2016.05.14

This is delightful, though the notes are hard to decipher at times, and I so wish the note-taker had included copies of the images they talk about! It makes me think there ought to be a publication of some kind, a nice little book, that contains all the images of Steiner, all photos, all paintings and drawings from the time, and everything else, the death mask, too (such a curious thing, it seems today, but common then!), him dead, newspaper charicatures, and so on. I want to dispel the notion that this would be superficial. It would be superficially superficial, but beneath that superficiality… there’s something more, perhaps surprisingly.

Thus, I won’t laugh at those notes. In fact, I see the point of the theme, as it were, though of course it is on the surface a bit silly. How much do the photos actually represent Steiner, and how much does our way of seeing them have to do with us, with how we interpret his looks? Critics and opponents almost invariably look at him and see someone who spooks them out, someone utterly suspicious; anthroposophists, it seems, see someone they have great trust in, someone from whose eyes complete goodness speaks. But the way of seeing also has something to do with the conditions of our time, when smiling in photographs is commonplace. (Unless you want to look consciously cool. Which, I guess, Steiner may have wanted, had he lived today.)

Andrej Bely, among others, but Bely most eloquently, describes Steiner’s laughter, his smile. We’ll never get to see that, because it’s not the kind of face people pulled when posing, very conscious that a photograph was taken. First, the obvious, photos were not snapped spontaneously and all the time, as they are today. Second, smiling was not thought of as an appropriate expression to have in a portrait, it didn’t signal anything good; rather than the warmth we may assume, it may have come across as a sign of irresponsibility: “the only people who smiled broadly, in life and in art, were the poor, the lewd, the drunk, the innocent” (see this fascinating article, which goes further back in time than Steiner’s era, but it’s still worth considering the arguments). To this day, not smiling may be the chosen expression for the serious esoteric philosopher, which is what he aspired to be (other rules would apply to new age folks who are high as kites and riding pink unicorns (I would not claim to know)). When I look at photos from his most active time, the beginning of the 20th century, it strikes me that perhaps it was during that time, with the increasing presence and ease of photography, that attitudes towards smiling in pictures were in transition. Certainly, there are people smiling, anthroposophists smiling, too, but not to the careless extent that people are doing it today.

And we’ll (probably) never see the laughter and the smile Bely describes. From anthroposophically designed picture frames everywhere, Steiner looks down, a stern look on his face: a very serious man, weighed down by the truths (be they subjective or not, false or not) of the universe. It’s the look that most anthroposophists would prefer anyway; the only image they want, it mirrors their own needs. But I don’t think the one thing can exist without the other, and thus Belys portrayal points me to something essential, something which lays hidden in the portraits, too, invisible; a laugh. The all-encompassing dead-seriousness of so many anthroposophists, or should I be specific and say some fervent Steiner defenders, is really something else: it’s pseudo-seriousness. Or potential insanity, to paraphrase Bjørneboe. The guardian of the threshold would stop you well before the gate, for good reason.

Taja Gut, in his lovely little book, asks himself the question what inspired his trust in Steiner: “Du wirst dich wundern: sein Gesicht, letzlich, glaube ich …”. He describes how he went along to a classmate’s summerhouse, and there found a book whose cover had a photo of Steiner; I think I know which photo, because he detects a smile in Steiner’s face (it’s very subtle, a hint, a tired subtle smile, but it may be there), “vielleicht sogar einem Lachen nicht abgeneigte Mund”, which is not only wonderfully expressed but quite an perspicacious characterization and an interpretation that comes naturally if one keeps Bely’s testimony in mind. But Gut also mentions the eyes.

