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The Story of Sembl, I: Herman Hesse’s Glass Bead Game

Wednesday, January 2nd, 2013

[ by Charles Cameron — cross-posted from Sembl — first in a series on the inspirations & developments that led to Sembl, & the aspirations that flow from them ]
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Music for a Glass Bead Game, Arturo Delmoni & Nathaniel Rosen, from  John Marks Records

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Hermann Hesse is just about due for a revival.

While other novelists on the whole explored the “real world” around them, the outside world, the world of other people and things, Hermann Hesse was concerned with the “inner” world – the world of hopes, dreams, distress, anguish, rage and insight. With his 1927 novel Steppenwolf, he introduced us to the “dark side” of ourselves, our “shadow” to use Jung’s term, long before Star Wars, longer before the Sith Lord Cheney committed the United States to work “sort of the dark side, if you will … to spend time in the shadows in the intelligence world.” And if Steppenwolf showed us our shadow, in his earlier novel Siddhartha (1922) he had already shown us the light – in a deliciously sensual revisioning of the young Buddha‘s ascetic purity.

Siddhartha and Steppenwolf between them provided cover for generations of young idealists coming to terms with their own dreams and nightmares, but it was in his final great novel Das Glasperlenspiel (1943), known in English as The Glass Bead Game or Magister Ludi, which won him the Nobel Prize in Literature while confusing and losing many of his admirers — and inspiring beyond measure those who stayed with him.

Hesse’s grand vision was of a game played by the members of a scholarly caste – monastic Brahmins of a secular, post European world – whose purpose, pleasure and play it was to bring all human culture into one architecture, one music, woven of similarities, parallelisms, patterns, archetypes.

As an architecture of insights, Hesse spoke of this great game of his as “harmoniously building the hundred-gated cathedral of Mind.” In musical terms, he described the game as a virtual music in which “ideas” rather than “melodies” would be harmonized or held in counterpoint:

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.

And the game’s ultimate destination – besides the creation of an overarching synthesis uniting sciences and arts, great leaps of discovery and profound flights of imagination?

Every transition from major to minor in a sonata, every transformation of a myth or a religious cult, every classical or artistic formulation was, I realized in that flashing moment, if seen with a truly meditative mind, nothing but a direct route into the interior of the cosmic mystery, where in the alternation between inhaling and exhaling, between heaven and earth, between Yin and Yang, holiness is forever being created.

The ultimate aim is contemplative simplicity, meditation, a renewed sense of the sacred.


It was not the characters in the novel, nor its plot, that won Hesse the Nobel Prize: there is hardly a female character in the entire book, the males are largely cardboard imitations of people, and the plot such as it is might have made a fine twenty page novella – no need there for a 550-page masterpiece.

No, it is the game itself that holds the imagination, as the Himalayas might hold the attention of one who had lived a lifetime in the lowlands. And catch hold the imaginations of brilliant minds it has.

Hesse’s old friend and rival Thomas Mann inscribed a presentation copy of his novel Doctor Faustus with the words: “To Hermann Hesse, this glass bead game with black beads.”

Christopher Alexander, the progenitor of pattern languages, distilled the essence of his thinking in his “Bead Game Conjecture”:

That it is possible to invent a unifying concept of structure within which all the various concepts of structure now current in different fields of art and science, can be seen from a single point of view. This conjecture is not new. In one form or another people have been wondering about it, as long as they have been wondering about structure itself; but in our world, confused and fragmented by specialisation, the conjecture takes on special significance. If our grasp of the world is to remain coherent, we need a bead game; and it is therefore vital for us to ask ourselves whether or not a bead game can be invented.

Manfred Eigen, Nobel laureate in Chemistry, wrote of his book on molecular biology with Ruth Winkler-Oswatitsch, Laws of the Game:

We hope to translate Hermann Hesse’s symbol of the glass bead game back into reality.

John Holland, father of genetic algorithms, told an interviewer:

I’ve been working toward it all my life, this Das Glasperlenspiel. It was a very scholarly game, starting with an abacus, where people set up musical themes, then do variations on it, like a fugue. Then they’d expand it to where it could include other artistic forms, and eventually cultural symbols. It became a very sophisticated game for setting up themes, almost as a poet would, and building variations as a composer. It was a way of symbolizing music and of building broad insights into the world.

If I could get at all close to producing something like the glass bead game I can’t think of anything that would delight me more.


Mid-way between architecture and music, forming an arch between the arts and sciences, Hesse’s imaginative game has been construed on many levels and in many ways, serving the needs of molecular biology, artificial intelligence, architecture and more. But what of its nature as a game to be played?

From my point of view as a game designer, Hesse’s game is both an artwork – to be played as Bach or the blues are played – and a game – to be played as soccer or chess are played.

And what a game!

New Books

Wednesday, January 2nd, 2013

      

    

Picked up some new books during the holidays…..

Socrates: Ironist and Moral Philosopher by Gregory Vlastos

I just finished two books on Socrates, I.F. Stone‘s  The Trial of Socrates and Socrates: A Man for Our Times by Paul Johnson, about which I am in the process of writing a lengthy post. Despite the many divergences between the books and their authors, both relied upon and recommended the scholarship of the late Gregory Vlastos, with Johnson specifically citing this analytic biography for high praise.

