Audio book version.
Took a while for me to get into it — I almost abandoned listening after the first CD or so (out of seventeen). But I am very glad I stuck with it. Hermann Hesse, Nobel Prize winner, presents some interesting ideas, conveyed in the form of a biography of the fictional Joseph Knecht, Master of the Glass Bead Game.
Following a century of war starting at about World War One, society has decayed intellectually, concerned with commentary on people and things rather than on ideas. (Hmmm, sounds like today!) In response, the province of Castalia, located somewhere unspecified in Europe, is set aside as an intellectual preserve — kind of like a National Park with protected plants and wildlife, but for the life of the mind. Castalian residents are more or less cut off from the world, free to think and explore new concepts and ideas. (Reminiscent of “Anathem“; although if anything that book borrowed from Hesse since “The Glass Bead Game” was published much earlier, in 1943.) They are governed by the Order, a quasi-monastic discipline that, although not religious, keeps the Castalians morally in check and mentally balanced through the practice of meditation and encouraging obedience to the hierarchy. Castalia’s focus of study is not worldly subjects like history, business, or engineering, but more “pure” topics like philosphy, music, art, and mathematics. The Renaissance time period is of much more importance to Castalia than anything more recent.
Joseph Knecht is a musical prodigy who is admitted into the Castalian schools as a child. He eventually becomes interested in the glass bead game, the fusion of all Castalian disciplines. The exact play mechanics of the game are never fully explained. Although by Joseph’s day the game had evolved to not use physical beads anymore, originally each bead had an associated idea, and many complex rules governed the bead’s placement on the game board. It’s not clear to me whether the game is competitive or not; the main point seems to be to create a beautiful pattern of beads that builds connections between ideas and provides enlightenment or new insights. The game is the focal point of a great annual festival attended by many, even by officials from outside the province. Joseph excels at the game and after many years is elevated to the position of Glass Bead Game Master, the highest position a glass bead game player can hold and a member of the governing board of Castalia.
After several years of exemplary service, Joseph become dissatisfied. Lot of events in his life and acquaintances he has met, within and outside of the province, have little by little created a personal conviction regarding the folly that is Castalia. He sees it as an ivory tower of intellect, sealed off from and becoming increasingly irrelevant to the world. He sees a society of intellectuals obsessed with meaningless navel-gazing, blind to the good they could be doing out in the world. He submits his resignation to the shocked governing board along with this warning and departs the province, forever.
More than anything, Joseph just wants to be a teacher. He secures a position as personal tutor to Tito Designori, a young man good at heart but veering off into mediocrity. Joseph enthusiastically sets about his duties, first trying to win Tito to his side. After only a few days, the pair arrive at a mountain top lake early in the morning. Tito jumps in for a swim, playfully challenging his new master. After only a moment’s hesitation, Knecht, past the prime of life and also suffering from altitude sickness, disregards his better judgement in favor of establishing rapport with his new charge and jumps in as well. Tragically, the ice-cold lake is too much for him. By the time Tito notices anything is amiss, Joseph is gone. This was rather a stunning and sudden ending to the main part of the book! After mourning and some reflection, Tito resolves to live a better life. Tito’s guilt “demanded that he make more out of his life than he ever would have done by himself.” A fitting, beautiful, and perfect death for Knecht, who wanted to influence youth — he didn’t even have to start teaching Tito and he changed his life forever.
The ending makes me wonder if there is a Christ allusion going on. (Joseph Knect :: Jesus Christ ?) Christ died for you; shouldn’t that make you want to live your life a little better, just to make the death of such a perfect man worth it? Also reminds me of the ending of “Saving Private Ryan” when the dying captain tells the man he has rescued, “James… earn this. Earn it.” And then we fade out to the man fifty-plus years later at the graveside, hoping he has. (Yeah, I had to look up the quote on Wikipedia … but that scene is very vivid in my memory.)
At the end of the book are three “Lives” purportedly authored by Joseph earlier in his life. The only assignment for Castalian “graduate students” is to study as they please, but once a year submit an essay or short story called a “Life,” a fictional account wherein they describe the life they would have had if they were born X years ago in location Y. It’s a way to encourage intellectual exploration but also for the masters to keep track of the mental state and progress of the free-roaming students. Joseph’s Lives are pretty interesting, especially the third:
1. “Rainmaker” – Politically outmaneuvered and faced with a year of bad weather and famine, the tribe’s rainmaker Knecht willingly submits to being sacrificed so his son can take his place.
2. “Father Confessor” – Josephus, religious hermit, grows tired of a life devoted to hearing other people’s problems and self-condemnation. He seeks out another famed hermit confessor in order to tell him his troubles and seek advice. Miraculously, Josephus meets the other confessor along the way, also on a journey. Turns out he was similarly suffering and was seeking out Josephus. Ha, ha! (Well, I thought it was kind of hilarious.) They become friends. Awww…..
3. “The Indian Life” – Dasa is a poor, orphaned herdsman in India but is really the rightful Rajah, his father having been usurped when he was very young. Not too upset about losing a life he never knew he had, Dasa enjoys the simple life of a herdsman until he meets the beautiful Pavarti and falls in love, marries her, and becomes a farmer. One day the pretender-Rajah comes to his village and seduces Pavarti away from Dasa. Dasa, angry and hurt beyond sanity or regard for his own safety, stalks and kills the Rajah. Miraculously, he escapes the scene and eludes capture living as a fugitive. He eventually arrives deep in the forest at the hut of an old yogi. Er, I mean, yogi. Dasa tells the wise yogi the story of his troubled life and is shocked at his response – a comforting smile and the single word, “Maya!” Perplexed, Dasa asks what he means; the yogi doesn’t elaborate but sends him to the nearby stream to fill a gourd with water.
At the stream, Dasa is surprised to find Pavarti! He still is in love with her and returns with her to the capital, where he is now recognized as the rightful Rajah. Many years pass; Dasa enjoys the easy life and his garden, books, and especially his son. Relations with the neighboring Rajah are not good however; border skirmishes are common. Dasa is content with the path of peace and restraint, but reluctantly caves in to the demands of his wife and other advisers and soon is embroiled in an ever-escalating war. Eventually Dasa’s army is caught in a trap, the capital is captured, and his son, the light of his life, is killed. Dasa is heartbroken, even more than the time Pavarti was taken from him. He’s cast into prison … but then wakes up from the vision. He’s still at the stream, near the yogi’s hut.
Dasa begins to see how everything in life is meaningless and just brings pain when we become too attached to people or things. The vision he saw, and even his life before coming to the yogi, is all just Maya, meaningless. (Very Buddhist … er, Hindu I guess. As far as I know both religions embrace this belief.) Dasa contemplates suicide and ending it all, but reasons that he would just be reborn and begin the horrible cycle all over again. He decides he might as well serve and meditate with the yogi for the rest of his days, which he does.