Tag Archives: monks

“The Glass Bead Game” by Hermann Hesse

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.

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“Anathem” by Neal Stephenson

(Listened to on CD while commuting.)

Somewhere in a parallel universe is a world similar to Earth called Arbre.  Many thousands of years ago on Arbre, the “Terrible Events” (nuclear war, etc.) prompted a backlash against the those perceived as being responsible for such destruction.  Scientists and scholars were segregated into “concents” cut off from the rest of society and only allowed out to mingle once every year, decade, century, or millenium, depending on the Order.  The concents are kind of like monasteries, but exist for scientific rather than religious purposes.  The “Avout” (members of concents) use virtually no technology (part of the deal after the Terrible Events) so their theoretical work can’t easily endanger the world again.  (This scenario kind of reminds you of “A Canticle for Leibowitz” in a way, no?)  The story of Anathem is about a young Avout named Erasmus.

<SPOILERS AHEAD!>

Erasmus’s mentor, the astronomer Orolo, discovers a strange object in the sky.  After a loooong time, we (the readers) finally figure out it’s an alien ship.  After a much loooonger time, we figure out that they’re not really aliens; they are people from parallel universes (one of which is our own, although that is kind of a tangential, amusing point in the story).  There’s fear and confusion between the Arbreans and the Geometers (the “aliens”) that almost leads to mutual destruction.  But Erasmus and company save the day.  Oh and there’s a millenarian named Jadd who can travel between parallel universes somehow.  Kind of cool because he can choose how the future unfolds in a particular “narrative” by (ultimately) picking which random quantum states come about.  Yeah, a little hard to grasp.  Lots of discussion in this book on what it means to have parallel universes, and what it means to have them interact.

I did like the book.  I really liked the early part, when Erasmus was traveling around the world following after Orolo and nobody knew quite what the “aliens” were all about yet…lots of adventure and mystery.  The ending was good but not great; I guess I kind of feel that the whole Jadd-altering-parallel-universe-narratives thing was kind of a cop-out ending.

One big, big plot hole that I thought was unforgivable: How in the world did Orolo get to Eckba???

“A Canticle for Leibowitz” by Walter M. Miller, Jr.

Wow. This is one great example of why I love science fiction. Lots of stuff in here to make you think – about history, morality, faith, technological progress, etc. Amazing that this book was written 50 years ago – doesn’t have much of the “cheese” factor that a lot of older SF had.

After civilization is almost completely destroyed in the nuclear holocaust in ~1970s (at one point there is discussion of who occupied the “White Palace” in the mid to late 60’s, so I’m guessing it’s shortly after that), the survivors blame science and technology and engage in the “Simplification,” where they destroy books and knowledge and murder as many scientists and engineers they feel were responsible for the devastation, thereby entrenching “cultural amnesia” as history and technology are largely forgotten – the Dark Ages are back again.

One engineer named Leibowitz managed to save some books and documents (“the Memorabilia”) and founded a Catholic order of monks out in the desert (somewhere in Arizona – New Mexico – Texas area, I’m guessing) devoted to preserving this knowledge before he was eventually killed. The story of Leibowitz isn’t directly told; his story is gleaned through the points of view of various monks/abbots of the abbey Leibowitz through the subsequent centuries. Three stories are examined.

First is the monk Francis, who discovers a previously unknown cache of documents from Leibowitz several hundred years after the “Flame Deluge.” Among them is a blueprint for some part that Leibowitz himself created, before the war. Francis spends 15 years making a beautiful, illuminated copy of the blueprint. When Leibowitz is to be canonized, Francis is chosen to travel to the ceremony at New Rome. On the way, he is stopped by robbers, who steal the illuminated copy, thinking it is the real thing. They say they will hold it for ransom if he brings them some gold. Francis is saddened, but realizes that his 15 years of work has preserved the original blueprint, which he presents to the Pope. Francis somewhat simple-mindedly goes back to the robbers later with some gold to retrieve his blueprint … they kill him.

Second (the weakest story in the book, IMO) is the story of Abbot Paulo. Several hundred more years have passed, and the hints of a Renaissance are strengthening. A scholar, Thon Taddeo, comes to review the documents preserved at the abbey. He is in the pay of a ruthless ruler plotting war and destruction. Paulo is upset by the thought of the gifts of the abbey (preserved history and scientific fact) being used to further conquest and political ambition; the foreshadowing is that civilization is headed down the same path that led to nuclear holocaust in the first place. Thon Taddeo disagrees: “If you try to save wisdom until the world is wise, the world will never have it.”

The third story is the most powerful. Again several hundred years have passed, a full 1800 years since the first nuclear destruction, and now it is about to occur again. The abbey houses some refugees from one of the first nuclear strikes on a nearby city. The “Green Star” (Red Cross) arrives and wants to set up a “mercy camp,” where hopeless radiation cases are advised to go for euthanization. Abbot Zerchi vehemently objects; his faith can’t allow him to permit others to sin (murder/suicide) even if they don’t think it is wrong. Dr. Cors, the foil in his debate, contends that “Pain is the only evil” and “The laws of society are what makes something a crime or not” … ideas which are very prevalent in our world today. There is a powerful scene where Zerchi commands a woman not to take herself and her baby to the mercy camp, but police intervene and convince them to go. The abbey is destroyed in another nuclear strike. As Abbot Zerchi lies dying, he monologues about the mercy camps. “To minimize suffering and to maximize security were natural and proper ends of society and Caesar. But then they became the only ends, somehow, and the only basis of law – a perversion. Inevitably, then, in seeking only them, we found only their opposites: maximum suffering and minimum security.” and, to Dr. Cors’s assertion about pain being evil: “Why don’t you forgive God for allowing pain? If He didn’t allow it, human courage, bravery, nobility, and self-sacrifice would all be meaningless things.” As part of a contingency plan, a group of the monks leave on a starship to the colonies as nuclear bombs explode around the country. They carry with them the Memorabilia. It seems the Earth is doomed. Oh, and there is some weirdness with a lady with two heads in this third vignette. Hey, it’s science fiction.

Other points:

  • I liked how each abbot was very different. Francis’ Abbot Arkos is stern and strict, Paulo is gentle and kind, yet firm, and Zerchi is bold and zealous (he punches out Dr. Cors at the mercy camp).
  • I don’t get completely “Leibowitz”/Benjamin/the beggar … this is an old man who appears in all three stories. Who is he, really? How does he live so long? I think he is the “Wandering Jew”.
  • The monks are not credited one bit by society for saving the world’s history and science, by Taddeo or in the third story’s time (the police call Zerchi a “crazy kook” and the monks his “gang”).
  • I wonder if the author is Catholic? He seems to know a lot about it. Lots of Latin here and there.

“The Name of the Rose” by Umberto Eco

William of Baskerville and his apprentice Adso, Franciscan monk versions of Sherlock and Watson, arrive at an abbey in northern Italy in 1327, shortly before a conference on the poverty debate is set to begin between emissaries of the Avignon pope and those of the Franciscan order.  A mysterious murder has occurred and is followed by one more each day.  William investigates and eventually cracks the case, of course.

Lots of history here about the medieval church, and associated issues.  Interesting story, but it kind of dragged along and was a chore to read, until the last 50 pages or so…then the action really picks up for an exciting conclusion.

Favorite line: “Quickly!  He’s eating the Aristotle!”

(note: the cover picture is not actually the edition I read.  Couldn’t find that one…actually I think it was a re-done, blank library cover. )