Sunday, December 23, 2012

Glass Bead Game

Castalia is an "intellectual utopia" that exists here on earth a few hundred years from now. The intellectual "elect" get to spend their life studying whatever they so desire. (Many often teach - perhaps this is why the government is willing to fund them.) One of the things they do is play a "Glass Bead Game", a sort of high powered pan-intellectual event. (We hear a lot about it, but don't see many of the details.)

The novel has a few sections. It starts with a justification of the novel, which sets up the values of the futuristic society. This society is an intellectual Utopia where educational elite play the "Glass Bead Game" as a great intellectual exercise. It then proceeds to the main story, the biography of Joseph Knecht from early childhood to his rise as the glass bead master. Then, it fairly seemlessly transitions to the "well known" history of the master as he left the position and the entire "Order". After this section ends with his death, the final section of "posthumous writings of Knecht" begins. This section seems to be the author's dumping ground of earlier approaches for the story. These poems and stories contain some of the same themes as the main novel (and even have the same character), yet carry them out in different means. Did Hesse just dump his original drafts here?

It is always interesting to see "future" situations rooted so firmly in the past. In this novel's future, the Catholic church still maintains a primary position in the intellectual lives of the world. The European countries still exist pretty much as they have. But, there is also the intellectual hermit colony that the novel focuses.

Hesse's ideal world is influenced by both western and eastern thought. It also displays a high level of intellectual bigotry. The arts and creativity are heavily muted. The great masters of the past are respected, but little new output is created. The study of "music", however, is very important, and served as the root of the new "enlightenment." (Despite all the time passed, it seems the intellegencia from 17th-19th century Europe remains the focus of most people's intellectual pursuits.)

The Castalians seem to be real intellectual bigots. They look down on others (even when they say they don't). They are also highly obsessed with their own little trivialities, while not willing to respect those of others. Things like crossword puzzles were viewed as huge time wasters in the past. However, their glass bead game is viewed as a great intellectual endeavor. While they try to be "nice" to the rest of the world, they have set themselves so far apart from it, that they really cannot relate. They have created what is essentially an intellectual religion.

The setting of most of the book could easily be a medieval monastery. Women and modern technology are almost entirely absent through the main portion of the book. Near the end, the author apparently realized this and introduces a few women and has Joseph take off in a car. (For a novel that is supposed to take place in the future, this is seriously rooted in the past. World-building is not one of Hesse's strong points.) He also has him exit the "order" which has become too intellecutual snobbish and unfulfilling. (Perhaps he realized that readers would become disgusted with his intellectual bigots and would need an alternative.) While the ending of the story does do something to help improve the book, the "posthumous writings" destroys the goodwill. The character is just too perfect to be believable, while the events are too contrived, and don't seem to be in any "real" world.

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