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Esalen East

Mountain of Truth: The Counterculture Begins—Ascona, 1900–1920

by Martin Green
University Press of New England/Tufts University, 287 pp., $19.95

What have the following in common: Kafka, Rilke, D.H. Lawrence, F.R. Leavis, Alesteir Crowley, Gandhi, George Orwell, Expressionists, Surrealists, National Socialists? According to Martin Green they all, to a greater or lesser extent, “fed on a living stream of thought that had its source in Ascona.” At first sight, this village in the Swiss canton of Ticino seems a surprising choice for the location of the springs of twentieth-century culture, but Martin Green is an Asconan imperialist: he writes of “Ascona and its allied provinces” and tells us that the “people who spent time in Ascona went on to other places such as Papua.”

It is always tempting for cultural historians to focus on a single place in order to illustrate the various intellectual and artistic currents that converged there; and certainly a number of interesting and eccentric people lived or spent vacations at Ascona. Italian Switzerland has long been attractive to people from northern Europe, and especially Germany, who found that it combined an Italian atmosphere with the security and political tolerance of Switzerland, or even perhaps just that it was, at the start of the century, a cheap place with a good climate. A number of German vegetarians had settled there by the beginning of the twentieth century and a famous “naturist” sanitarium opened on Santa Verita in 1902, where figures such as Hermann Hesse and the pioneer of modern dance and rhythmic movement, Emile Jacques-Dalcroze, came to fast or to be buried in earth.

Martin Green is right in thinking that Italian Switzerland, and Ascona in particular, had more than its fair share of eccentrics, faddists, bohemian dropouts (and a few more significant figures) in the first quarter of the twentieth century. It was, I suspect, the archetypal mad bohemian Otto Gross who provided Professor Green with a way into Ascona, so to speak. Otto Gross was the lover of both the Von Richthofen sisters, on whom Martin Green published an interesting book a few years back. One of them, Frieda, married D.H. Lawrence, and the other, Else, married the Heidelberg economist Edgar Jaffe and subsequently was briefly the mistress of Max Weber and then the companion over many years of his brother Alfred. Frieda and Else had met Gross in the Munich suburb of Schwabing—a center of all that was most advanced in Germany, both in art and morals—and also became friends of Otto’s wife, also called Frieda. In 1902 the Grosses moved to Ascona, and Frieda Gross stayed on after Otto had left and was visited there by friends who included Max Weber. Gross had decided that she should live with a Swiss anarchist and Max Weber made considerable efforts to help her and give her advice.

Otto Gross came from Graz, where his father Hanns, a noted criminologist and the founder of many modern methods of detection, was a professor. Otto studied medicine and became an early disciple of Freud. Ernest Jones thought him a genius and reported that Freud expressed the opinion that Jung and Otto Gross were the only truly original minds among his followers. (Gross was later to be analyzed by Jung.) Otto Gross published work that began to establish his reputation as a psychologist, and he practiced intermittently as a doctor, but he soon became addicted to drugs and began to display some of the classical symptoms of schizophrenia.

But it was not as a psychologist that Gross captured the imagination of his friends and acquaintances and became for many of his contemporaries a symbol of the mad genius hounded and destroyed by a philistine bourgeois society. He figures in a once famous novel by Franz Werfel, Barbara, though perhaps not as prominently as Green suggests, and appears in works by many other writers, as well as providing, through Frieda, ideas and images for D.H. Lawrence. (Throughout the book, Green tends to treat fictional characters and descriptions as direct evidence about the real people on whom the characters are based.) Gross was clearly a man whom many people found physically irresistible—“tall, slender, fair-haired, blue-eyed, with soft parted lips,” as Green describes him—in spite of the fact that he did not wash and had a pathological dislike of undressing. For the many women who fell in love with him, he embodied the idea of die Erotik and of sexual freedom without jealous possessiveness, a freedom which would liberate both men and women from the tyranny of the family.

