Seventy years ago this week the first post-WWII Nobel Prize for Literature was awarded to Hermann Hesse. The award was in recognition of a lifetime’s work, but was also specifically linked to the 1943 publication of his final novel, The Glass Bead Game.
The Glass Bead Game had a huge influence on me when I first read it, and I still go back to certain passages for the quiet nourishment of all sorts of thoughts and feelings. It’s not an easy read but it more than repays the effort. The ‘Game’ referred to in the title is a complex, multi-dimensional construct that seeks to establish connections between every aspect of art, music, poetry, nature, philosophy, economics, human psychology, and all branches of science and mathematics.
Ambitious, eh? Not surprisingly Hesse gives many examples and details of the game, but never spells out all the rules.
I want to highlight just one theme of the book here.
In some respects it is an example of Utopian literature. It purports to have been written around the year 2400. The historians of that time describe the 20th and 21st centuries as “The Age of the Feuilleton”. ‘Feuilleton’ in French means literally ‘small leaf or page’. Hesse gives a brilliant, and far-sighted, account of what might broadly be called ‘dumbing down’: the transition from full length, carefully argued books to soundbites; the transition from Bach and Beethoven to jingles; the transition from Reason and independent, informed thought to manipulated spin, media politicisation and hysterical ignorance.
Seventy years on, more and more evidence has accumulated around Hesse’s vision, a vision that included the development of the internet and social media. One crystal-pure example embodies the truth of Hesse’s analysis: the power of Donald Trump.
Many eloquent pages have been written about Donald Trump and what he represents. Tempting as it is, I’ll leave aside the content of his communications. But consider the means of those communications. The most powerful nation on Earth has a President, a team of co-thinkers, and a subservient media, all of whom rule by Twitter and by the headline soundbite.
From 140 libraries to 140 volumes to 140 chapters to 140 pages to 140 lines to 140 words to 140 characters.
Can the Nobel Prize for Tweeting be far behind?
Of course, I am not oblivious to the notion that Hesse would have regarded blogging as part of the Age of the Feuilleton too…! So, here are two pictures of the great writer (try Steppenwolf, Fictions of the Self and pretty much anything else) smiling at things above his head.
The Glass Bead Game also encompasses the knowledge that all utopias contain the seed of dystopia. And all dystopias contain the seed of utopia. That latter seed is Hope.