Hermann Hesse’s Glass Bead Game Matthew Peterson, 2007.08.

03 Hermann Hesse’s Glass Bead Game was for me the Hesse book I read after Siddhartha and Narcissus and Goldmund. This book, I hoped, would perhaps find some conclusions or resolutions of issues that were dealt with, not entirely to fulfillment, in the two other books. These issues are matters of the soul and flesh, happiness, work, contemplation, etc. The book did find some conclusions that were new and worth looking at, but the ending of the book was very open for interpretation, and doesn’t satiate us in our search for clarity in life. Hesse never satiates us!1 But the beauty of his books is that he portrays life as something that continues indefinitely into the uncertain future. Narcissus and Goldmund teased me and pulled me a little away from the academic world. Goldmund is a great idol for a student chafing with boredom and the utter death of the words in Classics. The imagery of the name itself, Goldmund, is tantalizing.2 His person is characterized by the mouth, that whereby we are satisfied. Of course, it’s in one hole and out the other, and Goldmund is not in the end satisfied as we might be satisfied after a meal. Directly after a meal the satisfaction is felt, but it is ever dwindling and a few hours later we may be hungry again. Goldmund too is eating and eating and eating! The flesh of women, the sights of the country, the work of an artist, the fight and flight with violence. He tastes and consumes all of life that can be imagined. Yet he is not satisfied as one would be directly after a meal. That satisfaction is proved, in this book, to not exist. My journal contains a quote of Goldmund from the end of the book: “Without a mother, one cannot love. Without a mother, one cannot die.”3 This concept of a mother, it is interesting and beautiful. I haven’t thought of that in a while. But I feel I understand it. It must correspond with the feeling of life pulsing, that Mother Ganga.4 I have encountered the mother and it is sustaining and fulfilling. The Ganga is ever flowing and giving,

Realize that my opinion changes by the end of this paper. I became convinced that Hesse DOES give us utter clarity and certainty. It’s just that it is unclear how we can immediately reach those enlightened states. Of course, we can’t. Really, my asking for answers from Hesse here is my sadness that his main characters die. It is unfair, and skews my judgment of the spiritual matters being dealt with. Knecht died with perfect equanimity, but I am still upset about his death. I am like the boy who is shattered by the loss. But everything is working beautifully! 2 “Goldmund” means “Golden Mouth” in German. 3 Blue journal, page 74. 4 Donna Farhi’s book Bringing Yoga to Life (2004) has two conceptions of the background of all experience simultaneously. I took the “fierce heat of the center” to be the Mother Ganga conception (pg. 41). But the other conception is that of the “inner stillness” (pg. 43). I don’t put much stock in the inner stillness. It doesn’t seem to have as much truth to it as the more pulsing and lively fiery Ganga conception.

while the ascetic contemplation and study that Narcissus goes through is static and lifeless.5 The Mother does give us life and death. Narcissus comes into the world, but not fully, and will leave the world with just as little fanfare. But Goldmund throws himself into the world, and the world mourns his passing. Narcissus’ life though is not entirely without its appeal. But the book doesn’t focus on his character. I used to look up to that lifestyle very much, a lifestyle of study, mastering an ancient language, quiet contemplation, and withdraw from the world of temptation.6 And Narcissus is wise. He is a good teacher, raises boys to be good practitioners of Christian faith, and overall was conducive to a safe environment for learning, peaceful contemplation, and penance. Yet Narcissus even senses that Goldmund is getting some very good things out of life. He doesn’t think his friend is wandering off of the path, only that he has taken a different path, and he almost thinks it may have been the more devout and correct path. But he only almost thinks Goldmund lived better. In any case, the facts are that Goldmund said that thing about the Mother, and the words “burned like fire” in Narcissus’ heart. This means Goldmund stirred Narcissus to passion for a short moment, a man whose heart was so cool and minimized for so long. Although Narcissus was a man of lifelong detachment from the world and a devotee of reason and study, Goldmund’s sentence (and life story of course) stirred a fire in Narcissus’ heart. Passion versus reason and duty. Duty is convention and reason and clear communication, and passion is more whim, less reason, more force of motivation. Yet they mingle. We could passionately fulfill duty. We could use reason and clear communication to manage affairs of the heart, romance. We can even make a convention out of meditation, which trains us to shed reason for moments of clarity. As I describe these things, I realize that there are various kinds of passion. There can be the yearning for sexual pleasure, or the desire for peace of mind. There is the passion to beat up the guy that is dating your ex girlfriend, and there is the Passion (suffering) of Christ. In most cases though, I think passion must be proven for it to be real. My


