A Defence of Poetry

Charles Cameron

A recent writer on the Hesse mailing list remarked that he found the current attempts to produce Glass Bead Games (which he had seen "in bookstores or on the internet") failed to live up to the musicality of Hesse's original.

This piece, examining one of Terence MacNamee's games in some detail, was my response.



IT IS NEVER EASY to "argue" beauty, but there are nevertheless ways of recognizing careful artistry in composition, seriousness of topic, and so forth -- and since it might seem churlish on my part to "defend" one of my own Games against a hasty critique, I shall try to explain here why I find Terence MacNamee's The Jewish Cemetery Game to be a worthy attempt at quasi-fugal form in what I think of as "the virtual music of ideas".


Hesse's Glasperlenspiel

Let's understand each other, first. My sense of Hermann Hesse's Glasperlenspiel -- of the form, in other words, which Terence MacNamee is attempting -- is drawn from two quotations, in one of which he stresses the overall reach of the Glass Bead Game, while in the other he gives us examples of possible moves, and comments on the nature of mastery. Here, then, is Hesse on the overall "sweep" of the Game:

All the insights, noble thoughts, and works of art that the human race has produced in its creative eras, all that subsequent periods of scholarly study have reduced to concepts and converted into intellectual values the Glass Bead Game player plays like the organist on an organ. And this organ has attained an almost unimaginable perfection; its manuals and pedals range over the entire intellectual cosmos; its stops are almost beyond number. Theoretically this instrument is capable of reproducing in the Game the entire intellectual content of the universe.

If a Game derived or drawing its inspiration from Hesse's Glasperlenspiel is to be worthy of its great original, it must in my view include insights, thoughts, concepts and / or values drawn from a wide array of creative and scholarly sources, and should be structured by a "reduction" of these insights which reveals some commonality between them.

Hesse gives us a detailed glimpse of the Game as played at its height, and it is here that he specifies the analogy between the structure of a fugue and the structure of a Game, and tells us a little more about the nature of the "reduction" of the insights and values involved:

Throughout its history the Game was closely allied with music, and usually proceeded according to musical and mathematical rules. One theme, two themes, or three themes were stated, elaborated, varied, and underwent a development quite similar to that of the theme in a Bach fugue or a concerto movement. A Game, for example, might start from a given astronomical configuration, or 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 allusions to kindred concepts. Beginners learned how to establish parallels, by means of the Game's symbols, between a piece of classical music and the formula for some law of nature. Experts and Masters of the Game freely wove the initial theme into unlimited combinations.


MacNamee's "Jewish Cemetery" Game

Terence MacNamee's "The Jewish Cemetery" Game opens with a Prologue:

View Chagall's "The Jewish Cemetery Gate". We stand at the entrance to a Jewish cemetery, as Chagall sees it in his famous painting. Read the Hebrew inscription over the gate (Ezekiel 37, xii): "Behold, o my people, I will open up your graves, and cause you to come up out of your graves." Enter the cemetery.
This sets the context for the Game, and it is a context which is at once beautiful and serious. It is worth noting that Hesse specifies "a given astronomical configuration... the actual theme of a Bach fugue... a sentence out of Leibniz or the Upanishads" as possible examples of opening themes, thus indicating theat the Game may be played equally with mathematical, musical or textual "ideas", so MacNamee here has chosen a theme from the visual arts. In this, he would seem to be clearly in line with Hesse's intention, which is to delineate an art form in which any and all cultural and scholarly artefacts can be held in juxtaposition, enriched "by allusions to kindred concepts" etc.

MacNamee then proposes his Sentence, which is the theme of the whole work:

Man makes man an object in the context of death.
He is going to explore this in terms of two "sub-sentences", which are worth quoting at this point, to give his readers a senxse of the overall architecture of his piece:
Sub-sentence 1:

In the place of death, one person presents another with an object taking the place of a living human being.

Sub-sentence 2:

The modern European scientist makes man into an object.

