The Glass Bead Game
The Glass Bead Game (German: Das Glasperlenspiel) is a novel by Hermann Hesse (1877-1962) published in Switzerland in 1943. Another translation has also been published in English under the title “Magister Ludi”, alluding to the full subtitle, “A tentative sketch of the life of Magister Ludi Joseph Knecht together with Knecht’s posthumous writings edited by Hermann Hesse”. Hesse received the Nobel prize for Literature in 1946 and this book was a major reason why.
The Glass Bead game is a metaphor inspired by the game of Go. The novel carefully avoids describing a physical manifestation, though it ascribes its origins to beads on wires arranged like lines on musical notation – many sets of Go stones are made out of glass. It was first mentioned by Hesse in an idyllic poem ''Hours in the Garden'' (1936), composed during the same period he was writing the book. “The Glass Bead Game is an act of mental synthesis through which the spiritual values of all ages are perceived as simultaneously present and vitally alive” (Theodore Ziolkowski). Hesse was a seeker of enlightenment much influenced by Eastern philosophy.
The book is written as though by a scholar writing in the 25th century. There is a good translation into English by Richard and Clara Winston that captures some of the ironic sense Hesse had in pretending to be a pedantic future scholar. The book has been translated into many languages.
- At Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Glass_Bead_Game
- The article Literature lists many other books referring to Go
- The Master of Go by Kawabata, who also received the Nobel Prize for Literature, is probably the most prominent of these
 This may be disputed: see the discussion below.
Adamzero: Whether or not it was inspired by go, the Glass Bead Game, as it is represented in the story, bears basically no resemblance to it. While the brief history of the game notes that it was originally played with glass stones, unless my memory is faulty, by the time of Joseph Knecht the game was a complex set of ideograms to be drawn in complex arrangements on paper. It is not clear how the game worked. Apparently the players would introduce forms and concepts from mathematics, music, philosophy, etc. and then illustrate their relations via more signs, creating something of a symphony or flow of meanings. Its almost funny how much Hesse was a product of his philosophical mindset and milieu: the emphasis on purely formal relationships, and purely formal subjects draws so heavily from Kant and his pervasive thought. However, its interesting in that this book, while seemingly less directly inspired by German Romanticism in his earlier works (cf. Narcissus and Goldmund), could be read as the triumph of Romanticism over formalistic idealism: Knecht eventually leaves the game to re-engage with the world and its beauties.
Anyway, great book, go read it. I love it. Also, as the above reviewer mentioned, get the translation entitled The Glass Bead Game, the earlier translation under the title Magister Ludi is inferior.
It bears mention that “The Net of Indra” is a great rectangular network of lines bearing polished spheres at the intersections; the idea being that the spheres, like Leibniz’ monads, are individual beings or entities which know nothing of themselves, yet which, by each reflecting each in each, bring forth the universe as a vast collaborative illusion. Indra’s net is a metaphor the Internet, sometimes commercially and overtly, sometimes not. The concept is ancient, probably as old as Cro Magnon shamanistic wall gazing (or Bodhidharma’s wall-gazing) So there is probably an even older stratum in atavistic human culture in which all these concepts can find a common root.
I recently started a blog (gototengen.blogspot.com) to discuss different topics in the context of Go. Since Go is the closest thing we have to the glass bead game, we can use it to display the universality of knowledge. I have read all of Hesse’s novels and believe that when he wrote the Steppenwolf and The Glass Bead Game he was thinking of Go (he loved Asian culture). -KGS: Tianzi 4k
Patrick Traill: It is certainly worth a read, but I would need some evidence to be convinced that it was inspired by Go; in any case, Go is not mentioned in the Wikipedia article. When I read most of Hesse’s novels I got something of an impression that he only really wrote two, one being The Glass Bead Game and the other all the rest, best represented by Narziss and Goldmuund and perhaps best read when one is around 18. (This in contrast to Thomas Mann, whose novels I find far more varied.)