In spite of Gross’s increasing mental instability, his friends remained remarkably loyal; and in 1917, when he was in Prague, Max Brod, Kafka, Werfel, and others were discussing plans for a journal to be edited by him, Blätter zur Bekämpfung des Machtwillens. It was indeed as an embodiment of the struggle against the will to power that Gross appealed to many young people trying to escape from the pressure of their families and the stuffy conventionality of middle-class society. He had spent periods in asylums, and then in 1913, at the instigation of his criminologist father, he was arrested by the Berlin police, compulsorily detained in a psychiatric hospital, and deprived of the custody of his son. “It was,” as Green writes, “from Ascona’s point of view, a classic case of patriarchal tyranny.” And it caused an uproar, because, as one of Gross’s supporters said, “All youth will see in the fate of our comrade Otto Gross their own battle and their greatest danger.” (Those of us not as wholly preoccupied with all aspects of the counterculture as Martin Green is may perhaps think that there was nevertheless ground for confining someone such as Otto Gross who on two occasions had provided his mistresses with poison to enable them to commit suicide.) However, he was soon released and seems to have had a period of comparative stability, serving as a doctor during the war. By the time of the German revolution of 1918 he was linking his own ideas of the erotic revolution with those of the political and social revolutions. Sexual revolution would save the world and “only by entering the ‘paradise lost’ of polymorphous perversity can man renew himself.” He died in Berlin in 1920, having run away from the friends who were looking after him, “a starving and ragged man, running through the snow flurries.”

The next character about whom Green has written a biographical essay seems in retrospect less interesting, without even the potential that Gross’s early psychoanalytical work had shown. Gusto Gräser, also from a middle-class family in the Austro-Hungarian empire, began as a painter. In 1898 he had painted a large picture with a message that was common to all Martin Green’s cast of characters: it depicted “an angel with a flaming sword who was pointing the way forward, away from a city and from civilization.” He became a vegetarian, dressed in a toga or animal skins, and briefly joined an artistic community led by a painter, Karl W. Dieffenbach, who, with his pupils, as Professor Green tells us, “practiced nudity together and glorified sensuality; the sexual temperature was high.” However, the homoerotic atmosphere of Dieffenbach’s circle was not to Gräser’s taste, and after settling in Ascona in 1900 with his two brothers, he acquired a wife and eight children, some of whom, at least, retained their affection for him in spite of a childhood spent being dragged from place to place in Switzerland and Germany, living on raw vegetables and cabbage water, and sleeping on beds of leaves and ferns.

If Gross seemed the symbol of the revolt against sexual conventions and the fight against the will to power, Gräser represented the freedom of a nomadic existence. He exemplified the simple life, refusing to pay any attention to the demands of either government or society, supporting himself sometimes by manual labor, sometimes by begging: “When people refused him food, he sat outside their doors with a pitying smile.” He had seventy-two sessions with a Jungian analyst; he wrote poems (not very good ones, to judge by Green’s examples); he gave lectures on such subjects as “The Communism of the Heart” and made translations of Chinese poetry and philosophy. He was on the fringe of the Munich revolution of 1919. Most surprising of all, he survived until 1958, living in Germany throughout the Nazi period, writing poems, reading in public libraries, demonstrating triumphantly that it was possible to live as a vagabond even in a totalitarian state.

For Martin Green Gräser’s main importance, however, is his influence on Hermann Hesse. Just as Otto Gross finds his way into Lawrence’s fiction, so Gräser and what he stands for appear repeatedly in Hesse’s writings. Hesse met Gräser at Ascona in 1906. The result was that “Gräser…came to represent to Hesse the things that were to be found in Ascona and that were important to Hesse; indeed,” Green continues, “Hesse represents to us many writers who were challenged and inspired by Gräser over the years.”

In fact, Martin Green is not able to tell us much about the relationship between them, beyond pointing to a letter from Gräser to Hesse in 1916 asking for money. It is difficult to find in Green’s account any very hard evidence about Gräser’s actual role in Hesse’s artistic life. Many of Hesse’s ideas about personal freedom or Oriental philosophy and so on are similar to those of Gräser; but so are those of a large number of post-Nietzschean artists and thinkers who had never heard of him or of Ascona. When Martin Green writes that the difference of life style between Gräser, the heroic vagabond, and Hesse, the sensitive artist, “was to lead to a profound split between them,” this seems to be a split in some transcendental realm (the Asconan Empire, perhaps?) rather than in the personal life of two men who seem in fact, as far as one can learn from this book, to have had little direct contact with each other.