Perhaps this book, Narcissus and Goldmund, is Hesse’s quest to discover the background of all experience. Is it Ma Ganga, or is it the Void? Goldmund thinks it is Ma Ganga, Narcissus thinks it is the Void, perhaps. 6 Strangely enough, for I imagine Kant was quite chaste, it is one of his statements that encourages one to confront temptation and enter the world, to leave the hermitage. Kant said that one must go past the beggars so as not to purposely shut out reactions of compassion. He doesn’t say we must give, but he wants us to confront situations that arouse in us natural reactions. Likewise, while Kant would approve of Narcissus’ discipline, he would also tell him to get out and move in the world, still falling far short of being the ultimate satisseeker, Goldmund.

supposed passion to have orgies with gorgeous young women all the time must not be too strong; the passion has never been fulfilled and I have put myself no further toward its fulfillment.7 Passion then is not so much a burning in the heart or a deep seated force that drives us toward future action. Instead, we could say it is that force which actually does drive us, in each of our actual actions. If a person says they want to be a writer but they are not pursuing that path, do they or do they not have a passion for writing? Perhaps their passion for writing is stronger than their passion for any other occupation, but clearly at that stage in their life, they have not the passion that is sufficient for action.8 What is more “deep seated” in their heart is the desire to stay put. Passions can be associated with every mundane action and they should. Each action is important. But this means that Narcissus does have passion, otherwise, what in God’s name would have compelled him to remain in his monastery for so long, teaching youth and reading Latin and Greek? It is clear that his passion is not the same as Goldmund’s. They both have unrelenting passion in their lives, but one chooses one path, the other the other. The crude way to put it then is that Goldmund wants to derive satisfaction from the Mother, the world, the sensations and pleasures of fruit, food, milk, honey, women, the grass, the sun, and visual and sculptural art. He loves to talk, to seduce and make love, sleep, eat, drink. Narcissus, on the other hand, loves feeling the pages of his books, the serenity of working in a stone room in a well kept church building. He loves to pace around the grounds observing the people, taking care to look into their hearts in case he needs to be there for someone. He loves hearing the birds call outside, loves knowing that the horses are in the stable, that classes are carried out properly, and loves mastering reams of text, having the laws of grammar of various languages in a good grasp. Is Narcissus’ passion from the mother? Goldmund’s clearly is. It is more basic. Before texts and churches, there was sleeping and sex and food. Goldmund is more grounded in the past, the roots of humanity, while Narcissus lives in a world that is more separated from nature. Buildings, classes, keeping horses for transportation, reading, these are not so basic. Does this make me conclude that Goldmund sucks from Life’s teat, while Narcissus finds his sustenance from dust, paper, and bricks?

This reminds me of Hobbes saying there is no Will other that that Will which prevailed to action. If action doesn’t accompany, then there was no will to it. Will, passion, are the end results of a consideration of various ideas. One decides, then lunges forward, not before. 8 Charles Sidman at UC, a fan of Skinnerian behaviorism, says that one can only demonstrate having learned something by behaving differently. Learning is evidenced by behavior, so is passion.