The Military Revolution: Military Innovation and the Rise of the West by Geoffrey Parker  

Military historian Geoffrey Parker published this important book back when I was an undergraduate ( he was teaching at the University of Illinois at the time) and I recall reading it in the library when I was supposed to be researching Anglo-American WWII diplomacy with the Salazar regime instead. I consider it a “must have” text for those interested in strategy and military affairs and…now I have a copy.

Antifragile: Things that Gain From Disorder by Nassim Nicholas Taleb

One of the  “must read” books for 2013. I watched Taleb kick around some of the concepts in Antifragile on his Facebook page and then observed friends like co-blogger Scott Shipman and Dr. Terry Barnhart comment as they started reading shortly after the book’s release. There are many things in Antifragile (including, it seems, a fair piece on the epistemic deficiencies of Socrates) and this is a book to read with care – not least because I intuitively agree with a number of Taleb’s arguments which means reading with a critical eye will require more effort.

Makers: The New Industrial Revolution by Chris Anderson 

This book is somewhat outside the norm for me. Anderson is the former editor-in-chief of WIRED and the author of The Long Tail, which is a book you should read if you don’t understand what a Pareto curve explains and economically could imply in the real world. Makers is about the desktop manufacturing revolution that many see emerging, such as blogfriend John Robbthat could have economy-shaking effects (provided vested interests do not effectively strangle this revolution in it’s crib).

The History of Political Philosophy by Leo Strauss and Joseph Cropsey

The long deceased and formerly obscure University of Chicago political philosopher Leo Strauss was elevated in the past decade in parts of the American Left into a bizarre kind of mystical bogeyman figure. An imperialist ghost who orchestrated the invasion of Iraq from beyond the grave and from whose cranium the Neoconservatives were born, fully grown and armed with think tank sinecures and contracts with FOXnews. Strauss was none of those things but he was a respected scholar in the Chicago tradition; this weighty tome of a book received a further endorsement from Lexington Green, which tipped the scales for me.

When myth breaches the news media ocean

Wednesday, January 2nd, 2013

[ by Charles Cameron — Draupadi in the Mahabharata, the anonymous med student recently gang-raped on an Indian bus ]
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Humpback whale breaching, source: Wikipedia under CC Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic license

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Some people go out on the oceans and watch and wait for whales to “breach” the surface — you know me, I go out on the interwebs and search for fragments of scripture and myth to breach the surface of the daily news — as when a minor warlord in Aleppo reports seeing angels, or Gregory Johnsen quotes the prophet Hosea in the title of a post on Waq-al-Waq.

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Today’s main sighting concerns the rape of the young medical student in India, one of many tragedies in the tapestry of griefs and joys we all live with, and perhaps one that will make an incremental shift in global awareness.

It seems to me that India has had her share of violence both during and after Partition — most recently the Babri masjid takedown in Ayodhya, the Gujarat riots, two major sets of bombings in Mumbai, swathes of India under Naxalite influence, and so forth.

I’ve been noticing references to the recent rape, but not really following it in detail until today, when this Al Jazeera report, Rape of Draupadi: Why Indian democracy has failed women, caught my eye.

The author, Dinesh Sharma, quotes blogger Nilanjana Roy — the other person whose writing on the subject had particularly moved me — to list earlier instances of anti-woman violence:

Sometimes, when we talk about the history of women in India, we speak in shorthand. The Mathura rape case. The Vishaka guidelines. The Bhanwari Devi case, the Suryanelli affair, the Soni Sori allegations, the business at Kunan Pushpora. Each of these, the names of women and places, mapping a geography of pain; unspeakable damage inflicted on women’s bodies, on the map of India, where you can, if you want, create a constantly updating map of violence against women.

For some, amnesia becomes a way of self-defence: there is only so much darkness you can swallow.

When I’d first read that on Roy’s blog, I’d been saddened as much by my own ignorance of the named events as by the litany of sorroes Roy put together.

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But it was Sharma’s invocation of Draupadi that triggered this post:

Draupadi, heroine of the Mahabharata epic, is bold and forthright even in adversity. Her husband Yudhisthira succumbing to his weakness for gambling, stakes and loses all (in a rigged game), including his wife. Draupadi challenges the assembly and demands to know how it is possible for one who has staked and lost his own self to retain the right to wager her.

Duryodhana, the winner of the bet, insists that Draupadi is indeed his to do with as he pleases and orders that she be disrobed. Furious at this insult to her honor, Draupadi loosens her coifed hair and vows that she will not knot it again until she has washed it in Duryodhana’s blood. As she is disrobed, the more her sari is pulled away the longer it becomes. It is this event which turns Draupadi from a contented, but strong willed wife into a vengeful goddess.

Until I saw the title of Sharma’s piece, I hadn’t thought of Draupadi — but she’s the quintessential figure of the woman wrongly treated in the rich mythology of the subcontinent, and thus offers the appropriate background against which to see the terrible event.

Draupadi is celebrated for her devotion to Krishna, the anonymous woman raped in the recent incident on a bus for her devotion to education, medicine, healing…

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As Sharma says:

The perennial question has to be asked – “Who will protect Draupadi’s honour?”


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