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Higher Education:
Hermann Hesse’s The Glass Bead Game

[1]3,230 words

The Game was not mere practice and mere recreation; it became a form of concentrated self-awareness for intellectuals. — Herman Hesse, The Glass Bead Game

Do you want to play a game? — catchphrase from the Saw film franchise

As the Western media continues to mesmerize the majority of the public much as a mongoose entrances a cobra, one of its finely-honed techniques is to distract by use of a repeated phrase or word invested with importance. This complicity with a magic utterance makes the public feel informed at no cost to the establishment. A recent example of this hybrid of propaganda and Tourette’s Syndrome is the phrase “supply chain,” which is now used in a mantra-like way as an authoritative word of power.

Now, it is not a challenging concept. Western consumers understand that rice does not get from the paddy fields of the Zhu Jiang delta to their plates in Nebraska by sorcery, and expensive training shoes do not walk by themselves from sweatshops in Cambodia to be bought by well-off white people in Manhattan, or alternatively stolen by reasonably well-off black people in Portland.

Fortunately, for those of us who can’t grasp the concept of a supply chain, the President of the United States — regularly and historically referred to as “the most powerful man in the world” — was on hand to explain everything, although for me, he only confirmed that he is planning to fund his retirement next year by putting together an Antonin Artaud tribute act. A century ago, Parisians would flock to see the insane junkie Artaud, unsure of whether they would witness him reciting his doomy poetry, having an epileptic fit, performing his theatre of cruelty, or wetting himself while yelping inarticulately. I get the same feeling watching Biden.

But it set me to thinking about another supply chain, one more metaphysical than physical: that of ideas. We are increasingly living in ideological times, agenda-led and centrally planned, and the ideas currently in the box seat are a toxic hybrid of the disruptive — and I refer you to Yuri Bezmenov’s four stages of subversion [2] — and the technocratic, technocracy being a delivery system for anarcho-tyranny. The central agenda guiding the West towards the ultimate dystopia — the one that destroys itself — does not arise spontaneously, however, and is incubated in an institution whose original raison d’être has been completely inverted: the universities.

The importance of the university for intellectual history cannot be overstated. English philosophy, for example, is umbilically joined to its universities. Even a partial list of British philosophers who taught and/or studied at the Oxford colleges alone would include Duns Scotus, William of Ockham, Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Jeremy Bentham, A. J. Ayer, Gilbert Ryle and Isaiah Berlin. (I am afraid American philosophy is largely a mystery to me, apart from a nodding acquaintance with pragmatism, and I would be grateful to anyone who might have a pointer towards the relationship between American philosophy and their universities.) The British universities were the engine room of empire, their exemplary rational approach to thought providing an intellectual environment based on ratiocinative inquiry (which could not always be said for our cousins, the French).

But today the universities are not for inquiry, but instead have been converted into the seeding grounds and hatchling nurseries for a malevolent, grievance-based, anti-rational ideology which will soon pollute the water supply of the public sector, and will in time direct the course of nations. The groves of academe are now a territory to be fought for, and fought for hard. At the moment, however, only one army has shown up. What if they gave a culture war and nobody came? Because, ultimately, you don’t need to be Sun Tzu or Bismarck to see that if you fail to stop an advancing army, it will keep advancing until it has invaded you.

The media, even the ones notionally on our side, take a while to read the tides. FOX News’ Greg Gutfeld — who I like as early-morning infotainment — was astonished the other day to realize that the goombahs currently either lazing around or protesting on American campuses will soon be the goombahs in charge of your local council and your judiciary and your government. Well, Greg, as the young people are fond of saying, duh. Where did you think they would find employment? Civil engineering? Biochemistry? Anything even vaguely productive? America’s universities — with Europe and the United Kingdom hot on their heels — are about to spew out the future of America and, to tweak one of Trump’s pronouncements, they will not be sending their best.

