I spent Halloween of 1998 at a pumpkin-carving party in a dorm room high in a Yale tower. We were having a great time in our collegiate world, teasing each other about newfound philosophical convictions and relating our best weird-professor stories, when someone glanced out the window and exclaimed, “Trick-or-treaters!”
Instantly the whole room crowded over to the narrow window and jostled for a glimpse of those exotic creatures, human children. No matter how exhilarating the intellectual atmosphere of college, we still felt a sense of something missing, some life outside the campus.
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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But what if the university’s world separated much, much further from the world outside its walls? What if it became its own country, developing over centuries its own ethos, its own pastimes, even its own unique approach to the transcendental?
This is Castalia, the academic land imagined by Hermann Hesse in his 1943 novel The Glass Bead Game. Boys enter Castalia from the outside world, and most of them never leave; they spend their entire lives devoted to subjects like linguistics and music, never marrying or having children, never entering politics or business, concerned solely with education and what they understand as the life of the mind. The Glass Bead Game is a practice of manipulating an incredibly complex symbol system, encompassing everything from Chinese architecture to alchemy to sonatas — Castalia’s highest and least-accessible representation of the unity of all knowledge.
The book is presented as a biography of Joseph Knecht, one of the greatest and yet most troubled Masters of the Glass Bead Game. The biographers note that the mere act of writing this life is somewhat anti-Castalian: “For, after all, obliteration of individuality, the maximum integration of the individual into the hierarchy of the educators and scholars, has ever been one of our ruling principles.” And from the first, there are foreboding hints that despite Knecht’s immediate love for Castalia and his quick assimilation into its worldview, his story deeply disturbs his biographers and their world, and will likely disturb the reader as well.
The science-fiction setting helps the book’s drama immensely: The reader has to accept the Castalian premises, at least partially, to get some footing in this future Europe. The reader is quickly immersed in a new way of life, just as Knecht is when he’s chosen for Castalia — and just as countless college freshmen were this fall.
The portrayal of Castalian life is beautiful and complex. It’s built on music and meditation, and its rigid hierarchy runs on a stern aristocratic ethos of personal leadership. The Castalians look down on history, which they perceive as grubby and chaotic, the opposite of the music they revere. They make no music of their own, however, nor do they have any other art forms; when Knecht writes poetry as an adolescent, he keeps it secret, since it’s a minor rebellion. Their two creative outlets are leadership — the crafting of souls — and the Glass Bead Game.
The book is composed of a network of overlapping tensions: between leadership and friendship, for example, or between beauty and meaning. The symbolic resonances, echoes, allusions of the Glass Bead Game may be entrancing, but a game that has become almost a religion is still only a game. It may express the unity of human culture and knowledge, but does that unity matter?
And who is dependent on whom? Castalia arose in part out of “the Age of the Feuilleton” — transparently our own age, of dilettantish, trendy attempts to turn scholarship into amusement (with results like “Friedrich Nietzsche and Women’s Fashions of the 1870s,” or “The Role of the Lapdog in the Lives of the Great Courtesans”) — and in part out of the totalitarian crises of the 20th century, when all knowledge was subordinated to the State. Although Castalia produces nothing, not even art, and is dependent even for its students on the outside world of family and procreation, it believes that its intellectual rigor and fidelity to the pursuit of truth serve as bulwarks against a future age of infotainment, dishonesty, and dictatorship. Although Hesse portrays a future which is slowly heading toward catastrophe, in which Castalia itself will likely not survive, he makes its case in strong and compelling terms.
Hesse, to his great credit, does not give definitive answers to the questions he raises — he’s writing a tragedy, not a treatise. He creates terrific, vivid foils for the somewhat cipher-like Knecht: his fiery friend Plinio, who goes out to live in the world beyond Castalia and finds that reconciliation of the two worlds is exceptionally hard to achieve; his nervous, sheltered friend Tegularius, a Castalian hothouse plant who withers quickly in the uncultivated world; Father Jacobus, the Benedictine historian and political macher to whom Knecht defends Castalia despite his own misgivings. (The Catholic Church itself is perhaps the greatest recurring foil for Castalia — at times threatening to ban the Glass Bead Game, at other times offering diplomatic rapprochement and support.)
There is no term in this book that is not interrogated: not the serenity Knecht offers a distraught Plinio, nor the exalted experience and self-direction he claims for himself at the end of the book. No final answer is given to the book’s underlying question: What is the life of the mind for?
No Castalian would ever write a 900-word essay on this question — this article is a feuilleton of the frilliest kind. But no Castalian would write The Glass Bead Game, either, a work of creation rather than scholarship. There are powerful, troubled currents under its deceptively serene surface.
It’s the perfect reading for your first semester — or your 50th reunion.