On the Meaning of an Eranos Conference

The Eranos Experience
Res severa, verum gaudium.
The elements.
At the beginning: Water. The invitation of the lake to gaze on it while we glide in a leisurely mood and to explore with contemplative eyes its elusive expanse framed by the sharp contours of the surrounding mountains, to stroll down to its shore and listen to the sound of its splashes playing with the pebble, to behold the lake`s beauty and to join with one`s own thoughts and emotions the gentle movement of the small waves incessantly animating its surface. The primal appeal of the "Greater Lake" - famous of course under its Italian name: Lago Maggiore - to which Eranos has been moored now for more than 70 years. And with which it has formed a special symbiosis. For one could hardly recall an Eranos Tagung which was not a colloquy with the Lago. The sense of an Eranos was awakened and reflectively apperceived at times by an interplay, an exchange, a communion with this element of enchantment: A magnificent lake. This wonder of water.

In the making of Eranos too: The creativity of light. In August, the classic period of Eranos Tagungen, life at the Lago Maggiore is hot and humid, the sun shines all day with a burning force and the air is filled with a tropical moisture; to protect themselves and for their comfort people mostly seek the shield of shades and the coolness of interior spaces. A lush, largely subtropical vegetation and habitations that were wisely built or situated, in ways to mitigate the hot sun`s effect, offer them both the protection and the comfort. Shades of walls and trees, of blinds and bushes provide screens against the blazing sun, against its light, as we might say, too swiftly. The natural and the artificial shields indeed screen off the spaces which they are meant to cover, but in shading them from the dazzling glare of the sun, not from the light itself. On the contrary, the "screens" bring forth all the playful creativity of sunlight. They effectuate, as an amazing as well as a ravishing experience, a vision of light illuminating while it appears an entire cosmos of its appearance, or rather, its event: Moving shadows, fleeting rays of light, changing designs drawn by the shades on the surfaces which they touch, spaces featuring successive shifts of dimness and luminosity, shapes formed by shadow and light which seem to represent faces and figures that we know, objects emerging radiantly or retracting into darkness as if withdrawn by some secret agency, colours in all shades performing an ongoing symphony for the eyes. Light, as we realize to our amazement, enacts the spectacle of a self-revelation.

The terra of the Eranos experience is composed of different places. Among them there are of course these three places to be considered first: the old estate of Olga Fröbe-Kapteyn (the foundress and long-time motivator of the Eranos Tagungen) on the road from Ascona to Brissago, the Bauhaus building and the park on the Monte Verità, and the cloister, garden and orchard of the Collegio Papio in the centre of Ascona. At each of these places the spectacle of light furnished to the experience of Eranos a wondrous arena. While a lecture was held or participants of the Tagung strolled around or gathered for companionship during intervals, light always marked the scene by making the latter appear in the mode of its own manifestation. Not unlike a sublimely gifted artisan it set up the proscenium with an absorbingly creative force in full variety by appearing mysteriously misty or hypnotically transparent, soothingly pure or strikingly brilliant, sedatively pleasant or burningly strong. Light cast a spell on the scenes of Eranos, and supremely, in our recollection, when we could view sparkles of it dancing on the surface of the lake while we sat on the terrace of Olga Fröbe-Kapteyn`s house listening to the lecturer speaking inside, or when, during a lecture on the Monte Verità, we could see, by shifting the eyes occasionally from the lectern to the large and open windows of the Sala Balint, beams of light playfully crisscrossing in the trees outside and weave into the green texture an image of bliss.

Indeed, a special artistry produces the peculiar effect of an Eranos Tagung. Not entirely surprisingly, perhaps, this artistry has been a matter of interest since the inception of Eranos. Olga Fröbe-Kapteyn was very much aware of it, as her prefaces to the Eranos Books and some of her own published texts show; major Eranos speakers have variously written about it; and in the recent recollections of Eranos documented in this volume it is again a topic of marvel. It has aroused, furthermore, not a little interest among observers of Eranos who felt attracted by what they thought to be a matter of "mystery" and who, as a result, often developed, in various ways and to different degrees, an apparently irresistible urge to get hold of the "mystery" and to impart subsequently their "knowledge".

