The Glass Bead Game

No permanence is ours; we are a wave
That flows to fit whatever form it finds:
Through night or day, cathedral or the cave
We pass forever, craving form that binds.

― Hermann Hesse, The Glass Bead Game

“The Glass Bead Game”, also known as “Magister Ludi”, is the last full length book by German author Hermann Hesse. His works include many thoughtful and interesting stories, detailing the main character’s personal development and spiritual growth. Hesse won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1946, and his books saw a resurgence of popularity in the 1960’s and 1970’s in the US.

“The Glass Bead Game” is special to me because it describes, although vaguely, a fictional game that is cultivated and played in a future idyllic setting of intellectual devotion, although the larger world is certainly a post-apocalyptic one. All human knowledge is the subject of the game, and the play somehow links mathematics, music, science, cosmology, history, poetry and literature and everything else accepted as higher learning for the imagined cultural time and place.

Is the book sexist because it describes the cloistered society of the game as being restricted to boys and men because of ability, or the idea that men are less distracted from intellectual pursuits without women around? The book is either a product of its time, or perhaps of the political setting in its fictional future. Interestingly, the main character, along with three other character’s lives shown in short stories said to be written by the main character himself, are easily associated with Carl Jung’s theory of psychological types. This is the meaning of the figure above.

Several individuals and groups have tried to imagine how the actual game or any “glass bead game” (GBG) could be played, and there are scattered links on the web, many broken over time and neglect. I agree that analogy and metaphorical thinking are key points to any GBG, as well as the other pillars of attributes nicely discussed in links below.

  • Analogy
  • Connection (or Affinity)
  • Cogitation (or Contemplation, Thought)
  • Formalism (or Rules)
  • Iconicity (or Representation)
  • Syncretism (or Objectivation, of Culture or Civilization)

(Some attributes have been substituted by thesaurus for word length.)

Further Reading:

Hermann Hesse / The Glass Bead Game

… For although in a certain sense and for light-minded persons non-existent things can be more easily and irresponsibly represented in words than existing things, for the serious and conscientious historian it is just the reverse. Nothing is harder, yet nothing is more necessary, than to speak of certain things whose existence is neither demonstrable nor probable. The very fact that serious and conscientious men treat them as existing things brings them a step closer to existence and to the possibility of being born.

[*8.138, *10.82]


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