A Message from Alexander Genis

During my hardly inconsiderable span of life, I do not recall more dreadful days than those that began on the 24th of February. Of course, this is not to compare them with the tragic times that have fallen on the unfortunate and heroic Ukrainians, defending themselves from aggression. Along with the rest of the world joined in despair for the victims of this war, I cannot forget that those responsible for it come from the same motherland as my tongue. This is a burden to bear for all of us who can neither forbear nor escape it.

It would seem that at such a time it is only possible to think about the war, but that is not so, at least because we rarely engage with anything else. We must justify our presence at this festival, to dull the pangs of guilt over the ‘Limits of Play’, its seemingly flippant subject, and not see our perch in the safety of this ivory tower as immoral. In order to rationalize our position, I propose to make use of the experience of another writer in a similar, and similarly hopeless, position. Hesse came out the other side in a teachable way, leaving us a precedent.

Herman Hesse wrote his great novel ‘Das Glasperlenspiel’, or ‘The Glass Bead Game’, or ‘Magister Ludi’ in a Latin paraphrasing of a title referencing a fantastical form of play, during the Second World War, in the language of those who initiated it. I will discuss the actual game in my lecture, and perhaps we will achieve playing an experimental round or two, but for now let us stay with the author rather than his book.

Having lived in Switzerland during the War, Hesse did everything that a normal man could and should. He supported his friends and compatriots left behind in Germany, helped the refugees from it and interceded on their behalf with the careful Swiss authorities, mourned the fallen and persecuted and thundered against Fascism in his talks and letters.

However, this did not prevent him from drawing a clear distinction between a political position and a writerly one. The evidence is in Hesse’s response to an anonymous accusation ordering him to ‘write about real life’ while condemning the man of letters of hiding from reality. The year was 1939. The War had already begun, but Herman Hesse did not acknowledge its power over him. ‘A writer is different from an ordinary person,’ he explained to his correspondent, ‘because he does not allow the war to rule him, since war, which we both despise, feeds off its eternal tendency towards totality.’

In 1946, Hesse received the Nobel prize for his accomplishment. Consider Europe, bombed to its foundations in that first post-War year, when millions of desperate people faced death, hunger and ruin. But the novel doesn’t have a word about this. Hesse never forgot about the War, of course, even when he invented the fantastic Glass Bead game-obsessed ‘Castalia’. Such a clean and flawless kingdom of the spirit is exactly what humanity needs, for its very survival.

And why play? For an answer to that query we must turn to another Grandmaster, Johan Huizinga. Released in 1938, at the dawn of the same war, ‘Homo Ludens’ is a work impossible to neglect at this meeting. It begins its exploration with a premise: one can deny the existence of almost all abstract concepts; rights, beauty, truth, God… but one cannot refuse to believe in play. According to Huizenga, the value of play is that during ‘periods of heavy spiritual oppression’, it ‘creates a temporary, limited certainty in the rules of the game and its immutable nature.’ In other words, if you play tennis without a net, you’re not playing tennis.

Sharing his reflections on the Game, Hesse posited that Castalia is needed precisely during the blackest hours of history, when it might seem that the aristocratic and egg-headed foppery of the Glass Bead Game is an untenable luxury. Bread doesn’t fill empty stomachs thanks to it nor do the cannons cease firing. But its impracticality, understood by few and needed by less, justifies it, like Mozart, poetry and the sunset. Play is necessary to support and nourish that thin layer of the cultural elite from which the rarest flowers bloom. When the bombs fall, care for these intellectual curiosities is not seen as part of the war effort. It would seem that little has changed since that war. But in all reality, Hesse and those like him give a world pushed to its ends by strife a place to come back home.

Alexander Genis; New York – Tartu