The Glass Bead Game

In 1943, Hermann Hesse published Das Glasperlenspiel (“The Glass Bead Game”). The game itself is a central theme of Hesse’s novel. He gave only a sketch of how it might be played in practice, but made it clear that it is a game of comparisons and analogies across different subject areas, in the tradition of Pythagoras, Lull, Kepler, Kircher and others who searched for the unifying principles of all knowledge. The history of the development of the game in the novel demonstrates a direct analogy with the history of mathematics in the seventeenth century, as shaped by mathematicians with a deep interest in music theory (Maths and music).

Paul Pilkington has brought Hesse's Glass Bead Game to life in an ongoing series of books.  This Glass Bead Game can be played at many levels of complexity.  Its moves can be deeply technical, or conversationally playful. 
A move in a game about music and astronomy might ask: “If the solar year in astronomy is like the octave in music, what is the lunar month's equivalent in music?”  A more playful game about music and fashion asks: “If Alexander McQueen is the Jimi Hendrix of fashion, what is McQueen’s Purple Haze?” Another asks: “Who is the Napoleon of football, and what was his Waterloo?” A more intimate game enquires: “Where is your Ithaca?”  
  • The first volume (Volume 1 - Preface) presents “A basic form of play, genealogy, and examples” including a short game concerning music and mathematics (From acoustics to modern music), architecture and I Ching, and many other examples including a game move linking a couplet of Arabic poetry, a theme from Bach's Art of Fugue, and an I Ching Hexagram (Arabic : Bach : Change). 
  • The second volume (Volume 2 - Preface) presents a game involving gods, metals, planets and trees (particularly mercury and hazel), considers the evolution of naming and classification systems in each subject area (Classification systems), and the possibility of a root and centre of all knowledge (The root of the tree). 
  • The third volume (Volume 3 - Preface) explores connections between war, poetry (Poetry), dance and cookery from before the dawn of man to the present day, through ideas of rhythm, order and what makes us human (Rhythm, Structure and Order). 
A forthcoming volume will collect and challenge notable examples of glass bead game moves from literature, the media, and other diverse sources, and will put into play a range of opening gambits intended to inspire further exploration and elaboration of the form by others, especially in more informal contexts.  Examples are being aired on an ongoing basis at Paul's Twitter account @JustKnecht (Volume 4 - The Twitter Project).

Playfully using the language of the game itself: in bringing the dreamer’s concept into reality, these volumes do for Hesse’s Glasperlenspiel what Gothic architecture did for Plotinus’s light-drenched Enneads, what the Bolshevik revolution did for Marx’s Capital, and what the World Wide Web did for Gibson’s Neuromancer. 


The books are available at: