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An encounter with the Rudolf Steiner the man

Fri, 30 Sep 2011 | By NNA correspondent Nela Nerzog

Andrei Bely’s book "Verwandeln des Lebens” (The Transformation of Life) has been republished by Futurum Verlag on occasion of the 150th anniversary of Rudolf Steiner’s birth. NNA correspondent Nela Nerzog marvels at the fascinating insights it gives into Rudolf Steiner, the man.

BASEL (NNA) - In the last year, the publications and the many activities to celebrate the 150th birthday of Rudolf Steiner have brought his ideas nearer to the public consciousness and have shown that he is one of the important inspirational figures of our times. Although his work stands in the foreground, the man behind them is still in the shadows. With the republication of Andrei Bely's book, "Verwandeln des Lebens – Erinnerungen an Rudolf Steiner” (The Transformation of Life - Memories of Rudolf Steiner), the publisher Futurum Verlag in Basel (formerly the Porte Verlag in Dornach) is making an important addition to the Steiner anniversary year.

Bely stands as one of the greatest writers of the 20th century; his novel "Petersburg" is one of the most important works of Russian Symbolism.  From 1912 to 1916 he lived in Dornach together with his wife, the graphic artist Asia Turgenev. He himself describes his book as "raw material" which he has written out of a love for Rudolf Steiner. History would tell what of it was really important. He points out that what he has written in the book is specifically about the man Rudolf Steiner and not his works.

Bely was a contemporary of Rudolf Steiner; he experienced him first hand. Although he indeed writes from the perspective of a student of Steiner, he emphasises on many occasions how important it also is to maintain some distance from him. When he put his book to paper at the turn of 1928 to 1929, he also wanted to account to himself about his time spent in Dornach, to let these times pass before his mind's eye, and take the reader with him.

In this respect he achieved outstanding success, for example in his depiction of living with and the life of Rudolf Steiner or also of the construction site of the first Goetheanum, on which he and his wife worked as wood carvers. Rudolf Steiner comes alive through Bely's pen, for example in his description of "The Doctor", with flying coat tails, striding down the hill, passing by the little house inhabited by the poet and his wife, how Steiner would purchase fresh strawberries for dinner in the village, or the way in which his tenacity upset some of the Dornach anthroposophists. Sophisticated, empathetic, full of humour and informal: this is the picture of Steiner in his day to day life drawn by Bely.

Bely also takes the reader with him on his inner experiences, for example in his descriptions of the esoteric lessons. He makes attempts in several passages to put in to words experiences that go beyond what is perceptible by the senses. Since Bely is such a highly talented writer, these passages are of great interest, even though they manage without any anthroposiphical diction.

Many stereotypes brought put out about Rudolf Steiner by his critics can be refuted through Andrei Bely's portrayals, for example he highlighted that he always left his students free to do their own work and not just follow his instruction. Steiner himself put limits on blind allegiance and infatuated worship, as Bely repeatedly emphasises. The "Giant of Warmth", as Bely characterised Rudolf Steiner, had radiated the warmth of love, but this emanation was dampened by "the helmet of wisdom and the visor of soberness".

Already right from the beginning of their acquaintance Bely was surprised that Steiner did not put himself forward as the wise man, such as he was portrayed to be in Russia. There he had experienced personalities that had a heavy burden to carry through their extraordinary life and showed it. Quite different to Steiner, described as nimble, who, especially when dealing with the young people in Dornach, was described as being mischievous. If there were problems between the well situated, educated middle class Dornach anthroposophists and the colourful mix of young people from all around the world who populated the building site of the Goetheanum, Steiner invariably took the side of the young people, the group to which Bely and Asia Turgenev belonged.

Bely reports only of one exception when in Steiner’s absence these young people – mostly politically on the left – wanted to prevent private buildings such as the family house of Dr. Grosheintz (now Haus Duldeck) from being built in the environment of the "holy" Goetheanum where for example laundry might flutter on the clothes line. On his return, Steiner made it emphatically clear to them that the new anthroposophical life must have a connection to everyday life. This also includes washing lines around the Goetheanum.

