My Years of Study: Marx, Freud and Co.
In retrospect, I do not regret the zigzag path I followed across that epoch. It gave me access to experiences which would later keep me from ossifying. At that time, I was defending myself against the position (quite right) that life is made of paradoxes. For some years, I tried to smother, to repress this perspicacious vision of the paradox of existence, which nonetheless slowly infiltrated my ideas, my feelings and my representations. I submitted to a soteriological and universalist doctrine that promised to liquidate all paradoxes and reveal the meaning of the All. This was an experience which at least kept me from constructing another soteriological doctrine, having freed myself from the first.
This experience began when I was sixteen or seventeen years old. I wanted to articulate my revolt against the petit-bourgeois environment in an “original,” that is to say “leftist,” way. This wasn’t so easy in the thirties. Switzerland was pursuing a “democracy of consensus” (or more precisely: a “democracy of cartels”). The time when troops fired on workers was past; it had been at least twenty years. The section of the population living in deprivation gradually decreased and dwindled to be limited to mountain peasants in distant Alpine valleys. Associations and cartels of employers and workers had decided to divide the cake peaceably. At the physiognomic level, battle-scars longer distinguished one camp from the other. In such a situation, radical Marxism dies of ridicule because every need of the working class is satisfied by the creation of a new association. Radical anarchism grinds to a halt in a country where everyone feels a certain malaise, no doubt, but where nobody is truly oppressed. No-one throws bombs at himself.
My Introduction to the World of Artists
Among the grotesque misadventures of my existence: the social situation which had made me flee Switzerland caught up with me in my new adoptive homeland, West Germany. Some German friends, mocking me, asked maliciously, “Do you think certain signs permit one to speak of the ‘Helvetisation’ of the Federal Republic?” I think that, whereas a little before the Second World War, only an intellectual left had a chance in my Swiss homeland, such a chance is now limited to a much reduced domain: the caste of intellectuals, of littérateurs, of artists, with their Maecenases drawn from society’s leisured classes. It was to precisely this caste that I wanted to introduce myself: it seemed to me to be a door open to the wide world. In 1938, I enrolled at the University of Basle. Major: history of art. Minors: Germanic philology and philosophy.
Just before matriculation, I had penetrated a new circle of personalities – that of the emigrants from the Third Reich, mainly composed of Jews. The well-established Jewish families of Basle were none too pleased by this new addition. Personally, I was passionate about these unassimilated Jews. They brought us a little reflection of the Roaring Twenties from Berlin, the air that Kafka breathed from Prague, a dash of the most fascinating décadence of recent history from Vienna. Along with the non-Jewish émigrés, they claimed to represent “the better Germany.”
But it was also Jewish émigrés who brought me the first philosophical and aesthetic elements to contradict my liberal opinions. In this regard, I’d contented myself with studying my very close compatriot Carl Spitteler, native of Baselbreit, the rural country around the city of Basle. Spitteler was an epic poet, the only Swiss to have received a Nobel Prize (discounting Hermann Hesse, who naturalised). But with the wave of émigrés in 1938, the poetic community founded by Stefan George, founded in Basle before 1933, was bolstered numerically, so that I came into contact with authors like Rudolf Borchardt, Alfred Mombert, Ludwig Derleth, and even Vladimir Jabotinsky, founding father of a kind of Jewish fascism.
I concentrated my interest primarily on the main course concocted by certain Swiss and foreign men of the left, avant-gardists and liberals, served up to the cultural left. This was an elaborate hodgepodge, sometimes quite perspicacious, of Marxism, psychoanalysis, abstract painting, atonal music, Bauhaus architecture, and Soviet films, the whole thing drenched in a saccharine sauce of liberal pathos. On this side of the front in the global civil war the best of the thirties was to be found, because we tried to revalidate a Marxism grown somewhat obsolete by injecting it with strong doses of psychoanalysis. Wilhelm Reich was only one theoretician among many to have this idea. It was great: bringing Marx, the magus of society, and Freud, the magus of the soul, onstage arm in arm. With this coupling, the gaze (growing somewhat myopic) that the left cast on the world was reinforced as if by a stereo effect. And at that time I thought I possessed, in Freudo-Marxism, a universal code to rationally decipher the world. The scientific sleight of hand that allowed this new soteriological doctrine to enter the scene made it at once irresistible. Which is why, three decades later, I felt I was seeing ghosts in the Federal Republic, when the soixante-huitards put on that old hat (though it’s true that they wore it in a Californian fashion, not à la mode zurichoise).
