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Das Glasperlenspiel

By dazzle in Culture
Sat Aug 10, 2002 at 09:16:33 AM EST
Tags: Books (all tags)
Books

..sometimes a very great writer will write a book that seems extraordinarily prescient to those who live fifty or a hundred years later..
Charles Cameron

Hermann Hesse (1877 - 1962) wrote Das Glasperlenspiel, (The Glass Bead Game), during the years 1932 - 1943. It was published in 1943 by Fretz & Wasmuth, Zurich, after being rejected by the Nazis. In 1946 Hesse won the Nobel Prize in Literature 'for his inspired writings which, while growing in boldness and penetration, exemplify the classical humaitarian ideals and high qualities of style.' Das Glasperlenspiel is regarded as his masterpiece.


The story is a fictional biography of Joseph Knecht, who becomes the Magister Ludi or Master of the Glass Bead Game, the highest accolade in the, fictional, future province of Castilia. We follow him through childhood and his education in an elite school, where he is taught the basics and history of the game; his time as a research student and his travels in the outside world; eventually he is elevated to the position of Magister Ludi.

While ensconced in this position he fears something is 'rotten' with Castilia and its way of life. Knecht comes to realise the state is stagnating under obsessive intellectualism - everything is analysed but nothing is created - and he forsees the eventual, inevitable, downfall of Castilia. He steps down from the position and exiles himself to the outside world.

Castilia is a state hosted within another country (alluding to the city state of the Vatican); it is home to the intellectual elite of the world, and was created after a great war, as an archive for 'the arts' and sciences. The purpose of its inhabitants is to preserve art, philosophy, music, literature and science to ensure its survival in case the world succumbs to another war and 'the arts' are lost.

The glass bead game is Castilia's greatest invention; to explain it in simple terms would be to think of it as a game of association encompasing everything from the great to the minute within 'the arts'. One person creates a game - a group of items linked by a common theme - and the others must meditate on the meaning of the game and see how each item links to the next one.

The complexity of the game comes when you think of what you can link together; anything from a piece of classical music to a complex philosophical theory; from a game of chess to a piece of Romantic poetry; from a great painting to a complex computer program. Hesse describes the game thus:

The Glass Bead Game is thus a mode of playing with the total contents and values of our culture; it plays with them as, say, in the great age of the arts a painter might have played with the colors on his palette. All the insights, noble thoughts, and works of art that the human race has produced in its creative eras, all that subsequent periods of scholarly study have reduced to concepts and converted into intellectual values the Glass Bead Game player plays like the organist on an organ. And this organ has attained an almost unimaginable perfection; its manuals and pedals range over the entire intellectual cosmos; its stops are almost beyond number. Theoretically this instrument is capable of reproducing in the Game the entire intellectual content of the universe.

Das Glasperlenspiel has influenced everyone from the hippies - with its references to Buddhism, individualism and the duality between body and spirit - to technologists - with references to storage of information and linking of information - to games designers - trying to re-create the glass bead game - and even business theorists who see it as featuring 'all the business issues of the decade'.

For a book written over fifty years ago it is still surprising how relevant it is today. It seems to encompass all aspects of society which existed during Hesse's lifetime and afterwards. During the 1960's he became a cult figure and helped to influence the hippie movement, interest in him waned during the 1980's, but, now, from the 1990's and beyond, his work is becoming more relevant in regards to the World Wide Web.

With the advent of HTML and the ability to link information together the realisation of a 'real' glass bead game is slowly becoming a reality. As Bruce Milligan, director of new media at the AOL subsidiary, Redgate, says:

As I work to help position Redgate as a leader in the programming of content for the World Wide Web, I've spent a good deal of time thinking about the nature of the Web -- a realm of pure intellect, minds interacting with machines, constructs of information designed to facilitate the sometimes-ordered, sometimes-random and often serendipitous roamings of human inquisitiveness... But more than anything, this process of information publishing and linking on the Web reminds me a lot of the Glass Bead Game that Hermann Hesse wrote about in his 1943 novel Das Glasperlenspiel (translated "The Glass Bead Game", subtitled "Magister Ludi"...)