These two sub-sentences, together with their "tropes" or examples will lead to a final "Sentence gloss" which will carry the meditative thrust of the whole piece:
Sentence gloss:

When man is made into an object, he is ready to become a victim. A ram takes Isaac's place, but if man is reduced to an animal, he can be sacrificed anew. Only way to be free of this: by regarding both nature and man with piety.

Let us see how MacNamee proceeds towards his final, meditative conclusion.


Part I: Tropes from the Arts

He illustrates his first sub-sentence, "In the place of death, one person presents another with an object taking the place of a living human being", with the first in a series of "tropes".
Trope 1:

In the Jewish cemetery in Venice, Goethe's servant jestingly presents his master with a ram's skull, pretending it is a Jew's skull.

MacNamee offers a Gloss on this example. In his letter to Caroline Herder, Goethe says that his servant Goetze found a ram's skull and presented it to Goethe jokingly as a Jew's skull, and also that this incident caused him a new insight into comparative anatomy:
Durch einen sonderbar gluecklichen Zufall, dass Goetze zum Scherz auf dem Judenfriedhof ein Stueck Tierschaedel aufhebt und ein Spaesschen macht, als wenn er mir einen Judenkopf praesentierte, bin ich einen grossen Schritt in der Erklaerung der Tierbildung vorwaerts gekommen. Nun steh ich wieder vor einer andern Pforte, bis mir auch dazu das Glueck den Schluessel reicht.

I have come a long way further in comparative anatomy. Now I stand before another gate, until Fortune gives me the key to that one too.

This is really quite an extraordinary moment in the history of culture, both artistic and scientific: the theme involves a somewhat dark humor with perhaps a trace of anti-semitism, and yet for Goethe himself this morbid occasion affords the opportunity for scientific breakthrough...

Trope 2:

In the graveyard at Elsinore, Hamlet shows Horatio a human skull in place of the departed Yorick.

The text here is from Hamlet, V, i

FIRST GRAVEDIGGER:

Here's a skull now; this skull has lain in the earth three and twenty years.

HAMLET:

Whose was it?

FIRST GRAVEDIGGER:

A whoreson mad fellow's it was; whose do you think it was?

HAMLET:

Nay, I know not.

FIRST GRAVEDIGGER:

A pestilence on him for a mad rogue, a' poured a flagon of Rhenish on my head once. This same skull sir, this same skull sir, was Yorick's skull, the King's Jester.

HAMLET:

Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio, a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy; he hath borne me on his back a thousand times; and now how abhorred in my imagination it is, my gorge rises at it.

The veneration in which Goethe held Shakespeare is enough to suggest that MacNamee's second trope cannot have been far from Goethe's own mind during the incident in the Jewish cemetery in Venice.

MacNamee glosses:

The Gravedigger is also a servant, like Goetze. There is the same grim joking which, not being a gentleman, he may engage in with impunity.

Two cemeteries, two skulls, a servant in each case offering a skull to his master, I think we can safelky say that MacNamee has already enriched the expressiveness of his first Trope "by allusions to kindred concepts"...

His third trope is drawn from the Orphic myth, and takes a somewhat different tack:

Trope 3:

In the Underworld, Hermes presents Orpheus with the shade of Eurydice.

MacNamee here quotes Rilke's celebrated poem "Orpheus. Eurydike. Hermes":

But now she walked beside the graceful god,
her steps restricted by the trailing graveclothes,
uncertain, gentle, and without impatience.
She was deep within herself, like a woman heavy
with child, and did not see the man in front
or the path ascending steeply into life.
Deep within herself. Being dead
filled her beyond fulfillment. Like a fruit
suffused with its own mystery and sweetness,
she was filled with her vast death, which was so new,
she could not understand that it had happened.

and glosses his move thus:

The Trickster-god's stratagem is doomed because Eurydice, according to Rilke's interpretation, already belongs to the world of death and has little interest in rejoining the living.

MacNamee has made a shift here, he gives us another example of his first sub-sentence, "In the place of death, one person presents another with an object taking the place of a living human being" -- but here the "object taking the place of a living human being" is a shade rather than a skull. And it may bear noting -- since shades tend to strike us moderns as rather more nebulous than skulls -- that according to poetic tradition, Eurydice's shade possessed enough verisimilitude that it limped from the poison of the snake's bite which killed her physical body...

