Eranos - an alternative intellectual history

Olga Frobe, who founded the Eranos meetings in Ascona, Switzerland thought of herself as possessed by the archetype of this particular place, an unknown localised genius, and was compelled to serve it. In doing so, she brought together a remarkable number of people, who, though in many ways markedly different, bore a 'family resemblance' in wanting to infuse a rationally valid approach to the world, and their study of it, with yet something other. That 'other' was an acknowledgement of 'spirit' - of the world as a 'cosmos' - a purposeful place that was intrinsically meaningful. A cosmos that called forth a quest and the fulfilment of which required the response of a whole person - a wholeness that transcended the rational. An Eranos conference was meant to call forth the academically rigorous yet freed of those narrow confines of the only rational than can be rigor mortis.

As Hans Thomas Hakl argues in his history of Eranos (Eranos - an alternative intellectual history of the twentieth century), they can be seen as having an 'esoteric' dimension, broadly defined, if seen as a way of balancing the demands of the spiritually as well as the scholarly valid approach to truth. Indeed the roots of Eranos were indeed more explicitly esoteric as Frobe had a deep (and possibly lasting) interest in those patterns of thinking renewed in the west by Theosophy. It was Jung who steered Frobe away from an explicit acknowledgement of these patterns onto ground more conducive (in his mind) to a study of the human that resonated with a more empirical and scientific attitude. The trajectory of Eranos in a sense mirrored Jung's own search for 'respectability' for his ideas - a meeting place between ancient currents and modernised formulations.

Whatever the balance ultimately struck (and unsurprisingly it oscillated with its changing cast of characters), it was experienced by many remarkable scholars as a place where they could breathe freely in sympathetic company and map out their patterns of understanding in renewing ways. It is undoubtedly a striking roll call - Jung, Erich Neumann, Martin Buber, James Hillman, Henri Corbin, Gershom Scholem and D.T. Suzuki to name only a few, who found at Eranos a place of intellectual conviviality (and in the Bollingen Foundation's involvement often material and publishing support for their works).

Hakl's book as a history focused on the place can only touch on the content of the ideas explored but his deft exposition and judicious quotations are continuously inviting, glimpses of the worlds of ideas conjured forth, year on year, by the lakeside. As a history too, however, Hakl also wrestles with a number of issues of controversy that hover yet over Eranos. Two of the most important are whether a concern for myth (a continuous leitmotif of the conferences) is inherently conservative and whether that conservatism (if real) at a critical moment in Eranos' history gave explicit (or tacit) support to the emergent Fascism of Italy or National Socialism in Germany. This is question that embraces, but goes beyond, whether one or more of the 'closer' members of the Eranos circle were (or were not) 'fascists' (and related to this anti-Semitic).

In the first instance (and Hakl does not make this point), there is an irony in advancing the notion that myth is inherently conservative and aligning that discussion with either 'Fascism' or 'National Socialism' that were, whatever the archaism they gave rise to or manipulated, radically and wrenchingly 'innovative' and 'revolutionary'. Meanwhile, in the second instance, Hakl's account is a model of sensitive balance, a balance that is strikingly difficult to maintain, if looking back with all the dark hindsight that this implies. It certainly true that some of the invitees, post 1933, were tainted (and possibly more than tainted) with fascist connection (one thinks of Mircea Eliade's entanglement with the Rumanian Iron Guard, never subsequently acknowledged or atoned for). It is certainly true too that the conference compromised to secure attendees - not publishing Jewish authors contributions to the annual yearbook, for example, to enable its publication in Germany. But, on the whole, Eranos emerges, on balance, exonerated - Frobe herself certainly does though she served her archetype, her conference, this was never at the expense of a transparent and basic humanity (and with a prescience that few, I suspect, could equal).

Hakl ultimately notes that the spirit of Eranos is indeed carried by the sculpture (that the Foundation to this day carries as its masthead, see above) - a dedication to the unknown spirit and genius of a place - where something greater comes from above to meet something important yet lesser from below - and which do not yet touch but if they continue to travel together, and towards each other, may forge a deepening wholeness, captured in the 'star of David' patterning that may emerge.


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