Apocalypse, Insanity and Glass Bead Games

This piece explores the not so obvious perhaps but nonrtheless fascinating connection between Hermann Hesse's Nobel-winning novel, Magister Ludi, the "Glass Bead Game" which Hesse describes in the novel, and the style of thinking -- related to millennial movements, and of some urgent interest in our times -- known as "apocalyptic".

Charles Cameron
Game Designer, HipBone Games, Associate, The Center for Millennial Studies

Seeing patterns and making connections

Those who live on the Internet have had to content themselves with a never-ending story. They find solace by being able to recognize patterns and make connections between things.

The weakest of them who are trying to make sense and find comfort on the Internet might be seeing too many patterns and making too many connections.

Maybe this is the trap that defeated the members of Heaven's Gate. Those 39 Internet programmers exercised total commitment to their own desperate brand of pattern recognition.

To them, a comet and a bright blur behind it became "the marker we've been waiting for," leading this band of high-tech devotees to make the ultimate connection and opt for designer apocalypse.

-- Douglas Rushkoff, Internet Apocalypse,

THERE'S A LINK, I SUGGEST, between Hermann Hesse's Glass Bead Game and Apocalypse. And it has to do precisely with what Rushkoff calls "seeing patterns and making connections".

Hesse's Glass Bead Game is all about seeing patterns and making connections: it's a game in which the totality of human culture is combed precisely for the densest and richest connections between the most widely separated areas of thought. It's a discipline. And it is meditative.

Various people are now designing and / or playing variants on Hesse's Game via the internet, myself among them. We tend to see the web-like connective processes of the mind, particularly in its most creative expressions, the web like structure of synaptic firings in the brain, the web-like connectivity of the internet as a whole and the "world wide web" in particular, and the web like structure of forking paths -- salute to Borges -- in hypertext, computer games and life itself, as all examples of one central web-like-ness at the heart of things.

Synchronicity fits in here, as a name and thus almost an explanation for the web-like weavings-together of forked paths... and so Jung, and through Jung, psyche, enter the picture. With those simple and not particularly threatening words, "seeing patterns and making connections", we enter the territory of the numinous: we come close both to insanity and to creativity.

Where the world is read as story

The connection Rushkkoff makes -- and I think it is entirely valid, and wish he would explore and expand upon it -- is with apocalyptic: that realm of thought, numinous, and close I believe to both creativity and insanity, where the world is read as story, and we are near the end...

Reading the world as story has a long and honorable history. The Mediaevals considered the entire creation to be a book, a scripture in fact -- and St. Bernard went so far as to claim:

What I know of the divine sciences and Holy Scriptures, I learned in woods and fields. I have had no other masters than the beeches and the oaks. Listen to a man of experience: thou wilt learn more in the woods than in books. Trees and stones will teach thee more than thou canst acquire from the mouth of a magister.

-- Brown, JE, The Spiritual legacy of the American Indian

And this attitude continued into the Renaissance and beyond, and indeed served as one of the "founding ideas" of what we know think of as "science".

A Collection of all varieties of Natural BodiesÉwhere an InquirerÉmight peruse, and turn over, and spell, and read the Book of Nature, and observe the Orthography, Etymologia, Syntaxis, and Prosodia of Nature's Grammar, and by which as with a Dictionary, he might readily turn to a find the true Figures, Composition, Derivation, and Use of the Characters, Words, Phrases and Sentences of nature written with indelible, and most exact, and most expressive Letters, without which Books it will be very difficult to be thoroughly a Literatus in the language and Sense of Nature.

-- Robert Hooke, quoted in Elizabeth Sewell, Orphic Voice, p 134

This from the same Robert Hooke who drafted the preamble to the statutes of the Royal Society.

The cross-over between glass bead game and apocalypse

Now let's get back to those who are designing or playing Glass Bead Games.

