Saturday, December 29, 2012

Hermann Hesse: 'The Glass Bead Game' (1)

Written November 27, 2009 at 6:05 am
It’s been 40 years since I read Hermann Hesse’s novels as a teenager. Actually, I read only a few, those most popular to the ‘60s generation: Demian, Siddhartha, Steppenwolf. I don’t recall reading others, and I know I never read The Glass Bead Game. My reactions were mixed. Obviously, the sensibility of these novels overlapped with the ‘60s sensibility. The outsider consciousness of Demian resonated most. While I could relate to some aspects of Siddhartha, others left me cold, particularly the Buddha-figure who treats his disciples like children and rationalizes his position to the main character, who admires him even while going his own way. I found this encounter nauseating. On the other hand, I was taken with Steppenwolf, which also expressed the outsider sensibility in a compelling fashion. However, within a few years my outlook changed, and I still recall how I relished the put-down of Steppenwolf I read in a campus newspaper: “All work and no play makes Harry a dull boy.” Harry being the main character who takes his angst all too seriously, and me losing interest in this sort of reading material. And that was the end of my engagement with Hesse until now, lifetimes later.

I’m just guessing at this point, but there seems to be two warring loyalties in Hesse’s soul: one, the attraction toward the mysticisms of the East; two, the desire to preserve one’s independent, authentic, individual experience. The Glass Bead Game is predicated on another major element, which I do not recall in the other novels mentioned: a nostalgic feudal-traditionalist pole of attraction, which stinks to high heaven of political reaction. But since the main character, Joseph Knecht, harbors rebellious tendencies, and, who, we will eventually learn, leaves the hierarchical monastic order in which he ascends to the top, the jury must for the moment remain out on what Hesse is all about.

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