If we determined that Goldmund’s search was sensible but that Narcissus’ was unnatural and fruitless, we would be left with the question: Why does Narcissus search among such drier and rather unnatural things? We cannot call him crazy, especially since his lifestyle holds aesthetic appeal for us. Knowledge and felicity in language and equanimity gained from the study of spiritual texts, these are beautiful. Goldmund is actually easier to understand, although most of us do not engage in life like Goldmund does. Narcissus’ motivations are harder to understand, but we are all far more like him than we are like that pleasure seeker born of the Mother, Goldmund. Goldmund is braver and simpler. Narcissus is seen as less brave, yet he is harder to understand. Or so I say, because I cannot master this topic.9 We must move on. Now there’s the matter of Siddhartha. That incredible book, whose plot is burned into my memory, has made me passionate to be in the world, but at other times it has made me skeptical of a life of wandering. Siddhartha is not so much Narcissus or Goldmund, but he passes through both of them, and has other lives as well. He begins as an educated young Brahmin boy, fully learned in all the Vedas and meditation techniques and mantras. His environment is a traditional one with aristocratic abundance of wealth. At this pinnacle of human environments, one might expect Siddhartha to have no problem thriving. Yet he doesn’t thrive and he is frustrated. His meditation techniques bring him little solace. He might even know in his heart the unity of Atman and Brahman for all I know. That isn’t good enough for him. The world is out there and he must see it. And that desire for personal experience is natural enough. The religion he has been taught has less force for him than someone who understands the full range of human events. The making of a religion is centuries of humanity living through dirt, sex, war, toil, and reckoning. Yet Siddhartha, a youth, is expected to contain within himself that entire working-out of history, so that even at a young age he could sit on the top of this mountain of events and be the next step. If a father gets over alcoholism, then the son is expected not to drink. If the mother gets over her unhealthy clinging to men and then marries a good man, her daughter will be expected to have somehow learned what her mother learned, even though she couldn’t have. If the parents attend the university, then the children are expected to have the same passion for learning.10

Goldmund can be seen as complex because his thousands of sensual experiences allow his art to crystallize into beautiful works. Great artists cannot be dunces (or can they?). Narcissus’ life is outwardly simple. He dresses the same every day, his lifestyle doesn’t change ever, and he is one that serves others. Etc. It is not simple to sum up these characters.

Adults forget that they had to learn by experience and think they can just give commands. And a parent’s command is not a dictator’s command because love accompanies. But children often cannot see their own interests as their parents do, Siddhartha included. Finally, his father realizes that Siddhartha won’t listen. He must have remembered that knowledge must come from experience, so he grants licence. The great heritage of Hinduism wasn’t persuasive enough for this free thinking youth, and that is the sign that it cannot survive honestly as a dogma. If a religion can only be passed on by pressuring youths to blindly accept certain lifestyles, it is not honest. It must be appealing to the rational youth because it must be shown to aid youth in their mission to learn their life’s purpose. Siddhartha’s purpose was not revealed to him through meditation and his father realized this. We have to admire the father for yielding to his son’s spiritual development, but we feel sad when we realize, once the book is through, that the father in effect said goodbye to his son forever. A parent’s love was either vigorous commands with little persuasive backing or a good act of license that led to a child’s never returning. How there is give and take in every aspect of this! Siddhartha disturbs me at one point. He has a discussion with Kamala that I have never quite understood. He says that she and he are incapable of really loving one another. Their constitutions prevent it. Greater and more transcendental must be their knowledge and inner restraint, making love impossible. This of course implies that romantic love is for the less aware, the less transcendent of humans, the earth-clingers. But a note of sadness accompanies his statement. How can anyone fail to feel sad when one says love is impossible? And on logical reasoning, one might easily say that love doesn’t even exist at all! I have done so in the past and I realize I only ended up offending those that I love. I wonder if Siddhartha is obsessed with the idea that he is an individual that requires no assistance from the world for his well being. I made the same mistake: thinking that I could be self-sufficient. I thought of every instance of advice and assistance as just spare pennies, when in reality the help others offered was gold injected into my veins. And when I proved myself by refusing even that help, eventually I was weakened by this fasting! Is Siddhartha afraid of submitting to the pleasure that sex offers? Romantic love is accompanied by sex, and one who insists on their transcendent identity may wish to forego sex

