Hesse's Glass Bead Game:

a non-trivial pursuit

This piece argues that the design and playing of variants on Hesse's Glass Bead Game is a project analogous to the quantum physicists' search for a Grand Unified Theory: it was originally written for subscribers to the Magister-L mailing list.

Charles Cameron


Companions and Players:

In the course of a recent discussion on the Hesse mailing list, a subscriber wrote, "the Glass Bead Game isn't a real game..." -- and as I've just spent two years of my life thinking about the design of playable variants on the GBG and actually playing such games, I couldn't altogether agree with him.

I obviously do see the Glass Bead Game as a Game.

More specifically, I see it as the great master-game to which the arts as a whole lead -- and also mathematics, and no doubt the sciences, too -- and I think Hesse consciously intended it this way.

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Hesse -- as his "General Introduction" makes clear -- presents the GBG as a [fictional] expression of a tendency which he observes among thinkers of many cultures and epochs.

How far back the historian wishes to place the origins and antecedents of the Glass Bead Game is, ultimately, a matter of his personal choice. For like every great idea it has no real beginning; rather, it has always been, at least the idea of it. We find it foreshadowed, as a dim anticipation and hope, in a good many earlier ages. There are hints of it in Pythagoras, for example, and then among Hellenistic Gnostic circles in the late period of classical civilization. We find it equally among the ancient Chinese, then again at the several pinnacles of Arabic-Moorish culture; and the path of its prehistory leads on through Scholasticism and Humanism to the academies of mathematicians of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and on to the Romantic philosophies and the runes of Novalis's hallucinatory visions.
And Hesse's own list of precursors to the GBG is far from exhaustive...

When Mallarme, for instance, writes that he sees every individual poem (I don't think he means every piece of verse, incidentally) as a part of a single, greater poem which the world itself articulates (across all national borders and centuries) through her many poets, he's talking about something very similar.

When Wagner attempts to create a "gesamtkunstwerke" or total-art-work which includes poetry, music, theater (those we have in opera in general) and also architecture (which comes into play with the designing and building of the Bayreuth Festspielhaus), I think he's after much the same thing.

There has indeed been a long history of people trying to "create" or "build" what Hesse himself refers to as "the hundred-gated cathedral of Mind".

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Hesse proposes that we can do this in the form of a Game -- and he describes this game in less detail than it would take to allow us simply to go out and play it, but in a lot more detail than, say, we currently have on the way the ancient Egyptians played their game called Senet.

I happen to know a bit about this, because my current paid employment involves (among other things) "play testing" a version of Senet which will appear soon on CD-ROM, and writing the script for the "help" function which will get players out of trouble if they become confused while playing.

In fact there have been a number of recent attempts to devise playable versions of Senet -- despite the fact that we have no ancients texts recording the rules, and virtually none describing how the Egyptians actually played the game -- just some examples of the board and pieces in museums... and a hint that one might want to to play a round or two in the afterlife, since Senet boards were not infrequently buried with their owners...

And this is a game that we know far less about than we do about Hesse's GBG!

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And Hesse's Game is not just any old game, either, not just a new wrinkle on Monopoly or a clone of Mortal Kombat -- it's a game which encompasses "the entire intellectual content of the universe".

As Hesse writes:

This same eternal idea, which for us has been embodied in the Glass Bead Game, has underlain every movement of Mind toward the ideal goal of a universitatis litterarum, every Platonic academy, every league of an intellectual elite, every rapprochement between the exact and the more liberal disciplines, every effort toward reconciliation between science and art or science and religion.
I see no reason why we shouldn't take these words seriously. Hesse is consciously working in an age-old tradition of thought which strives to unite the arts and sciences, the sciences and religion...

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Scientists today have a project for a "grand unified theory" of the physical forces -- strong nuclear, weak nuclear, electromagnetic, and gravitational -- which hold our world together at the sub-atomic level. Nobel laureate Murray Gell-Mann describes the "modern form" of such a theory thus:

a unified quantum field theory embracing not only the photon, the gravitron, and all the other fundamental bosons, with their associated electromagnetic, gravitational, and other fields, but also the fermions such as the electron. Such a theory would be contained in a simple formula explaining the great multiplicity of elementary particles and their interactions and yielding, in the appropriate approximations, Einstein's equation for general-relativistic gravitation and Maxwell's equations for electromagnetism. -- Gell-Mann, The Quark and the Jaguar, 1994, p. 127.
It is clear that whoever comes up with a successful theory of this sort will herself be in line for a Nobel Prize to say the least, and will be thought of by future generations in much the same way in which we think today of Newton and Einstein.

Such a theory would be the culmination of a process of rapprochement and reconciliation which has been developing at least since Maxwell tied electricity and magnetism together. Einstein's own attempt in later life at a "unified field theory" was an attempt in this magnificent direction. And according to Gell-Mann, something called "heterotic superstring theory" -- don't ask me, ask him -- may in fact soon provide physics with the grand unification it seeks...

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Now, if there's any project of similar grandeur for the humanities...

I should tell you I'm normally a fairly modest fellow -- I'm English, after all, so I have a natural preference for understatement -- and I therefore say this with very mixed feelings, but I must spit it out nonetheless...

If there's any project of comparable grandeur for students of the humanities, it is the design and playing of the Glass Bead Game.

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Let me say that another way, in words borrowed more directly from Hesse's own.

The ideal goal of a universitatis litterarum -- of a rapprochement between the exact and the more liberal disciplines, of a reconciliation between science and art, science and religion -- is precisely and unambiguously the "eternal idea" which is "embodied in the Glass Bead Game". I don't see how Hesse -- himself, like Gell-Mann, a Nobel laureate -- could speak any plainer than that.

The Glass Bead Game is the project for a "grand unification" of the arts and sciences. Nothing less. Ahem. Harrumph.

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If by any chance you're still with me...

It follows that the language of the GBG is the necessary meta-language -- it will in some ways have to be far subtler than mathematics, though of a comparable rigor -- which will allow us to express for the arts and sciences as a whole the kind of overarching grand unification which so many scientists are searching for -- and the "Princeton String Quartet" may recently have found.

That's why -- it seems to me -- Mark Line's attempt to come up with a "conlang" for the GBG is so important, that's why it's so important for us to discuss the extent to which Hesse considers "weighing, counting and measuring" the only way of making links. Not because it's an arcane point in literary criticism (German, 20th century) and we enjoy that kind of thing -- but because it was Hermann Hesse who laid out in detail the program we're attempting to follow here, and any clue he can give us may (or may not) prove crucial to our success.

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Now I don't happen to think that the "grand unification" of the arts and sciences, or of science and religion, will take the form of a "theory". I believe that it will be far closer in spirit to the arts than the sciences, in the sense that it will have many masterful expressions rather than consisting in a single equation or set of equations, formula or set of formulae.

I think, in GBG terms, that it will be "games played" rather than "Games designed" which will express the unification. I may well be wrong about this, and it may be -- particularly with the development of a suitable Archive or Canon of the sort Mark envisions -- that my distinction between "Games designed" and "games played" will turn out to be a trivial one.

But I tend to think we are or should be working towards a "renaissance", rather than a single breakthrough insight...

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Ahem, harrumph, I said earlier, and I meant it. These are excessively heady thoughts, and may seem grandiose and inflated. Charles has been thinking out loud again, and even he's shaking his head at what he's hearing...

What do you say, my friends?


Charles Cameron


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