The Glass Bead Game

I first read Hesse's masterpiece when I was seventeen and remember the shock when its key protagonist, Joseph Knecht, dies two thirds through, not realising that the last third is devoted to Knecht's literary products - his poems and three lives of imagined past biographies. I was expecting this life that I had come to know and feel so closely would unfold to an aged conclusion. It was not to be.

It is a remarkable book from its open, dry chapter on how the Glass Bead Game arose that reads as an ever fresh, ironic critique of our own times (as relevant now as when Hesse wrote it in the 1940s). The wonderful skewering of the notion that we consult celebrities for their views on politics or culture is artfully pointed at our own mores. But, more importantly, Hesse's exploration of the relationship between eternal values and the flux of history remains deeply moving, and as unresolved as he himself found it.

At heart, Hesse defends both the civilising mission of culture and the recognition that it is a never ending task, that must be taken up anew in each and every epoch. There is no such thing as progression in time - the Spirit is not inexorably unfolding towards some summit with Hegelian inevitability (or plodding along in the fields of matter in some Marxian version of the same).

Time simply is, it flows on, and, at times, it is more or less gathered up in reflecting timeless values of truth and goodness and, at other times, it falls away and is carried along by other passions, untamed, undisciplined, by any sense of order. Thus, critically, much depends on our choices, whether we will step into the ring of history, at however humble an entry point, to try and grace it with an harmonising order, that does not deny but hallows our instinctual, passionate lives or we retreat. We retreat either into a hermetically sealed bastion of elitist values, represented here by Castalia, the Order and Province of Scholars, or we retreat into a defence of our unhallowed instincts that inevitably leads to patterns of conflict and violence.

In Joseph Knecht, Hesse paints a remarkable portrait of a man who serves (and Knecht means servant) the values of the true, the good and the beautiful but not as eternally frozen archetypes but as patterns that coalesce in time, in the hearts of individuals, and must be continually midwifed into living existence. All Hesse's scepticism about the ability to capture truth in words is here to the fore.

Hesse was a practitioner of what the poet, Milton, called 'lovely wisdom'. A wisdom that enterprises after knowing, that is embodied in a vulnerable openness to experience (what Knecht calls his sense of 'awakening') but which never comes to closure around 'the truth'. It is a wisdom that is always journeying on.

St Gregory of Nyssa reminds us that since God is infinite there can be no end to the knowing of God. Each fullness of such knowing is, in truth, also an emptying that invites you on.

Knecht's image for this is music that occupies a space only to move onto a new one in unfolding movement in which we are enfolded if we have the ears of the heart to truly listen. 


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