Future technologies, like XLink - which will allow two-way linking - and new web trends, like backlinks, are helping to create a semantic web - which should provide more meanigful associations between links - could have come from the pen of Hesse himself, as his writings are imbued with the spirit and philosophy of the web even though he was influenced more by eastern mysticism rather than technological invention.

In the avant garde, cyber-hip frontiers of the computer culture, around Mass. Ave. in Cambridge, around Palo Alto, in the Carnegie Mellon AI labs, in the backrooms of the computer graphics labs in Southern California, even in the Austin labs of MCC, a Hesse comeback seems to be happening. However. This revival is not connected with Hermann's mystical, eastern writings. It's based on his last, and least understood, work, Magister Ludi: The Glass Bead Game.
Timothy Leary

----

References

Webmagister Ludi and the Glass Bead Game

Hipbone: Hermann Hesse

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Das Glasperlenspiel | 42 comments (24 topical, 18 editorial, 0 hidden)
Yawn. (3.33 / 3) (#11)
by LQ on Fri Aug 09, 2002 at 11:36:33 AM EST

The Glass Bead Game is the most boring book I have ever read. Any discussion of it tends to disappear up its own nether regions, typified by drivel like "the nature of the Web -- a realm of pure intellect, minds interacting with machines"

Good call (none / 0) (#32)
by Alan Crowe on Mon Aug 12, 2002 at 03:08:46 PM EST

typified by drivel like "the nature of the Web -- a realm of pure intellect, minds interacting with machines"

Bruce Milligan would have been closer to the mark if he had said "the nature of the Web -- a realm of pure pornography, lusts interacting with images"

I'm sure I finished the book. I read it on the beach, and I have sand caught close to the binding distorting the book all the way to the end. That was 20 years ago. I was deeply into Go at the time, a game that is literally played with beads of black and white glass. (Unless you are rich enough to have a traditional slate and clam-shell set.) I think Hesse's oblique description of his glass bead game, ended up being overpowered by the glass bead game I was actually playing, making it hard for me to understand the book as he intended. I kept imagining Joseph Knecht as a Japanese profession Go player; they too lead austere lives of intellectual dedication. Perhaps that is a warning to novelists, that too delicate a literary device can be overwhelmed by unanticipated features of the reader's life.



[ Parent ]
go.. (none / 0) (#34)
by dazzle on Mon Aug 12, 2002 at 03:50:04 PM EST

The glass bead game in the novel is whatever you want it to be. Hesse never intended it to be played as a real game in the real world, IMO. And I would say one of the strengths of the novel is that it can be interpreted in many ways depending on your own personal experiences.

Go - haven't played myself. Have played chinese chess.

You should watch the movie Pi if you like Go.

---
the internet: a global network of small minded people


[ Parent ]
I agree (none / 0) (#36)
by epepke on Tue Aug 13, 2002 at 03:29:22 AM EST

This book is definitely literature, as opposed to art. The purpose of art is to engage, inform, enrapture, and intrigue. The purpose of literature is to provide raw material (called "text") to an academic game of decoding known as Literary Criticism. The two goals are entirely at odds with each other.


The truth may be out there, but lies are inside your head.--Terry Pratchett


[ Parent ]
art is art (none / 0) (#37)
by dazzle on Tue Aug 13, 2002 at 04:07:12 AM EST

' ... The purpose of art is to engage, inform, enrapture, and intrigue. ... '

Which is what good literature does

Most art needs to be 'decoded' to find the artists true meaning and reason behind the art.

Art is whatever you want it to be.

---
the internet: a global network of small minded people


[ Parent ]
Mann isst Mann (none / 0) (#38)
by epepke on Tue Aug 13, 2002 at 04:54:45 AM EST

Sorry, but there was a play by that name, almost.

Which is what good literature does

Ah, well, "good literature" is a value judgement, isn't it? I'd agree, given a generic meaning of literature. However, I'm using "literature" in a more restrictive sense, the sense in which certain books are labeled "literature" and others aren't.

