Magazine for Sophisticated Entertainment
Edition N° 7
English version of selected articles
NUDE CLIMBING WITH HERMANN HESSE
Marie de Winter visits the nature people at Monte Verità
Question upon question
Have you ever satisfied your hunger with nothing but berries, grains and nuts? Tilled your garden in a loincloth... or even climbed a rock face - completely unveiled?
Another nudist hoax of our time? And shamelessly so, you may think. Who would be prepared for such escapades - in one’s birthday suit? And: why?
Well, I asked myself the same when I heard about the existence of these idealists. Where are they to be found? On a mountain in beautiful Ticino, called Monte Verità. In a spiritual colony of artists and a natural sanatorium, founded by alternative life reformers like the pianist Ida Hofmann and the nature lover Gusto Gräser. And - "hardly believable" you may probably exclaim - Hermann Hesse, the great writer himself, has already lived through these experiences!
And no one less than him is who will stand by my side in this daring investigative self-experiment - descending into the depths of my soul in search of true knowledge! With an alert mind and an enquiring eye, I will go to Monte Verità to face the bare facts, and last but not least, I will dedicate myself to the question: WHAT DOES IT DO TO ME?
More hill than mountain, Monte Verità rises above the fishing village of Ascona, whose inhabitants have been talking about this place for 19 years now with the same mixture of curiosity and irony that only sensational states are able to evoke.
On their journey through anarchism, theosophy, Buddhism, feminism, esotericism, Satanism, sexual bolshevism, parapsychology – phew - and not to forget art - countless followers of these currents and practices are said to have experienced purification, healing and deep inspiration on the mountain. More or less socially well-accepted personalities - such as Else Lasker-Schüler, Franz Arp, Oskar Schlemmer or Paul Klee - already dreamed there, naked and hungry, of free love, veganism and a better world, celebrated their very personal asceticism and lived this alternative to materialism, chauvinism, church and state. Come along with me!
During our one-hour walk to the "nudist settlement", however, Hesse, who moved into his new home in nearby Montagnola last May, never tires of emphasizing, how he feels about the behavior on Monte Verità after his "encounter with himself" half a decade ago. He even speaks of "kohlrabi apostles", "grain-eaters" and "barefoot prophets". So I am surprised, how light-footed and carefree he is willing to walk with me on the paths of the past. In his recently published novel "Demian" under the pseudonym Emil Sinclair, he openly reveals - in a frenzy of only three weeks of inspiration, as he points out - his inner insights, even persons and places from "Mountain of Truth". Now he wants to pay his last respects to the mountain. An end shall soon be put to the colourful hustle and bustle. It shall be over and done with the "Republic of the Homeless", as the writer Erich Mühsam likes to call this place. It will close its doors in January until further notice.
"I went seven days without food. During this time, my skin peeled and renewed, I got used to being naked, to lying on hard ground, to the heat of the sun and the cold night wind", reports Hesse as we approach the fenced-in area of the commune - probably to gently prepare me for what was to come... "Often, I laid half-conscious for hours, watching the light and shade changing, listening to the small sounds of the wasteland, disregarding them and not giving myself an account of what I saw and heard", he continues, as we climb the steps out of the now deep blue night to the brightly lit "Casa Anatta, the commune's residential and representative building. There I move into a small, simple chamber, note down the events of the day in my little book and fall into a restless sleep…
The early bird
The night was short and the sleeping berth was uncomfortable. Any more inconveniences awaiting me today?
Every single berry, every nut of the "sumptuous" morning meal promises ascetic purification. Hesse, acknowledging my expression of suffering, pats my slender little arm in an encouraging manner, and explains, obviously amused: "Apart from the fasting fanatics, there are true vegetarian gourmands, who really feast. Vegetarians, too [...] frugivores and mixed dietitians". Ida Hofmann, the foundress of the community, looking daggers at Hesse, indignantly admonishes me: "You women do not need to live with torment or suffering! Through a plant-based diet, women can free themselves and shake off the yoke of men and develop into higher beings. Let´s burn the rotten, the dead in humans and in their sphere of influence!"