The third of Professor Green’s “three lives that passed through Ascona,” the biographical sketches that form the first part of his book, is that of a more considerable and more creative figure, Rudolf Laban, a man who contributed much to the development of modern dance both in Germany and abroad. Green’s account of him—and it is typical of Green’s method—starts:

Rudolf Laban was born…in the same year as Gräser; they also died in the same year, and their mothers came from the same town, Kronstadt…. Since they were both doctors’ daughters from the same close-knit community, it is likely that they knew each other. Moreover, since both sons were close to their mothers, it is likely that in their early years the sons fed on the same songs and stories.

…There is no record that the two men, while they lived in Ascona, knew of their common heritage, knew each other, or exchanged any words.

Still, Laban did live in Ascona for five years, from 1913 to 1918, establishing a Schule für Lebenskunst on Monte Verita. The students were taught in the open air, and the aim of the school was to create a form of dance that would express the whole personality, and, in Laban’s words, “give Dance and the Dancer their proper value as Art and Artist and…enforce the influence of dance education on the warped psyche of our time.” It was a movement against traditional ballet that had its parallels in the work of Loie Fuller and Isadora Duncan and that has continued to influence ideas about the dance down to our own day.

Laban was an influential teacher and régisseur in Germany, though he had to give up dancing himself after an injury sustained, appropriately enough, while dancing the role of Don Juan. (I doubt, though, whether he was appointed director of the Prussian State Theaters in 1930, as Green states—a post held by Heinz Tietjen at that date). Unlike Kurt Jooss, with whom he worked closely and who emigrated as soon as Hitler came to power, Laban stayed in Germany until 1937. He apparently hoped, like some other Expressionist artists, notably the painter Emil Nolde, that the fact that he claimed to be pursuing a specifically German art with its roots in the German soil would find favor with the new regime. He was disappointed.

A program intended to be performed on the occasion of the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin was canceled by Goebbels, and in 1937 Laban went into exile, first to France and then to England where he worked for a time at Dartington Hall, the progressive artistic and educational center in Devonshire which had provided a home for the Ballets Jooss. He apparently ended up in a highly respectable way as some sort of adviser to the British Ministry of Education. In many ways Laban is a good example of those aspects of the twentieth-century Zeitgeist which Martin Green locates in Ascona. He combined a belief in freedom of self-expression in art with a vague spirituality and interest in the occult. He certainly was Asconan in his cult of the erotic, leaving, it seems, a trail of abandoned mistresses across Europe whom he advised to give away their children if possible.

Another element in Ascona was provided by the anarchists. Thirty years earlier Bakunin had passed his last years in the Ticino, and the area remained a potential refuge for people on the run. Then in 1908 and subsequently Kropotkin visited Ascona and Locarno for his health, at the suggestion of his doctor, the German anarchist Raphael Friedeberg, an exponent of the idea of the general strike, who had been expelled from the German Social Democratic party for his anarchist views. Friedeberg also invited to Ascona other German anarchists, notably the poet Erich Mühsam, whose brochure Ascona, published in 1905, gives an entertaining and somewhat ironical picture of life there and helped to create the Ascona legend.

The eccentric and, in the eyes of the natives, immoral behavior of some of the visitors, as well as an established smuggling business in the area, was already attracting the attention of the Swiss authorities, and the presence of known anarchists increased their suspicions, but in general both the Swiss police and the local inhabitants seem to have been surprisingly ready to leave their visitors undisturbed. And indeed the anarchists who came to Ascona, such as Friedeberg and Mühsam, while ready to help any comrades in trouble, were mostly unrevolutionary in practice. Mühsam, unlike some of the others, was at least able to laugh at aspects of life in Ascona, as in his “Vegetarian Teetotal Drinking Song” with its refrain, “Wir essen Salat, ja wir essen Salat.” For Mühsam too Ascona had overtones of sexual liberation; he noted that young workmen danced together and kissed each other without anyone thinking any the worse of them for it. Mühsam and some other visitors to Ascona were attracted to the more radical movements in the German and Austrian revolutions of 1918 and 1919 and turned up, for instance, in the short-lived Munich Soviet Republic. The revolutions that Martin Green’s characters supported were, however, nearly always social, ethical, and artistic rather than political. And when the foreign residents were forced to leave Ascona, this was more because of their own emotional and financial difficulties than because of political persecution by the Swiss government.

