Friday, January 16, 2009

The Glass Bead Game

Guys, I'm writing this post mainly as a way for me to sort out some thoughts I've been having about a concept in a book I'm reading. The book is the Glass Bead Game by Hermann Hesse and it's really, really good.

I just read a page and it really brought a lot of sort of frayed ends together in relation to a defining aspect of the book - the Glass Bead Game itself. So here, I'm going attempt to make a bit of sense out of what I have been able to understand about the game so far. Keep in mind I'm only 200 pages into a 550 page book.

The premise is that several hundred hears in the future, we develop the Glass Bead Game. It is important to note that it seems to be considered a game only insofar as it serves no purpose except that onto itself. The theory, as well as the games themselves, work to expand the language and mode of the game, but beyond that, and seemingly on purpose, the game has no purpose.

Now, to briefly sketch out the premise of the game.

Basically, what happens in a Glass Bead Game is that the participants take one to several basic components and build upon them to create a perfect and unified whole. These components can be anything from a bit of history, a famous quote, a mathematical figure, an astronomical movement, etc. In essence, anything that can be studied and understood can be dealt with.

For instance, one game that is described in some detail early on takes a saying from Confucius as its starting point and builds out from there. Eventually, the game players use other bits of knowledge (so to speak) in order sketch out the entire rise and fall of a now dead language. It seems to be a new way for humans to look at and understand the world around them.

Of course to go into the details would be absolutely ridiculous. Instead, Hesse leaves both the true form and the content of the games almost completely out of his descriptions of it. It's hard enough to simply conceive of the game, let alone actually describe one.

I think the closest analogy to a glass bead game is sort of like playing music with a group of people. A sound can come to represent any number of things. It has to do with physics, pure mathematics, history, sensory perception, anything. But, in the end, as much as it can come to represent, it is still just music. Yes, you can make an argument that music does this or that, but unless it is serving some specific function, perhaps in a religious sense, it has no purpose except that which we give it.

Anyway, that's probably extremely confusing and does nothing except help me sort out my own thoughts on this extremely confusing idea. Honestly though, Hesse is such a genius for thinking this up and here's why.

So going off of our Glass Bead Game/playing music comparison, here's an extended quotation from the book which I will attempt to explain the significance of after I write it out:

The foremost players distinguished two principal types of Game, the formal and the psychological. We know that Knecht (the main character and future "Master of the Game") belonged to the champions of the latter type. Knecht, however, instead of speaking of the "psychological" mode of play usually preferred the word "pedagogical."

In the formal Game, the player sought to compose out of the objective content of every game, out of the mathematical, linguistic, musical, and other elements, as dense, coherent, and formally perfect a unity and harmony as possible. In the psychological Game, on the other hand, the object was to create unity and harmony, cosmic roundedness and perfection, not so much in the choice, arrangement, interweaving, association and contrast of the contents as in the meditation which followed every stage of the Game. All the stress was placed on this meditation. Such a psychological-or to use Knecth's word, pedagogical-Game did not display perfection to the outward eye. Rather, it guided the player by means of its succession of precisely prescribed meditations, toward experiencing perfection and divinity. "The Game as I conceive it," Knecht once wrote to the former Music Master, "encompasses the player after the completion of meditation as the surface of a sphere encompasses its center, and leaves him with the feeling that he has extracted from the universe of accident and confusion a totally symmetrical and harmonious cosmos, and absorbed it into himself."


So yeah, basically in terms of music, the formal Game would be like figuring out a way to play a bunch of songs about springtime, for instance, or war, or songs that all follow the same sonata pattern, at once so as to create an image of perfection and a unified whole on whatever idea, from the broadest to the most singular the players focus on. This is more akin to traditional music playing.

The psychological Game is more like jamming, but REALLY REALLY good jamming.

I don't think the point needs to go any further than that right now.

But I will say this. As an analog for philosophical thought, the formal game represents the peak of scientific understanding. It assumes that there is no "greater" ideal than that which manifests itself in what we see and understand. The psychological presupposes something deeper, and something unifying which can only be got at by both piecing everything we understand together, but also by looking inward and finding that "missing" connector.

To quote Dickens, "Put that in your pipe and smoke it!"

I probably would fall into the category of formalists, but maybe it's just because I don't meditate enough. Hopefully I'll feel compelled to write more on this topic as I get further into the book.


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