But then, there has long been a sub-plot to education reform which has been designed precisely to keep the best away from anywhere but the Ivy League and Oxbridge, where they can be trained to be the puppet-masters and not the puppets. But what would happen if university admission returned to being the meritocracy it used to be but is no longer permitted to be, a meritocracy which has not been machine-tooled into an ethnocracy? Robert H. Bork, in Slouching Towards Gomorrah, relates a conversation with “[t]he chancellor of a major university [who] told me that blacks were calling him a racist. I asked why. He said, ‘Too many Asians’.”

What possible curriculum would suit an intellectual hyper-elite, if they were allowed access to higher education on a meritocratic basis and not that of the fictional ideal of “diversity”? You would imagine such a curriculum would be, if nothing else, extremely serious. You certainly wouldn’t expect the most intelligent students in existence to spend their time playing games.

The Glass Bead Game is the 1943 novel for which the German author Herman Hesse was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1946. Already famous in his native Germany, Hesse also went on to become known to many arts undergraduates in the 1960s, at least for Steppenwolf, and to those of a more hippie persuasion also for Siddhartha and Narcissus and Goldmund. Timothy Leary recommended reading Steppenwolf and Siddhartha before embarking on one’s first LSD trip.


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The Glass Bead Game is an ascetic Bildungsroman set around a mythical province, Castalia, which is the elite of the elite universities. The account is made all the more authentic by Hesse’s claim to be editing the life of an actual historical person, and therefore missing some vital documentation you might expect to be present but including ephemera such as poems and scholarly essays. (George McDonald Frazer would also use this device of editorship of a fictional character by a real writer in the Flashman series). The title, The Glass Bead Game, refers to an intellectual exercise which is the sole focus of the students within the fictional province of Castalia. (Although I don’t speak German, the original title is prettily evocative: Das Glasperlenspiel.)

The Game itself is the preserve of the Castalians and the masters who mentor them. It is a hyper-intellectual game using symbolism and comparison, which takes its name from a rudimentary version once played using actual glass beads. The author explains:

A Game, for example, might start from a given astronomical configuration, of 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 intentions and talents of the player, it could either further explore and elaborate the initial motif or else enrich its expressiveness by allusion to kindred concepts.

The novel follows Joseph Knecht (whose surname means “serf”) on his passage from the elite schools to the most prestigious Castalian college, and ultimately all the way to the role of magister ludi, the master of the Glass Bead Game. Knecht has many worldly temptations along his intellectual odyssey. He has a friend who chooses the provincial life, the real world, rather than the cerebral confines of Castalia. Knecht loses interest in him, but his interest in the world outside Castalian walls has been piqued, and his travels outside Castalia threaten his relationship with the Game and its order. (A similar tension exists, if memory serves, in Hesse’s Narcissus and Goldmund). Hesse has written an esoteric, affectionate novel, but it is also one which casts many questions we may want to listen to concerning the role of the university.

Castalia is the result of social engineering of a sort — Knecht is reminded by an elder that the Game is paid for by the state — but represents the distillation of intellectuality rather than what we currently see, which is more a type of sedimentation whereby the truly creatively intelligent are forced to the bottom of the system in favor of diverse ideological fodder, worthless to the university and unable (on the non-STEM side) to think anything through in post-Enlightenment style, but instead there simply to be indoctrinated with neo-Marxist, flat-packed mottoes sugar-coated with the warm glow that comes with fighting social justice. Many universities now prioritize “social justice” over intellectual endeavor in their mission statements.

A key record of the decline of the American university, and one which can be extrapolated in the usual way and with the usual time lag to Britain and Europe, is Allan Bloom’s 1987 book The Closing of the American Mind. Universities are vital, Bloom writes, for a reason which was always certain to enrage today’s Luddites of the intellect:

[A] great university . . . made a distinction between what is important and what is not important. It protected the tradition, not because tradition is tradition but because tradition provides models of discussion on a uniquely high level.