The movements that are a central part of Martin Green’s “Asconan idea” in art, culture, and politics could all be found elsewhere in Europe—wherever the ideas of Nietzsche had penetrated, in fact. All over Europe there were artists’ colonies and communes, such as the short-lived “milieux libres” in France, few of which survived the quarrels and sexual jealousies of their members, however high the ideals with which they started. In all these movements, in addition to Nietzscheanism, there is something of Tolstoy, something of the anarchists, something of the esoteric spiritual beliefs of, for example, the Rosicrucians, who were such an important element in the French artistic scene of the 1890s. Vegetarianism, dress reform, sexual freedom, a return to nature and natural living, the free expression of emotion in new art forms, were carried further and more fanatically among the minority of Germans who embraced them than by any other group in Europe. Such movements were often linked with various kinds of spiritualism and with an interest in the occult, and some of them of considerable cultural importance—notably the ramifications of the teachings of Rudolf Steiner—have been neglected by historians.

The revolt against reason and positivism and the call for a return to simpler living away from the corruption of the city have had many echoes throughout the twentieth century, some of which Martin Green pursues, even if their links with Ascona at times seem tenuous. He is rightly worried about the extent to which some aspects of his Asconan ideology reappear in National Socialism; and he also rightly points out how many of these ideas are to be found in the counterculture of the 1960s and in the various “Green” movements of the 1980s. The extent to which the rejection of rationalism, the appeal to instinct and to the call of the blood so characteristic of much European thought of the 1890s provides a clue to explaining the rise of fascism certainly makes some of these movements suspect in our eyes. There is always an ambivalence about them; they can lead both to a valuable sense of individual liberation and to intolerance and terrorism.

Martin Green, by casting his net so widely and linking almost everyone with Ascona even though they never went there, perhaps causes himself unnecessary difficulties in this respect. Rudolf Laban, for instance, published articles in the German periodical Die Tat, an important organ of neoromantic conservatism in the Weimar Republic. Its publisher and editor, Eugen Diederichs, who died in 1927, certainly expressed ideas which appealed to Goebbels and the Nazi propagandists, especially about the role of ritual and spectacle in public life. Laban, himself the son of an Austro-Hungarian Feld-marschalleutnant, had been influenced by the precision of military drill in some of the effects which he tried to produce in his dance spectacles, not unlike Max Reinhardt who used an ex-officer of the Prussian General Staff, Gustav Steinbömer, to advise on the handling of massed crowds on the stage. But was any of this specifically “Asconan” except for the accident of Laban’s original choice of Monte Verita for his school? Green doesn’t bring any evidence to show that Diederichs got his ideas from Ascona, even though Laban wrote for his magazine. Everything Diederichs stood for could be found in many other places—and not just in the German-speaking world.

The weakness of this book lies in the ambivalence of its use of the word Ascona. It is both a symbol for a wide range of movements and ideas contributing to the Zeitgeist of the early twentieth century and is also the name of a place in the real world where real people lived; and it is often hard to know in which sense the word is being used. Professor Green indeed sometimes writes almost as if he is not convinced of his case himself. “No doubt,” he says, “these connections will seem forced to some readers.” Even those people who did come to Ascona “came to and went from [it] recurrently, without interacting with the other people there. They did not work together. The most interesting did not even play and relax together.” And elsewhere he writes,

Did they ever speak to each other? We don’t know that they ever did, though they must have passed each other on the little square, in the cafés along the lake front, along the lanes and footpaths. But perhaps each was deep in thought, preoccupied with his own search for the truth, talking only with his own disciples. Perhaps they were only silent comrades in the common cause.

Ascona was, and has remained, a favorite holiday resort for German intellectuals: it provided a temporary home for vegetarians, anarchists, and other bohemians at the start of this century, who in turn attracted some of their friends and acquaintances. Some of them met and influenced others there. A few had a minor part in some of the major movements of the age, but they reflected rather than originated ideas the source of which lay outside Ascona. This is hardly enough to support the more ambitious of Martin Green’s claims. Still, even if he has not succeeded in making his case that all roads lead to, or rather from, Ascona, he has at least led us down some interesting and unexplored byways of twentieth-century culture which are worth visiting for their own sake.

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