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Rudolf Kassner

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Rudolf Kassner
Rudolf Kassner.jpg
Died1 April 1959 Edit this on Wikidata (aged 85)
OccupationWriter, translator and philosopher

Rudolf Kassner (11 September 1873 – 1 April 1959) was an Austrian writer, essayist, translator and cultural philosopher. Although stricken as an infant with poliomyelitis, Kassner traveled widely to northern Africa, the Sahara, India, Russia, Spain, and throughout Europe. His translations of William Blake introduced this English romantic poet to German-speaking audiences. His literary career covered six decades, including a period of isolation during the Nazi years in Vienna. His writings on physiognomy reflect his effort to understand the problems of modernity and Man's subsequent disconnectedness from time and place. His later autobiographical writings suggest a brilliant literary mind attempting to make sense of a chaotic post-nuclear world. He was nominated for the Nobel prize for literature thirteen times.[1]

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Before his birth, Rudolf Kassner's family emigrated to Moravia (at the time part of Austro-Hungary) from Silesia. His father, Oskar Kassner, was a landowner and factory owner, descended from government officials and businessmen. His maternal ancestors were peasants. Kassner regarded himself as a German-Slavic mixture, having inherited German Blut (German: blood) from his mother and a Slavic Geist (German: spirit) from his father (Das physiognomische Weltbild, 116ff.).

The seventh of 10 children, Rudolf Kassner was born in 1873 in Gross-Pavlowitz in southern Moravia, near Znaim. Shortly after Kassner's birth, his father moved the family to the countryside near Nikolsburg, where he leased imperial property, profitably cultivated beets, and ran a sugar factory.[citation needed]

Kassner contracted poliomyelitis at nine months of age, which affected both his legs and required him to use crutches for the rest of his life. He grew up in a strict Catholic milieu and was schooled at home. He and his siblings were educated by governesses. When he was a young adult, a tutor prepared him for annual state examinations that allowed him to attend the gymnasium in neighboring provincial town of Nikolsberg.[citation needed]

Student life

In 1892 Kassner enrolled at the University of Vienna where he set out to study German philology, Latin, and Philosophy. He spent the last two semesters, in 1895 and '96, in Berlin, where he attended the lectures of the nationalist historian Heinrich von Treitschke. Kassner, too, was an enthusiastic theater-goer. This formed the basis for later reflections on acting and the role of the actor, important for his physiognomic worldview. In 1896 he returned to Vienna and completed his studies with a doctoral dissertation on Der ewige Jude in der Dichtung (The Eternal Jew in Poetry), which he completed in 1897.[citation needed]

Despite his physical handicap, Kassner traveled extensively in Russia, North Africa, and India. He lived in Paris, London, and Munich for short periods of time. His first publications found favor among fin-de-siècle poets and artists. He was a member of the so-called Bohemian circle in Munich to which Frank Wedekind and Eduard Graf von Keyserling also belonged. Kassner was acquainted also with Ulrich Graf von Brockdorff-Rantzau, Paul Valéry, and André Gide. From 1900 to 1906 he was a regular member of the Viennese group gathered around the cultural philosopher and anti-Semite Houston Stewart Chamberlain. Kassner later distanced himself from Chamberlain.[citation needed]

In 1902 he met Hugo von Hofmannsthal and in 1907, Rainer Maria Rilke, and developed deep and lasting friendships with both men. Rilke dedicated the eighth Duineser Elegie to Kassner. For a time both Hofmannsthal and Rilke considered Kassner to be the most far-sighted contemporary cultural philosopher. His close friendship with Rilke has received a great deal of scholarly attention.[citation needed] Schmölders speculates that at least on Kassner's part this friendship was latent homosexuality (in: Neumann/Ott 1999).