Most art needs to be 'decoded' to find the artists true meaning and reason behind the art.

Wasn't there a recent discussion on postmodernism in which rusty himself pointed out that caring about the artists' intention was terribly high school?

I would agree that a lot of art has gone this route. However, I personally don't respect much of that art. For one thing, it's just too easy to encode a meaning into art. It's much harder to get the meaning across in one swell foop. You don't have to analyze Guernica for it to have an effect. You only have to look at it. You can analyze it if you like, and it works on that level, too.

That's the kind of skill I admire. And, I admire Hesse in general, but Das Glasperlenspiel seems to me a work to satisfy academics.


The truth may be out there, but lies are inside your head.--Terry Pratchett


[ Parent ]
art is whatever you want it to be.. (none / 0) (#39)
by dazzle on Tue Aug 13, 2002 at 04:36:03 PM EST

'Wasn't there a recent discussion on postmodernism in which rusty himself pointed out that caring about the artists' intention was terribly high school?'

Don't know if there was a discussion or not. I don't see anything wrong in interpreting art if that's what someone wants to do. When I go round an art gallery I don't analyse the art, I just look at it and take it on face value. When it comes to books, the written word being my favourite communicative medium, some novels make me think. Das Glasperlenspiel is one of those books, and, I don't think any writer writes fiction for academics. Most write for themselves. Art is communication and expression. The artisit, writer, whatever is communicating something to the observer or reader. Das Glasperlenspiel works on many levels as well, IMO. It's a fictional biography but also a novel of ideas and philosophy.

Now this thread could descend into what is art and / or what is literature, a thread where there would be no way out 'coz everything is art.

---
the internet: a global network of small minded people


[ Parent ]
Whatever (none / 0) (#40)
by epepke on Tue Aug 13, 2002 at 06:08:03 PM EST

This is getting into rather useless semantics. As Frank Zappa said, if you like it, it's bitchen, and if you don't, it sucks. The original point still stands. Das Glasperlenspiel is a certain kind of book that appeals to people who like to do a certain thing, as opposed to other kinds of books that appeal to other people who like to do different things. It's the kind of book that academics call literature, as opposed to other books that they don't call literature, because it lends itself to a certain kind of game beloved of academics. Other people don't like playing that game and therefore don't like it.

You don't like the contrast with the word "art"? Fine. Pick your own word. The point still stands.

This reminds me of a conversation that I had with a euphonium player I was dating back in the days before I knew better. She was talking about how she wanted to take a theme down through the ages of development of music, reinterpreting it for every musical movement. I thought it was a great idea and pointed out that it would be especially interesting when you got to ragtime, the blues, jazz, and rock-and-roll. She was absolutely mortified, and said, firmly, "No. Only lit." After I got away from her, I composed a Rhythm & Blues canon as a sort of private revenge. But I digress.

Personally, there are a lot of books that make me think, but not all of them are "lit." After reading Rudy Rucker's White Light, I had horrible dreams but awoke with a great proof of the continuum hypothesis using non-deterministic oracle Turing machines. But it isn't "lit." Das Glasperlenspiel is definitely "lit," which is a big part of why it gets called Hesse's masterpiece. Steppenwolf might actually mean more or less to this or that individual, but it isn't as "lit," and so it doesn't get points. Non-"lit" doesn't get called "masterpiece," and "lit" seems to get extra leeway for torpor.


The truth may be out there, but lies are inside your head.--Terry Pratchett


[ Parent ]
..agree... (none / 0) (#41)
by dazzle on Tue Aug 13, 2002 at 06:28:55 PM EST

..and definition. I tend to use the word literature as a general word to describe a book / novel.

Books are books. Music is music. Whether pop. or lit.

Shakespeare was written for everyone but is now seen as something for the cognosceti or the art crowd.