In this trope, too, death is perceived from the perspective of the dead: Eurydice "had come into a new virginity / and was untouchable".

The fourth trope, from Goethe's Faust, continues with this imagery of the shade:

Trope 4:

At Walpurgisnacht, Mephisto shows Faust a ghostly figure resembling Gretchen.

The text is as follows:
FAUST:

Mephisto, see you where
There stands a girl unfirended, pail and fair?
She slowly turns, and moves with steps of pain,
And, as I live, I think I recognize
My loving Gretchen, there before my eyes.

MEPHISTOPHELES:

Let that alone! Such thoughts can do no good.
This is a witchery, a phantom, dead;
To meet with it is luckless, full of dread,
Its frigid stare congeals the gazer's blood,
Till stony death through all the limbs is spread --
Of the Medusa, Sir, you must have read.

FAUST:

Indeed, indeed, the eyes are of the dead,
Eyes that no hand has closed or comforted.
That bosom Gretchen yielded, lovely, warm,
I took my joy of that dear, gentle form.

MEPHISTOPHELES:

That is the witch-craft, poor deluded fool:
Each sees in her the sweetheart of his soul.

FAUST:

What longing love, what ecstasy and woe!
This haunting gaze will never let me go,
And strangely clear, around her lovely throat,
she has a single cord of red,
Thin as a knife blade is the thread.

MacNamee glosses:
Faust sees that there is a red mark suggesting that her head has been severed like that of an executed criminal - Gretchen's actual fate. Mephisto tries to pass the whole thing off as a joke.
and in greater detail:
After seeing all kinds of supernatural visitants, Faust notices a figure that looks like Gretchen. Mephisto warns him that it is a mirage - it looks to every man like his own beloved. Faust says that the figure looks as though its head has been severed, because of the red mark around the neck. Quite right, says Mephisto, jokingly. It is a Medusa, whose head has been cut off, and it can turn you to stone.
We note that the dark humor of our first two Tropes returns here, that Rilke's untouchable virginity of Euridyce "filled with her vast death" echoes in Mephistopheles' suggestion that the image of Gretchen is in fact a Medusa, even that Faust's remark that Gretchen "moves with steps of pain" recalls the limping shade of Eurydice...

MacNamee has now presented two skulls, two shades of beloved women, and with his fifth Trope brings the first section of his work to its close:

Trope 5:

In the land of Moriah, Abraham sacrifices to God a ram as a substitute for Isaac.

The reference is to Genesis xxii, 13:

And Abraham lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold behind him a ram caught in a thicket by his horns; and Abraham went and took the ram, and offered him up for a burnt offering in the stead of his son.
As he points out in his Gloss on this Trope, we are picking up another thread at this point, that of the ram mentioned in Trope 1:
Goethe's servant picked up a ram's skull, pretending it to be a Jew's; again here, the ram becomes the substitute for a man.
At this point, MacNamee provides his Gloss on subsentence 1, which brings the first part of his game to a close:
With Isaac, a ram could take a man's place; but if man is reduced to the level of an animal, he can be sacrificed anew.
His servant offered Goethe a ram's skull and suggested it was the skull of Jew, and just as I think we can assume that Goethe was mindful of the "gravedigger" episode from Hamlet, so I am sure he must have considered the way in which Goetze's suggestion paralleled and parodied this familiar passage from Genesis.

MacNamee takes this parodic parallel, and extracts from it a forceful moral: that it is in seeing the other man as beast that man feels able to kill him without impunity. It is the force of this moral which MacNamee will explore tellingly in the second phase of his game.


Part II: Tropes from the Sciences

MacNamee's "sub-sentence 2" begins quietly enough:
The modern European scientist makes man into an object.
I don't intend to explore the Tropes here in the same degree of detail which I applied to the first part of MacNamee's game, because I trust that I have shown the quasi-fugal process of development by which his themes are enriched "by allusions to kindred concepts": suffice it to say that in this second part of his game, MacNamee turns from a broad sweep of the humanities (Goethe, Shakespeare, Rilke, Goethe, Genesis) to an equivalent breadth od exploration in the natural sciences.