After the outbreak of World War I, Kassner moved to Vienna. He married in 1914. During the war years Kassner passionately studied Mathematics and Physics; for this was the period when Einstein's great work was published and much of the work on the foundations of mathematics were taking place. He met Einstein once in Vienna. Kassner tried to understand in his own way, new ideas such as the concept of four-dimensional space and the concept of Number etc. His book Zahl und Gesicht is the result of this deep engagement. During this period he was often in Berlin where he met Georg Simmel, Gerhart Hauptmann and Walter Rathenau.[citation needed]

In 1924 and in 1931 Kassner was again in Rome. From 1926 to 1931 he traveled every year to Paris and he spent every late summer in the castle Schönhausen, where Princess Herbert Bismarck lived. During the interwar period also Kassner published many of his books, although they were prohibited in Germany after 1933. Nevertheless, his books continued to appear until he was forbidden to write (Schreibverbot) after the Nazi annexation of Austria in 1938. During World War II, Kassner remained in his home in Vienna. Out of his years-long work in isolation emerged a monumental work Das neunzehnte Jahrhundert: Ausdruck und Größe. His wife, who was Jewish, had escaped from Austria after the Anschluss with the help of Hans Carossa.[citation needed]

Through the intervention of some of his Swiss friends Kassner moved to Switzerland in 1945. In 1946 he moved to Sierre (Siders) in Valais where his friend Rilke had also spent the last years of his life. He lectured at the University of Zürich and lived in Sierre until his death after a long illness on 1 April 1959.[citation needed] There he was visited by his pre-war acquaintance Marguerite Yourcenar in 1951.


Between 1898 and 1912 Kassner traveled extensively. In the years 1897–98, 1908, 1910 and in 1912 he was in England. His first book Die Mystik, die Künstler und das Leben is about English poets of the eighteenth century. The English writer Laurence Sterne influenced Kassnerr and he appears as a character in Kassner's Die Chimäre. Kassner translated Sterne's Tristram Shandy and Cardinal Newman's Apologia Pro Vita Sua into German, and wrote several essays on Sterne, Thomas de Quincey and Thomas Hardy.[citation needed]

In 1900 Kassner made his first trip to Paris. Here he met André Gide, whose work Philoktet he translated into German. He also met Maurice Maeterlinck. His involvement with French culture is reflected in his essays on Baudelaire, Auguste Rodin, Abbe Galiani and Diderot and in his translations of the works of Gide and St. John Perse.[citation needed]

While in Paris, Kassner received a visit from T. S. Eliot and during this trip, he formed his great friendship with Rilke, the poet. In many histories of German literature, Kassner finds mention at best as a friend of Rilke and Hugo von Hofmannsthal. Yet, the two poets have testified amply to Kassner's profound influence on them. Rilke dedicated his eighth Duino Elegy, the most important elegy, to Kassner. In a letter to Princess Marie von Thurn and Taxis, Rilke says of Kassner: " not this man, I say to myself, perhaps the most important of all those who are writing today?" On his deathbed Rilke recalled with great fondness his association with Kassner.[citation needed]

Kassner's association with Hofmannsthal began in 1902. He visited the poet in Rodaun. Both of them belonged to that generation of Austrians who believed they were witness to the steady decline of western culture and the inexorable erosion of its institutions.[citation needed] Hofmannsthal wrote about Kassner in 1904: "I believe that he is perhaps the most important literary man, the most important culture critic that we have ever had in Germany" Kassner also knew Houston Stewart Chamberlain, the notorious racial theorist and anti-Semite, to whom he had sent his first book. At Chamberlain's House in Vienna Kassner often met Count Ulrich von Brockdorff-Rantzau, Count Hermann von Keyserling and the Indologist Leopold von Schröder.[citation needed]

In 1905 Kassner traveled through Spain, and from to Tangier in Morocco. His father died in Vienna in 1906, and Kassner spent that year in Vienna. In 1907 he traveled again to Italy, further to Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco and by motorcar through the Sahara.[citation needed]

