steiner biographies — reviews

Und wenn er ganz entspannt war, konnte [Rudolf Steiner] den Haushund eines Gastgebers ins übersinnliche Gespräch mit einbeziehen…

Now, that’s a quote from Zander’s biography of Rudolf Steiner. Since this quote covers everything important anyone could posibly need to know, perhaps there’s no need to say anything more. It’s a pity I haven’t read any of the biographies yet, which is why I’m reading reviews. I already covered the one published by NNA of Heiner Ullrich’s book. Ansgar Martins has written a lengthy and informative review of the two new biographies by Miriam Gebhardt and Helmut Zander. I do recommend it highly, and, sort of at least, agree with the conclusion of this statement:

Das originelle Gespräch ist ein gelungenes Intermezzo, und zeigt auch eine Tendenz, die hoffentlich im anthroposophischen wie anthroposophiekritischen Dunstkreis zunehmen wird: Die ganze Sache um Gottes willen nicht so ernst zu nehmen!

(The dog quote, too, was borrowed from Ansgar’s article!) As for other reviews, there was this one, published 10 days ago. The title depicts Steiner as a ‘controversial reformer’, and the review covers the bios by Zander and Gebhardt. Unfortunately, the reviewer seems rather naïve and uninformed himself.

Das veranlasst beide Autoren, die Waldorfschule von heute schlechtzureden. Und da offenbart sich der Mangel beider Bücher: Ihre Verfasser verstehen sich glänzend auf die Theorie, scheinen jedoch die Praxis kaum zu kennen. Denn unbestreitbar haben die enge Verbindung von geistiger und körperlicher Bewegung, die Betonung alles Musischen und Handwerklichen und der ganzheitliche Ansatz in der Waldorfpädagogik ihr Gutes.

It’s quite possible that they have understood what the reviewer has not: that theory exerts a heavy influence on practice and that waldorf education isn’t the creative paradise it pretends to be. To tell the truth, I have an impression of the reviewer being partly under a waldorf spell himself — and perhaps not entirely realizing that the aspects he puts forth as unequivocally good have been criticized either because they aren’t so unequivocally good or because waldorf education doesn’t provide them. For example, the claim that waldorf is ‘ganzheitlich’ (ie, ‘holistic’) is either empty or misguided; moreover, it’s a claim which merits criticism and a claim which shouldn’t be uncritically propagated as some kind of an undisputed good. However, I may have to read the books to know who understands the least, the authors or this newspaper’s reviewer. The review is neither particularly interesting, nor particularly good. A bit lame, perhaps. And boring. But do read it for yourselves.

On anthroposophical magazine Info3’s website, Jens Heisterkamp reviews all three biographies. Compared to NNA’s reviewer, Heisterkamp is more positively inclined towards Heiner Ullrich’s Steiner biography, though not without a few criticisms similar to those put forth by NNA. This review is still a decidedly more interesting read as far as Ullrich’s bio is concerned. On Helmut Zander’s biography, Heisterkamp has both negative and positive things to say; the overall impression is that the former overshadow the latter. (Zander’s bio is the one I’m personally most curious about, so I’ll be reading it myself in the time to come.) The third bio, that of Miriam Gebhardt, is dealt with quite briefly: it contains some rather obvious errors, too, but on the other hand some interesting and surprising evaluations of Steiner’s work. Readers who are interested in the issue of racism in Steiner’s work may find the first passage after the subtitle ‘Gemeinsamkeiten’ interesting — it may be worth running it through google! In short, all three bios mention the topic, none of them concludes that Steiner was an evil type of racist. As far as I can determine, Gebhardt and Ullrich seem more keen on keeping a distance from the criticism which has been directed at Steiner’s teachings and towards his followers. On karma and reincarnation and how these topics are dealt with in the three biographies, Heisterkamp writes, and I find this utterly interesting:

