The Glass Bead Game: Hermann Hesse on Meditation and Yoga

“No noble and exalted life exists, without knowledge of devils
and demons, and without continual struggle against them.”
~ Father Jacobus

The Glass Bead Game was Hermann Hesse’s last published work, and he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1946 largely on its merits. Most of Hesse’s novels explore themes of Eastern spirituality and esoteric doctrines, and The Glass Bead Game takes this to the next level by describing a utopian (albeit satirical) society made up of elite scholars engaged in the preservation of Western culture (and to a lesser degree, Eastern culture).

Hesse said he thought of the narrator as writing circa 2400. Previously, the Western world had degenerated into the Age of the Feuilleton, which was marked by numerous wars, was completely bourgeois, and “given to an almost untrammeled individualism.” It’s an age that can’t quite be called completely lacking in culture, since people “chatted” about it in a way that’s bound to be familiar to readers of The New York Times today. Famous musicians would be interviewed about politics, and popular actors on the financial crisis. Some of the headlines in the Age of the Feuilleton included:

  • Friedrich Nietzsche and Women’s Fashions of 1870”
  • “The Composer Rossini’s Favorite Dishes”
  • “The Role of the Lapdog in the Lives of Great Courtesans”
The Glass Bead Game

‘The Glass Bead Game,’ translated by Clara and Richard Winston. It was formerly published in English as ‘Magister Ludi.’

Yet even during the Age of the Feuilleton, small groups of people resolved to remain faithful to true culture, and to “devote all their energies to preserving for the future a core of good tradition, discipline, method, and intellectual rigor.” Thus eventually was formed Castalia, an elite, hierarchical society devoted to the mind and imagination. Boys are selected from a young age to enter the elite schools—not solely on technical ability, but on having some potential for being an artist or genius (girls are not mentioned at all, and the Castalian Order is apparently all male). If they continue on successfully they’re admitted to the Order. The top level of the society are the Magisters of various disciplines. And the very most elite is the Master of the Glass Bead Game, the Ludi Magister, who is seen as almost a high priest among the players.

The details of the Glass Bead Game are never fully described in the book. It originated simultaneously in Germany and England as an exercise for memory development among musicians. The Game evolved into what appears to be somewhat like chess, but encompassing the entire sphere of art, philosophy, music, mathematics, as well as more obscure disciplines such as astrology, alchemy, and Chinese architecture. Like the Tree of Life in the Hermetic Qabalah, it seems to be a means of synthesis between seemingly disparate systems of thought. As Hesse writes, “The Glass Bead Game is thus a mode of playing with the total contents and values of our culture.” He elaborates:

Throughout its history the Game was closely allied with music, and usually proceeded according to musical or mathematical rules. One theme, two themes, or three themes were stated, elaborated, varied, and underwent a development quite similar to that of the theme in a Bach fugue or a concerto movement. A Game, for example, might start from a given astronomical configuration, or from the actual theme of a Bach fugue, or from a sentence out of Leibniz or the Upanishads, and from this theme, depending on the talents of the player, it could either further explore and elaborate the initial motif or else enrich its expressiveness by allusions to kindred concepts.

Religious Aspects of Castalia

The Glass Bead Game

Hermann Hesse

Although Castalia is not religious in any sense—they have no gods or church—the emphasis on meditation exercises is a central part of the curriculum and Castalia shares much in common with religious orders. Like joining a monastery, members of the Order severe their “ties to family and home until ultimately they would cease to know and to respect any allegiance other than to the Order.” They must obey the Order’s rules for poverty and bachelorhood, own no property, are excluded from political life, have few material possessions, and live a simple life except for their access to libraries and musical instruments. During the annual public Glass Bead Game, players and guests fast, meditate, and “live an ascetic and selfless life of absolute absorption, comparable to the strictly regulated penitence required of the participants in one of the St. Ignatius Loyola’s exercises.” Many other examples of spiritual exercises abound: The “Great Exercise” is a 12-day period of fasting and meditation. One member of the Order was known simply as “the Yogi.” Another is Elder Brother, who lives in a Bamboo Grove and is a master of the I Ching, even using the oracle to decide whether a guest can stay with him. For Joseph Knecht, the novel’s protagonist, the Glass Bead Game itself is a spiritual exercise: “For the dark interior, the esoterics of the Game, points down into the One and All, into those depths where the eternal Atman eternally breathes in and out, sufficient unto itself.”

The Music Master explains the goal of the Order’s methods to Joseph:

There is truth, my boy. But the doctrine you desire, absolute, perfect dogma that alone provides wisdom, does not exist. Nor should you long for a perfect doctrine, my friend. Rather, you should long for the perfection of yourself. The deity is within you, not in ideas and books. Truth is lived, not taught.

Meditation in ‘The Glass Bead Game’

Hermann Hesse in Montagnola, Switzerland, circa 1962

Hermann Hesse in Montagnola, Switzerland, circa 1962

The meditation exercises in Castalia are not described in-depth, but can be divided into two general categories: breathing exercises and imagination exercises. It’s not certain how often these exercises are proscribed in Castalia, but they seem to be advised at least once a day, or perhaps several times throughout the day since specific evening meditations are mentioned. At a stressful time in Joseph’s life, the Meditation Master, Alexander, has him do a “brief” meditation exercise three times daily, with the number of minutes specified for each exercise. Another time, Alexander spends time “in careful meditation to calm his intense emotions” the evening before an expected stressful day.

