This is a strange book. Written in the 1930s, it is set in the future, and in that it is similar to Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, which somehow seems to invite comparison. And there are comparisons, though these two eighty-year-old visions of the future are also very different. But both describe a hierarchical society. Huxley’s book has a reservation for savages, those who do not fit in to the highly organised society of the civilised, where consumerism is taught from infancy.
In The Glass Bead Game, however, the reservation is not for savages, but for intellectuals, who live in the province of Castalia, where they are free to engage in their intellectual pursuits, untroubled by the world outside. It is an all-male society of elite schools whose students are picked by the elite.
The main part of the book is the story of one of these elite students, Joseph Knecht, who rises through the ranks to become the Master of the epitome of Castalian society, the Glass Bead Game. The book begins with a history of the Glass Bead Game, which explains nothing about the game itself — how it is played, or how one wins or loses.
Hesse tells us very little about this society and how it functions. There is virtually no mention of the technology of the 23rd century. There are virtually no female characters and those few who do appear (outside Castalia) are virtually characterless.
But I did learn a new word: feuilleton.
The denizens of Castalia refer to our age (or rather Hesse’s age), the age of the 1930s and 1940s, as the Age of the Feuilleton, or the Age of Wars.
I had to look it up, and it seems that a feuilleton is a section of a newspaper devoted to feature articles and op-ed pieces, shallow journalistic renderings of what is happening in the world. It struck me that if Hesse thought that the 1930s and 1940s were the Age of the Feuilleton, our time must the Age of the Feuilleton on steroids, because back then he was thinking purely of print media — newspapers and magazines. He did not envisage the Web, but I think perhaps the best way to describe the Age of the Feuilleton in today’s terms would be Age of Click Bait — the endless pursuit of trivial knowledge, trivially presented. And perhaps I’m a good representative of that age, because the only TV programme I watch with any regularity is the quiz show Pointless, which deals with exactly that.
But in the absence of any description of the material culture of the post-Feuilleton age, what one might call the Glass Bead Game Age, I had to fall back on the 1930s vision of the future, and pictured Joseph Knecht’s schools as being built in the Bauhaus style.
In the course of his schooling Joseph Knecht meets a fellow student from the outside world beyond Castalia, a world to which he returns for his holidays, and he alone is critical of Castalian society and its values. He points out that there is nothing creative about it. They study creations of people of the past, art, music and science, without studying the past itself which produced them. Joseph Knecht alone has an interest in history, to the study of which he was introduced during a visit to a Benedictine monastery.
At the end of the book are some poems and three short stories, said to have been written by Joseph Knecht himself. And the three short stories are better than the entire book.
I nearly didn’t read the three short stories. I thought the book was long, and I carried on reading because I wanted to see what happened, but I tired of the two-dimensional description of a two-dimensional world. Yet the short stories are in fact an essential part of the book, and are the key to understanding the rest of the story.
And one excerpt from one of the short stories at the end seems to say a great deal about our age, and the religion of our age, and especially about Christianity in our age, with Christian leaders like T.B. Joshua and the writers of what a friend of mine called “spiritual Westerns”. It seems to sum up much of my experience of Christian ministry.
These are matters which in the several thousand years since his era have probably not changed so much as a good many history books claim. But he had also learned that a seeking, thoughtful man dare not forfeit love; that he must meet the wishes and follies of men halfway, not showing arrogance, but also not truckling to them; that it is always only a single step from sage to charlatan, from priest to mountebank, from helpful brother to parasitic drone, and that the people would by far prefer to pay a swindler and be exploited by a quack than accept help given freely and unselfishly. They would much rather pay in money and in goods than in trust and in love. They cheat one another and expect to be cheated themselves. You had to learn to see man as a weak, cowardly and selfish creature; you also had to learn how many of those evil traits and impulses you shared yourself; and nevertheless you allowed yourself to believe, and nourished yourself on the faith that man is also spirit and love, that something dwells in him which is at variance with his instincts and longs to refine them.