On 16 October 1908 Kassner's began his lengthy journey through India. From London he proceeded by sea to Bombay. On board he became acquainted with the Maharaja of Kapurthala and one Mr. Inder Choudhary, a judge at the Calcutta high court. In the first week of November 1908 Kassner traveled from Bombay to Jaipur; then to Thaneswar and arrived on 24 November 1908 in Kapurthala to take part in the birthday celebrations of the Maharaja. From there he went towards Lahore and Peshawar, also a jaunt to the Khyber Pass. He returned south through Delhi and Agra to Lucknow. In a train accident on 3 December Kassner lost his baggage. Ten days after that he reached Benaras via Allahabad. Next he proceeded to Calcutta, where, incidentally, he met Stefan Zweig. In Calcutta he stayed with his friend, whom he met on the journey to India, Inder Choudhary. On 1 January 1909 he went to Darjeeling, from where he viewed the Kanchanjunga. He went by steamer to Burma and traveled up to Bhano on the Chinese border. From Calcutta Kassner went by sea to Colombo, from there he reached South India in mid-February; setting out most likely from Tuticorin to Madras via Madurai and Thanjavur. He reached Madras on 24 February 1909. He also visited Hyderabad and Ellora and journeyed home from Bombay on 6 March 1909.[citation needed]

On the return journey he spent some time in Egypt; from there he proceeded to Rome and spent the rest of that year in Italy. We do not know much about Kassner's experiences in India or about the sources of his knowledge about India, apart from what he himself says in his writings. But it is evident that India deeply influenced Kassner. Kassner himself confessed later that he became a philosopher through the Indians. Besides his two major works on India, Indian themes constantly recur in Kassner's writings. Kassner's Indian journey and his experiences in India are of immense importance in understanding his life and works.[citation needed]

In 1911 he traveled to Russia. He started from Vienna in May 1911 and traveled to St Petersburg; then to Moscow and from there along the Volga up to Saralow. He went southwards to Yalta and then to Kieslovodsk, north of Caucasus. In an automobile he crossed the Caucasus and went along the route that leads via the Caspian to Samarkhand in Turkestan. He returned after a brief stay in St. Petersburg and Moscow to Berlin towards the end of October 1911. Soon translations from the Russian followed: Pushkin, Gogol, Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy.[citation needed]


Kassner himself divided his work, into three periods: aestheticism 1900-1908; physiognomy 1908-1938: and after 1938 autobiographical writings, religious and mystical essays, and "meta-political" interpretations of world events. Kassner rejected rigid philosophical systems and thus preferred looser literary forms such as essays, aphorisms, prose sketches, parables, and allegories. Nevertheless, his works revolve around certain coherent contexts and returns again and again to the same themes.[citation needed]


Kassner can be characterized as an antirationalist. His writings deal with themes and concepts of medieval mysticism, hermetics, and Indian philosophy. For him the most important ability of the mind (Verstand) is not reason (ratio) but rather the imagination (Einbildungskraft)which he believed make "living perception" possible. He believed that he had overcome the analytical and rational dissection of the world by means of a "totality" of perception.[citation needed]

According to Schmölders (1999) Kassner's essays have a "predatory component." His early adversary was the "dilettante", that is, modern man who overestimates himself and his place in the world, who would be an artist without being able to the recognize the "whole" of the world, who is a victim of relativism and individualism. He accuses modernity of being without "standard" (Maß), no longer able to show man his place in the world. The only way to attain "standard" and "greatness" is through passion and suffering. Kassner further denounces the "actor" who only plays with social roles and turns himself into the accomplice of modernity.[citation needed]


Kassner's post-1908 writings on physiognomy are probably the most original part of his work. His physiognomy is not a system for reading character from facial features; rather it is at its core a conservative cultural philosophy. Kassner saw in modernity a cultural crisis that left traces of alienation and uprootedness in human faces. In the intellectual landscape of the 1920s Kassner's world-view thus reflects the "conservative revolution."

According to Kassner's physiognomy, in the old, aristocratic corporate society every person had a face that resulted from his connection to his estate. Modern man has, however, lost the "standard" that anchored him in the community: the face of modern man is thus "gaping" like a wound because it is no longer anchored in the world. Kassner uses "face" in its dual meaning as vision and visage, seeing and countenance. Physiognomic interpretation is, however, not something that can be learned; Kassner believed that the "seer" alone is called to physiognomy. "Imagination" becomes for Kassner the most important human ability, for it alone makes it possible to see the world as a unity or "form" and "to see things together."[citation needed]