As far as imagination exercises, after one of Joseph’s first meditation sessions the Music Master tells him to try to copy down images he saw during his meditation. Another time, Joseph advises a friend to look at the sky and stars before he falls asleep, and to surrender to the ideas and dreams they inspire. One description says in the initial stages of meditation, to allow the flow of inner images to come without direction, like they do in dreams.

Joseph’s experiences with meditation are best summed up in this description, after he has been meditating for many years:

In the garden, he sat down on a bench strewn with the first faded leaves, regulated his breathing, and fought for inner tranquility, until with a purged heart he sank into contemplation in which the patterns of this hour in his life arranged themselves in universal suprapersonal images.

The description clearly reveals this the type of meditation to be similar to exercises based on the Qabalah. A related form involves meditating on a subject. For example, one time Joseph is given a paragraph from the rules of the Order as the subject of a meditation. Hesse was likely influenced by Carl Jung in developing these meditation exercises that so closely resemble Jung’s technique for active imagination. In 1916, Hesse underwent psychoanalysis with a disciple of Jung, and like the Swiss psychiatrist, he had at least a cursory understanding of Eastern religions and their practices.

A couple specific breathing exercises are mentioned in The Glass Bead Game. For a friend in distress, Joseph helps by guiding him with rhythmical commands. We also learn that Castalians are taught an emergency meditation for use “in moments of sudden danger to regain self-control and inner calm.” It consists of “twice emptying the lungs and holding the breath for long moments.” Joseph describes the importance of meditation, especially in moments of duress:

The moment an athlete receives an unexpected blow or pressure, his muscles react of their own accord by making the necessary movements, stretching or contracting automatically and so helping him master the situation. . . the moment you received the blow [you] should have applied the first defensive measure against psychic assaults and resorted to slow, carefully controlled breathing. Instead you breathed like an actor when he seeks to represent extreme emotion.

Throughout The Glass Bead Game, the importance of meditation is reiterated. The Music Master tells Joseph about a time in his life when he became very focused on his studies and neglected his meditations—a situation most everyone who’s experimented with meditation or other spiritual disciplines will have experienced. The Master says that the more we demand of ourselves, “the more dependent we are on meditation as a wellspring of energy, as the ever-renewing concord of mind and soul.” He says that during these times of passion and excitement about a project, the more easily we will neglect our meditations.

Another practice is what the Meditation Master called “feeling [your] own pulse.” This consists of reviewing each day, noting what has been done well or ill, as well as “recognizing and measuring one’s own momentary situation, state of health, the distribution of one’s energies, one’s hopes and cares—in a word, seeing oneself and one’s daily work objectively and carrying nothing unresolved on into the night and the next day.” Castalians use their yoga practices to exorcise the beast within, as well as in their efforts to choose neither the vita activa or the vita contemplativa exclusively, but to partake of both.

In addition, Castalians may engage in dream interpretation: When Joseph asks the Music Master if they should be mindful of dreams and if they can be interpreted, he replies, “We should be mindful of everything, for we can interpret everything.”

Past Lives in The Glass Bead Game

Castalia has no dogmatic belief in reincarnation. Yet it does have a curious tradition of requiring students engaged in their years of free study to write a “Life” each year. Each Life is a fictitious autobiography set in any period of the past. The author must “transpose himself back to the surroundings, culture, and intellectual climate of any earlier era and to imagine himself living a suitable life in that period.”

The purpose of writing the lives is not to actually do a past life regression, even though some students believed in the truth of their written accounts. Instead, the Lives served a two-fold purpose: as an exercise in imagination, and to learn “to regard their own personas as masks, as the transitory garb of an entelechy.”

The settings for Joseph’s three Lives, presented at the end of the novel, are highly telling about his inner constitution: a matriarchal culture (where he is the rainmaker), the Golden Age of India, and the patristic period of the early Christian church.

*  *  *

There is so much more that could be written about The Glass Bead Game: how Knecht is similar to Hesse, the influence of Christianity in Castalia, and themes of nobility, hierarchy, sainthood, and the preservation of Western intellectual and esoteric culture. Early in the novel’s conception, in 1933 Hesse wrote to a friend, “There will be a spiritual culture that is worth living in and serving—this is the wish-dream that I should like to depict” (1). However, by the time Hesse got around to writing the novel, his opinion of Castalia as a utopia had changed. As seen in the novel, there is much criticism about Castalia, especially regarding its isolation from the world and its long-term viability. Regardless, The Glass Bead Game is enthralling for its presentation of an ideal society, similar to that described in Plato’s Republic.

Notes

1. Ziolkowski, Theodore. “The Glass Bead Game: Beyond Castalia.” From The Novels of Hermann Hesse: A Study in Theme and Structure, (1965: Princeton University Press). Reprinted in Hermann Hesse, ed. Harold Bloom, p. 46.