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Hermann Hesse’s Glass Bead Game: The Fountain of Inspiration

by Steven Hermans

I wake up. Around me birds announce the sunrise. Through the plastic of my little tent I see the outline of the new day painted in thin light. After a few silent minutes I hear myself saying:

“Here I am, in the middle of a forest on the edge of some German back of beyond, surrounded by sour Krauts and insects.”

My voice sounds unfamiliar to me, a deep, rusty bark that I never heard before.

“What the hell am I doing here? Is this my new life, Loneliness and Mosquito Bites?”

My questions remain unanswered by the forest; just the early-morning chatter of sparrows and blackbirds to fill the ear. I lay still, trying to ignore the morning chill. It is not working and I can’t help but smile. I toss my sleeping bag aside and get up, because I remember the inspiration for this trip: the books of Hermann Hesse. His ideas got me moving, out of Belgian suburbia, into what is left of the mighty woods of Europe. I thought it only fitting to start my journey here in Maulbronn, on the edge of the Black Forest, where Hesse found his fountain of inspiration.

The tent is new and it takes ages for me to fold it so it fits into the tiny bag it came in. When I walk into the village I am surprised to see so much activity at six-thirty in the morning. Cars and buses float by smoothly, a line is forming in front of the bakery and I even see a teenager passing by, nodding along to his iPod-induced headphone-rush.

I came to Maulbronn for the Cistercian monastery that has attracted scholars and spiritual seekers for the past nine centuries. It was here that Johannes Kepler first started studying the sky and the motions of the planets, and several centuries after him, Friedrich Holderlin composed his first poems in the sacred hallways of the seminar.

Around the turn of the century Hermann Hesse came to Maulbronn to prepare for the Landexam, the final test before university studies could be commenced. After six seemingly happy months Hesse disappears one day, only to show up twenty-four hours later, exhausted and desperate. He leaves the school prematurely, the start of several depressed years.

This short period in Maulbronn however would shape his work all throughout his writing career. The deep crisis he felt in puberty which led him to flee the safe haven of the seminar would reverberate in Beneath the Wheel, which he wrote ten years later. It is a typically Hessian attack on the traditional powers of education and religion, tradition and authority. Much later, in Narcissus and Goldmund, monastic life is featured again in the fictitious Mariabronn. But that was not why I came to Maulbronn.

Through a picturesque gate that discloses the high wall I come onto a wide and very silent square. Water rises up from a fountain and there are old, serious trees. On both sides sturdy stone houses stand tall and in the background I can see the front of the main church with its late-Roman vestibule called paradise, of a gracious, exquisite beauty. On the grand roof of the church rides a funny, needle-thin tower, making you wonder how it can carry a clock.

Oratory, parlatory, refectory and two churches stick together to form a prodigious complex. Walls, gates, gardens, a mill and some houses stand cozy and cheerful around the heavy old buildings. Behind the monastery lays a pond, these days an open-air swimming pool. Left of the main entrance a hill rises up. On the terraced slopes the orderly sticks and stakes of viticulture dictate their steady rhythm to the vines. The sunlight gives an early shine to the first grapes that produce a sweet, yellow liquid in this area.

I step into the paradise.

Dust falls after my traipsing feet. Nine hundred years after twelve Alsace monks came here to live their strict interpretation of Christianity, the monastery still breathes the same spirit of purity. The Cistercians lived an ascetic, hard working life, where every action was aimed at inner peace and a closer relationship to God. They were looking for a God that does not desire adornment. The search for simplicity shows itself between the sober, pale brick walls, along the rigid lines of the vaulted ceilings. High arched windows and wide vaults spanning across the rooms and archways give the mind space to meditate.

I wander through the empty halls, chessboards of shadow and sunlight, and fall into a reverie where monks and schoolboys pass alongside me, busy with their daily routine. Suddenly I see the artwork that brought me here. For Hesse, the fountain shimmering in front of me is a wonder:

In the sharp shadow of the vaulted space the three scales of the fountain hovering above one another, and the singing water fell in eight fine rays from the first into the second scale and in eight fine resounding rays from the second into the third scale and the vault played its eternal lovely game with the living sounds, today just like yesterday, today just like then, and rose up there dazzling, taking pleasure in itself and perfect, like an image of the timelessness of beauty.

I saw the fountain first on the cover of The Glass Bead Game, his magnum opus. It is a novel astoundingly rich in themes, revolving around a futuristic game developed out of mathematics and music studies, wherein the players attempt to weave all human knowledge into a perfect web of harmony. The game is used as a metaphor for the search for a hidden harmony below the superficial confusion and chaos of the visible world.

During the weeks I was reading the book I kept returning to this image. What did this fountain mean to Hesse? Obviously, life in Maulbronn served as a blueprint for life in the novel, and the fountain was a symbol for monastic life. But, knowing Hesse, there would have to be more than just one reason. Now that I was standing in front of it, seeing the three majestic copper scales, large and solid and filled to the brim, and surrounded by a deep, big, holy silence, I understood.

From a tender age Hermann Hesse started acquiring a profound knowledge of ancient Eastern wisdom through the library of his grandfather, a large, big-bearded philologer who had studied Asian languages and had lived in India and China most of his life. His thinking stressed the undivided nature of the universe, with every molecule interconnected, as opposed to the dualistic Western views. Later, Hesse’s inquiries into Buddhism and Taoism formed the foundation for an oeuvre that has the individual and his search for self-realization as its ritornello. These philosophies that put the responsibility in the individual’s hands took root with a dreamer who radically rejected the bourgeois establishment, culminating in the idea that man has only himself to hold accountable for his happiness.

These ideas that he had carried with him his entire life, Hesse saw expressed in the fountain. In its simple elegance, the fountain represented the Divine for him. The perfect balance and mathematical perfection of the round scales levitating above one another symbolized a universe in harmony. The higher levels fill the lower levels with clear, fresh water, while they in turn support the weight of the higher ones.

Each scale is at once independent and interdependent. The fountain also speaks of his goal of a higher consciousness. As the fountain reaches up, it becomes simpler and lighter, shedding its excess water. Each scale is a ‘Stufe,’ a step leading towards real freedom and the absence of fear, leading towards a consciousness of the unity of the cosmos. As he writes in The Glass Bead Game:

I suddenly realized that in the language, or at any rate in the spirit of the Glass Bead Game, everything actually was all-meaningful, that every symbol and combination of symbols led not hither and yon, not to single examples, experiments, and proofs, but into the center, the mystery and innermost heart of the world, into primal knowledge. 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 truly a 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.

An organ starts playing in the church. I walk towards the slow hum. Restlessness, the wallpaper of the traveler’s mind, has become a gentle background buzz. As the music grows stronger, I wonder if I should become a poet, a monk or a musician.

A particularly lovely motion sets in as I enter the age-old church; deep, rumbling chords interlocking with the lightest of harmonies. Slowly I begin to realize, there is no need to decide. In Hesse’s mind, there is no difference.