When one thinks of exponents of big-T Tradition, Hermann Hesse would not usually be near the top of the list of those suggested. To the extent that he is known among readers, it is usually for his more “esoteric” novels such as Steppenwolf and Siddhartha, which became popular among the counterculture of the 1960s for their exploration of sex, drugs, and Eastern mysticism, and which continue to find popularity among imitators today. Yet, in his novel The Glass Bead Game (Das Glasperlenspiel in the original German, often entitled for English readers as Magister Ludi or Master of the Game), Hesse has presented us with a Western world in which Tradition has triumphed.
The reader is never given a specific date, but contextual clues within the text seem to suggest that the Glass Bead Game takes place sometime in the 25th century in Castalia, a fictional yet obviously Germano-Italic region in central Europe. The protagonist of this work is Joseph Knecht, a man who lived roughly two centuries before and about whom a legendary, indeed nearly hagiographic, tradition has grown.
But first, the world of Castalia. Castalia – called a “province,” though to what extent this is geographical rather than organizational is never made clear – is a Traditional society. It is a static world, though not necessarily in stasis, one in which the exuberant growth and obsession with change for its own sake that plagues so much of the West today are absent. This is not to say that it is backwards or non-technological; trains, radio, newspapers, automobiles – all the trappings of the late industrial age society in which Hesse lived are all present. Universities still teach students, preparing them for careers in industry, business, or politics. Yet, the world of Castalia is one in which knowledge is viewed not in an extrapolating sense, but as something to be consolidated and interpolated – scholarly exploration involves the working out more fully of principles and homologies among various branches of knowledge. Indeed, this is the point to the titular game over which Joseph Knecht eventually became the Master.
The mindset of Castalian society, especially in the slice we see represented by the “Mandarins” (the body of academics, for lack of a better word, who make up the Magisterium) is one that is quite foreign to the post-Enlightenment Western society of today. This is viewed as a good thing by the men of this future age. Indeed, our present age is looked back upon with disdain. It is referred to as “the Age of the Feuilliton,” as being characterized by an unserious, flippant attitude befitting the sort of inconsequential literature that focuses upon trivialities like fashion and personalities. At one point, the narrator relating to us the life of Knecht informs us that while in the past (our present), biographers would focus upon the quirks of personality that are prized today for making someone an “individual,” in Castalia’s age, a man is not considered worthy of biographical fame until he has proven that he can transcend his own “uniqueness” and “achieve the greatest possible integration into the generalities.” The sort of “individuality” that is prized in America today and exemplified by our “reality” television programs and obsession with sports, fashion, and other routes of “individual expression” (as well as by the increasingly socially liberal and libertarian politics of even the “conservatives”) would have no appeal to Castalians.
Another thing that sets Castalian society apart from our own is its peacefulness. The Europe of this future age does not see war, something which is contrasted with our own age and its “Century of Wars” – yet another reason why our present century is viewed negatively (indeed, it is implied that the crises generated by our century eventually led Western man to throw his hands up in despair, and led to the Traditional world). This peacefulness comes from the Traditional aspect of this society – ideology, in the sense of being theoretical ideas which nevertheless motivate masses of men to kill each other in large numbers, is patently absent. One character, reflecting back on our age, refers to an “obscure sect of economists.” It’s unclear if he means the Marxists or the Capitalists, but it doesn’t really matter. The gross ideology of forming a “sect” around an economic idea is simply incomprehensible to them. Not just that they disagree with the idea, but that they don’t even understand how it could happen in the first place. Castalia is a world whose trajectory neatly departed from the eschatologies both of Marxism and of Fukuyaman-style liberal capitalism’s “end of history.” Castalia is a world at peace much because it is a world not constantly roiled with a new idea each year that absolutely must be implemented onto society immediately. Neo-conservatives would be most unhappy in Castalia.
The glass bead game – the game itself as presented in the book – is really not a “game” in our sense of the word. It is, indeed, viewed as being the supreme intellectual endeavor in that age, and is treated with the reverence and devotion that professional sports are today. Matches and tournaments are televised, and there are intricate rules that determine the subjects to be used within the process of the game. Expert players are the closest thing to celebrities you will find in Castalia. While the mechanics are never fully explained, the general gist of the game is that the players seek to find, build, and extend correspondences and relationships between various branches of knowledge. In this game, it is conceivable that an expert player could delve out a harmonious relationship between a principle of quantum mechanics, the structure of a movement from one of Bach’s symphonies, and a mathematical formula governing the shape of a plant’s leaves. The approach to knowledge is intensive and introspective. This Traditional world has left off growth and expansion and the uncertainties that come with these, and has moved into a consolidating phase that does not reject the knowledge already gained, but rather seeks to explore it to its uttermost and organize it into a truly cohesive whole, matching the coherence of their post-“modern” (in our meaning) Traditional society.
The story is presented as a biography, and the “hero” (thought this term carries too much baggage to be genuinely accurate) of this story is Joseph Knecht. Orphaned at an early age, Knecht – whose intelligence and capabilities were quickly recognized – was brought into the Castalian system and trained to be a “Mandarin,” the monastic body of Game players and academics who oversee the education of Castalian society. The book traces Knecht’s rise through the ranks, his procession from one point of growth to the next. Thus, it qualifies as a Bildungsroman of the finest type. Knecht eventually rises to the post of Magister Ludi – the Master of the Game, the one who oversees it all. As such, he is perhaps the single most respected member of Castalian society. And then he resigns from it all, a move as shocking as if the entire US government today were simply to resign en masse.
What makes the story so compelling, from a Traditional point of view, is the nature of Knecht’s growth, and why he eventually resigned his post, and left the Castalian establishment entirely. Unlike the ideas of “personal growth” so popular today, in which the individual is encouraged to “search within himself” and find out wonderfully unique things that make him so “special” as he flits from one novelty to the next, Knecht’s growth comes through his realization of his place in his society – not to be viewed negatively as stifling or “communist” – and of his own service to its maintenance and stability (significantly, “Knecht” means “servant”). He resigned from his position as Magister Ludi not because he wanted to “try new things” or from dissatisfaction because of some lack of personal “fulfillment.” Indeed, it was just the opposite – he had reached a point where he had fulfilled his role as far as he could. There was nothing left for him to do. His life’s work, we might say, was completed. It is significant that not long after his resignation, and the first day after taking on work as the private tutor for the spoiled brat son of a close friend, Knecht passed from this earth. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.
In Castalian society, we can see a world in which the precariousness of novelty does not hold sway over the hearts and minds of men. Man finds his place in the world, and seeks to fit in harmoniously, rather than trying to create for himself every angle and spike with which to jut out from the rest and draw attention to himself. It is not incidental that one point of Joseph Knecht’s growth and learning involves studying under a former Castalian master who exhibited very Sinicizing tendencies. The Traditional world of the West has much in common – more than many of today’s Neo-Cons would be comfortable admitting – with the traditional Confucian world of China during the Ming and early Ch’ing dynasties. It was Confucius who said, “If a man keeps cherishing his old knowledge, so as continually to be acquiring new, he may be a teacher of others.” The Traditional world is one in which “the names have been rectified,” so to speak, a society which is honest with itself and true to its foundations. It can teach us many things, if we will listen.