The Glass Bead Game

When I proposed in last week’s Archdruid Report post that readers write science fiction stories about the crisis of industrial society, I wasn’t thinking of Fed chairman Ben Bernanke as a potential author. Still, a speech of his that made the New York Times a few days back suggests that he’s got a sufficiently wild imagination for the job.

In that speech, while trying to explain why shoveling trillions of dollars of money into the coffers of the banks that caused the Great Recession hasn’t done anything besides enriching bankers, Bernanke insisted that what’s wrong with the economy is that Americans are irrationally depressed about it. That, he claimed, is what’s keeping consumers from engaging in the binge spending that will get the economy moving again. You have to hand it to the man; it’s an extraordinary leap of fantasy.

Out there in the real world, after all, a sixth of the US population is living below the poverty line. Most Americans who are still employed are taking steep cuts in salary and benefits where they aren’t waiting day by day to see who gets a pink slip next. Then, of course, in a little over two years, Obama’s health care legislation will place yet another massive burden on working people by requiring them to buy health insurance whether they can afford it or not, at whatever price the industry chooses to charge for it, with only airy assurances of subsidies from a government already drowning in debt to balance against health insurance rates that are currently higher, for many families, than the monthly cost of the home they live in.

In other words, Americans are frantically paying off their debts, cutting their expenditures, downscaling their lifestyles, and trying to get some cash put by, because they have plenty of good reasons already to worry about their financial survival, and will have an even better one come 2014. It’s tempting to add another reason for worry to the list—a political establishment, on both sides of the aisle, that’s blatantly out of touch with reality—but there’s more driving Bernanke’s essay in science fiction than a simple case of common or garden variety cluelessness. The core issue, as I see it, is that the economy is not behaving the way economic theory says it ought to behave.

Among many other things, we’ve begun to see the first stirrings of stagflation—the theoretically impossible combination of a contracting economy and rising prices for necessities. That this round of stagflation follows the peak of world conventional crude oil production, just as the last round followed the peak of US crude oil production, is hardly an accident, but the connection is one that mainstream economic thought has an inborn inability to address. The dogma that demand creates supply, or more generally that financial forces can trump the laws of physics and geology, is so deeply ingrained in contemporary economics that the obvious connection between rising resource costs and economic malfunction is quite simply invisible to most of today’s economists.

Bernanke’s attempt to blame it all on an irrational epidemic of national gloominess will likely prove to be the first of many excuses we’ll see over the years to come, as the mismatch between economic theory and the facts on the ground becomes harder and harder to ignore. Connoisseurs of imaginative fiction will want to keep an ear tuned to the utterances forthcoming from centers of power across the industrial world; we’ll doubtless hear some whoppers. Still, I have to question whether any of this flurry of fantasy has much to offer as we rattle and bump down the rough roads on the far side of Hubbert’s peak, and with that question in mind, I’d like to turn to a very different work of fiction that brings up some points the Ben Bernankes of the world seem most disposed to miss.

This is all the more interesting in that the work in question, though it’s set in the future and makes some very subtle speculations about that future, doesn’t seem to have been recognized as a science fiction novel at all. This was probably a good thing at the time, because it won its author a Nobel Prize for literature, and you don’t get those for science fiction. Still, it seems to me that it’s past time that the work I have in mind be assigned to its proper genre. The novel is The Glass Bead Game, and its author was Hermann Hesse.

When I first started college, Hesse’s name was one to conjure with among the young and hip. He’d developed a cult following on American campuses about the same time J.R.R. Tolkien did, and for similar reasons; though the two authors differed in just about every other way you care to think of, both wove hard questions about the presuppositions of 20th century industrial civilization into their fiction. Both were accordingly dismissed as unreadable by most Americans until the social changes of the late 1960s called those presuppositions into question. When the reaction set in during the 1980s, Tolkien’s life’s work was neatly gelded by being turned into raw material for an industry of derivative fantasy that borrowed all his imagery and none of his ideas, and tacitly ignored the hard questions he posed about the lust for power welded into the heart of modern technology. Hesse’s novels were harder to stripmine for cheap clichés, and so in America, at least, they were simply forgotten.