Nevertheless, we can share some knowledge and surely one which is precisely relevant to Eranos, that is to the artistry "behind" an Eranos Tagung. But it is not by revealing a "mystery" that we may be able to elucidate the "wondrous" experience of an Eranos Tagung. For the wisdom to be shared is an old one, an ancient one in fact. It has been handed down to us from the myths and the philosophy in ancient Greece, among them the myths of Orpheus and Apollo as well as Plato`s Philebos and Symposium. Let us recall that "Eranos" was, in the first place, a term widely used in classical Greece. And this legacy of wisdom has of course been universally known ever since: a knowledge pertaining to the elements through which, if they are blended artfully in a whole, the human experience can be made to appear ravishingly heightened. Life, as it then seems, has turned into a festivity, the organization of society into companionship, the day to be mastered into a joyful celebration. A transfiguring event has happened and has produced a particular space of time to be experienced in between our ordinary time.
All of us have an idea of it, of this particular space of time; we think or speak of it as "leisure". With this notion we associate moments of life which in essential ways differ from life in the ordinary dimension of time. There is idleness instead of toil, a freedom of action instead of necessity, pleasure instead of strain. To be and to live means to be full of joy, a sense of festiveness delights our mind. Through leisure, therefore, we seem to know the experience of an Eranos quite well: this is given essentially by being in a state of leisureliness or, as we might say more simply, by "having" leisure. The symbolic expressions used by Olga Fröbe-Kapteyn to describe the Eranos experience fall well, it would seem, into the semantic field just evoked here by the term "leisure". An Eranos Tagung, she said, could be understood as a "play" enacted on the "stage" (Bühne) of the Tagung; one might also compare an Eranos Conference to a "fugue" (Fuge); the element which characterized most the "meetings" (the Eranos Conferences) was their "distinctly festive note". An Eranos Tagung, we might then say, is a festivity performed by the participants who by offering each other speeches and inspired conversation produce a stage for the festive experience among companions to be celebrated. But, we should then also be compelled to ask if such an event would not require elements for and acts of an orchestration which the notion of "having" leisure hardly includes. The answer to this question is: Yes. For the contemplated event occurs only through leisure filled with creativity: A dance, a play, a celebration, a festive community want to be orchestrated in enchanting surroundings for a time of giving and offering that is initiated by the mutual pledge to a perfectly open dialogue, an authentic Gespräch , a banquet of minds. No doubt, to enter into an Eranos experience one has to have leisure. A leisure, though, which certainly needs to be schole, that is leisure as it was understood in classical Greece: as a festive experience achieved through a staging and an orchestration of this experience.

The architecture
The formula of scholein agein expressed precisely this view. It was meant to convey the notion of leisure as a time actively spent and purposefully formed. The verb ago means "to guide", "to direct", "to form" and, in combination with schole, it signifies a "state of peace", a "festive mood" and a readiness "to celebrate". All these meanings denote quite well the event of an Eranos Tagung. We might think it quite appropriate, then, to retain the formula of scholen agein for further use in the analysis of the Eranos experience as it is developed here. However, like all extrinsic expressions within a given language it would encumber somewhat the flow of words, in making it proceed less smoothly. We should consider this aspect; and we should take into account as well a second one, which is, indeed, crucial. An Eranos Tagung, as Henry Corbin observed, is a meeting open to the unforeseen ("l`imprévisible rencontre"). And Corbin noted further, not without a degree of amazement, a very special phenomenon which emerges at the Eranos Tagungen. Those who speak there have not been consulting with each other about their lectures prior to the event of offering them to each other. In addition, the lectures on purpose reflect a great diversity; they are drawn from a wide variety of disciplines, are given by scholars of distinctive ethnic, cultural and religious backgrounds, and are presented in four different languages. And yet, at every Tagung the lectures together represent, in spite of all their diversity, an ensemble of knowledge and insight which gives rise to the notion that out of very diverse parts a cosmos has been built. Henry Corbin felt that this phenomenon would amount to a homophonie. The image, however, which this term induces may imply too much harmony, for the experience of a "cosmos" at an Eranos Tagung always occurs in the course of a continuing counterpoint between the "parts" and the "whole". Throughout the Tagung the "whole" is formed by the "parts", in indeed unforeseen ways, and constructive efforts have continously to be made in order to achieve the "cosmos". Making an Eranos Tagung, we might therefore argue, is the experience of an "experiment", as Olga Fröbe-Kapteyn put it, or, as we later said, of pursuing an "adventure" .