For Kassner the physiognomy is basically a ‘phenomenology of Being’. It is based on Goethe's anti-Kantian statement "The highest is to understand that all facts are already theory. One need not search behind the phenomenon, for they themselves are the theory". Kassner's physiognomy is an attempt to portray the world in all its manifestations. Of course, Kassner's teachings are not easy to understand. Kassner's physiognomy though is distinct from the traditional rational physiognomy from pseudo-Aristotle to Lavater. Rational science objects to physiognomy thus: How can one draw conclusions about the inner character of anybody from his external features? Can one? Yet, physiognomy tried to be ‘scientific’and came to be devalued. Even in the eighteenth century Lavater tried to reduce the differences among the human faces to certain common denominators and tried to build a system of symbols to interpret it. (Kant considered it too pretentious a task for mere mortals). Nevertheless the idea was to build a system and to give a scientific explanation.[citation needed]

Kassner's physiognomy studies the rhythmic and changeable aspects of the face, which are not accessible to the rational physiognomy characteristic of its early period. Freudian psychoanalysis considered every face a mask and tried to unravel what lies behind it. This is a far cry from Kassner's physiognomy. Of course psychoanalysis has recognized that "man no longer appears as he is". But Kassner's physiognomy asserts, " Man is just as he appears to be because he does not appear as he really is." This is the basic axiom of Kassner's physiognomy. Kassner developed a style suited to the articulation of this physiognomy: the frequent use of zeugma for example is characteristic of his writing; he brings together things that appear to be contradictory on the surface in order to show not immediately evident interconnections between them. The seemingly contradictory phenomena combine to give a total image of the whole. One distinct advantage of this method is its usefulness in avoiding of the tendency to reify.[citation needed]

Kassner's physiognomy is not about naïve inference of individual characteristics from physical features. It is a seeing-together of the soul and cosmos. Kassner uses the word Gesicht (an untranslatable word which refers to what sees, namely face or countenance, and also what is seen, the vision.). This physiognomy is also a cosmogony. For Kassner all that can have a form: animals and humans, ideas, philosophies and religions, concrete things and products of pure fantasies, things of the present and the remote past all these can be Gesicht. In this Gesicht. rather than behind it, is the relationship of the soul to the entire cosmos and it needs interpretation. For Kassner, the physiognomist is the mystic of the whole created world.

The paradox as a form of thinking is very important to understand Kassners diagnosis of modernity. The incongruence between the external appearance and the internal disposition of man, the surface and deep structure of humans, as it were, forms the basis of his understanding of the modern individual. Psychoanalysis and other theories of human nature, analyse the appearance to unmask the reality. Kassner avoids all reification and takes that which appears first to his sight, his vision, namely human action and behavior, as the basis for his searching physiognomic enquiry.

Phenomena considered purely externally call for a rational explanation for establishing causal nexus, whereas to understand authentic form requires imaginative interpretation. To be able to see the form, one need to fuse critical and creative faculties, in short ‘räsonnieren’ as Kassner terms it. Hence, the conscious use of paradoxes that characterizes much of Kassner's writing. This indeed produces a shock-effect, much like the stunning effect of the Socratic elenchos. His zeugmas confront the reader to provide him a surprisingly new perspective. Like a Zen master with his counter-rational sayings, Kassner shakes the reader's rational, analytic thought processes in order to make him aware of the dynamic whole, the whole reality of the appearance.

Kassner uses many ideas such as form, gestalt, whole, order, idea etc., to emphasize the holistic aspects of his approach. The activity that forms the basis of this type of perception is seeing and interpreting (deuten). It calls for seeing–together, for a synoptic vision. This is why Kassner rejects the ‘thing-in-itself’ that never manifests itself in phenomena. Kassner holds that the image includes the thing along with its movement, its dunamis. The phenomena are not the external covering of content. Form and content yield a unity, held together by imagination, whereas critical reason separates them. Imagination is synthetic; reason is analytic.[citation needed]


Kassner addressed the important intellectual movements of his time. He is a pronounced opponent of psychoanalysis which for him is a further symptom of cultural crisis. It tries to discover in man the most extreme appetites - parricide, incest - and turns the great into the banal. On the other hand, Albert Einstein's theory of relativity was for him the most important confirmation of his philosophical thought. In Zahl und GesichtKassner even tried to make Einstein's theory compatible with his own understanding of "space world" and "time world."[citation needed]