---
the internet: a global network of small minded people


[ Parent ]
Hmm (1.25 / 4) (#13)
by marcos on Fri Aug 09, 2002 at 12:07:57 PM EST

Wasn't Hesse some kind of Nazi? Or am I thinking of someone else?

Different one. (4.75 / 4) (#14)
by graal on Fri Aug 09, 2002 at 12:21:43 PM EST

Hermann Hesse, the writer.

Rudolph Hess, the Nazi.

Amerada Hess, the gas company.

I trust this clears things up.

--
For Thou hast commanded, and so it is, that every
inordinate affection should be its own punishment.
-- St. Augustine (Confessions, i)
[ Parent ]

Somebody else (5.00 / 2) (#25)
by runlevel0 on Sat Aug 10, 2002 at 07:32:33 PM EST

The Nazi: Rudolf Hess ('e' like in "Bess")

The Writer: Hermann Hesse (the final 'e' is pronounced the 'a' in 'any', more or less...)

Hesse became Swiss citizen in 1924.

[ Parent ]

I don't buy the WWW analogy (3.50 / 2) (#15)
by GoStone on Fri Aug 09, 2002 at 12:57:06 PM EST

The web is merely a technology. It does not require anyone meditate on the combination of links used. Also there were already technologies in place in Hesse's time to link different ideas together. Pen and paper. Print.

I see more of a connection with postmodernism. An intellectual movement interested in cultural symbols for what they were, divorced from referents, and prepared to recombine them for creative purposes.

Postmodernism is passe, I grant you


Cut first, ask questions later

relate it to almost anything (none / 0) (#18)
by dazzle on Fri Aug 09, 2002 at 01:17:46 PM EST

It is possible to relate The Glass Bead Game to almost anything. Possibly if you read the book you would see analogies and references relevant to you and your interests - things which I wouldn't see.


---
the internet: a global network of small minded people


[ Parent ]
yeah - that's because the game is never defined (none / 0) (#31)
by waxmop on Mon Aug 12, 2002 at 02:22:17 PM EST

the game in the glass bead game is never spelled out. at some times it's a lighthearted way for poets and musicians to speak in their own argot - other times, it's almost a religous meditative endeavor.

the glass bead game is a great book - but i thought part of hesse's message was that a life based on ascetic scholastism is ultimately sterile, which echoes what all the critics say about spending free time on the web.
--
We are a monoculture of horsecock. Liar
[ Parent ]

yeah... (none / 0) (#33)
by dazzle on Mon Aug 12, 2002 at 03:47:25 PM EST

' ... life based on ascetic scholastism is ultimately sterile, which echoes what all the critics say about spending free time on the web. ... '

For me that is one of the messages as well. You shouldn't just spend your time analysing everything, there should be creation as well.

Mindlessly surfing the web is a waste of time yet we are encouraged to do it.

---
the internet: a global network of small minded people


[ Parent ]
More Glass Bead Game - WWW connections (5.00 / 1) (#24)
by sebpaquet on Sat Aug 10, 2002 at 10:05:09 AM EST

There are two relevant discussions that are going on at WikiWikiWeb and at pyWiki.

While Vannevar bush is generally credited with pioneering the idea of the hyperlinked web, I agree with the author in that Hesse's conception was closer in spirit to the Semantic Web, where ideas are woven into an explicit, logical framework.

I have been thinking a lot about this problem of connecting and organizing knowledge across disciplines. This is a critical problem to solve in two regards: (1) it helps suppress the constant reinventions of the wheel; (2) it helps connect people who have similar interests but don't know each other because they belong in different communities of practice.

If you're interested in what I've written on that topic, have a look at the Stories and Articles page on my personal weblog.
----
Seb's Open Research - Pointers and thoughts on the evolution of knowledge sharing and scholarly communication.

He was only trying to write literature (3.50 / 2) (#26)
by runlevel0 on Sat Aug 10, 2002 at 07:56:09 PM EST

[...]has influenced everyone from the hippies - with its references to Buddhism, individualism and the duality between body and spirit - to technologists - with references to storage of information and linking of information - to games designers - trying to re-create the glass bead game - and even business theorists who see it as featuring 'all the business issues of the decade'[...]