We Took Ourselves to Be Great Realists…
I also found in the soixante-huitards an elitist arrogance identical to that my avant-gardist friends displayed in 1938. We too had begun our quest by evoking “dialectic” and “repression”; we had coined a jargon for our little clique to distance ourselves from the “masses.” We “really” knew what lay hidden “behind” everything. A constructivist canvas by Piet Mondrian wasn’t merely composed of straight lines forming right angles, intersecting agreeably and rhythmically to delimit squares and rectangles of red, blue and yellow, all on a white ground (which might soothe an overstressed individual, much like a pretty rug). No, no – it wasn’t simply geometry: it “meant” something. What we saw wasn’t the essential, but what we associated with the image. We took ourselves to be great “realists”; but we were only “realists about universals” (and only, as the conditio humana wills it, according to our pretensions).
Many of us thought we held in our hands the key to the universe’s enigmas. In reality, we compromised our vision of the world by using a filter of abstractions. So we became easy prey to those who would convince us that the real world will arrive one day, but in the future. Or we became the prey of other peddlers of illusions (less numerous but more dangerous) who would have us believe that the real world has been and gone, and is irrecoverably lost. There is hope when we begin to understand that one thereby misses out on one’s real, unique, specific and irreplaceable life.
When My First Convictions Were Undermined
When did I cease to be a student of the left? I know the day, at least, when I became aware that all that was absolutely false: 22 June 1941. Although my conviction that Freudo-Marxism was the key to the universe had already been shaken.
I wasn’t the type prepared to spend all my efforts realizing the dreams of universalism. In any case, one can only with difficulty evaluate what one receives by heritage before one’s birth. Personally, I was lucky from my birth. My parents enjoyed a happy marriage. My father was a discreet man; but he possessed a natural and uncontested authority. My mother, more enterprising, was his perfect complement in life. Order reigned in the family home; but it wasn’t boring. I wasn’t spoilt. My parents lacked the means. Little everyday miseries, physical or psychical, never gave rise to excitements or emotions out of the ordinary: we knew they were part of the lot of the living. Thus I inherited a state of spirit I wouldn’t classify as optimism, but rather “lust for life.”
The Frontist Movement in Switzerland
Once I had sprung myself from the corset of leftist ideology, it was this lust for life that became my main engine. But that wasn’t all. It certainly wasn’t the Swiss right of that epoch that constituted an auxiliary engine, anyhow. Insofar as there were any groups classifiable as “conservative” in Switzerland during my youth, and insofar as these groups hadn’t been watered down, they were of a “patrician” or Catholic kind. These two backgrounds were foreign to me. I came from the petite bourgeoisie; I never felt Christian and, on the day of my coming of age, I voluntarily left the Reformed Church in which I’d been educated. Maurassisme, present in Romandy, might have attracted me. But German Switzerland had always been isolated from Francophone Switzerland. In general it was more familiar with Paris or Provence. There was nothing in German Switzerland for a lad like me, trying to find his way to the right, except the “frontist” movement (that is, groups like the Neue Front, the Nationale Front, the Volksbund, etc.). This was one of many movements for renewal that sprang up across Europe because of economic crisis, and which contemporary political theorists classify as “fascistic.”
In 1931, at the moment the “fronts” reached their prime, I was only eleven; otherwise I’d easily have let them carry me away. This movement of renewal could count, in the beginning, on the sympathy of many sections of the population. It had been initiated by bright young things from the established parties, who wanted to create something to absorb the general discontent and weariness of the population towards the conventional parties. However, the Swiss fronts very quickly created their own dynamic. One noticed stylistic similarities with the fascism which manifested itself throughout Europe; but from 1933 onwards, the tarnishing shadow of the Third Reich crept over the frontist movement. Those representatives of establishment associations who had involved themselves in these fronts were quick to distance themselves after 1933.
The intellectuals who were the Swiss counterparts of the German Conservative Revolution in Zurich or Berne remained longer in these political formations, and benefited from the approval of a bored jeunesse dorée. However, many victims of the executions of the Night of the Long Knives, on 30 June 1934 in Munich and Berlin, were representatives of the Conservative Revolution; shocked, the majority of these conservative-revolutionary Swiss intellectuals left public life and took refuge in their ivory towers. The only frontist seat in the Swiss Parliament was quickly lost. What remained of the fronts was marginalized by liberal society with all the means at its disposal. The more moderate leaders withdrew into their private lives. Some of the more radical leaders took refuge in the Third Reich, to escape the Swiss police and judiciary. A band without leaders was all that remained, whose numbers kept dwindling: little men obsessed by one idée fixe – that the Freemasons and the Jews (in that order) were responsible for all the Earth’s evils.
