Mountain of Truth: The Counterculture BeginsAscona, 19001920
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 …