, and leads a ceremonial public game once a year that draws an audience from around the world.

The intellectual society of Castalia exists for hundreds of years before Knecht reaches its summit. Studying history, he realizes that Castalia itself is ossifying and not changing along with the world. In a letter of resignation, he warns the intellectual order of the coming danger of collusion with political and material interests to insure its self-preservation:

"The mind of man is beneficent and noble only when it obeys truth. As soon as it betrays truth, as soon as it ceases to revere truth, as soon as it sells out, it becomes intensely diabolical. Then it becomes far worse than instinctal bestiality, which always retains something of the innocence of nature." 9

The letter to the order concludes with a quotation from Knecht's history tutor, which also points to the worst periods and atrocities of our own century:

"Times of terror and deepest misery may be in the offing. But if any happiness at all is to be extracted from that misery, it can be only a spiritual happiness, looking backward toward the conservation of the culture of earlier times, looking forward toward serene and stalwart defense of the things of the spirit in an age which otherwise might succumb wholly to material things." 10


"Mens sana in corpore sano"

[Healthy mind in a healthy body.]

-Satires, X, 356


In this passage, Juvenal remarks that the wise person only asks God for health: mind and body. The Glass Bead Game challenges the reader to use the contemplation of art as an exercise for the soul; like a brain work-out. Of course any exercise for the body or mind is better than none at all, but Hesse calls on us to "really pump", to "feel the burn" so to speak. He believed that the "lite" thinking, the "lite" art, the "lite" passions of this century leaves us too soft in the head, too unprepared to make firm moral decisions when faced by terrible events, by death, by evil.

Hesse wrote this book during World War II in Switzerland, eye of the hurricane. His Germany, the Germany of Dürer, Bach,Goethe, Rilke, had disappeared, all their works perverted to propagandize the bestiality of the Nazis. But he writes about a future when people use art to temper their natures, a time when the idea of war seems as antiquated, and as bizarre, as reading the entrails of an animal sacrifice seems to us today.

Hesse hoped that our own desires for completion, for meaning, and for humane and compassionate lives, would lead us away from this century's worship of materialism, distraction, and self-hatred. But he didn't foresee how many things would be better now than they've been for thousands of years, for example, the status of women in West; things that we now accept as a given. Those concepts are firm with us. We couldn't repeal the belief in equal human rights for every human being any more easily than we could rescind our knowledge of fire or the wheel. So perhaps in fifty years, we'll look back on the last years of this millenium and not see the end of art and creativity, but see instead see the seeds of a new Humanism, a new Renaissance.
Numbered notes on this page from Das Glasperlenspiel, first published in German, ©1943 Fretz & Wasmuth Verlag AG Zürich; translated by Richard and Clara Winston as Magister Ludi (The Glass Bead Game), English translation©1969, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc., New York.
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pg. 327
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pg. 335

Reliquary ©Scott Bodenheimer, September 12, 1997, revised November 24, 2003,d
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