Sunday, 11 November 2007

Who gets to play the glass bead game?

My current reading-for-fun is Herman Hesse's Glass Bead Game. I've not read any Hesse before and I am certainly not a scholar in any of the areas it considers (**uninformed opinion warning**).

I am only around one third of the way through and am disturbed by something, which I'll get to in a sec.

I am enjoying the book, particularly the descriptions of the complexities and obsessive-compulsive characteristics of intellectual pursuits, the exploration of the monastic "calling" of academia, the role of the ivory tower in society and of course the dialectic of pure intellectual exploration and participation in and contribution to society. The glass bead game itself is nicely positioned as a kind of impossible metanarrative and a playful interdisciplinarity.

There's plenty in here and the tendency to somewhat ponderous or self-indulgent writing is justifiable when it works as well with the subject matter as this one does.

So, overall, I have no problem with the elitism of Castalia or its monastic qualities, because these allow the author to explore these characteristics of academia and its institutions in a more-serious Jonathan Swift kind of way. I like it.

Moreoever, the narrator, like the main character Joseph Knecht, betrays a weakness for the elitism and self-indulgence of a purely intellectual life - but also feels guilty and uncertain about it. It is utopian but carries with it all the dangers of utopia. I think a lot of us can relate to this and to the complex and somewhat uncertain positioning and justification for the intellectual pursuits of the academic system (the value of which we may be guilty of oversimplifying due to the similarly oversimplified attacks it is constantly bombarded with).

But the monastic qualities of Castalia does not, in my mind, justify the complete absence of women in at least the first third of the novel (will update this opinion if they sudden appear in the last two thirds). This might seem a little on-the-side, but I do find it quite disturbing and not a little insulting, to be honest.

For Castalia is a utopia - but the consequences of its elitism are questioned and explored. But what of the consequences of its gendered structure?

Here is the only real mention of women thus far:
The danger of wasting himself on women
or on losing himself in sports
similar, aren't they - women and sport? In their impact on intellectual life.
is also minimal. As far as women are concerned, the Castalian student is not subject to the temptations and dangers of marriage, not is he oppressed by the prudery of a good many past eras...which made them

We are of course only concerned with them...

turn to more or less venal and sluttish women.

Uh oh....
Since there is no marriage for the Castalians, love is not governed by a morality directed towards marriage. ... It is customary in the Province for the daughters of the citizenry

I am of course a daughter of a citizen, not a citizen myself...

not to marry early, and in the years before marriage they look upon students and scholars as particularly desireable lovers.
What an enlightened system!
The young men, for their part...since they have no money, must make their repayment by giving more of themselves than others would. In Castalia the sweetheart of a student does not ask herself: will he marry me? She knows he will not.
And I hardly know where to start with that section!

I hate it when I suspect I might be a little over-sensitive to these things, but an intellectual utopia in which this is the only mention of women does taint the novel slightly.

1 comment:

Tastaur said...

Given the ending of the book (and indeed most of Hesse's literary pursuits), I'd almost rather argue that Hesse is criticising a male dominated and male defined academic utopian Utopia. Hesse may not exactly be a crusader for womens rights or recognition but I don't believe he is trying to prove a point in the direction you are suggesting. The excerpts that you recite are literary tools to set up what will eventually become the main theme (not only in this book but across his literary achievement). He is flirting with the asserted seemingly conflicting, even mutually exclusive, desires of men: the liberating sensual indulgence vs the reclusive intellectual indulgence - both of which, in essence (in the book), exclude women in order to feed the male ego. These two desires are necessarily described in absolute terms - they have to be mutually exclusive (to the main character) for the inevitable transition to be as poignant as possible. But therein lies also the criticism of the male Utopia. (Whether this Oh so emphasised contrast is really necessary is another matter)
In most of his writing, the male main character (always eventually liberated from the mind's prison by immersing, or indeed drowning, himself in 'real world' pleasures) always seem tragic in his lack of understanding himself outside of the parametres of that very liberation. The delusional state of having reached the core of living, the "simplicity of happiness", is inadvertently his demise and failure to survive in either of the two realms.