Although Kassner alludes to current events in his writings and analyzes contemporary society, this is done in his later work increasingly in a kind of private mythology that makes use of ambiguous, enigmatic and often unclearly defined ideas that often cannot to attributed to a political stance.[citation needed]

Kassner's autobiographical works are difficult to understand; even his reminiscences contain passages, which are not easy to follow because of their idiosyncratic terminology. But many great modern texts are difficult (who will not vouch for enigmatic intricacies of Eliot and Pound, Joyce and Heidegger to mention but a few). "Works of this kind with their closely woven thoughts, are not easily accessible", wrote Hofmannsthal. "It consists of a number of unconnected writings...the contents are new and important, the title is unobtrusive. In the writings there is no system or definite terminology nor does the author mention about the unity of the work" . Surely Kassner does not provide an easy approach to his works. One cannot build a system out of his works. As he himself says "I have no system and hence not the language of the system".[citation needed]

Kassner's world is a world without masters and disciples. It is not built upon his predecessors, he had no precursors, hence the difficulty of categorizing his work. From the viewpoint of a traditional Indian one can designate him a ‘Gnanayogi’. His life as second birth, as second sailing was the journey of a soul to realization, an unending journey of the quest for knowing. It is not as though his physical disability prompted an inward journey. With Kassner the elemental and strong power of the senses and the spiritual energy is unmistakable. Kassner's world is a paradox. In it there is suffering and that makes it very Christian; there is in him the drama of the soul, a deep, unresolved tension; every feeling call forth its denial, with every thought its contradiction. There is also unity in division. With every division there is also a crossing. It is lived paradox, not dialectics. It is tension, not antitheses. No dialectic, no millennium, no utopia, no synthesis, no telos, only the middle and one has to live with it. Hence the absence of any revolt in him. This is titiksha in the real sense of the term.

Kassner's view of history

In his keen inquiry into human history Kassner differentiates two worlds– ‘the world of the father’ and ‘the world of the son’. ‘The world of the father’ is the world of the ancient man. Kassner says that ancient man with his magic hieratic cultures had no sense of individuality. These myth-dominated cultures, like that of the Greeks, are also a space world (Raumwelt). It is a world without division. It is also the world of identity. In this finite world, the polis with its norms regulates the tension between the individual and the group and the word approximates the thing designated by it. The divergence between the word and the thing occurs in ‘the world of the son’, which is a time world (Zeitwelt), the world of individuality. The conflict between inside and outside, form and content, soul and body, dream and reality, begins in this ‘world of the son’. Here myth and mystery part company. The magico-mythical world, the unified but repetitive world gives way to the world of individual, divided but unique in history. But in Kassner we find no theories about the philosophy of history, no conflict of nature versus civilization as in Rousseau, no progress in history as in Hegel. In Kassner there is no dialectic but drama. The figure of Christ and The Word becoming flesh are of central importance to Kassner's thoughts. Kassner said that the hold of the myth held sway as ‘grand form’, as order, rank and institution even in the ages of Christian dogma. The complete dissolution takes place in the age of baroque. Then in the nineteenth century, the French Revolution, Kant's Critiques and Goethe's Faust inaugurate the real chronicle of the individual. Through a ‘Gleichgewichtstörung’, to use Kassner's phrase, the individual is loosened from tradition and becomes a slave to the collective. Kassner diagnoses the individual of his times as dilettante, achiever, speculator, actor, dialectician, materialist, mediocre, indiscrete humans lacking altogether the sense of measure. But the world of the individual is also the world of freedom. The isolated derailed individual seeking his counterpart finds him in the Gerechte (the just man, or the righteous man). The notion of the der Heilige (the Holy) is absent in the western world.[citation needed]

