In 1943 Hermann Hesse published his last major work, Das Glasperlenspiel (The Glass Bead Game). It was first published in English in 1949 under the title Magister Ludi, which is the novel’s Latin designation for the chief controller and premier player of a complex and esoteric intellectual endeavor, the Glass Bead Game, which a dedicated monastic cult will have perfected in a peaceful and rational world about three hundred years from now. The book was important to Hesse’s winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1946, maybe because it was so long (892 pages in the original German edition). Hesse began writing it in 1931, and it asks to be read in the context of its time, though it has no overt connection to politics—in that respect resembling James Hilton’s Lost Horizon, 1933, also a vision of peace, possibility, and virtue somewhere else than here and now.
It’s not easy to imagine what reading it must have been like for German speakers in 1943 (Hesse’s books were banned by the Nazis by then). I read it, like many people my age, when a new translation (restoring the original title) appeared in 1969—a different sort of year, not three hundred years on, though sometimes it seemed to be: like living in the future, or far away. We’d already read the hallucinatory Steppenwolf and the mild Siddhartha; the theosophy and Jungian esotericism Hesse had grown up with were coming back hotly, the onset of new-old possibilities that somehow yoked renunciatory asceticism with personal liberation and indulgence, mild peaceableness with violent rejection of the status quo and its masters. It may seem strange that so many could have read this often tedious and peculiarly arid book, but they did—or at least enough of it to get the idea, the gist, of an all-encompassing, all-absorbing game that can be played but never finished, mastered but never won.
It evolves, or will evolve, in this way. In the Age of the Feuilleton—a period that seems to encompass both Hesse’s time and our own—though people have acquired “an incredible degree of intellectual freedom,” culture has degenerated into a mess of pandering to mass taste, superficiality, showing off, and a lack of rigor such that the very notion of “rigor” has vanished; truth is diluted to opinion and maundering, art is deprived of connection to profound practices of the past, writing and education deal with ephemera. This time of confusion and excess leads to, or is at any rate followed by, the Century of Wars, after which, through the dedication and labor of a few remarkable individuals, discipline and order are returned to intellectual pursuits. Formal mathematics and classical music from Michael Praetorius to Mozart are rediscovered. And while creativity and originality in art and other intellectual pursuits never recover from the bad ages, a new power begins to emanate from reviving intellectual centers, as from the monasteries of the ages formerly known as Dark. A strictly regulated brotherhood upholds scholarly standards of such purity that they gradually win admiration for standards in themselves. Teachers trained in the new institutions, called Castalia collectively, go out to instill a new elite with enduring values, and while the common pursuits of mankind—marrying, making money, politics—continue, at least they are pursued rationally and temperately.
(This sort of elaborated summary is actually the mode of the book, which is one long violation of the creative-writing teacher’s “show don’t tell” rule.)