The term architecture, though, quite adequately reflects the kind of form which the event of an Eranos Tagung needs to be given in order to occur. A work of architecture by its very nature accomplishes a continuing dramatic play of relationships between different as well as numerous elements: between closures and openings, interior and exterior, frames and suspensions, continuousness and intermittance, regularity and nonuniformity, orientation and confusion, expected prospects and sudden surprises, incitements to move on and firm lines of arrest, resumptions and revelations, spaces to breathe and frontiers drawn, triumphs of light and threats of darkness, heights of clarity and leads to unknown depths. An Eranos Tagung is precisely a dramatic play of this kind. To achieve a Tagung means no more and no less than to initiate the architecture for and of the Tagung.

Let us, for our better understanding, start and "build" a Tagung. What would we have to do? We should at first choose of course a place and a time. As to the former our tradition - the Eranos Tagungen moored since 1933 to the scintillating lake - suppplies already the decision. And with this mooring, as I hope to have suggested in the first paragraphs, the play of elements conducive to the Tagung has already begun. Marking a time is a less obvious matter, and should by no means be taken as a forthright act, for the "time of Eranos" (temps d`Eranos), as Henry Corbin explained, has a seemingly paradoxical structure. It is happening "inside" ordinary time and yet it is a time "outside". We must fix its dates on the calendar (August 9-18, for instance) and henceforth have it there immovably, and yet all about it ought to be freedom and leisure. In fixing its dates we shall liberally spread it over the calendar, therefore, and thus we reserve spaces of time not to be filled in advance. The temporal structure of the Tagung can be set up and within it there will remain, nevertheless, distinct voids. We shall have given to our Eranos Conference the basis for its particular architecture of time. Yet, we shall continue to observe with much attention the open spaces in this architecture, once the Conference has started and is developing. Indeed, these apertures shall most likely be again a matter of our care, for they have upon the participants in the Tagung two different and equally notable effects. On the one side, there will be people whom the "voids" in the Tagung`s program inspire to become generous and to transform them into gifts - gifts of time - freely to be offered to other fellow participants in the ongoing Tagung, or to rejoice over these moments of time totally apart from any ordinary preoccupation and solicitude. Theirs will be an Eranos experience. And there will be people, on the other side, whom the "voids" affect as being disquieting; they long to have them replenished, by some additional feature of program, naturally. We should, while considering the Tagung`s development, forestall any such closing of the openings in its architecture, in order to avoid that the Tagung swings into excitement and overactivity and ceases to be a playful movement between ordinary time and a time "outside".

Our next task in building a Tagung will be the selection of a theme. This, we have to say, is the least understood part in the setup of an Eranos Conference. It sounds so easy: Choosing a topic. Aren`t there dozens of them? Take this one, the voice here would say. Choose that one, the voice there would urge. And each voice would utter its proposal very readily, as if but a slight problem had to be dealt with. Actually, there seems to be hardly any problem, in view of all the suggestions which one could rapidly collect. But most of these, as we shall realize easily upon some probing, will have been made without much thought or, more importantly, without much listening (if any) before. An Eranos theme, though, is found only in the process of an osmosis. This process certainly requires a receptive approach. In searching for a theme we should be well advised, then, if the human experience and the ensuing eminent question (in three parts), why all these diverse interpretations are nevertheless expressions of one, namely the human experience, and wherein, then, could lie the unity of the latter, and how this ensemble of humankind might be discerned and considered. Our criterion tells us the way which we have to take in view of this question (with its three parts). We could also speak here of the "Eranos method", for at the beginning of the way an offering is held out: the invitation to study the ensemble of humankind by searching for its unity precisely in its diversity. The criterion is set as a paradox, as indeed the great paradox, we might say, for the experience of the diversity is the only mode for experiencing a unity; there is no way other than the movement between diversity and unity; any attempt to bend one`s way towards a seizure of unity destroys the very condition for being on the way: the experience of diversity through which alone there is a way.