Kassner says the counterpart of the Indian Rishi in the West is the Just Man. Kassner sees the saviour of the modern times in the Just man, in the pilgrim, in the Christian and the child like man. According to Kassner the contradiction between thought and action is Christian. This state of being at odds with oneself, induced no doubt by the elemental tension occasioned by the psyche's experience of contradictory, or even conflicting experiences, is what prompts Kassner to rehabilitate Platonic periagoge in a Christian context. In other words, the want of alignment with the temporal world leads to the profound onset of imagination –Einbildung, restored by Kassner to the transitive sense of Middle High German– the boundless imagination, i.e. its "lack of measure" holds for today's humans according to Kassner the only promise of accomplishing the amalgam of truth and justice. Steigerung and Umkehr (antilepsis) are the twin features of this transcendence in immanence.[citation needed]

Evocative images characterize Kassner's writing. Instead of analytic concepts he deliberately employs paradoxes and zeugmas that meaningfully bring together the small and the big, the near and the distant to obtain deep insights. In this context one needs to investigate Kassner's key terms such as Middle, Measure, Magic Body, Personality, Imagination, Vision, Seeing, Order, Umkehr, Saint, Chimera etc. "His concepts are not really concepts", writes Usinger "... not defined, the ideas occur again and again." One of Kassner's characters says, "You know very well my weakness and understand that I cannot define and all my definitions are false." His works have no linear development and do not yield swiftly to rational analysis.[citation needed]

Politically, Kassner saw himself early on as a European who tried to characterize the peoples of Europe without favoring his own. His sharpest criticism is often reserved for the Germans. In spite of his youthful enthusiasm for Treitschke and Chamberlain he was never openly antisemitic; he married a woman of Jewish ancestry. Nevertheless, derogatory comments about Jews and Jewish stereotypes can be found in his writing (cf. Schmölders in Neumann/Ott 1999).

In his late work the tendency toward mystical and religious syncretism comes to the fore: Kassner sees himself as the "magician" who employs a magical and inaccessible language to point to "mysteries" and "secrets" of the world: he plays with themes of Buddhism and Indian religions that he mixes with Christian ideas.[citation needed]

Kassner regretted his early admiration of Friedrich Nietzsche. As early as 1910 in Dilettantismus he accuses Nietzsche of having contributed to "everyone wanting to be an artist." One of the greatest influences on Kassner was Søren Kierkegaard to whose Christian anthropology he refers again and again. Other named role models are Blaise Pascal and Plato.

Contemporaries and the Unknown Eminence

Kassner received the Schiller Memorial Prize of the state of Baden-Wuerttemberg in 1949. On the occasion of this award Theophil Spoerri spoke of Kassner as "Die unbekannte Größe", the unknown eminence. Anyone who tries to understand Kassner's work has to confront this paradox. Kassner is remarkably great and yet unknown. Here is a person, of whom it can be said without reservation that he is one of the greatest minds of the twentieth century; and some of the greatest writers, poets and philosophers of Europe have acknowledged their indebtedness to him.[citation needed]

Intellectually, Kassner is closest to his contemporaries Hofmannsthal and Rilke, Karl Wolfskehl and Marx Picard (who also produced physiognomic works), but there are also clear philosophical parallels to Oswald Spengler.[citation needed]

Georg Lukács, Georg Simmel and Walter Benjamin admired Kassner's early works - although Benjamin also sharply criticized Kassner. He was praised by his contemporaries: in 1908 Rudolf Borchardt called him the "only genuine mystic of quality;" in 1911 Friedrich Gundolf attested to his "purity and loftiness of sentiment;" Dolf Sternberger, Fritz Usinger, Hans Paeschke were among his admirers. But Kassner also encountered criticism and a lack of understanding, for example, by Rudolf Alexander Schröder. Thomas Mann characterized his book Zahl and Gesicht as "hair-splitting and precious;" the Swiss playwright Friedrich Dürrenmatt reported that for him a meeting Kassner had "broken Kassner's spell."[citation needed] "A new Nietzsche has appeared among us. He is called Rudolf Kassner and he speaks in antitheses, contradictions and paradoxes, deep and mystical, here and there in the tone of a prophet. Whether ‘the Modern’ places him above, below, or beside Nietzsche one does not know yet, but as far as I am concerned he is to me dearer than Nietzsche" hailed a reviewer of his first published work in 1900.[citation needed]