I pause in amazement as I crush the grains - such a view on female self-liberation was previously completely unknown to me. As I want to find out more about the reasons for the closure of the settlement, I take the opportunity: "A conversation over a cup of tea?“ Ida Hofmann nods, tomorrow she'll receive me. I´m politely beginning my retreat now - in joyful expectation, before long, climbing cheerfully, in the altogether, towards self-liberation on a nasty rock face. Having a stunning view to the glittering surface of Lake Maggiore, rippling in the rising midday sun...
As we climb out onto the first, jagged rocky plateau, all of a sudden, I am deeply torn between an almost overpowering investigative curiosity and a natural flight instinct. Hesse's encouraging words immediately soothe my hesitation: "Between man and mountain there can develop an almost erotic relationship." This is supposed to the female nature as well... Ok then, that's convincing... Surrounded by warm air and the blue sky, this incredibly daring little intermezzo with the cool rock turns out to be an exceptionally sensual moment of glory for my female contemplation…
It does not take a extrasensory nature to guess, whom once served as a shelter the hidden rock grotto, whose gorge now opens up before us, after our descent into the valley: the prophetic visionary Gusto Gräser! "Be yourself." Hesse, in a pensive and melancholic mood, cites his old friend... "Our only obligation and destiny was, that each of us should become completely ourselves", I add from my memory of "Demian", while the pieces of the past come together to form a whole...
So we sit for many hours in Gräser's abandoned, savaged "forest garden world" – Gräser himself had been expelled from Switzerland last year. We philosophize until twilight begins to surround us... when the mountain – all of a sudden - seems to melt a polymorphic wave of naked bodies onto the plateau in front of the grotto! I can hardly believe my eyes when, in the light of the rising full moon, I recognize some familiar faces among them: the Dadaists Hugo Ball, Käthe Kruse, the painter Paul Klee, Mary Wigman... and her master Rudolf von Laban! It's incredible: All of them came to honour Gusto Gräser one last time, to remember better times, to invoke the spirit of long gone days in this familiar place. To move now their naked bodies ecstatically in the moonlight, one last time, under the guidance of the dancer from Laban... The "Balabiott", the naked dancers! Legendary!
Still completely caught up in the deep, Dionysian impressions of the previous night, I am strolling - almost somnambulistically to the "Parsival meadows" - passing wooden "light-air huts", lightly dressed sun worshippers with flowing beards and wild hair and a group of peaceful meditators. Ida Hofmann is already awaiting me in the shade of an old, gnarled tree. She smiles, but at the same time she seems a little depressed. She tells me about the beginnings and the noble goal pursued by the founders of the community, but also about the infighting, conflicts and intrigues between the artists and "new gurus" who resided on the mountain in the past few years. Too many different ideologies... In 1907, the need for money made matters worse: "This was the beginning of the end of our dream." Although making the necessary changes to the food menu brought back guests, who had been thought lost, her husband Henri Oedenkoven literally had his hands full tracking down forbidden things - such as salami or wine - in the hiding places: "He carried the accusatory signs between his fingers like poison and presented them [...] to the attendant crowd. He always hoped, that the poor sinners would confess. A pious hope […]." And at the same time Ida´s great hope faded away: the women´s self-liberation by a strict "Vegetabilism! Vegetarianism!". "We will emigrate - but who knows? Perhaps one day our dream will be dreamt by others..."
While Mrs. Hofmann is trying to forget her sorrow, playing heart-rending piano sonatas, I am preparing myself for my departure next day, lost in thoughts.
Reflecting on my journalistic boldness, which - only a few days ago - had led me to the nature people, I am sitting on the train and begin to browse in Hesse's ancient notes on Ascona - his parting gift - which fascinates me for many hours. A really strangely enchanted place, this mountain! After Gräser, Hofmann and Oedenkoven, there probably will be others trying their luck and finding happiness one day... As we come to a stop with squeaking wheels in the home station, my thoughts stop all at once. Loudly I am reading Gusto Gräser´s words now:
„Ascona was, was fine, good its variety of delight and pain -
a repetition would be nothing than sadness.
Newly we must live our life! Anew!“
Stepping out of my train compartment, the pulsating life is embracing me invitingly and lovingly...