Major Leonhardt of the Volksbund
Such a perfunctory conspiracy theory wouldn’t do for a type like me, on the point of resolving the universe’s enigmas. However, one day I dared to enter the lion’s den. I attended a meeting of that most radical of frontist leaders, Maj. Leonhardt, leader of the Volksbund, a splinter from the Nationale Front. (As the army was still a sacrosanct institution at that time, this son of a naturalized German utilized his officer’s stripes as propaganda for the Volksbund.) This meeting must have taken place in 1939 at the latest, as I read in a doctoral thesis dedicated to the Volksbund that Leonhardt had immigrated to Germany in 1939, and that he was killed in 1945 in an Allied air-raid. His appearance corresponded to his nickname: “the Swiss Julius Streicher.” Indeed, his body was pyknic-looking, compact; he appeared to have no neck; he had the same pointed skull as Streicher, a skull that always seemed poised for attack. He also had comparable oratorical talent, as I’d soon notice to my cost.
After the Major’s disquisition – on Switzerland “soiled” by the Freemasons and the Jews – I dared to venture a remark. I don’t remember what I said that day. But I haven’t forgotten how Maj. Leonhardt immediately recognized that I was a student. He attacked me directly ad personam. (In the thesis to which I alluded earlier, I read that he had justified his and his flock’s break with the Nationale Front because the latter had fallen utterly under the thumb of the academics.) The Major began to respond coldly, then administered a litany of insults at a higher pitch; the successive insults seemed to enfold me like a vortex. Their approximate content? That the Swiss taxpayer supports the universities with his money, and what comes of it? Foreign academics, full of so much useless stuff they can’t even recognize the real enemies of the people! Leonhardt had warmed his public up nicely: some regarded me with a mocking air; others shot me hateful looks. As for me, I was heated as well: how could I respond to such an avalanche of insults? I’ve never known a situation like it, except around the end of the sixties and beginning of the seventies in the “discussions” which were held at that time in West-German universities.
Mobilised in the Swiss Army in 1940
If the fronts didn’t help in the least to coax me down from my little left-liberal throne, what was the force that made me descend? With the distance that age brings, I can well observe that my mobilisation in the ranks of the Swiss army in 1940 played its part. The Swiss “drill” of the time was still very harsh: my compatriots who served first in the Swiss army, then, later, in the German Waffen SS, considered the instruction in our country to be tougher than what prevailed in Himmler’s divisions. What with my state of spirit at that time, I donned my uniform with anti-militarist sentiments. I wasn’t a good soldier; and at the end of my conscript classes, my commandant asked if I wanted to become an officer-cadet (it was offered automatically to every student at that time). “No thanks!” said I; and I remained a plain old infantryman.
Still, to my great surprise, I found certain aspects of my service pleased me. I liked the assault-course with rucksack and rifle. I couldn’t heave myself over the bar; but I was a strong runner. For an anti-militarist student, these little pleasures might still be excused: it’s sport, after all. But certain things were more disquieting for a leftist pacifist: I found almost atavistic pleasures in a strictly military domain, particularly the drill. I couldn’t repress a profound satisfaction when my platoon, after days of exercises, made our rifles strike the ground without a “typewriter effect” (for civilians, this means when rifle-butts no longer fall to the ground with a disordered tAc-TaC-taC-Tac, but with one single metallic TAC on the slabs of the barracks courtyard). Fifteen days before, I’d still have mocked this “childishness.”
Going to the People
However, the most important experience of my military service came after recruit-training, when I entered active service, and was posted to the border-guard. I was dispatched in a company of Schützen (riflemen) made up of men able to bear arms, drawn from all corners of civilian life. In a highly specialized society, the intellectual finds it difficult to get to know the “common folk.” There are only two institutions where he might encounter them at any or every hour of the day: prison and military service. The two years of my military service along the frontier contributed more to my human development than the twice as many I’d already spent at university.
From this autobiographical perspective, I’ll content myself with a quotation which sums the thing up nicely. It comes from the work of a home-grown Swiss, Hans Albrech Moser (1882–1978); I’ve taken it from his volume of diaries Ich und der andere, published in Stuttgart in 1962. It goes: “The human is more readily to be found in the ordinary than in the exceptional man. That is why the ordinary man attracts me more. As for my spiritual needs, there will always be books.”
Concerning books, I hasten to mention this: I continued to devour them, without a break; and, among them I read the great critics of liberalism most of all. These readings helped greatly to erode my taste for the imaginary and utopian. I’d already begun to read Nietzsche when I was a scout. During my two years on guard along the frontier, I moved onto the other great illiberals. The most original experience I had was reading Oswald Spengler. At the height of my leftist episode, I attempted to read The Decline of the West (to familiarize myself with the enemy, of course). But I never managed to climb the mountain of the first few pages: the text was absolutely incomprehensible to me. The work’s reputation remained mysterious to me, even from a diagnostic perspective. Towards the end of my period of incubation, which I’ve just sketched for you – this would be at the beginning of 1941 – the two enormous volumes fell once more into my hands. I opened the first volume at whatever page; and I began to read without stopping; and after a few days I’d entirely traversed the two tomes. Why didn’t I have the same experience on my first attempt? Something essential in me had changed; though I still had no idea.