Of course children are often more similar to their parents than to others. But those similarities are not about having learned to behave such a way. Children are like their parents because they mimic them. And yes, Siddhartha did “learn” to meditate and be the summation of Hindu development. Yet he is only mimicking it, he never really “learned” it. Hmmm, what would Sidman say about this?

altogether. If Siddhartha will renounce pleasure, then he thinks he renounces love as well. Cold his words sound and I am certain that Kamala was hurt by his words. No matter how high we might wish to go spiritually, how can we renounce our lover? We forget we are in the world! Siddhartha walks off into the distance, his son having run away, his wife having died. He learned from the river. Gazing into it day after day, he learns of the basis of the world. It is rushing life and death. Movement is the key and I suppose he became comfortable with that. Before he met the river, he constantly strives for what is constant. Traditional Hinduism doesn’t bring him a bedrock of spiritual knowledge, so he looks to asceticism. Asceticism leads him away from seeking a spiritual bedrock toward seeking a worldly bedrock. Yet his worldly pursuits confront him with the realities of aging, the monotony of work, and the fact that romantic love, one of the highest beauties in this world, doesn’t utterly satisfy. He turns to quick fixes and his health wanes through alcohol and clinging attitudes. Broken, and luckily having survived suicidal tendencies, he humbles himself to live without spiritual or worldly aspirations. Gazing at the river, he finally finds some sort of bedrock, and the bedrock this time is the knowledge of change. His ascetic training emphasized on change, but only on the passing of living things into death. His worldly training emphasized the ability of humans to bring anything to life, but it led him to run away from death. The river was neutral.11 Neutrality wasn’t yet bred into him though, and he was heartbroken about his son’s running away. His selfish desire to be loved and obeyed by his son was disguised as altruistic paternal love. He was finally willing to find satisfaction through loving another. He convinced himself that he didn’t love Kamala, perhaps to avoid suffering the possible loss of her love. But he had dropped that fear. He reaches for what he can! Love isn’t given though. Desperately loving, which is graceful enough because it is compassion and humility, still brought him no reward. It may even have been the cause of his son’s leaving. Siddhartha was weak and incapable of the tough love his son needed to be disciplined. We have come full circle. Siddhartha has now become his father’s antithesis. The father was dogmatic, but in the end yielding by necessity. No need to cage up a free thinking son struck with Wanderlust. Siddhartha, on the other hand, is the loving and licensing father whose last action with his son is the attempt to discipline him by returning him home.12

How beautiful the spiritual experience of Humanity is! Our bedrock is the knowledge of constant change! We must all be followers of Heraclitus and Lao Tzu. “Constant change” is an oxymoron! 12 Actually, Siddhartha’s father may not miss Siddhartha. But Siddhartha will miss his son. I could be wrong though. Siddhartha’s father could possibly miss Siddhartha badly. But I almost think, since he was so conventional,