He begins this shift in Trope 1:

Trope 1:

Goethe, in a flash of inspiration, sees that the human skull is the product of differentiation of the vertebrae.

and quotes the Gedenkausgabe (1949), XVI, 881f.
Ebenso war es mit dem Begriff, dass der Schaedel aus Wirbelknochen bestehe. Die drei hintersten erkannt' ich bald, aber erst im Jahre 179[0], als ich an dem Sande des duenenhaften Judenkirchhofs in Venedig einen zerschlagenen Schoepsenkopf aufhob, gewahrt' ich augenblicklich dass die Gesichtsknochen gleichfalls aus Wirbeln abzuleiten seien, indem ich den Uebergang vom ersten Fluegelbeine zum Siebbeine und den Muscheln ganz deutlich vor Augen sah; da hatt' ich denn das Ganze im Allgemeinsten beisammen.
Trope 2 explores the beginnings of Phrenology:

Trope 2:

Gall explains human mental function as differentiation of the brain surface, resulting in protuberances of the skull.

It is telling that in the text which MacNamee cites at this point, drawn from Gall and Spurzheim, Recherches (1809), p.272 sq., Gall specifically mentions the distinction which phrenological studies should allow us to make between man and beast, and that between "wise" and "imbecillic" men, those who should command and those who should obey:
Toutes ces anciennes formes et ces connexions mecaniques se transforment aujourd'hui en une collection merveilleuse appareils materiels pour les facultes de l'ame. De meme que l'action des differentes visceres, et la sensation des differens sens se trouvent subordonnees a un appareil nerveux particulier, de meme aussi chaque instinct, chaque faculte intellectuelle, se trouvent subordonnes dans l'homme et dans tous les animaux, a une partie quelconque de la substance nerveuse du cerveau. Si donc l'esprit est insaisissable pour nous, au moins pouvons-nous le retrouver dans ses organes, qui nous donnent la mesure de l'intelligence de chaque espece et de chaque individu. Ils etablissent non-seulement la ligne de demarcation entre l'homme et la brute, mais, en indiquant le degre de leurs facultes par celui de leur developpement, ils nous apprennent aussi comment la nature qualifie l'homme pour etre sage ou imbecille, pour commander ou obeir.
We can pass rapidly from here via Trope 3:
Trope 3:

Gall collects interesting skulls after the death of their owners for his private phrenological collection.

which as MacNamee comments
looks back to the macabre joking of Goetze and the Gravedigger, and forward to something infinitely more grisly...
to Trope 4, which introduces the theory of race (Rassenkunde) which is the ultimate topic of this game as a whole:
Trope 4:

Broca and others differentiate superior and inferior races of man by measurement of their skulls and brains.

He expands on this trope, citing Broca's work in the Bulletin of the Anthropological Society, saying:
Broca, real discoverer of brain localisation after the speculations of Gall, proceeded to inaugurate a physical anthropology akin to Phrenology, in which brains of different races were compared. African brains were found to be smaller and less convoluted, as were female brains, which purported to show "la moindre capacite intellectuelle de la femme"...
As MacNamee comments in his gloss on this move,
The promise of Phrenology is now realised: the specification of "comment la nature qualifie l'homme... pour commander ou obeir": Uebermensch and Untermensch.
The next Trope traces the same general idea as it is applied to Criminology:
Trope 5:

Lombroso differentiates criminal dispositions by anatomising the brains of executed criminals.

noting that Lombroso considered the criminal as "a holdout of savagery in the midst of civilised society"...

and then brings the racial and criminological aspects of this "theme" in the history of science to its terminus in the "German Science" of the Nazi Reich:

Trope 6:

Professor of Anatomy in Strassburg offers for sale Jews' brains and other body parts in formalin, shipped from the death camps, for medical teaching purposes in the universities of the Reich.