It is, as yet, a small circle: but within that circle the idea of apocalyptic seems to make frequent appearances. I myself design the "HipBone" Glass Bead Game variants, and am also an Associate of the Center for Millennial Studies. Richard Landes, who founded the CMS, has a long term opera / stage project under development which he describes as a Glass Bead Game, while Stephen O'Leary, author of Arguing the Apocalypse (OUP, 1994) was an early player of the HipBone Games, and also shares my interest in the crossover between apocalyptic and "glass bead game" thinking. And Ron Hale-Evans, who designed the "Kennexions" variant on Hesse's Game, coincidentally or synchronistically or deliberately or otherwise, runs his Center for Ludic Synergy from the URL

http://www.apocalypse.org/~rwhe/ gbg.html


All this might be sheer coincidence, or a result of the "world shrinkage" brought about jointly by the internet and the principle best known these days as The Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon. But I think not, or at least not entirely. For Hermann Hesse himself, in Magister Ludi, the novel in which he sets out the principles of the Glass Bead Game, pays a small but important homage to apocalypse.

Johann Albrecht Bengel

Joseph Knecht, the future Magister Ludi or Game Master who is the book's hero, spends some time at a Benedictine monastery at one point, and makes contact with an historian by the name of Father Jacobus. And although Knecht is at first unaware of it, this contact is to have important ramifications in terms of diplomatic relations between Castalia -- the Province and quasi-monastic order where the Game is played -- and the Vatican: in Knecht's life, too, this meeting of two superb minds is an important turning point.

And what brings them together? Hesse tells us that their friendship blossomed at the point where both men discovered their common fascination with a fairly obscure Swabian Pietist theologian by the name of Johann Albrecht Bengel (1687-1752)... who "devoted years of study to the Revelation of St. John", and devised a "system... for interpreting its prophecies".

Bengel, too, was a seer of patterns and maker of connections.

Knecht comments:

I would say that what Bengel lacked, and unconsciously longed for, was the Glass Bead Game. You see, I consider him among the secret forerunners and ancestors of our Game.

and in more detail:

While he was still quite young, before he became engrossed in his great work on the Bible, Bengel once told friends of a cherished plan of his. He hoped, he said, to arrange and sum up all the knowledge of his time, symmetrically and synoptically, around a central idea. That is precisely what the Glass Bead Game does.

and in answer to Father Jacobus' comment that the whole eighteenth century "toyed with the encyclopaedic idea":

But what Bengel meant was not just a juxtaposition of the fields of knowledge and research, but an interrelationship, an organic denominator. And that is one of the basic ideas of the Glass Bead Game. In fact, I would go further in my claims: if Bengel had possessed a system similar to that offered by our Game, he probably would have been spared all the misguided effort involved in his calculation of the prophetic numbers and his annunciation of the Antichrist and the Millenial Kingdom...

-- Knecht's conversation with Father Jacobus can be found on pages 148-9 of Magister Ludi (Bantam pb edition).

Not only is Bengel thus a key figure in Magister Ludi -- although he only appears in the couple of pages in which Fr Jacobus and the young Knecht cement their friendship -- it appears that Hesse originally intended to include a fourth "life" comparable to the three "written" by Knecht at the back of the book. Theodore Ziolkowski, in his Foreword to Magister Ludi, Bantam, p xii, writes:

A fourth life, set among the Pietists of 18th-century Swabia, occupied Hesse for almost a year, but was never published during his lifetime.

This sounds very much as though it would have been based on Bengel's life... I imagine it has now been published, presumably in Volker Michels' two volume compendium of texts related to Magister Ludi...

The misguided effort

Hesse, then, was of the curious and stimulating opinion that the Glass Bead Game could act as a sort of antidote to apocalyptic fantasy: it could "spare the misguided effort" of interpreting the signs of the times and making detailed interpretive connections between , say, Princess Diana and the "Woman Clothed in the Sun" in Revelation XII, Queen Elizabeth and the Beast, Prince Charles and the AntiChrist -- all of which and more are documented in my Boston CMS conference paper, "She Became an Icon: the Life and Death of Princess Diana in Millennial Discourse".

