Sunday, January 20, 2013

Game of lives

This Christmas holiday, besides reading the Diamond and Heart sutras, I also finished reading Herman Hesse's The Glass Bead Game.  Hesse was a German (later Swiss) writer who was deeply influenced by Eastern mysticism.  He traveled to India and Sri Lanka, practiced meditation, and wrote a novel called Siddhartha based on the life of the Buddha.  The Glass Bead Game, his last novel and his greatest, is profoundly marked by Buddhist themes and perspectives.

The novel takes the form of a biography, written in the distant future, of one Joseph Knecht (whose life is in the narrator's past but the reader's future).  Knecht's life plays itself out in the utopian realm of Castalia, a 'pedagogic province' that has been set up to protect and foster learning and the arts after a period of warfare.  The most promising pupils in every school in the land are sent away to Castalia, where they receive an extensive and varied education before joining the order of scholar-monks.  Joseph Knecht is among them.

The scholar-monks of Castalia spend their time engaged in the study of literature, history, languages, physics, mathematics, and music (they are especially keen on these last two).  They are also devoted to meditation.  But the activity they value most highly is one they invented themselves: the glass bead game.  This is a sort of game that is also a public performance, in which the artistic and scientific productions of the past are condensed and translated into an array of glass beads that provide unsurpassed material for contemplation.

The narrative follows Knecht's progress from diffident pupil to magister ludi, the Master of the Game and one of the chief officers in the Castalian elite.  It also describes the master's eventual decision to leave the order to dedicate himself to teaching in the outside world.  Since the hero of the novel ultimately repudiates Castalia, it might seem that we are being led to mistrust, rather than encouraged to realize, the ideal which the province represents.  But a number of elements in the novel conspire to ensure that our view of Castalia cannot be entirely negative.

The narratives of two characters in particular make the case for the defense.  The first is the Music Master, the high-ranking yet humble official who first discovers Joseph Knecht's promise as a boy.  In his old age, the Music Master attains a sort of enlightenment - described in the most orthodox Buddhist terms, yet without dogmatism or pretentiousness.  The second character is Plinio Designori, a politician who had some experience of Castalia as a boy, but left it to return to the workaday world.  Overwhelmed with anxiety, he exemplifies all the harm the world can do, and thus (by implication) showcases the real value of contemplative repose.  

The message of the novel is perhaps that meditation and learning are fine (even indispensable) things, but that they need to be put to the service of others to have any value.  This is the point of minor characters such as Elder Brother, a sinologist whose reclusiveness comes ultimately to seem selfish, and Father Jacobus, the Benedictine monk who criticizes the Castalian order for not submitting itself to a guiding deity.  This is also the point of Knecht's final renunciation of the Castalian way of life.

If the novel has a weakness, it is in the final part of the narrative of Knecht's life, when he returns to the world to teach but dies soon after.  Hesse clearly wanted to make Knecht into a Christlike figure (he dies while trying to engage with a pupil by swimming across a lake with him), but I would have liked to see evidence of a more genuine educational contribution to a larger number of students (his one pupil is the privileged son of Plinio Designori).

If this is a weakness, it is quickly compensated for in the novel's final section, a collection of three stories that were supposedly written by Knecht as school exercises but which Hesse originally wrote as previous incarnations of the novel's hero.  The first story imagines Knecht as a rainmaker in a primitive village who eventually sacrifices himself to the weather gods to appease his people.  The second reintroduces him as Josephus Famulus, an early Christian ascetic who serves others by hearing their sins and forgiving them.  The last and longest of the three stories is set in ancient India.

This last life tells the story of Dasa, a prince who is raised as a shepherd, ignorant of his true pedigree, because of palace intrigues.  In this brief narrative, Dasa gains a kingdom and loses it, gains a wife and loses her, fathers a son and loses him.  In the background is Dasa's growing relationship with a holy man who sits in silent meditation in the forest.  At the end of the story is a Borges-style twist that forces us to reevaluate what is actual and what is illusory.

The interest of the final three tales lies not only in the number of fine passages that they contain, but in the question of their relationship to the main narrative of Knecht, the supremely sophisticated master of a future artform.  All of the stories show some appreciation for learning, while making clear that true attainment comes only with service.  They also suggest that a form of devotion that combines deep contemplation and useful action can provide a refuge, perhaps even a release, from the turbulent trajectories of our lives.

I was disappointed with the Diamond and Heart sutras partly because in their dry intellectualism they failed to provide an appealing picture of what a good life looks like.  This is precisely what The Glass Bead Game is ultimately all about - ironically, the abstruse intellectual exercise of its title is eventually displaced from the center of our attention.  In the lives of Knecht, Famulus, and (especially) Dasa, we find as attractive and as vivacious a presentation of the central tenets of classical Buddhism as I have seen anywhere.

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