From “The Leopard” to “Sword of Honour,” part three

From “The Leopard” to “Sword of Honour,” part three October 30, 2018

Today, The Glass Bead Game. For the introduction & The Leopard click here; for part two, White Guard vs. The Radetzky March, here.


The Glass Bead Game is rarely named with these other decline-and-fall novels—and yet its form and themes make it almost too obvious a member of their class. Hesse’s 1943 tale takes place in a future where Westerners, fleeing the triviality and corruption of our own “Age of the Feuilleton” (which a demotic translator might render as “hot take”), create a protected country of impractical scholarship. Hesse captures the gawky literal-mindedness of self-conscious restorationists: In “Castalia” there is no art, only truth, and even the most obscure truths are treated reverently. But if the air is a bit too thin in Castalia it’s still strangely sweet. The Castalians compose no new music, but they perform the old melodies with a delight and humility which glow through the page. Their hierarchies are strict (“What a master did was always more than personal”) and sheltering.

Hesse tells the same story played out in every single children’s movie of the past twenty years: a misfit confronts a rigid establishment that won’t let him be who he truly is. But Hesse, unlike Disney/Pixar, doesn’t laud the heroic rebel. Joseph Knecht knows and longs for the peace of surrender to a hierarchy. The sequence where Knecht solves his friend Plinio’s family problems is practically self-help literature; and this passage, with its gauche unconcealed yearning, could stand in place of half the steps and traditions of AA:

“Previously, [the Music Master] had given Knecht a paragraph from the rules as the subject of a meditation exercise. It was the familiar passage: ‘If the high Authority appoints you to an office, know this: every step upward on the ladder of offices is not a step into freedom but into bondage. The higher the office, the tighter the bondage. The greater the power of the office, the stricter the service. The stronger the personality, the less self-will.’”

Knecht confronts Castalia not to condemn her in the name of individuality, but to protect her order from a threat only he can see. Hesse’s book is all ironies: a paean to humility whose hero must assert himself against the superiors he loves; a novel pretending to be a biography by an unnamed author for whom invention is impossible and individuality embarrassing; a novel whose childlike characters exemplify leadership and responsibility; a nostalgic work about a dying way of life, set in the far future.

Hesse elides the body’s hungers. All the food is paid for, there are girls in town but nobody ever gets them pregnant, a sage’s death is practically an evaporation.The novel’s sensuality is crystalline, extraterrestrial. Its harmonies are sublime but not quite human—too pure for the novel’s Catholics, who in one of the Church’s recurring paradoxes are diplomat-monastics.

The Glass Bead Game is almost a programmatic reactionary novel. Service, loyalty, discipline, obedience, piety are its refrains. Like all reactionary novels the book ends in defeat, and the prospect of greater defeats to come.


the last part, on Sword of Honour and conclusion.

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