The Eranos of the Eranos Tagungen is an offspring of a large "Eranos movement" which emerged at several places in Europe during the last decades of the 19th century. One of the figures of inspiration for this movement was Friedrich Schleiermacher. Indeed, we can find in his study Über die Religion (On religion) an exemplary description of the way to a Tagung: "I invite you to consider every faith which human beings have professed, every religion... It is in the religions that you should discover the religion (my emphasis, T.S.). .... Nobody can have the religion as a whole, for a human being is finite and the religion is infinite. ... The religion of the religions (my emphasis, T.S.) cannot collect enough materials for its very own staging of its inner contemplation ... innumerable forms of religion are possible ..."

One should be well advised, I have said, to set up one`s mind like an antenna. We are now able to name the virtue of our mind which should govern the antenna. And, besides, we needn`t search for a term yet, as a most apt one already exists in this splendid expression coined by Roger Caillois: sagesse diagonale (diagonal wisdom). In virtue of such a wisdom we may eventually be fortunate enough at some stage in the osmotic process of our search to strike a theme from which, as it seems to us, we could rear up our Tagung. The new theme will bear comparison with former themes such as "Structures of Chaos", "The Language of Masks" or "Religions - the religious experience". . And we shall therefore proceed. Then our theme will have to stand the decisive test: Will it prove to be the crucible for an Eranos, for the intended play between the "parts" and the "whole", between the individual lectures given and the emergence among them of a common bearing?

The agents of the test will be the speakers at our Tagung. We shall invite the traditional number: 8 to 10. Our invitations will be guided by an established set of rules with which we shall continue to construct, as we apply them now, the Eranos architecture. We may formulate those rules as follows: (1) Through the speakers a wide variety of disciplines will be heard; there is no discipline which could not be included into an Eranos, new or newly promising disciplines should be sought, the Eranos Tagungen from the very beginning have been shaped by pioneering minds and their scientifically innovative explorations; therefore we should undertake every effort to achieve an Eranos of such minds. (2) The speakers themselves will represent the widest possible diversity of geographical, cultural, religious and ethnic origins; in actively considering and, furthermore, working with the difference between female and male voices, we shall continue to follow the eros of the Tagungen and render to it the rule over our play, that this "God" common to women and men, in the process of bending mutually their creativity towards each other, appear to have staged it. (3) We expect our speakers to strike us particularly by these two qualities: the imaginative and inspiring force of mind and the unfailing rigor of scholarship. While remaining always firm about this requirement, we shall by no means be discriminative regarding the profession or occupational status of a speaker; the majority of Eranos lecturers have been academics, but one does not need to be an academic in order to be an Eranos lecturer. (4) We shall compose the group of speakers in such a way that half of them have at least once been speakers at an Eranos already, and that the other half will be new speakers. Of the older speakers we shall consider for an invitation only those who have not been chosen in the preceding year (and usually the pause between invitations is longer than just one year); by this simple yet decisive architectural measure a field of lecturers is formed which is sufficiently open, diverse, extended, and fluid to keep Eranos productive, on the one hand, and to avoid the emergence of a circle of lecturers who become more and more only their own habitués.