Even in the days when every other college student you met had a copy of Siddhartha or Steppenwolf tucked in a garish backpack, though, The Glass Bead Game—for some reason, most American editions retitled it Magister Ludi—was a more rarefied taste. It’s a very odd story: a hagiography, more or less, compiled by a bumbling and officious scholar in the early 25th century, about a controversial figure of the previous century whose deep ambiguities of character and action go right over the narrator’s head. There are plenty of things that make it a more challenging read than some of Hesse’s shorter and more popular novels, but I’ve come to think that one of those relates directly to the theme of this blog: the 24th century setting Hesse shows the reader in brief glimpses around the life of Magister Ludi Josephus II, aka Joseph Knecht, master of the Glass Bead Game, is not a 24th century that most people in the 1970s and early 1980s were willing to imagine.

It’s one of the deft touches of the novel that Hesse paints that future with a very sparing brush, but the transition between our time and Joseph Knecht’s gets explained in enough detail to make a definite kind of sense. The early 20th century, in Hesse’s future history, ushered in what later scholars would call the Age of Wars, a century-long periond of prolonged and brutal violence that saw most of Europe repeatedly ravaged and the centers of global power shift decisively to other parts of the world. When lasting peace finally came, what was left of Europe tried to figure out what it was that drove the frenzy. The answer they settled on was the profound dishonesty and political prostitution of the intellectual life of the age—a time when, to quote a professor of the Age of Wars cited by Joseph Knecht in a letter, "Not the faculty but His Excellency the General can properly determine the sum of two and two."

In the postwar era, accordingly, the scholarly professions reorganized themselves on monastic lines as ascetic Orders, and each of the surviving European nations set aside a portion of land as a "pedagogic province," supported by the state but free from political interference, where talented youth could be educated, schoolteachers could be provided for the rest of the country, and scholars could pursue their research in relative security. Nearly the entire story of The Glass Bead Game takes place in one such region, Castalia, the pedagogic province of Switzerland. There and in equivalent provinces elsewhere, in the wake of the Age of Wars, the most gifted minds of each nation pursued research projects full time, and created a future...

If you were expecting that sentence to end "...of dramatic technological progress" or the like, think again. This is where Hesse’s future history bounces right off the rails of our expectations, into territory that may seem surprisingly familiar to regular readers of this blog. It’s worth remembering that science fiction of the more standard kind, with plenty of whiz-bang technology, was widely read in the central Europe Hesse knew. Nobody likes to talk much these days about pre-1945 central European science fiction, because a very large part of it enthusiastically pushed the aggressive authoritarian populism that got its lasting name from Mussolini’s Fascist Party and helped launch the metastatic horror of Nazi Germany, but there was a lot of it, packed with the usual science fiction notions of endlessly accelerating social change driven by limitless technological advances. It’s pretty clear that Hesse deliberately rejected those notions in his own work.

The future the busy scholars of Castalia create, rather, is a period of ordinary European history differing from earlier periods mostly in its lack of war. Technology, far from progressing, stabilized after the Age of Wars, and most modern machines seem less common than in our time. A trip by railway makes a brief appearance early on, but only that once. Automobiles exist, but only two of them appear in the story; one is owned by a wealthy and politically influential family, while the other is assigned to take a high official of the Castalian hierarchy to important meetings. Most of the time, when a character goes someplace and the mode of travel is mentioned at all, the trip is made on foot.

Other high technology isn’t much more common. Broadcast media, type not specified, play a minor role in the story at one or two points, and there’s some kind of projection system that allows equations to appear on a large screen as they’re being written, but that’s about it. Doubtless astronomers have big telescopes and the like—Castalia has astronomers, yes, but it’s the only science that Hesse mentions by name. Most of the scholars of the pedagogic province work in fields such as mathematics, musicology, philology and philosophy, or take part in the jewel in Castalia’s crown, the Glass Bead Game.

The Game is arguably Hesse’s greatest creation, a stunningly successful piece of social science fiction so far ahead of the conventions of the genre that its implications haven’t even registered yet with other writers in the field. Unlike most modern thinkers, Hesse realized that historical periods value different intellectual projects; the contemporary conceit that treats technological progress as the most, or even the only, valid use of the human intellect is simply one more culturally and historically contingent judgment call, no more objectively true than the medieval belief that scholastic theology was the queen of the sciences. In 24th century Europe, attitudes have changed again, and an abstract contemplative discipline, half game and half art form, has become the defining cultural project of the time.