Congratulating Kassner on his eightieth birthday T. S. Eliot wrote: "To contribute to the chorus of praise and thanks which should greet Rudolf Kassner on his eightieth birthday is a privilege which confers greater honour to the contributor than to the recipient. I am happy to have the opportunity on this occasion to salute and pay homage to so distinguished an author and so great a European who has every reason to look back with pride upon his life-work."[citation needed]

In the same volume W. H. Auden writes on Kassner's book Zahl und Gedicht: "Among all the books which a writer reads over the years, the number which have so essentially conditioned his vision of life that he cannot imagine who he was before he read them is, naturally, very small.... Zahl und Gesicht was for me, and still is, such a book; in such a case discussion is not called for, only gratitude and homage."[citation needed]

Ludwig Curtius wrote to him: "You were to me always a ‘sage’ like the sages of the ancient times, whom I approached as a child, which I still do today." In Kassner's writings on system and order in the work Zahl und Gesicht the Swiss dramatist Dürrenmatt could read a premonition of later inhuman totalitarian regimes. Yet Kassner is relatively unknown; most histories of literature and philosophy do not even mention his name.[citation needed]


Kassner introduced the work of William Blake to Germany. He discovered the Christian poet in Baudelaire. In 1903 he made the German public aware of the works of André Gide through his translation. Even before existential philosophy came into vogue, Kassner in his essay on Kierkegaard, which incidentally is the first German writing on Kierkegaard, had spoken about the existential predicament, the thrown-ness of man in the World. He translated from Greek, English, French and Russian. His understanding of the Indian society is full of rich insights quite different from that of a philosopher like Hegel, who had never set foot in India. Despite his physical handicap, Kassner traveled to India, met people there, saw for himself how people live there. Kassner's insights into India are an admirable example of his distinctive approach to cultural understanding and anthropology. In his own nonacademic way he was one of the most learned men of the last century. He traveled far and wide, even to inaccessible regions, despite a lifelong crippling disability. He was more widely traveled than most of his contemporaries. His knowledge of the classical world, of the oriental and occidental texts, of religion and philosophy, of history and culture, of literature and art is profound and comprehensive. He had a deep knowledge of the cultural history of modern man. He saw, as perhaps no one else saw, the internal contradictions and discontents of modernity.[citation needed]

Kassner was immensely productive; his literary activity extends over sixty years and he was writing till the age of eighty-five. He is considered one of the greatest essayists and "the only German essayist who processed humor." In his writings he judges severely his contemporaries and his criticisms are provocative. Given his vision and his relentless focus on man even his silences are telling. Kassner was no less an iconoclast than Nietzsche, though temperamentally he is the exact opposite of the overwrought philosopher. Mason wonders: "How little there is in the post-renaissance mental activities and achievements that he does not abominate!" But he adds, "There is something curiously authoritative about these denunciations of his.... They raise important issues, which have hitherto been overlooked; one cannot afford to ignore them." But this criticism of his never ended up in nihilism. He was above all an anti-nihilist. Kassner speaks of being a mystic in order not to become a nihilist. Though Kassner says that he is a conservative due to the exasperation and consternation that modern world caused him, he is in no sense a reactionary, cynic, pessimist or defeatist and had no romantic yearning for the past, and no escapist delusions.[citation needed]

Yet he is unknown. Could it be that Kassner's works were ‘out of season’? In as early as 1929 Hofmannsthal wrote about Kassner's writings that "a not too distant future will wonder how our period that is craving for new forms and contents could neglect such fresh content in such novel forms." Forty years later in 1969 Michael Schmidt comments that "this ‘staunende Zeit’ cannot of course be ours." Still a generation later in 2005 in the latest article published on Kassner Prof. Subramanian writes that even today "fame has eluded Kassner."[citation needed]

