That living the life of the mind is a kind of trail-blazing

The Waldzell chapter of Glasperlenspiel contrasts Castalia (i.e the academia), in the person of Joseph Knecht, with the outside ("real") world, in the person of his friend Plinio.

In doing so it addresses a problem which often occupies the academics -- namely, the notion that their life, insulated as it is from the problems of the real world, is, by virtue of its irrelevance to the world, also somehow irrelevant per se.

This seems to be the major theme of GPS.

(It's worth noting, I suppose, that the real world does not really have a problem with academia's irrelevance and is happy to let it exist, irrelevant or not; the problem lies really in academia's mind. It is academics who are sometimes unhappy to be left alone to their doings; and who want these doings to be not just fun but also important; and it is they who imagine that the chief obstacle to its importance lies in its irrelevance).

The standard defense of academia against this (suicidal) attack proposes that academia is in fact useful to the outside world because basic research is needed to lay foundations for specific solutions to specific problems, educating large bodies of men is bound to produce at least some who are socially useful, etc.

Laudably, Hesse does not attempt this defense: such defense is self-defeating because it starts out by conceding that the life of the mind is only useful to the extent that it serves practical applications. It thereby automatically sets the life of the mind in a subservient position.

Hesse's intuition is like mine: that sooner or later all of humanity's immediate problems -- health, poverty, injustice, prejudice -- will be solved. And when they are solved, well, what then shall we do? We could decide to play computer games, of course; spit and catch; make love till we drop; or we could decide to dedicate ourselves to the pursuit if high-brow culture. A person who does so today is not really wasting his time, therefore: he is showing the way.

Now, I have solved all of my problems -- health, poverty, injustice have no more hold on me; I am therefore like that happy man of the future whose problems will all have been solved by the social activists of today. What I do with my time -- cultivate my mind -- is what that happy man of the future might choose to do with his: I read books, watch opera, visit museums, digest what I consume, think. To me this seems a life worth living.

But my life is not merely my life: considered and described, it represents a kind of roadmap for others. Just the sort of roadmap I so much wish others had left me.


A lisboan discovery

While visiting one of those boarded up buildings in Chiado (the owner -- an offshore corporation owned by a major Portuguese bank -- want 1.5 million for what is 1,500 square meters in pretty bad shape), I discovered hiding within it -- in the midst of a scene of destruction and desolation -- chained doors, walled up windows and doorways, a dim, half-collapsed staircase lit by a chain of Christmas lights running along the floor -- a hortus conclusus, a walled-in paradise, an island of piece and prosperity: 250 meters of airy, sunlit space at its top, the only apartment occupied in the building, dwelt in by three kings -- an American and two Canadians, all of them illegal. The discovery was delightful: high ceilings and two panel doors, loggias in all directions, views of the bay and the São Carlos, sun rays, breezes; it was like stepping into a vampire novel: this could have been Cathrine Deneuve's hide out in the middle of the city.

And somewhere in that apartment, holding up a short table-leg there was an old book. Wishing to keep it, I stole it. (I didn't think any of the occupants of the apartment would miss it).

Its title page read:

Leite Bastos

As Tragedias de Lisboa

Ediçao Illustrada


Lisboa 1879

I have been reading it-- breathlessly -- ever since.

Now, don't go rushing out to get your own copy.

The book is by one Francisco Leite Bastos, whom research shows to have been a Portuguese journalist and crime-writer, 1846-1881. Leite Bastos is not sufficiently highly regarded to earn a mention in the Portuguese wikipedia. Nor can I say that he deserves it. For all I know, it's just pretty standard Conan Doyle knock off -- cool furniture (colonial gentlemen, purloined letters, rabid dogs); odd puzzles(usually with rather disappointing solutions); a mild thrill of danger. Millions -- quite literally -- like it.

The truth is that the book's main attraction to me lies in the fact that... I do not read Portuguese -- only French and Italian (and neither all too well). I am therefore unable to follow all of the book's inanities. I cannot be disappointed by the solution to its puzzles, for example, since I do not quite grasp the puzzles in the first place.

I understand a little, enough to enjoy the odd furtniture: for example, that O Club Dos Gravatas Lavadas -- the club of the laundered ties -- is a crime organization based on the masonic model; that viscount of Saint Crispin is a ruined Bohemian nobleman who nevertheless manages to keep a balcão in São Carlos, a horse, and a pack of hounds, and to socialize with everybody who is anybody; that in the course of the action a corpse is dug up; and that some of the action takes place among the Africans of the city, an off-limits, forbidden ground. (1)

All of these are excellent building blocks with which to toy; to imagine what the book could possibly be about. But what it is about, I do not know -- and that is just great. Having read dozens of similar books before, I positively know I do not want to know.

Unable to know it, I am free to believe it mysterious; and to fool myself into thinking that there is more to it than there is likely to be.

But I am repeating myself.


(1) I find no mention of the Rua do Poço dos Negros, named after an unholy burial ground for the unbaptised blacks which had once existed here -- "Poço" is the Venetian pozzo, well, here meaning a hole in the ground where the dead were buried).