Ernst Bloch and Rudolf Steiner: New Utopias, New Religions

In autumn 2021 I was lucky enough to be awarded a generous €6000 writing and research grant by the Hamburg Culture Foundation (Hamburgische Kulturstiftung), to work on a popular, non-fiction account of five extraordinary individuals, whose paths and ideas crossed in WW1 Switzerland. Those selected included two of the artists who co-founded the Dada movement in Zürich: Emmy Hennings and Hugo Ball. The third historical character was the revolutionary Lenin (Vladimir Ulyanov if we want to be exact), who was living with his wife Krupskaya about a hundred yards from Cabaret Voltaire, out of which Dada exploded in spring 1916. The fourth figure is the German-Jewish philosopher Ernst Bloch, whose philosophy is now reaching more people globally than during his lifetime, and who is celebrated for being a Marxist thinker who takes religion seriously. Bloch, Ball and Hennings had a short and intense friendship in Berne in 1917, bonds that were broken abruptly by Balls’ anti-Semitic attitudes. The final person chosen for the book is the social reformer and esoteric Rudolf Steiner, who was based at the centre for his anthroposophical movement at Dornach, near Basel, from 1914.

Enduringly fascinating as all these five persons are, I realised during my grant period that I would need to narrow my focus, at least initially, to be able to produce usable results. Deciding to concentrate on possible connections between Ernst Bloch (1885-1977) and Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925), my research confirmed that there is no significant English-language literature linking the lives or the works of these two thinkers. But my hunch that more common territory exists between the two than is immediately obvious paid off. Delving into the German-language literature, and particularly Bloch’s letters between 1911-1917 to his philosopher friend György Lukács – not yet published in English – revealed a number of references to Steiner, anthroposophy, and theosophy more generally. Following up on these, I found material by Helmut Zander on the young Ernst Bloch engaging with Steiner’s ideas. Zander has produced easily the most comprehensive critical histories of anthroposophy, and of Steiner as a person, that exist: none of these important German-language books have yet been published in English. These sources have provided invaluable material for my ongoing work on a biography-based book, aimed at a wide and non-specialist audience, on the interconnections between Bloch and Steiner.

As an interim stop on this journey, I set myself the task of writing, and getting published, an extended article on the two. Working on this, it became clear that Bloch crossed paths with anthroposophists not only in Switzerland from 1917-1919, but also in the south-west German city of  Heidelberg from 1912-1914, where Bloch stayed for spells, alternating with periods in Bavaria. Introduced into Max Weber’s philosophical salon by his friend Lukács, Bloch was soon experiencing a milieu dominated by forceful intellectual leaders. Acquainted with Weber was the extraordinary, controversial poet Stephan George (1868-1933), about whom Bloch had feelings every bit as ambivalent as his attitudes towards Steiner. The personal encounters with anthroposophists, and Bloch’s conflicted engagement with Steiner’s works, later led Bloch to pen several forthright condemnations of the racism propogated by Steiner and numerous other anthroposophical leaders.

In Bloch’s first major work, Geist der Utopie [The Spirit of Utopia], however, and specificially in that book’s first edition, published in 1918, Bloch provides an extended portrait of both George and Steiner. The only published English edition of the work – translated by Anthony Nassar, and published in 2000 by Stanford University Press – follows the 1964 German edition, and thus omits the passage on George and Steiner entirely. It was a questionable decision by both publisher and translator of the Stanford edition not to include the passages from the 1918 and 1923 editions taken out in 1964, at least as an appendix. The 1918 edition was received with great excitement, and it was the book that first made Bloch’s name.

The George-Steiner passage given in my translation below, taken from the facsimile of the 1918 edition (pp.238-241) reprinted by Suhrkamp in 1971, is thus presented here in English for the first time. The passage is part of a longer chapter; this, and other as yet unpublished parts of the 1918 and 1923 German editions, should be published in the next English edition of Spirit of Utopia.

The Secret Teachers.

It is only getting clearly lighter now around a few people. The men of active spirit are perhaps part of this group, however little they do themselves, at first, or however little contents they have. But we believe in that which burnt in Marc,[1] and intuit in that the same light that will burn on clairvoyantly [seherisch] from Strindberg,[2] and in a different way from Mahler.[3]

               It is above all those who determine the religious colour of the times who should be counted here. Hence, first, Stephan George, a tremendous poet, and, for those who believe in him, a priest too. It would be superficial to see in those around him merely the vainest attempts to-want-to-take-part, or to-be-allowed-to-take-part. This only applies to the numerous swotty or ape-like natures that never fail wherever a clique distinguishes itself, but who never actually determine the fate of such cliques. This aside, the George cult has doubtlessly brought much good to the youth in all other regards, humility, verecundia,[4] an austere sense of the real foreign to our time, joy at being grown up in a manner full of beauty and form, a rejection of all impertinent understanding that has no clue about the leaps, and of the necessary poverty of the subject of these leaps in the background. But, and this is decisive, all this could exist without that Other: it has no need of that which is deeper – the aristocratic magicalness minus Christianity that is peculiar to the George community — to discharge itself. That’s why we wish to hold our tongues about the inner [aspects of the George community], especially considering that all forms of proselytising and all will to dispute is utterly foreign to the George cult; and why, instead, we wish to recognise its fruits indirectly, from further off, and by incorporating a further variable. The lack of a discernible, significant difference between Gundolf[5] and Dilthey[6], the absence of anything to suggest that Gundolf has encountered something entirely unreachable apart from the vitality of a tremendous poet, or anything in better Hölderlin editions,[7] or better histories of literature: nothing to point towards the seed out of which a different, larger tree could grow, not to mention the fact that they [the George circle members] would have need of this mystical seed for their own production. By contrast, in the case of such an ordinary person as the French theosophist Schuré[8], it certainly can become perceptible, when he writes about Pythagoras, that he draws from a different well than that frequented by Zeller[9] or Windelband.[10]

                It cannot be denied that this well is called Steiner.

