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A Cave in the Rocks

Excerpts from ‘Mountain of Truth’

by Martin Green

Gräser was a vegetarian (like most Asconans). He revered life in all its forms and refused to eat what had been killed for his sustenance, but his principles – in other matters beside this – were assertions of freedom, not renunciations; were humanist, not religious; were hearty, not pious.

He was kept in jail five months [in 1902], and published several poems called Ivy Leaves in the May after he was released. An ivy leaf was another of those emblems of nature he sometimes wore, and poetry was another of the media of communication he essayed to convey his message; in fact, poetry finally came to eclipse all the others for him. If we compare him with other men who believed what he did, his was a remarkably playful and unaggressive mode of self-manifestation.

Returning to Ascona, he was given a piece of land by the village of Losone. The people of the village offered to sign it over to him, but he did not want to own anything. It seems that they hoped thus to attract to their village other vegetarian settlers of Ascona, but also that they liked Gusto. He was easy to like if you were not troubled by his self-simplification (internal as much as external), his ultimate reserve, and his moral challenge. If you could ignore that, you could respond – as apparently the villagers of Losone did – to the radiant picture of health he presented, the simple-hearted comrade he announced himself to be. The cultured found it harder so to respond.

According to Ida Hofmann in her book about Ascona, Gräser did little work on his new property and continued to live off what others gave him. … One can well believe that he would not work hard; the discipline of hard effort was part of that Zwang he was rebelling against, part of the Protestant work ethic. He wanted to be a saunterer, an idler. Moreover, he was deeply influenced by Lao-tzu’s Way of Life; and one of Lao-tzu’s most important concepts is wu wei, quietism or deliberate inactivity, the voiding of the self so that Tao, the Way, may take control of all one’s being and doing. (56f.)

In 1907 Gräser met Hermann Hesse, in Ascona. Hesse was living not far away, and he saw Naturmenschen walking through his village on their way to Monte Verita, with their long hair, bronzed faces, bare legs, sandaled feet. He got to know Henri Oedenkoven and Ida Hofmann, and over the next few years was often in the village. He was a fringe Asconan himself. But it was above all Gräser who came to represent to Hesse the things that were to be found in Ascona and that were important to Hesse; indeed, Hesse represents to us many writers who were challenged and inspired by Gräser over the years. (62)

With many stops and starts, delays and reversals, Hesse himself gradually turned toward Nature, toward Dionysus, Magna Mater, and Pan.

All true Asconans had already turned in the same direction. And Gräser’s vocation of vagabondage, of cutting himself free from social guarantees, was attractive to Hesse. Indeed, at the level of rhetoric, the two men shared precisely the same ethic and the same faith. But Gräser chose al life style that nerved him for heroic action (quietist but heroic), whereas Hesse chose a style that relaxed his moral nerve in the interests of sensibility – of art. This difference was to lead to a profound split between them. (63)

Martin Green:
Mountain of Truth. The Counterculture begins, Ascona, 1900-1920.
Hanover and London, 1986. P. 56f.; 62 and 63.