Here we see why the model of the classical university kicks the hornets’ nest that is the “woke” generation. “Important/Unimportant” implies a natural hierarchy, anathema to the new Left. Also, tradition is seen as vital, and tradition is always white and therefore oppressive. Finally, “models of discussion on a higher level” is not inclusive because certain ethnicities are not given to a model of discussion but one of monologue, and inclusivity is the fairy dust the generation I call the “post-moderns” wish to sprinkle from on high across the whole kingdom.

There is no simple parallel to be drawn between the modern university and Hesse’s Castalia. The players of the Glass Bead Game are expressly disbarred from professional pursuits outside the city walls, also pledging “to abstain from government and competition and instead to assure stability for the spiritual foundations of moderation and laws everywhere.” The Castalians are not being groomed as Plato’s philosopher-kings, but more as a metapolitical regulatory body. There is no such disconnect between British universities and the political class, and it would be quicker to compile a list of influential UK politicians of the past 30 years who did not read PPE (philosophy, politics, and economics) at either Oxford or Cambridge than those who did.

The Glass Bead Game is about intellectual pursuit, but in a wholly dispassionate way. It is not practical philosophy. As Knecht’s mentor says:

Philosophizing should be done only with legitimate tools, those of philosophy. Our game is neither philosophy nor religion; it is a discipline of its own, in character most akin to art. It is an art sui generis.

The Game itself, however, does not arise sui generis, and Hesse sketches a cultural history of how Western civilization sees Castalian elitist intellectuality partly as redemptive, partly as an exotic item of expenditure for a state which seems to receive nothing back from the game-players of Castalia.

During this history lesson, the Glass Bead Game is shown in part as a reaction to the “Age of the Feuilleton,” or a time of light, engaging literature with no intellectual sustenance, and a sardonic foreshadowing of our own times:

Noted chemists or piano virtuosos would be queried about politics, for example, or popular actors, dancers, gymnasts, aviators, or even poets would be drawn out on the benefits and drawbacks of being a bachelor, or on the presumptive causes of financial crises, and so on.

In 1943, when the book was written, Hesse already understood why it is today that Leonardo DeCaprio addresses climate conferences and not Bjørn Lomborg.

History continues in Spenglerian fashion, with the age of frippery becoming darker, as “[t]hey had just fully realized (a discovery that had been in the air, here and there, from the time of Nietzsche on) that the youth and the creative period of our culture was over, that old age and twilight had set in.”

And so after the collapse of one phase of civilization, a new one begins, and “there arose the Glass Bead Game.” The Game itself is a curious amalgam of the classical humanities and the rigidly mathematical, using for its guiding principles mathematics itself and the discipline around which much of The Glass Bead Game revolves: music. Again, Hesse has something to say to our contemporary times, stating that “the more tempestuous the music, the more doleful the people.” And Hesse would only have been thinking of Shostakovich, and could never have dreamt of what passes for music now.


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There is a constant backdrop of threat to Castalia’s very existence. “Historically we are . . . ripe for dismantling,” laments a Castalian elder. Our age, however, has been somewhat more slippery. Instead of getting rid of the universities per se, the globalists have just exercised another of those catch-phrases I mentioned, one used in connection with COVID-19 and its origins: “Gain of function.”

The university was based on an ideal of truth and the search for truth. Now campus is where truth goes to die. The ivory towers of academia are now just an outmoded Potemkin village. (I discovered, incidentally, that the term “ivory tower” is a delightful amalgam of Sainte Beuve, a replica of Magdalen College, Cambridge, and the Song of Solomon. That is exactly the type of cross-pollination of meaning that would have delighted Hesse’s fictional Castalian students.)

A theme of the book is the worth of purely intellectual pursuit to the society that surrounds it and, as is stated, pays for it. But although The Glass Bead Game reads for all the world like a critique of the relative uselessness of universities, at least in terms of the humanities, ivory towers as they are set in the groves of academe, it is also a critique of technocracy and the levelling of the collective intellect. As Father Jacob says to the young Joseph Knecht:

Come now, of theology we will not speak. You are much too far from that. You could at least do with a few simple foundations, with a science of man, for example, a real doctrine and real knowledge about the human race. You do not know man, do not understand him in his bestiality and as the image of God. All you know is the Castalian, a special produce, a caste, a rare meeting experiment in breeding.

