In Hermann Hesse’s last novel Das Glasperlenspiel (or The Glass Bead Game), a mysterious game is described. This game is played by an intellectual elite in a future Europe. It is an intellectual game, not one involving competition, rather it is a way of making music with the values of traditional culture. Indeed, these games are “composed” and “played” like music. The book contains many indications by Hesse regarding the nature, rules, mood, ideology or ethics of the Game, but the author never actually provides a complete or systematic account of it. This is hardly surprising since Das Glasperlenspiel is a novel and not a scholarly treatise. Hesse had presumably little interest in describing the Game exhaustively; he had probably not even thought it out fully and never came to the idea of creating an actual Game and presenting it to the world.
It may be thought nonsensical to try to play the Glass Bead Game (GBG) on the basis of what information is provided in the book. But this Game is played in the future. Das Glasperlenspiel is a utopian novel describing things that have not yet happened. Could this not mean an implied invitation from the author to try to work out the Game and play it in reality?
Das Glasperlenspiel is not Hesse’s easiest novel. But it has not been forgotten and is still being read. References to it are common on the Internet and in the art scene. Most of the attempts calling themselves “Glass Bead Games” have little to do with Hesse’s Game as described in his book. Interest continues to be shown nonetheless. Has Hesse really something to say to us with this Game? Is a GBG possible in our world?
Might we not regard the GBG as a contribution to culture in its own right? According to “Albertus Secundus“, an imaginary Late Latin author quoted by Hesse at the outset of the novel, we confer reality on the Game if and when we take it seriously. In the long imaginary quotation which Hesse uses as a motto for his book, Albertus Secundus mentions “certain things which, by being treated to a certain extent as really existing by pious and earnest persons, are brought a step closer to being born“. Perhaps it is up to us readers to treat the Game as “really existing“ for it to come into existence.
But why would we want to construct a GBG? Various aspects of culture in our time seem to suggest such an attempt. The time for it has come. The classical age of Humanism and the printed book as its sovereign expression is already over. We feel it as an inevitable crisis which is given expression by various thinkers with various approaches. This is known as “postmodern consciousness“. But the GBG provides not just something to replace modernism, but a new classicicism. This is undoubtedly the point of Hesse’s novel written in the 1930s and 1940s: a new classical culture that will rise phoenix-like from the ashes of contemporary barbarism.
The GBG is interdisciplinary, an approach that reduces all disciplines of intellectual life to a common denominator. This is a response to the desire to bring the natural sciences together with the social sciences and even the arts. For long we have been lamenting with C.P. Snow the schism between the “two cultures“ in our society. The GBG would be a chance to heal and overcome this schism.
There is also a feeling current in the modern Western world that art has exhausted itself. Even with a “wild and dilletantish over-production in all the arts“, as Hesse describes it in the satirical introduction to his novel, the impression is inescapable that the public and even artists themselves no longer believe in art, and that the time for important and original works of art (as previous centuries understood them) is well and truly over. The classic always lies in the past, and even the ambition to turn the world of the classic upside down was a feature of modernism in the arts which has since played itself out. People are looking for a substitute for the arts – whether they know it or not.
We are also in a crisis of science these days. People no longer have endless faith in science, because it has awakened fearsome powers and brought curses as well as blessings to modern man. Ecological critique of industrial society and the arms race has harped on this aspect. Meanwhile, natural science, as distinct from social science and the arts, has not been able to create a new ethos of education that might replace the humanistic ethos of the past.
In the modern intellectual movement and especially in the sciences of man, Structuralism has played a decisive role. It has not just been the leading method of investigation in many of these fields, first in linguistics, then in anthropology, but it has established itself generally as a characteristic method of thinking about human products of all kinds. Thanks to Structuralism we see language, society, myth, literature and even works of art and architecture as structures with their own rules of transformation (see the syntheses of Piaget 1968 and Eco 1968). The masters of Structuralism considered their structures from the beginning as, metaphorically, games with their own rules of play. Saussure famously compared language to the game of chess; and Hjelmslev and the Copenhagen school of linguistics assumed that language is in fact a game and to be analyzed as such.
In the later development of linguistic Structuralism – in Generative Grammar, that is – syntax, the sentence, has been the main focus of analytic interest. Linguistics now concerned itself with the syntagmatic axis of language, that is, with the chaining together of linguistic units, not just the paradigmatic axis, that is, the permutation of linguistic units in particular positions. Even in phonology, originally the stronghold of the paradigmatic approach, interest in syntagmatic rules has progressed. There has been for example metrical phonology and autosegmental phonology, which concerned themselves with larger groupings and not just with elements of speech.
We may mention other aspects of the GBG which have their echo in contemporary society. Meditation does not seem so exotic and unusual as it did in the 1930s and 1940s, since the “journeyers to the East“ of the sixties have made this practice widespread. The role of meditation exercises in the Castalian way of life and in the GBG itself is quite understandable for readers today.
Finally we need to mention the importance of computers in our society. Hesse knew nothing of computers and did not predict their development when he “invented” his GBG, but today’s generation cannot but think of them at every turn when reading the novel. It is not surprising that groups communicating via Internet would attempt to play the GBG or some sort of variant using hypertextual resources of the world wide web, and this has happened since the 1990s; we will come back to these possibilities later. On the other hand, if we are thinking of implementing a GBG in our time, we need to study the nature of the Game as Hesse himself described it (albeit sketchily and unsystematically) in the novel.