Wachsendes Verständnis wird auch bei einem anderen Thema sichtbar: Wurden die Gedanken von Reinkarnation und Karma bisher von Kritikern Steiners meist als anachronistische Übernahme eines fernöstlichen Belohnung-und-Strafe-Denkens abgelehnt, erkennen alle drei Autoren, dass bei Steiner das Karma-Prinzip nicht im Sinne eines fatalistischen Vergangenheitsdenkens vorkommt, sondern als Matrix individueller Zukunfts-Entwicklung gesehen wird. „Im Unterschied zum altindischen Ursprung gibt Steiner diesem Schicksalsbegriff eine evolutionär-optimistische und rationalistische Prägung“, stellt Heiner Ullrich fest. Helmut Zander sieht es ganz ähnlich: „Bei ihm stehen die Chancen weit vor den Strafen im Mittelpunkt des Interesses. Wiederverkörperung ist für ihn evolutionäre Höherentwicklung“, ein „radikales Konzept der Selbstverantwortung des Menschen“. Ähnlich sieht es auch Miriam Gebhardt, die dieses Konzept jedoch von einer ganz anderen Warte aus als Ausdruck der bürgerlichen „Arbeit an sich selbst“ kritisiert.

Anyway, one thing the three biographies don’t do, concludes Heisterkamp, is to open the heart to the spirit, they don’t appeal to the spiritual; but, he adds, this was not part of their task. Well worth reading.

Another mainstream media review takes on Ullrich’s and Gebhardt’s Steiner biographies. On Ullrich’s book:

Tatsächlich gelingt es Ullrich in einer sachlichen, klaren Sprache den oft mystischen, schwer durchschaubaren Steinerschen Kosmos verständlich zu machen. Obwohl durchaus nicht ohne Sympathie für den charismatischen Anthroposophen, spart der Autor nicht mit Kritik. Er spricht der Steinerschen Lehre schlichtweg das Prädikat «Wissenschaft» ab. Anthroposophie sei Weltanschauung. Punktum.

The reviewer finds positive things to say about both biographies; she thinks Gebhardt manages to explain ‘Steiner und seine Lehre konsequent vor dem Hintergrund seiner Zeit’.

I’m sure this isn’t the last word about these biographies. There may be more in kind of reviews and stuff loitering unread in my google reader — which threatens me with a humongous amount of unread items right now — and, also, I ought to be able to read one or two of the books soon.

4 thoughts on “steiner biographies — reviews

  1. There’s yet one review on NNA — this time on Zander’s book.

    ‘Auch hier zeigt sich die Absicht, mit einer eher populärwissenschaftlichen Darstellung vom Steiner-Jubiläumsjahr wirtschaftlich zu profitieren.’

    That’s just stupid and entirely unnecessary. It shapes up, thank Dog, so it isn’t entirely pointless to read it. But then again…

    ‘So ziehen sich allzumenschliche Verstrickungen im weltlichen Getriebe durch fast alle Kapitel von Zanders Biographie von Rudolf Steiner: Machtstreben, Geldgier, Alkoholkonsum, außereheliche Verhältnisse, Ehebrüche, Plagiate und berufliches Scheitern meint er zu entdecken und kolportiert dabei unzählige Gerüchte. ‘

    Ah, so he describes Steiner as a human being! Outrageous! I’m not talking about what’s true or not, I’m just saying… most of these things are not that awful.

  2. Having read Zander’s book (vol I and II) and having had the intellectual pleasure of spending a couple of late late evenings with him at a conference (we shared hotel) I can only give his work due respect. He is genuinely interested in and fascinated by Steiner. He has no need for Steiner to have been some Übermensch. He is a postmodernist hermeneutic and does not feel he needs to believe Steiner or anyone else had any special powers outside of an extraordinary intellect and imagination. That considered he wrote a mighty readable and well informed book. And no, I do not believe Zander has a working understanding of the Philosophy of Freedom. He gets elementary anthroposophical matters wrong here and there. Who wouldn’t! But the appreciation for Steiner and his opus is unmistakable throughout the 1800 pages.


  3. Thanks for the input!

    ‘He is genuinely interested in and fascinated by Steiner. He has no need for Steiner to have been some Übermensch. […] the appreciation for Steiner and his opus is unmistakable throughout the 1800 pages.’

    This is also the impression I have from what I’ve read so far in newspapers, articles, some parts of the gigantic volumes (I just got my own paper versions of them a little more than a week ago) — though by no means anywhere near enough to say much about them… So far it seems to me his books are very important — even though some anthroposophists seem feel certain ‘aspects’, in want of a better word, are lacking. But this may make Zander’s approach more important rather than less. Only because it is a different approach than that of anthroposophists themselves towards Steiner/anthroposophy

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