I want to takle this a step further, and suggest that those two qualities of the Glass Bead Game which I mentioned in passing above are in fact crucial in making real, playable Glass Bead Game variants effective tools for combatting (a) the kind of insanity which consists in "seeing too many patterns and making too many connections", in Rushkoff's words, and (b) the weirder flights of millennial fantasy -- by which I mean such things as the Heaven's Gate theology, which drew much of its sustenance from science fiction in general and the "holodeck" from Star Trek in particular.

Because "reading the signs of the times" in the local news, in TV shows and books has become a hitech cottage industry in the global village: as in the case of the deviant Mormon cult leader who "read" the film The Highlander as a "sign" and proceeded to "blood atone" -- kill -- a group of people who didn't like his Bible classes in preparation for the coming of Christ, or Aum Shinrikyu's use of the idea of a militant scientist priesthood borrowed from Isaac Asimov's Foundation trilogy.

Seeing too many patterns

Ron Hale-Evans, the designer of the Kennexions GBG variant mentioned above, has an article in which he describes his own passage through insanity, characterizing it as an "anti-Glass Bead Game":

For example, the first time I went crazy, when I was twenty, a lot of things I had read in science fiction or horror that had made a strong impression on me "connected up." Remember the scene in 1984 when Winston Smith is brainwashed and finally sees six fingers on his tormentor's hand? I made a "link" with R.A. Lafferty's short SF story, "The Six Fingers of Time" in which a cabal of people with six fingers rules the world. When I went into my Developmental Psych class that day, we were examining a chart that showed polydactyly running in a family (it was intended to teach us how to read pedigree charts, an important skill in developmental psychology). That really set me off. Another link was formed.

Now imagine all ideas, all phenomena, everything around you becoming cross-linked in a perfect, static, crystalline web as hard as diamond with stark terror at the center and you will have an idea of what I experienced.

These "links" -- do they sound familiar? They should. It is my sense that the links between ideas that form in madness ("schizophrenia"), the "magical thinking" we've been talking about, that these links are exactly the same sort of links that one would make in a good Glass Bead Game, but with the sign reversed. Instead of positive, life-affirming, powerful symbolism, the mad have negative, life-threatening imagery and associations that are so powerful to them they cannot escape no matter how hard they try. They have the potential to be Glass Bead Game players, but for the moment they are bound in the coils of an inverted, satanic rosary.

What Ron is describing is, again, precisely what Rushkoff calls "seeing too many patterns and making too many connections" -- and I believe there are two characteristics here which merit special attention. The "pattern recognition" here is (a) excessive and overwhelming because undisciplined, and (b) threatening and harmful because it has fear at its center -- the opposite of meditative calm or joy.

An important therapeutic potential

Picking up on that hint of Hesse's, and on Ron's insight that this kind of madness is a sort of "inverted" GBG, I would like to suggest that games of the GBG sort may have an important therapeutic potential, to the extent that they (a) discipline the associative mechanism and (b) furnish a meditative focus for it.

My own HipBone Games use preset boards with preset lines of linkage to elicit and then map associative thinking, and what I am suggesting here is that the constraints of the board -- and the meditative intent of the games -- could be used precisely to focus, canalize and edit the onrush of links and associations which Ron describes so vividly. Elsewhere I have suggested that these games could be used to "jump start" creative / associative thinking in those who have, to a greater or lesser extent, "lost the knack" for it: here I am saying that they can also discipline and control associative thinking when it runs amok.

And we should not be too surprised if our games have a therapeutic as well as an educational application: Hesse himself speaks of Joseph Knecht's magisterial skills in terms of "teaching and psychotherapy" :

It was wholly in the style of Knecht's methods of teaching and psychotherapy that he not only won over this patient by his frankness, but also planted the thought in Plinio's mind...

-- Magister Ludi, (Bantam ed., p 299)


I hope to have played my own small bead game here, and to have illuminated to some additional degree the curious interlockings between insanity and creativity, excess and constraint, paranoia and meditation, apocalyptic and the Glass Bead Game as Hesse portrayed it.

Contact us:

Charles Cameron, hipbone@earthlink.net

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