Siddhartha is weakened and trained at this point to expect satisfaction from no corner. Satisfaction then arises where it isn’t expected. Expect satisfaction, get none. Expect no satisfaction, get some. But at this point, and this is why I think the book is overall quite sad, Siddhartha retires into the woods. He walks to his death knowing that he lived outside of society his entire life, having shunned all outside assistance due to his enormous ego. Yet in many respects, he had to go it alone since there was nobody in his life who could teach him as he needed to be taught, not even the Buddha himself could teach Siddhartha. But he did finally win the battle of the ego. It is an inspiring book and has the classic Hesse ending: ambiguity that brings us to the feeling that the story continues indefinitely, as it should. The end of Siddhartha’s life is the woods he walked into. The woods will continue after he is gone, and we know that others like him will pass through just such spiritual turmoil as he had. I feel as though Siddhartha’s walking in the woods was done before, and others will do it after him. Hesse’s Glass Bead Game is so much different from the other books, yet it isn’t alien to them. It is a story about the yearning for the pinnacle of knowledge. Closer and closer does Knecht seem to get to that pinnacle. The hope with which the book begins, the promise that the author lavishes on the youth, we know that this boy will be a Master of the Game. But we know too well that he is just another human being, with abilities not so much more extraordinary than the next person. Really, his intellect is more advanced and his music skills excelling in facility and graceful intuition, but we know that his problematic past allowed for the best upbringing. Orphaned, he was adopted into the best schools in the nation, nourished in his mind with all subjects. Teachers substitute for parents for this boy. His family is the elite academics. Each stage becoming more wise brings him the realization that he is somehow above the others. Excelling brings disillusionment and loneliness at each step. The loneliness becomes so strong that he seems to develop a longing for those everyday people of the world that cannot understand anything of the vastness of his intellect. Comraderie and togetherness is what he thinks the world offers.13 His whole life focuses on this strengthening of the mind. World and
that the father has maybe disowned his son in his mind. The lack of knowledge we have about Siddhartha’s father bothers me sometimes, but we don’t need further knowledge. 13 The life of the mind is so private that if one is lonely, yearning for the world is only natural. Since the mind is downplayed in the world, community is easier to achieve. As was once said, have you ever seen the Society of Independent Thinkers? No. And the Ayn Rand Institute has split into three groups now. The world is where to find commiseration, not among the thinkers. Perhaps though a new kind of thought, a more feminine and conversational thinking, will be incorporated into the isolation breeding male thought process, so that universities will be more hospitable in the future. They are presently overrun by males or female imitations.

the intellect are separated further and further in this book until they seem to be mutually exclusive. Yet Knecht comes from the gritty real world situation of his parents’ having died. And his friend Designori yearns to have the Castalian contemplation in his heart. Castalia needed the ugliness of Knecht’s parents’ dying for Knecht’s genius to transform and pass on knowledge. And Designori, for all his political power and material wealth, needs detachment and meditation to sooth himself. He needs the trust that only a person devoted to the truth can offer. Worldly people are reserved in that respect, being perhaps more distrustful than those more priestly persons who not only have nothing to hide, but refuse to hide anything!14 The world needs the contemplation, trust, honesty of the intellectual and religious realm, but that realm in turn requires that procreation occur so that it can add members to its ranks. It also requires the financial assistance of the world’s treasury. Mutual dependence, yet the illusion of separation. Hesse is so subtle of a thinker, and I’m not surprised that his last book brings so much more subtlety to his works than if he just wrote another Siddhartha. Instead of making the conflict be solely in the soul of one man, he makes the conflict between earthly passion and transcendent wisdom be a personal AND social issue. The characters’ relationships make this conflict so real and enlightening. The one-upmanship, the egos, the fear of others, the conversations, the hurt feelings, the mutual jealousy, the confiding, the commanding and obeying and the giving of advice, the student teacher relationship. This book makes the passions and the transcendent so integral to one another, yet we still see their outlines and their different shapes. Hesse doesn’t fail to make the beautiful Ma Ganga ending to his book. Magister Ludi dies in his most worldly moment. In his love for the world, he decides to teach Designori’s son. Without thinking, having admired the boy’s spiritual connection to the environment and the sun’s rays, he agrees to swim across the vast and icy lake. He doesn’t hesitate in the least and foresees no danger, but it is almost as though he knew the danger but didn’t care. He didn’t seek death and he didn’t intend to teach the boy by drowning so unexpectedly. But his desire to teach was borne out. The boy will forever be altered by such an event. He feels guilty; it is for his youthful and impossible idea that they both swim all day in icy water and the teacher dies. Somehow the teacher’s effort was not wasted. The young man’s reaction is most deep and hallowing. The moment of this boy realizing the teacher’s death is sacred because it is

This sentence might be saying more about myself than about real intellectuals in general.