For reasons I’ll develop in a forthcoming post, I want to take a moment here to talk a bit about the Game itself as Hesse envisioned it. It emerged, according to his invented history, out of the fields of mathematics and musicology, as scholars found common patterns underlying the two disciplines—the structure of a geometric proof, let’s say, sharing the same abstract form as a Bach fugue or a Gregorian chant. Early on, the game was played with an abacus-like device with wires representing the conventional musical staff, and glass beads of different sizes, colors, shapes, and so on—thus the name of the Game—providing a more complex alphabet in place of simple musical notes. Later on, a formal mathematical script was developed; more scholarly disciplines took up the Game, finding their own abstract patterns and relating them to the musico-mathematic core; meditation exercises became part of the toolkit; public Games, attended by crowds, broadcast to large audiences, and surrounded by festivals of music and the arts, became major annual spectacles.

It’s another of Hesse’s defter touches that by the time of Joseph Knecht, the golden age of the Glass Bead Game is already past. Public Games that once extended for a month straight now run for two weeks at most, attended by smaller audiences and fewer public officials; the first stirrings of discontent about the funding allotted to Castalia and its equivalents are beginning to be heard; political events in the Far East have raised the specter of an end to the long period of European peace. How this plays out in the course of the story is something I’ll leave to those of my readers who decide to try Hesse’s novel for themselves, but it’s not giving anything away to say that Hesse’s sensitivity to the pace of historic change was a good deal keener than that of most other authors of science fiction.

There are two reasons I’ve chosen to discuss The Glass Bead Game here—well, three, counting the simple fact that it’s an old favorite of mine that deserves more attention than it’s gotten in recent decades. Aside from that, first of all, Hesse’s future Europe may not quite be an ecotechnic society, but it’s the kind of society that could exist and flourish in a future on the far side of peak oil. A nation or a continent in which automobiles are a rare and expensive luxury, railroads provide the bulk of what mechanized transport is needed, high technology is relatively scarce, and the values of society focus on pursuits that don’t require burning up immense quantities of cheap energy, could probably get by tolerably well, and provide a decent standard of living to its population, in the absence of fossil fuels. At a time when most people can’t conceive of a world that lacks our current glut of cheap abundant energy without turning immediately to the fantasies of squalor and savagery our culture habitually projects onto the inkblot patterns of the past, Hesse’s novel suggests an alternative view—though he’s quite clear, of course, that the route there leads through some very harsh territory.

The second reason follows from this, and heads in directions that will be as uncomfortable for many of my readers as it is unavoidable. It’s pretty much standard practice for every society to assume that its particular tastes and values are universal truths, and to think that any society that doesn’t share those tastes and values is by definition ignorant, or backward, or—well, you can fill in the putdown of your choice; there are plenty to go around. Our culture’s obsession with replacing human capacities by machines is a case in point. It’s very nearly unquestioned in modern industrial societies that getting a machine to do something that human beings would otherwise do is a good thing; even nations with crippling rates of unemployment persist in using a definition of productivity that amounts in practice to seeing how many people can be put out of work by replacing their labor with machines.

Our machine fetish, as I’ve discussed here more than once in the past, could only be indulged in so long as the extravagant use of fossil fuels made mechanical labor cheaper than human labor. That’s already started to reverse—there are good reasons, after all, why most of the world’s manufacturing is now done in Third World countries using cheap human labor rather than in the industrial world with expensive automated machines—but the cult of the machine retains much of its grip on our collective imagination. Even among those who recognize that the age of cheap energy is ending, the most common first reaction is to try to find some way to keep some favorite type of machine running—automobiles, the internet, the space program, you name it.

Among the most crucial tasks facing the pioneers of the deindustrial age, in turn, are those involved in slipping free of that now-obsolete mindset. Machines, as I think most of us have noticed by now, make very poor replacements for human beings, and the reverse is almost as true. Shifting from a machine society to a human society in the wake of peak oil, then, is not simply a matter of replacing one set of components with another that happen to be human. It’s necessary to replace attitudes, values, and expectations that are suited to machines—and nearly the entire modern worldview can be summed up in these terms—with the very different attitudes, values, and expectations that produce good results when applied to human beings.

That leads in turn to issues that have been implicit in the project of this blog since its beginning more than five years ago, but that I’ve been doing my level best to avoid bringing up. At the core of these issues lies a topic so heavily loaded with ignorance and deliberate misunderstanding on all sides that it’s seemed far wiser to leave it well alone. Still, if we’re going to finish the project of exploring a toolkit for green wizards—a set of skills and a knowledge base suited to the crisis of industrial society and the hard work of beginning to build a new way of life while the old one is tottering around us—it can’t be avoided any longer. For that reason, despite serious misgivings, I’m going to begin a series of posts next week that will talk about the relationship between peak oil and magic.