Magister Ludi

15 Nov 2021 09:48 - 03 Jul 2022 09:38
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    • book by Herman Hesse
    • The Glass Bead Game (Magister Ludi is an alternate title) is Hesse's final novel, and the one that won him the Literature Nobel in 1946. It's somewhat science-fictional: it's set in an unspecified future where humanity is pulling itself together out of a catastrophic period (our own) and revolves around a single idea, an idea that is grounded in current practices but extends it into something new and strange. Even more than in most science fiction, the plot is secondary to the concept.
    • This concept is the Glass Bead Game itself, an activity whose details are never specified but essentially encompasses all other intellectual and artistic practices. It sits at the center of an institution of learning, Castalia, that is also a land onto itself, known as "the pedagogic province". The scholars live a monk-like existence and devote themselves to the study of the Game and other lesser subjects, and the novel is presented as a simple biography of one man, a legendary master of the Game, Joseph Knecht, the Magister Ludi.
    • The Game is something like the ultimate abstraction, capable of encompassing all knowledge. It's more like music than anything else; it shares music's weird relationship between formal algebraic structure, deep personal feeling, and the life of the spirit. It also has roots in mathematics, although those are not portrayed as well as the musical ones:
    • We shall now attempt to sketch the further steps in the history of the Glass Bead Game. Having passed from the musical to the mathematical seminaries (a change which took place in France and England somewhat sooner than in Germany), the Game was so far developed that it was capable of expressing mathematical processes by special symbols and abbreviations. The players, mutually elaborating these processes, threw these abstract formulas at one another, displaying the sequences and possibilities of their science. This mathematical and astronomical game of formulas required great attentiveness, keenness, and concentration. Among mathematicians, even in those days, the reputation of being a good Glass Bead Game player meant a great deal; it was equivalent to being a very good mathematician.
    • This grand concept of a universal knowledge calculus made my computational senses tingle. Is this not what GOFAI aims at? Particularly in efforts like the Cyc project, the apotheosis of the dream of "knowledge representation". However, the logical formalisms of KR seem pretty crude compared to what Hesse is describing. Cyc was based on a notion of representation as formalized statements or graphs,; while the Glass Bead Game is an entry into a higher, more spiritual plane, a practice, not a body of knowledge.
    • Be that as it may, the GBG is about abstraction, and software design is the closest thing we have to an actual art of abstraction, so this book seems like it should be of special interest to technology practitioners. The connection seems pretty obvious, but I actually couldn't find much written about it, with the exception of an over-the-top article by none other than Dr. Timothy Leary Artificial Intelligence: Hesse's Prophetic "Glass Bead Game" on JSTOR which claimed Hesse was "glorifying the Castalian hacker culture". OK.
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    • In the book, this over-refinement is a theme and topic and drives what little action there is. Knecht, a perfect Castalian who rises to the summit of this institution, eventually is forced to conclude that its separation from the world is a weakness and unacceptable to his own character, and scandalously resigns his post. The unnamed biographer is worshipful and somewhat clueless, if earnest, and so Knecht remains a bit of an unknown despite the detailed presentation of the facts of his life.
    • Within the world in which we live –and by we I mean the author of this present work and the reader – Joseph Knecht reached the summit and achieved the maximum. As Magister Ludi he became the leader and prototype of all those who strive toward and cultivate the things of the mind. He administered and increased the cultural heritage that had been handed down to him, for he was high priest of a temple that is sacred to each and every one of us. But he did more than attain the realm of a Master, did more than fill the office at the very summit of our hierarchy. He moved on beyond it; he grew out of it into a dimension whose nature we can only reverently guess at. (p38)
    • Between its subject and its form and narrative techniques, it is so damn spiritual that it is almost embarrassing. It is Apollonian to the max, lacking any note of sex or violence. There are basically zero women in the book, and while Knecht's has some close relationships with his male colleagues and teachers, these are deep intellectual friendships without a hint of anything more. Castalia and its inhabitants are far removed from the passions and violence of normal existence and history. They have perfected the via contempliva; the Castilian teachings include meditation techniques, in fact Weird Studies said it's one of the very rare depictions of meditation in literature.
    • The novel is, among other things, a portrayal of a certain kind of spiritual radiance; especially in the person of the Music Master. This is one of Knecht's first teachers and mentors, and towards the end of his life seems to enter an advanced state of contemplation that is almost palpable to people in his presence. Hesse's narrator makes it clear that in his eyes and the eyes of the community this was very real and also far from commonplace.
    • Page Notes

      • The feuilletons...seem to have formed an uncommonly popular section of the daily newspapers, were produced by the millions, and were a major source of mental pablum for the reader in want of culture. They reported on, or rather "chatted" about, a thousand-and-one items of knowledge. It would seem, moreover, that the cleverer among the writers of them poked fun at their own work. p11
      • Anticipating the age of Twitter and hot takes.
      • In that feuilleton world they had constructed of paper, people postulated the total capitulation of Mind, the bankruptcy of ideas, and pretended to be looking on with cynical calm or bacchantic rapture as not only art, culture, morality, and honesty, but also Europe and "the world" proceeded to their doom. Among the good there prevailed a quietly resigned gloom, among the wicked a malicious pessimism (p15)
      • Hess was writing in the shadow of WWII
      • But never forget what I have told you so often: our mission is to recognize contraries for what they are: first of all as contraries, but then as opposite poles of a unity. Such is the nature of the Glass Bead Game....
      • The whole of both physical and mental life is a dynamic phenomenon, of which the Glass Bead Game basically comprehends only the aesthetic side, and does so predominantly as an image of rhythmic processes. (p95)
      • I imagine," Knecht wrote to his patron, "that one can be an excellent Glass Bead Game player, even a virtuoso, and perhaps even a thoroughly competent Magister Ludi, without having any inkling of the real mystery of the Game and its ultimate meaning. It might even be that one who does guess or know the truth might prove a greater danger to the Game, were he to become a specialist in the Game, or a Game leader. 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. One who had experienced the ultimate meaning of the Game within himself would by that fact no longer be a player; he would no longer dwell in the world of multiplicity and would no longer be able to delight in invention, construction, and combination, since he would know altogether different joys and raptures. (p107)
      • Every active Glass Bead Game player naturally dreams of a constant expansion of the fields of the Game until they include the entire universe. Or rather, he constantly performs such expansions in his imagination and his private Games, and cherishes the secret desire for the ones which seem to prove their viability to be crowned by official acceptance. The true and ultimate finesse in the private Games of advanced players consists, of course, in their developing such mastery over the expressive, nomenclatural, and formative factors of the Game that they can inject individual and original ideas into any given Game played with objective historical materials. A distinguished botanist once whimsically expressed the idea in an aphorism: "The Glass Bead Game should admit of everything, even that a single plant should chat in Latin with Linnaeus. (p124)
      • A few tantalizing hints as to the actual nature of the game.