               Which is certainly dispiriting and disquieting enough. A miserable newspaper writer, very gossipy and only a quarter-educated, has secrets to convey. Almost everything about him is problematic, both the human and his text, but we’ve reached the stage where it’s precisely relatively dirty stuff that fertilises things. Which is why Steiner, a man thrice compromised by his followers, his style, and the educational niveau of his works, is the only person in our times who knows how to make the old theosophical inheritance lively again. Something essential has mishit into him, him [ihn ihn], and concerning this otherwise hardly bearable man there is a point from which long broken connections, which have been lying there dead, appear to reanimate and fit themselves together again.

               What matters initially is to keep all this separate, if possible, from the genuinely wonderful. Many things impact, in this regard, in a similar way to how venoms make their impact. We react toxically, in general, to those substances that were not absorbed into a body’s circulation during the first formation of that body. That’s why, later, they attack the habit of organic coherence, as destructive, foreign elements. But it makes sense that if one could temporarily suspend the body, and then – after first incorporating these substances into a newly configurated system – get it moving again, then all these venoms would have to now be non-toxic. The same seems valid for all facts concerning innate gravity, spiritualism, and most of theosophy’s teachings. If it could be notarized that precognitions exist, that dying individuals could announce their presence telepathically, or that any yogi has ever completed the miracle of levitation, then, however inexplicable these occurrences might seem currently, this would be no more of a riddle than the processes of insemination, or even the emergence of an ingenious structure, if worldviews were only sufficiently and fundamentally broad. The simple reason that all this results in a significance that destroys all comprehension is that, since Newton[11] and Leibniz,[12] we are in possession of a worldview that unquestionably omits these elements. By contrast, we would be happy to see all groups that stand for “occultism” disappear – all these lower, aggravating and fantastic groups that lack all fantasy – if we could drive the vehicle of the concept back to that point where the parcels containing factual findings about the “beyond” fell off, and were left lying, so as to re-incorporate them into the expectational contexts of the whole convoy, and to form a structure of concepts that would accomodate these now foreign elements. We are convinced that, were this to happen, nothing essential would need to be changed in the worldview delineating research in the individual sciences, which is concerned, on principle, with this world rather than any other, and which has to already accommodate enough leaps and discontinuities regarding history. Dread is not a religious condition, and ghostly or even “spiritual” worlds protruding in are not, in themselves, an explosive moral or metaphysical paradox.

               Admittedly, there is something else in all this, which is certainly usable. But in drawing from that, it should not be forgotten that all this is no longer entirely true, that many phenomena of this kind have been preserved from times that have been left to collapse, in intellectual-spiritual terms. It should also be remembered that Steiner interprets a lot, and extends and tidies up – commensurate to his own education – that which he doesn’t “see” himself, or, when he does see it, doesn’t “understand”. Nonetheless, it would be misguided and unobjective not to recognise that extraordinary valuable information is presented here, at least and principally in historical terms. It is only through the communications of the remaining clairvoyants, ordinary as these people are, that the belief in ghosts can be elucidated, and this also holds for all dark reports about customs in prehistory, or about sorcery, whether clairvoyant or prophetic, which is still an everyday matter among all primitive peoples, or for reports about believing in witches and magic. Who can boast of being able to entirely understand libations, the pyramids’ burial chambers, the constellations, the signs of the zodiac, the resurrection of Lazarus, the Harrowing of Hell, the Dew of the Cross, or the I.N.R.I., the Igne Natura Renovatur Integra?[13]

[1] Franz Marc (1880-1916), the expressionist painter.

[2] August Strindberg (1849-1912), celebrated playwright.

[3] Gustav Mahler (1860-1911), composer.

[4] Latin: a knowledge of one’s place.

[5] Friedrich Gundolf (1880-1931), was a German literary scholar, and an inner member of the George circle.

[6] Wilhelm Dilthey (1833-1911), a German philosopher and strong admirer of George.

[7] Norbert von Hellingrath (1888-1916), a member of the George circle, is seen as the individual who rediscovered German poet Friedrich Hölderlin (1770-1843) for modernity. The first volume of a new Hölderlin edition, co-edited by Hellingrath, was published in 1913.

[8] Edouard Schuré (1841-1929), francophone theosophist, whose work was translated by Rudolf Steiner’s partner Marie von Sivers (1867-1948), and published in German from 1904. Schuré had a close working relationship with both von Sivers and Steiner until the outbreak of WW1.

[9] Eduard Zeller (1814-1908), philosopher and one of the first representatives of neo-Kantianism.

[10] Wilhelm Windelband (1848-1915), professor of philosophy in Heidelberg from 1903, and another stalwart of neo-Kantianism.

[11] Issac Newton, English physicist, 1642-1726/27.

[12] Gottfried Leibniz, German polymath and philosopher, 1646-1716.

[13] Latin saying: by fire is nature reborn whole. “Igne Natura Renovatur Integra” is a specifically Rosicrucian interpretation of the initials INRI. Mainstream Christian theology interprets this acronym as standing for Iēsus Nazarēnus, Rēx Iūdaeōrum, the Latin inscription given in John 19:19, which translates in English into “Jesus the Nazarene, King of the Jews”.