We find the same critique in Bukharin’s observation that “we shall proceed to a standardization of the intellectuals; we shall manufacture them as in a factory.”

This, of course, is the end of the modern university, to produce “students” who have never really studied and thinkers who have no conception of how to think, merely what to think, and who are ideologically conformist, anti-intellectual replicants. In effect, what emerges from the non-STEM collegiate body is human software which will soon be virally introduced into society and government employment, where it will become malware.

Where the Castalian gains entry to Castalia and the Glass Bead Game by virtue of academic excellence, the route to the glittering prizes requires a different type of paperwork nowadays. Scotland’s University of St. Andrew’s may not be familiar as a name, but it has recently been in the news for two reasons. Firstly, it has topped the league of British universities, above even the Oxbridge colleges for the first time. Secondly, students must now complete a short examination before they are allowed to enroll. Some Castalian inquisition for which only the smartest in the land need apply, surely.

Not so, and this is not confined to St. Andrew’s. Students must now complete modules on diversity, consent, and climate change. Failure either to take the short examinations or to provide pre-approved answers renders the student ineligible to take their degree. The paper on diversity requires admission of “personal guilt” and “unconscious bias,” and you can bet that the only people required to take that module will be roughly the same color as were William of Ockham and A. J. Ayer.

So, now the intellect is not enough to reach Olympus. Conformism is also required. And then, once the student has abased himself (because this is all aimed at men) before the new gods, he may find that the pursuit of truth is harder than he thought. Truth used to be the first casualty of war. Now, it is academia’s snipers that gun her down.

John R. Searle, in a paper entitled “Rationality and Realism, What is at Stake?”, notes that there are serious and deleterious changes being made in universities:

. . . not just to the content of the curriculum but to the very conception of rationality, truth, objectivity, and reality that have been taken for granted in higher education, as they may have been taken for granted in our civilization at large.

Taking Shakespeare off the curriculum is foolish and petulant, but ultimately meaningless, as the devoted student with anything of worth to offer will seek out Shakespeare for himself. But once you start removing the foundation stones of post-Enlightenment thought and reason — the difference between inductive and deductive reasoning, the law of the excluded middle, the difference between subjectivity and objectivity, the necessary superiority of ratio over emotio among them — then truth is in freefall and epistemology becomes a yard sale of random ideas randomly priced.

There may be questions asked concerning the worth of Castalia in Hesse’s novel, but what is not in doubt is that the students are the best the country has to offer, and the exercise and influence of the pure intellect is needed just as much as the practical, or we end up with the carnival we are now living in. Perhaps, when philosophy emerges from the exile she is currently entering, she will return as something like Hesse’s Glass Bead Game.

What happens in Castalia is that a certain breed of human being is produced, and this is precisely what is happening now in modern universities, but mutatis mutandis, the engineered breed of new Castalians is faulty, genetically weak, and intellectually negligible — and that is the idea. The modern British and American university (and doubtless others in the West and Commonwealth) is intended solely to produce identikit, bureaucratic, quasi-autistic citizens who have the affidavit of their degree (intellectually worthless if not STEM) in order to gain employment, and an inability to use thought to investigate the world and to grade it into wisdom and folly.

With the modern Western university, these “students” (who have studied nothing of worth) will soon be out in society, running things, organizing the remnants of civilization along totalitarian, anti-rational lines, closing down language, thought, and free enquiry as a priority. Unlike Hesse’s fictional student enclave, whose austere players of the Glass Bead Game are not permitted to enter public life, today’s students won’t be equipped to do anything else. Would that we could adapt the phrase mobsters and adulterers used to say about Las Vegas, and observe that what happens in Castalia stays in Castalia. Sadly, we cannot.

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