Kassner is variously described as ‘Philosopher’, ‘Thinker’, ‘Cultural–Historian’, ‘Platonist’, and ‘Philosopher–Poet’. One may call him a ‘cultural philosopher’, for the primary object of his studies were cultures and their symbolic representations. His contributions to the understanding of Greek antiquity, ancient India and European Modernity form an essential part of his writings. It is indeed appropriate to call him a ‘seer’, in the multiple sense of the term, for ‘seeing’ and ‘vision’ are central to his physiognomy. Whenever he observes, he conveys unfailingly his sense of wonderment. It is this wonderment of the seer that sets in train his deep probing inquiry bordering on the mystic, which yet again to Kassner becomes manifest when poetry affiliates to philosophy. It is his vision, his Anschauung that gives his works an intensity and luminosity.[citation needed]

For as Kassner himself said "I should regard every line of my work suspect... if the knowledge and the feeling desert me that any enlightenment of man from them must work like a physical light; out of this desire arose the form, style and the language of the whole work". His works present a distinctive way of seeing, totally different from the current empirical methods of the social sciences.[citation needed]

The same themes recur in Kassner again and again, in their prismatic break-up as essays, parables, dialogues and reminiscences. He visits the same zone time and again with profit. It is not as though there is no progress, indeed the progress in thought can be said to have a spiral movement, as his dogged, unflinching gaze winds itself around the phenomena.

But as Eudo C. Mason suggests, Kassner's texts, given their importance and greatness are justifiably difficult. For when we seek the source of their difficulty we cannot say that his style is pedantic or jargon-filled. His sentences are always clear and sober without rhetorical flourish but laced with gentle humor and irony. It is in a sense unfortunate that he labeled his worldview physiognomy, for it was a discredited discipline and Kassner has had to an explain over and again how his physiognomy differs from traditional physiognomy.


Published works

  • Der ewige Jude in der Dichtung. Dissertation 1897
  • Der Tod und die Maske: Gleichnisse. Leipzig: Insel 1902
  • Motive: Essays. Berlin: Fischer (1906)
  • Melancholia: eine Trilogie des Geistes. Berlin: Fischer 1908
  • Der Dilettantismus. 1910
  • Von den Elementen der menschlichen Groesse. Leipzig: Insel 1911
  • Der indische Gedanke. Leipzig: Insel 1913
  • Die Chimäre. Leipzig: Insel 1914
  • Zahl und Gesicht: nebst einer Einleitung: Der Umriss einer Universalen Physiognomik. Leipzig: Insel 1919
  • Kardinal Newman. Apologie des Katholizismus. München: Drei Masken Verlag 1920
  • Die Grundlagen der Physiognomik. Leipzig: Insel 1922
  • Die Mythen der Seele. Leipzig: Insel 1927
  • Narciss: oder Mythos und Einbildungskraft. Leipzig: Insel. 1928
  • Physiognomik. München: Delphin 1932
  • Transfiguration. Erlenbach-Zürich: Rentsch 1946
  • Die zweite Fahrt. Erlenbach-Zürich: Rentsch 1946 - autobiographisch
  • Das neunzehnte Jahrhundert. Ausdruck und Grösse. Erlenbach-Zürich: Rentsch 1947
  • Das inwendige Reich: Versuch einer Physiognomik der Ideen. Erlenbach-Zürich: Rentsch 1953
  • Das Antlitz des Deutschen in fünf Jahrhunderten deutscher Malerei. Zürich; Freiburg: Atlantis 1954
  • Buch der Erinnerung. Erlenbach-Zürich: Rentsch 1954
  • Geistige Welten. 1958

Kassner also translated works by Plato, Aristotle, André Gide, Gogol, Leo Tolstoy, Dostoievsky, Pushkin and Laurence Sterne.


  1. ^ "Nomination Database". Retrieved 2017-01-24.
Collected works
  • (in German) Rudolph Kassner, Sämtliche Werke, Bände I – X, Ernst Zinn und Klaus E. Bohnenkamp (Eds), Günther Neske, Pfüllingen, (1969–1991).
  • (in German) Rudolph Kassner, Briefe an Tetzel, Ernst Zinn und Klaus E. Bohnenkamp (Eds), Günther Neske, Pfullingen, 1979.
  • (in German) Bohnenkamp, Klaus E. (Ed.), Rainer Maria Rilke und Rudolph Kassner, Freunde im Gespräch: Briefe und Dokumente, Insel, Memmingen, 1997.

External links

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