Hesse was only writing a literary piece, a piece of art, neihter an essay about information theory nor a study about technologies.
Perhaps, the problem lies in the English translation (traduttore, traitore), with which the piece loses most of it's personality: The translation looks all too rigid, it loses all it's emotional strenght... In German the pleasure of reading Hesse comes from the very grammatical structure; the fine use of declinations, verbal tenses and subtle details, making the reading of any of the autor's writing like looking on an acuarel painting.
Hesse was not speccialy interested in information theory, but in oriental and western philosofy.
This kind of association is kinda "professional deformation" we techies often suffer ;)

Take for example J.L. Borges' "The Book of Sand" (El Libro de Arena), in this story is told about a book which is endless; every time you open it, a new storie appears... So, this sounds pretty like the internet, Doesn't it?
So regarding to H. Hesse I would recommend to forget that we are techies and read him only for the pleassure of reading. The "message" and meaning of what he tells us is deeper as just pure tech, and you will only get it if you approach with an open mind, without any baggage.

Inadvertent prophecies. (5.00 / 1) (#27)
by Apuleius on Sun Aug 11, 2002 at 03:51:56 AM EST

Seeking them is one of the most delightful variants on the glass bead game.


There is a time and a place for everything, and it's called college. (The South Park chef)
[ Parent ]
missing the point... (none / 0) (#28)
by dazzle on Sun Aug 11, 2002 at 06:06:36 AM EST

'... but in oriental and western philosofy ... '

I know, as I mention in the article:

' ... even though he was influenced more by eastern mysticism rather than technological invention ...'

Eastern philosophy / religion is also extremely close to high level physics as well. Science and religion, technology and philosophy are not, in my opinion, mutually exclusive but lend and feed off of each other. Each generation who reads The Glass Bead Game will employ their own interpretations by what they know - the novel is still relevant today as it was when Hesse first published it.

I also tailored the essay more for the website I was posting it on, technology mixing with culture.

The thing is I found out about Hesse through the web. An ex-girlfriend of mine had found these sites trying to play a game called 'The Glass Bead Game', she mentioned it to me and, with more surfing, I found out about the novel and Hesse himself. Next I found myself in a bookstore in Cambridge and purchasing the book. Everything is related, IMO.

---
the internet: a global network of small minded people


[ Parent ]
Science and religion (none / 0) (#29)
by sebpaquet on Sun Aug 11, 2002 at 06:47:48 AM EST

I found an obscure, but IMHO well-written book on fusing science and religion:
Science without Bounds by Art d'Adamo (freely available online)
----
Seb's Open Research - Pointers and thoughts on the evolution of knowledge sharing and scholarly communication.
[ Parent ]
...and... (none / 0) (#30)
by dazzle on Sun Aug 11, 2002 at 07:01:22 AM EST

... there is the Tao of Physics, which explores the relationship between Oriental religon / philosophy and Western science.

Preface
Amazon.co.uk
Amazon.com

---
the internet: a global network of small minded people


[ Parent ]
poor Hesse (none / 0) (#35)
by loudici on Mon Aug 12, 2002 at 04:48:01 PM EST

the characters of Hermann Hesse live a quasi monacal life and study their topics in depth, dedicating their lives to the research of truth and beauty. what a contrast with the ADD afflicted world wide web....
gnothi seauton
All Worth Reading (none / 0) (#42)
by Wildgoose on Wed Aug 14, 2002 at 01:02:20 PM EST

Not just "The Glass Bead Game". Here in the UK you could get his shorter fiction collected as "Strange News From Another Star". The book "Siddartha" has more Eastern philosophy. "The Prodigy" deals well with childhood isolation, etc. Santana fans may be interested to learn that Hesse's book "Demian" is the origin of the name of Santana's second album "Abraxas". And "Steppenwolf" were named after another Hesse book.

Das Glasperlenspiel | 42 comments (24 topical, 18 editorial, 0 hidden)
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