History Repeating

We must confess that we cannot provide an unequivocal definition of those products from which the age takes its name, the feuilletons. They seem to have formed an uncommonly popular section of the daily newspapers, were produced by the millions, and were a major source of mental pabulum for the reader in want of culture. They reported on, or rather “chatted” about, a thousand-and-one items of knowledge.

– from Magister Ludi: the Glass Bead Game, 1943, by Hermann Hesse

Magister LudiI started re-reading this Nobel Prize-winning novel, because the idea of the Glass Bead Game keeps coming up in my inner conversations about the nature of creation itself — why is there a universe; is it a great game? When I read the above introductory section of Hesse’s utopian novel, I was struck with how much his feuilletons, which can be translated as ‘serial writings,’ had gone from the newspaper articles of his time to the blogosphere of today, where they are going strong.

In this 1943 book, the author of Siddhartha and Steppenwolf contemplates a move away from the cult of personality toward greater rationality, no doubt in response to World War II in Europe, which raged between 1938 and 1945. The quote above is from his background history of the fictional glass bead game, and in it, Hesse struggles to find a reason why both the public and the writers and scholars of the time participated in the “pabulum,” of what would now be called ‘blogging’ and could include all other social media expressions.

As an intellectual, whose book ultimately affirms the value of individuality tempered by rationality, Hesse doesn’t criticize writing; instead he wonders why this writing. He provides a couple guesses. One is that there’s some kind of hidden “irony and self-mockery”* that his age (era) doesn’t have the key for, the irony including the superficial nature of the information shared and appreciated. An alternative reason, he postulates, is that the people are so traumatized by their modern lives, that they need to escape, “to close their eyes and flee from unsolved problems and anxious forebodings of doom into an imaginary world as innocuous as possible.”*

I find this food for thought on so many fronts:

  • why are we so content to have no quiet time;
  • why do we spend time looking at selfies and videos of people doing yoga instead of practicing;
  • why do we spend so many hours in front of non-fiction entertainment watching “all these grotesque things with credulous earnestness”;*
  • am I of an age (generationally) that doesn’t have the key to appreciate the irony of current expression;
  • will the cream of the blogs ultimately rise to the top or will they be buried under the sheer volume of well-marketed pabulum;
  • should one be complicit with the trend (shout among the din) or buck it (trust in an alternate platform)?

I know so many brilliant people striving in the midst of this situation for an experience that transcends it. Hesse points out a stumbling block to trying to participate: “…citizens of the age (who were still deeply attached to the notion of culture, although it had long since been robbed of its former meaning)…”*

I’m looking forward to reading on and following the utopians on their pendulum swing back toward some middle ground; I’m trusting it will give me hope for a quieter, creamier, less pabulum-esque social discourse.


*Quotes are all excerpts from pages 11-13 of the Bantam paperback edition, 1986

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