With a mixture of diligence, phantasy, wisdom and luck we should have our group of speakers built in the early fall of the year preceding the year of our Tagung. It may seem to us, then, that we have done the essential part of our architectural task. All is set now: the place, the time, the theme, the group of speakers. We have just to wait for the day of the opening of the Tagung. Certainly. And yet, imperceptibly almost, while we were preoccupied with "organizational" matters, the creative process has begun which has been and is our intention. The "test" referred to earlier is already under way. Why? The answer, intimated already by terms and expressions such as "crucible", "counterpoint between the whole and the parts", "ensemble of knowledge and insight" is this: When we invited the speakers, we asked each of them to formulate within the Tagung`s general theme the title of his or her lecture. And with this request we have of course brought the speakers into the play. It will from now on be largely theirs. In complying with our request and in offering a speech on this or that topic for the event, each of the speakers has become a co-author of the Tagung. Naturally, it will again be our task, once all the titles will be in, to put together the program for the Tagung. Yet, we shall not really write it. It has already been written by the speakers. The topics which they have chosen - together with the disciplinary and cultural identies which the speakers represent - lay out by themselves the order in which they stand best individually and in relation to each other. The play (the "dance") is on and rather than imposing upon it any plan of ours we should follow the leads of the actors ("dancers").

Having an Eranos implies generosity, abundance, offerings. We cannot expect our Tagung to become an Eranos experience, if we do not let it be, through the form of its creation, a release of creative forms. In 1924 Hugo von Hofmannsthal was offered by his friends a Festschrift whose title is ERANOS. In reading Rudolf Borchardt`s preface we immediately understand why the title had been chosen. The book is meant as a spiritual banquet occurring through texts which are meant as speeches; Hofmannsthal is addressed by Borchardt as if he and his friends had all come together at a festive gathering. An Eranos takes place. What is its purpose? In the words of Borchardt: A "precursory form of a future equation between creativity and inquiry" ("Vorform einer künftigen Gleichung von Schöpfung und Forschung").

Theed for care
Have we built an Eranos Tagung? Yes, we have. No, we haven`t. The Tagung which we have produced has taken on a reality in our thoughts only. There it exists, no doubt. But it is there in the mode of a paradigm, and in that mode alone, we have to admit. While the paradigm is present in our mind, the Tagungen for which we have formed it have yet to occur. Will they correspond to our paradigm?

They will not, of course. The normal development of human affairs will imperil a Tagung in the making with all kinds of vicissitudes. Of the many things which could happen let us take just a few examples: One or perhaps even two of the invited speakers will let us know, at very short notice, that they will be unable to give their lectures (and the notice may come in only on the eve of the day for which a lecture was scheduled); unexpected but unavoidable expenses will put a great strain on the budget; a large group of native speakers of this or that language who abuse their dominance will ignore the common Gespräch and will not take part in the symposium among a diversity of tongues; too many of the participants in the Tagung will remain within the confines of their origins, cultures, professions, or generational cohorts and thus will act counter to the very purpose of their being at an Eranos.

With the release of creativity which we induced we have also freed elements and forces of failure and decay. They may steer the actual Tagung very far away from the Tagung which we have constituted and still contemplate. For a moment we might be tempted to imagine ourselves under the rule of Kronos who, according to the tale told by Plato in the Politikos, repeatedly took the human race in his care and led it each time from a fatal course of straying back to a new beginning. But Kronos withdrew his care one day. If we dreamed, then the dream reminds us: We must keep our work from disintegrating. The ongoing Tagung still needs our care. The more it becomes truly an Eranos the more it suggests a thing of beauty. Precisely this appeal renders an Eranos extremely vulnerable. Beauty seduces while it is seen. If anyone desires to possess it and sets out to seize it, the rage of jealousy will be met where beauty was. That the spell be not broken - this care is at the core of the Eranos experience.
(Tilo Schabert: The Eranos Experience; in: Elisabetta Barone, Matthias Riedl, Alexandra Tischel (Hrsg.): Pioniere, Poeten, Professoren. Eranos und der Monte Verità in der Zivilisationsgeschichte des 20. Jahrhunderts, Eranos neue Folge, Band 11, Würzburg 2004; S. 9 - 19.)