The book vividly depicts how the various practical areas of anthroposophy did not come directly from Steiner, but instead invariably always came about as the result of questions and suggestions posed by those around him. Here Bely sees a shortcoming of anthroposophy: since nobody had an interest in epistemology, Steiner did not formulate the fundamentals, a task that he left to his successors.

Bely's book is full of original observations and descriptions. Exactly like his teacher he does not mince his words, for example when he follows Steiner's words and refers to many of the Dornach anthroposophists as “aunts” and “uncles”, who through their dogmatic following of anthroposophy turned it into a caricature. Neither does he hold back with his criticism of the Anthroposophical Society.

The writer does not try to smooth out his own development either, repeatedly talking about how important it was from the perspective of Steiner that his students made his lectures their own and used them to transform their own lives. After soaring with Steiner, the students had to do the hard work themselves: “Later the opposite was necessary, freeing oneself from the ideas of the doctor. Otherwise, one would lose independence. In any case, undivided commitment was important during the flight with the doctor and then even more so during the development of one’s own wings,” he says.

It was the time of the Great Depression at the end of the 1920’s when Bely put his memories to paper in only 12 days in a Russian village a long way from Dornach. Steiner had died four years previously and his pupil Bely did not see that his legacy was in good hands.

And so the book ends with Bely leaving behind a kind of legacy which points in the direction of the Christology of Rudolf Steiner.  From a contemporary point of view it sounds almost prophetic when he wrote: “If it is not understood what Rudolf Steiner wanted to accomplish with his series of lectures from 1913 on the theme of Christology, the consequences will be disastrous.” A Europe in ruins, civilisation would put out shoots which would smother everything is how Bely summarises Steiner's warnings. Bely still experienced the seizure of power by the Nazis. He died in Russia in January 1934.

Bely closes the book with the description of Steiner's famous lectures in Christiania (today Oslo), Copenhagen and Leipzig. Bely, who heard in total 400 of Steiner's lectures, writes of his experience in Christiania and of the intense emotion that affected him and the other listeners in the days there.

Rudolf Steiner had chosen Christiania, in the view of his students, to speak words which were deeply imbued with the spiritual, as Bely put it. The title of the course, “The Fifth Gospel”, was already known in Munich and a critique by Steiner of the Gospels was expected.

But its actual concern had shaken everyone to the core: “We ourselves in our relation to the impending second coming of Christ.” As in other passages of the book, here Andrei Bely struggles with language in trying to describe his own inner experiences, for example when he summarises: “These stammered hints are merely my subjective ones, one of thousands of aspects of meaning that are layered one upon another in ‘The Fifth Gospel’.” 

Despite these uncertainties, Bely leaves no doubts about one thing: “The Fifth Gospel” has all the characteristics of being a turning point. If we are not successful in making this cycle of Steiner's fruitful for our culture, then it will be heading towards its end. Here Bely sees the greatest responsibility of the heirs of Steiner, who wrote “a new page on the essence of Christianity in the history of the Christian religion.”

Andrei Bely's book leaves a strong impression with its authenticity and its language coming directly from the heart. The remark by Wenzel Götte in the afterword is certainly true, that this is connected with the idea that knowledge as a thing of the whole person, not as the product of the isolated human ability of intellectual thinking, is a peculiarity of the Russian mindset, often in deliberate contrast to the thinking of western Europe.

But with the exception of this one remark the afterword is rather a hindrance to the understanding of Bely's impulse and raises the question why the publisher included it.  Anyone who wants to learn more about Bely should go to the website of the Forschungsstelle Kulturimpuls, where it is possible to find a biography by Sergei Prokofieff, which does him a great deal more justice.


Andrei Bely: Verwandeln des Lebens – Erinnerungen an Rudolf Steiner. Basel 2011

Item: 110930-01EN Date: 30 September 2011

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