Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Idealism in The Glass Bead Game

This is from Robert Galbreath's analysis of Herman Hesse and the politics of detachment:
But there is also an agonized optimism to his thought and a devotion to the ideals of peace and humanity which demand to be related to real life. Although many readers misinterpreted his novels, the books yield innumerable examples of Hesse's emphatic rejection of escapism in all forms: escape into pure instinct, into childhood innocence, into utopianism and aestheticism, into ivory-tower academicism, and action for its own sake.

I find this an interesting quote because I may have been (may still be) one of those who is thus misinterpreting Hesse. ‘Agonised optimism’ is an elegant and accurate phrase. I can think of no better way of summarising the conclusion of Demian, for example, or of the death of Knecht in The Glass Bead Game. I find that optimism refreshing. It is so rudely absent in much modern literature, which appears to revel in the gnostic travails of humanity and the encroaching destruction of civilisation. Hesse and Thomas Mann are beacons of hope amid so much darkness of spirit.

But a rejection of escapism? I find that more difficult to accommodate, given Hesse’s work. The key here, for me, might be a comparison of the roles in Joseph Knecht's life of Father Jacobus and the Elder Brother. Father Jacobus is a man of the world, a spiritual man – a Benedictine monk – who nonetheless understands how to engage in politics and how important politics is in everyday discourse. Despite his faith, he is Thomas Mann's Settembrini without the naivety, a liberal man of culture and cunning. The Elder Brother, however, is steeped in Chinese philosophy and is set on a hermit’s life of mystical search for self-revelation. This, of course, is touched on in far greater detail in Hesse’s earlier work Siddhartha.

Which of these two, Father Jacobus or the Elder Brother, is predominant in shaping the thoughts and beliefs of Knecht? It is an important question because, if Knecht is the spiritual centre of The Glass Bead Game, then the route he takes towards his own moment of self-knowledge is therefore one of the most significant messages of the novel. Is he guided by outward, embracing, political and social discourse, as exemplified by Jacobus, or by inward, almost solipsistic self-reference, as with the Elder Brother? I know I am crudely caricaturing their positions, particularly the Elder Brother, but I do so for a purpose. And the answer to my question is, inevitably, both, to varying degrees. But it is the degree which bothers me. Too much of the Elder Brother, and what I see is, indeed, a retreat into escapism. We see it, too, in Siddhartha. We see it, to a qualified degree, in Demian.

While I can certainly see that The Glass Bead Game, in particular, can be read as a rejection of escapism – utopianism, aestheticism, ivory-tower academicism – I’m not sure Hesse’s oeuvre as a whole can be read quite so straightforwardly anti-escapist. That may be my ambivalence about eastern-style medidative contemplation, but the more Knecht bends towards the teachings of the Elder Brother, the less anchored in reality and the more escapist I see the novel. This is mirrored, too, in the non-Castalian sections of the novel, in which the key message seems to be removal of the self from the day-do-day worries of the world as the sole means of achieving understanding.

I cannot accept this position. It is suggesting that the outside world is fine as long as it does not impinge on the inner world of the contemplative mind. This is a refined variation of solipsism. It is something which does - and should - appeal to younger people, still setting out in life and moulding their views, but should it form a template for human interaction? Indeed, how can it, since it appears to eschew interaction?

So, I'm curious, am I, as Galbreath suggests many do, misreading The Glass Bead Game?


Hella Kinesis said...

I suppose it depends on what you mean by escapist. The point of most eastern contemplative practices is to see reality as it is, without the mind imposing and projecting the constructed or linguistic abstraction upon it. Ironically, this requires a practitioner to embrace and witness the constructed world as well. Naturally- if one is to see reality as it is- one must the entirety of it, all at once. I think this is where Hesse is misinterpreted. It's the structural polar spectrum (illustrated so clearly in Demian) that he rejects. Enlightenment is a complete surrender to truth, no matter how mundane or outlandishly magical.

Tom Conoboy said...

Thank you for this.

I think, for me, the difficulty is that "The point of most eastern contemplative practices is to see reality as it is" is to a large extent what I mean when I talk of a "refined variation of solipsism".

While I agree about enlightenment being a surrender to truth, I'm not clear that it is possible to see reality as it is, in its entirety, all at once. I'm not sure the human mind is either complex or simple enough for that.

It's nice to talk and think about The Glass Bead Game again. Thank you.