Lots of people, both his contemporaries and those seeing him on old photographs, are transfixed by those eyes, those intense, penetrating eyes. They’re some ardent eyes, certainly. Yet, despite them, there’s something aloof about some of the images, like he’s not really there, but staring into space (or the spiritual worlds, if you’re that way inclined). I’ve heard and read so many critics of his teachings who say that he creeps them out. I don’t dare say they’re extrapolating from their negative opinions, because there sure is something special about his aura (I mean that in a secular way). And it is weird, by ordinary standards, to idolize someone’s image the way anthroposophists do, unless that someone is your child, you dog or the Messiah. (Oh, well. But it is a tad bit odd for a teachers’ room at a school.)

I can’t say what it is they see, those critics who are spooked; perhaps I could before, but have gotten so used to seeing him everywhere that it no longer has that effect? (Maybe I have forgotten. I feel defect somehow, I should see what they see!) But I’m even more mystified by what some very devoted anthroposophists see; there’s so much high-strung deification going on, so much falling on knees. (By the stuff in the document that inspired this post, I wasn’t put off. It was overall quite nice and comparatively sober.)

Much ado was caused by a photograph which emerged of Steiner, flanked by several women, holding a child. What critics saw and what some anthroposophists saw was, well, quite different things, as though they lived in different worlds, looking at two very different images. It was a bit amusing. It’s the only photograph I’ve seen with Steiner and a child. There’s one photo of him with some other women and a dog; the dog sits (on one woman’s lap) with his back to Steiner, so one can assume he didn’t suspect Steiner of being a cat, which is always something.

I shall not reiterate the debate or repeat myself in the matter of this girl. There are absolutely no sources, as far as I know, that say he frightened children. Not even from a decade later, when he was running a school. Not that I’ve delved into this matter, but to my recollection I haven’t accidentally come across anything such. My memory is famously bad. On the other hand, it’s quite good at retaining completely useless information, among which this would count. Let’s assume, in absence of evidence to the contrary, that at least he didn’t appear like more of monster to a child than the average adult.

What’s more interesting about many of the photos is the women. I saw one recently in which he’s sitting between Ita Wegman and Marie, looking almost resigned, tired, surrounded by lots of other women on all sides. Ita Wegman’s eyes are far more intense in that picture; they’re eyes shooting astral darts, or something. Those other women — not Ita and Marie, that was something else altogether… — bring us back to the image with the child, taken in Oslo back in the theosophical days, 1908. Like a significant number of other anthroposophists, her mother, also present in the photo, had a crush on Steiner. I read this somewhere. It was all dictated by karma, one must presume, but no less a nuisance for that; well, that of course is nonsese. She ended up in a state of ill health (and later in a state of unfortunate political predicaments, but that’s neither here nor there). In 1908 it was all fine and dandy. The rest came later.

I suppose the images can’t be talked about properly without to some extent taking into account his charisma, his real life charisma, which we can never experience first hand. It would be fair to say, though, that although we can’t experience it as such, the crush has lingered on in another form than that manifested by those ladies. That crush — essentially a crush, be it one with spiritual overtones, but perhaps it’s preferable to clad it in more sophisticated terminology, let’s say: strong emotional dedication — may explain not just the presence of the portraits on the walls, which one can write off as charming and odd, but the uncritical devotion, which is far more tricky. And this smittenness appears to hit men and women equally, unlike the madness of those women back then, or those “man-chasing hysterical women in our Society”, as Steiner referred to them as in a moment of clarity.

The book I proposed above is truly needed, as you can see, so that we can discuss this at length and depth! It’s actually a curious thing for many reasons. One being how his looks and his charisma has shaped anthroposophy, but that’s fairly superficial. Another one is the possibility, or rather presumption of possibility, which is inherent in anthroposophical beliefs, of perceiving someone’s soul qualities in their outer physical appearance — and supersensible appearance, for those clairvoyants who believe themselves competent. It’s interesting for principal reasons. What do people think they can perceive? How does this affect human interaction?

In our time, with its hypersensitivity and hysterical readiness to take offence, perhaps his countenance should not be displayed or linked to without one of those increasingly famous trigger warnings, considering how scary those dark piercing eyes can be, but it is nonetheless my conviction that he should have kept the moustache of his pre-anthroposophical life.