When we read “S”, we find different colors (themes) scattered throughout its pages, inserts and marginalia. These colors are identifiable as independent parts, but the overall picture remains largely scrambled to us. We see the various and disconnected colors, and we know that, somehow, there must be a systematic way to organize them so that they form something that looks like a unified whole.
We see a man writhing to emerge from his psychological fugue and grasp his true identity, while at the same time we hear the musical fugue in the interlude of chiff and whistle and toccata and barrel organ and a Phyrgian tumble of notes that proclaim the presence of terra firma. We see cryptography alongside palimpsests, birdwatching in negative space, assassination and defenestration – all wrapped in ancient and flawed geometries and arithmetics. We see geographic coordinates align with Archimedes’ principle of flotation and the misalignment of astronomical bodies and the flow of time.
We witness the birth pangs of World War I in Europe and the chilling screams of the victims in labor riots in America. And yet we hear the whispers of T.S. Eliot’s poetry and the beginnings of love in the margins. We see monkeys and magpies, holystones and haymarket affairs, obsidian and obsession, caves and codes, symbols and substance. The number of subjects and themes before us is staggering. It can seem like gazing into chaos.
So how do we fit such seemingly disparate pieces all together into one “thing” that somehow makes sense? And just what is the “thing” anyway?
This is the puzzle we are trying to solve together. This is the game we are playing.
Let’s look at one piece of the puzzle – a small part of the game. On page 52 in Chapter 2 (The Drifting Twins) we have the fifth footnote of Filomena Caldeira. It reads…
Possible source material for this detail is a traditional children’s play performed on Ash Wednesday in the Bavarian village of Fünfherzen, in which the protagonist is compelled to don the Belastunghemd, or “burden-shirt.” The origins of this curious play are unknown.
This confounding footnote gives us several seemingly disparate concepts that seem to beg for unification. Here is an attempt…
- Ash Wednesday seems to refer to T.S. Eliot, who wrote a poem by the same name. In addition to numerous allusions, Jennifer Heyward writes once in the margins that she is studying Eliot’s poem The Waste Land.
- Curious play could be a pun here. In context it is referring to a dramatic presentation. But it could mean participating in a game – curious play.
- Funfherzen means “five hearts.” The only creature on the planet that possesses five hearts appears to be the earthworm.
- Belastunghemd means “burden shirt,” which could refer to the Shirt of Nessus, which T.S. Eliot refers to in his poem Little Gidding.
While researching this footnote, right or wrong, I stumbled onto this fact…
There is a giant earthworm that is found only in the Black Forest of Germany. T.S. Eliot admired the work of a fellow poet born in the Black Forest enough to include a reference to that work in The Waste Land. That work, titled in English, was Gazing into Chaos. This fellow poet, who was also a novelist, was born in the Black Forest town of Calw. Later in life, though, this man said, “If I could choose my place of birth, I would consider Würzburg” – a city in Bavaria. This man’s name is Hermann Hesse.
In addition to many other works, Hermann Hesse wrote one book that earned him the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1946. It is called The Glass Bead Game.
I submit to you that J.J. Abrams and Doug Dorst have us all entering into a fascinating version of The Glass Bead Game.
What is the Glass Bead Game? It is a game played in a future society where intellectual “monks” attempt to identify and express the synthesis – or common substance – between seemingly disparate subjects. For example, a mathematical equation and three measures of a Bach fugue might be presented to a game player, who then must explain in symbols and abstraction how the two relate.
Here is a quote from The Glass Bead Game itself…
Throughout its history the Game was closely allied with music, and usually proceeded according to musical or mathematical rules. One theme, two themes, or three themes were stated, elaborated, varied, and underwent a development quite similar to that of the theme in a Bach fugue or a concerto movement. A Game, for example, might start from a given astronomical configuration, or from the actual theme of a Bach fugue, or from a sentence out of Leibniz or the Upanishads, and from this theme, depending on the intentions and talents of the player, it could either further explore and elaborate the initial motif or else enrich its expressiveness by allusions to kindred concepts. Beginners learned how to establish parallels, by means of the Game’s symbols, between a piece of classical music and the formula for some law of nature. Experts and Masters of the Game freely wove the initial theme into unlimited combinations. For a long time one school of players favored the technique of stating side by side, developing in counterpoint, and finally harmoniously combining two hostile themes or ideas, such as law and freedom, individual and community. In such a Game the goal was to develop both themes or theses with complete equality and impartiality, to evolve out of thesis and antithesis the purest possible synthesis. (p34)
One of the primary points of the game is contemplation, or rumination…
This was the necessary turning toward the religious spirit. What had formerly mattered was following the sequences of ideas and the whole intellectual mosaic of a Game with rapid attentiveness, practiced memory, and full understanding. But there now arose the demand for a deeper and more spiritual approach. After each symbol conjured up by the director of a Game, each player was required to perform silent, formal meditation on the content, origin, and meaning of this symbol, to call to mind intensively and organically its full purport. The members of the Order and of the Game associations brought the technique and practice of contemplation with them from their elite schools, where the art of contemplation and meditation was nurtured with the greatest care. (p33)
As one astute reader points out, Pronghorns and Pollards (think PSU where Eric and Jen meet in the margins) are ruminants. Their examination of the mystery of who V.M. Straka is and the campus from which they contemplate is telling us that we must ruminate on the mystery. It goes perfectly with J.J. Abrams’ challenge…
I urge you to dig. Give in to the unknown for a while and ponder the mystery. It’s worth it.
“S” and its theme of self-awareness are all part of the Glass Bead Game…
The Game was not mere practice and mere recreation; it became a form of concentrated self-awareness for intellectuals. (p28)
Ladies and gentlemen, we have been challenged to play The Glass Bead Game. And round one is only just beginning. We see the music and the math, the fugues and the frigate birds, the wine and the weapon, the tales of the archer Arquimedes de Sobreiro and the exploits of pirate Juan Blas Covarrubias, alongside the elusive love of S. and Sola, Eric and Jen, V.M. Straka and Filomena Caldeira. (See other connections in “S” to Hermann Hesse)
And now our challenge is to put it all together into one magnificent synthesis worthy of the admiration of the Magister Ludi of the Glass Bead Game. I urge you to read this fascinating book, where you will find stars wandering from their eternal perches, wooden whistles announcing firm footing, water beckoning for entry, and a human being discovering how to find the meaning of life in the synthesis of all that he knows into one divine source and substance.
It [the game] represented an elite, symbolic form of seeking for perfection, a sublime alchemy, an approach to that Mind which beyond all images and multiplicities is one within itself — in other words, to God. (p35)
Shall we play a game?
The life of a soul does not consist in the contemplation of one consistent world but in the painful task of unifying…jarring and incompatible ones, and passing, when possible, from two or more discordant viewpoints to a higher which shall somehow include and transmute them. – TS Eliot