MacNamee's gloss here picks up on the ways in which this echoes the earlier tropes of this second part of his game:

This medical-commercial laboratory recalls the grisly collection of Gall, and the use of executed criminals as anatomical subjects.

and we have now seen how Goethe's ram's skull -- found in that Jewish cemetery in Venice, and presented to him as a Jewish skull -- has led via Goethe's own insight into the vertebral structure of the skull, via the esteemed scientists Gull, de Broca and Lombroso into the full-blown horrors of Nazi racial theory and practice.

The sequence is compelling, and although I'm not sure that Goethe's initial observation has any causal connection with the instances that follow, I think it's clear that the others follow on from one another in a trajectory which itself would be recognizably a "thread" in intellectual history -- a thread which we ignore at our peril, since it led via some very distinguished names to its terrible conclusion. All of which renders the grim fruits of the initial morbid humor of Goethe's servant's jest that much the more appalling.

MacNamee's second sub-sentence with its tropes has explored the sciences, then, as his first sub-sentence explored the humanities -- and the sequence of tropes in the second section has been more linear and consequential than the first, which took a more allusive turn.

He now sums the second section up with his Gloss on sub-sentence 2, which draws once again on Goethe, this time to poeticize the appalling point:

According to Goethe's law of metamorphosis (Verwandlung), things grow into higher forms; but now no cemetery is big enough to hold the Jewish dead.
We have never left the cemetery, and now return to it. MacNamee follows this with a Sentence gloss for the entire work:
When man is made into an object, he is ready to become a victim. A ram takes Isaac's place, but if man is reduced to an animal, he can be sacrificed anew. Only way to be free of this: by regarding both nature and man with piety.
Here the terrible logic of the reversal of polarity between Genesis (a ram taking the place of a man as sacrificial victim) and the Reich (man perceived as an animal becoming the sacrificial victim) is laid clear, and a way out is offered on the basis of this analysis: the solution being to regard both nature and man with a moral sense, or pietas.

This, it would seem to me, would be enough to qualify MacNamee's work as an eloquent essay on the moral implications of man's relationship with man: an essay, moreover, which conforms to Hesse's description of the Game by offering a "theme" drawn from a high level of culture, then enriching it "by allusions to kindred concepts" -- and managing this with a magisterial sweep of references, first from the humanities and then from the history of science.

This, in my view, would be enough for us to salute the author as an elite player of our Game.

But there remains one final touch, the capstone of this work, the Epilogue -- in which MacNamee returns to the Chagall cemetery from which we began, and writes:

View Chagall's cemetery gate again. Instead of Hebrew inscription, read last line of Goethe's 1790 letter: "Now I stand before another gate, until fortune hands me the key to it too."

Nun steh ich wieder vor einer andern Pforte, bis mir auch dazu das Glueck den Schluessel reicht.

End of game

Lusor victoriensis scripsit.

It is a beautiful ending, it seems to me, beautiful because it is a closure which is also an opening, because indeed in the course of the game the graves have been opened, the dead given voice, and our sight of Chagall's "Jewish Cemetery" refreshed and deepend by what we have learned in the interim.


A Glass Bead Game, then

MacNamee presents us with an extended meditation on some profound and uncomfortable truths: the sweep of his work, as befits a Glass Bead Game, embraces a wide range of cultural ideas drawn from both arts and sciences, held together by the common theme of the skull -- shades of John Donne meditating at his desk! -- and the whole is delivered with great artistry in a new and demanding form which comes very close to being a fugal statement and variations in the medium of a "virtual music of ideas"...

I hope that this exploration of Terence MacNamee's game will have shown why I at least can view his attempts at a Glass Bead Game as worthy of praise: I find this work beautiful in the same way that I find the works of Donne and Hopkins beautiful -- as a profound meditation presented in a form of art -- and I salute "Lusor victoriensis" on his accomplishment.

I believe that Magister Thomas von der Trave, too, might have found this game a work of beauty.


Go to:

Terence MacNamee's Jewish Cemetery Game
Terence MacNamee's Glass Bead Game
Hermann Hesse and Glass Bead Game Design sub-index

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HipBone Games rules, boards, sample games and other materials are copyright (c) Charles Cameron 1995, 96. See Concerning Copyright for full copyright details.