transformative of this youth. It is strange how the book works. Designori’s son has cleaved to his mother, but that was just mimickry. I believe that he first found a role model in Knecht. It is almost as if the orphan’s parents have died all over again when Knecht dies. The Designori boy had no role models until Knecht, and he died.15 Knecht had no role models, and he eventually became disillusioned with Castalia, his parent. But the beauty is that Knecht could die without causing any disillusionment. That is another reason that moment is sacred. Knecht will forever live through the boy’s memory as the greatest and most noble teacher and human being. The boy knows it is his mission to carry on that man’s spirit and always revere humans where they deserve it. Knecht’s story is the story of increasing wisdom concerning all things, science, religion, people, society, and then disillusionment with his nourishment, Castalia. He serenely makes the beautiful sacrifice, both consciously and unconsciously (?!), of teaching the youth what love for the world is, what putting trust in another person is. Knecht’s lack of questioning of the swimming idea is his utter trust for the boy. The boy hadn’t been able to trust in anyone because nobody would trust in him. Knecht did and is the paradigm of trust, even though he had been disillusioned by such a wonderful gem as Castalia. We wonder a bit where Knecht’s trust comes from, how it arose, but it flowers and transforms a youth. Knecht could not be more great of a man. He resigned from the most illustrious post open to him. He went out into the world and died with no books about him. He left a legacy of questioning behind him. Hesse writes characters that are struggling in life. Struggles to find love, find contentment, find peace, find fulfillment. His characters always end up finding fulfillment, but they find it in different ways. Siddhartha finds it by absorbing all the negativity that had come to him and learning that life goes on. He dies in the woods. Goldmund finds contentment by going through a gauntlet of highly stimulating experiences, making works of art to recount those experiences, and dying at his starting point. He dies with his best friend by his side. Knecht finds contentment by humbling himself, realizing that no matter how intelligent and wise he

Knecht’s parents died, so he became an orphan taken in by intellectual Castalia. The Designori boy loses his first role model, Knecht, and becomes an orphan to the big forward rushing world. The sterility of Knecht’s past, his parents’ deaths, maybe that’s what suited him so well for Castalia. The Designori boy perhaps learns to avoid this sterility by observing Knecht’s death. What precisely that boy was taught, I don’t know, but it seems to be that thought alone is a waste, trust is beautiful, and don’t worry so much about worldly consequences. By the way, the way Hesse wrote this book, I feel like the Designori boy is supposed to be the Overman. Anyway . . .

becomes, emptiness can still creep in. He dies putting trust in a young boy, desiring in the end to teach him what he can. Each death is beautiful (well, Siddhartha’s is only suggested, he “walks off into the wilderness” means to me that he dies in the wilderness as an old man incapable of living in the woods). Each death somehow sums up their lives. The deaths don’t seem to take away from what these characters have attained. Their lives are admirable and examples for everyone. I can say little more than I’ve already said. Just remember that Hesse’s novels are beautiful stories of men (sorry, no heroines in Hesse) trying to fulfill their deepest needs. These needs are met but not in the way we expected. The dissatisfaction of life is creeping around every corner for every person in this world and so certainly it also creeps for Hesse’s characters. But they meet each dissatisfaction with honesty and endurance. They accept all negatives and see all the positives. Their lives have become perfect by the end. Yet we don’t know quite how they did what they did. We want what they have but doubt that it is possible. Or we think we have what they have, but we forget that Hesse –realistically—has these characters going through a full lifetime before their greatest realizations. I am 22 years old. I hope I keep learning, and I don’t humble myself for the audience, but I know I am not finished learning. I am restless, indecisive, unsettled at times. These books are great medicine. They remind us that others are also on this sacred search for personal satisfaction. Take my analyses or leave them for good. They don’t matter anyway. I won’t even remember what I’ve written here until I read the paper over again. I renounce all ties to this paper. I am sealing it with wax and sending it to everyone, including myself, who has yet to open it. Please, take this paper as proof that someone loves this author! I wrote this paper in the hot hot August of 2007, on Jefferson Ave in Clifton, Cincinnati Ohio, the United States. This is a very particular setting, but my thoughts might be relevant elsewhere. Goodbye.

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