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Carl (Friedrich Georg) Spitteler (1845-1924) - pseudonym Carl Felix Tandem


Swiss poet, winner of the 1919 Nobel Prize for Literature for his masterpiece, Olympian Spring (final version in 1910). Carl Spitteler even evolved his own metrical scheme in the vast and original work. The epic poem depicted the rise of new gods to consciousness and power. In several works Spitteler dealt with the antagonism between creativity and the world, exemplified in the character of Prometheus. Spitteler's Prometheus and Epimethus (1881) inspired the Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung.

Orpheus hörte diese Serenade.
"Herr Kollega«, bat er ängstlich, »Gnade!
Nutzlos quälst und quetschest du die Kehle,
Denn die Bosheit bellt dir aus der Seele.
Und mit einem Herzen voll von Haß
Bleibe, Bestie, ferne dem Parnaß.
Zwar auf Tugend mag die Kunst verzichten,
Liederliche sieht man Lieder dichten,
Aber Drachen mit Musik im Rachen
Liebster, das sind hoffnungslose Sachen.
Aller schönen Künste weit und breit
Grundbedingung ist Gutherzigkeit."

(from 'Die Ballade vom lyrischen Wolf')

Carl Spitteler was born in the town of Liestal, near Basel. The family moved to Bern in 1849, when his father was appointed treasurer of the new Swiss confederation. However, the young Spitteler remained in Basel with his aunt. Spitteler started to write poems at the age of seventeen, but his first talent was rather for drawing. Through painting and music he eventually found his way to literature. His first effort was a drama on the subject of Saul, with which he struggled for three years, and then gave up.

Under the influence of the historian Jakob Burckhard, who was his teacher at the Basel Pädagogium, and the philologist Wilhelm Wackernagel, Spitteler became interested in Ariosto and the Italian Renaissance. In 1863 he entered the University of Zürich, where he studied law. Between the years 1865 and 1870 he studied theology in Zürich, Heidelberg, and Basel, but was not considered orthodox enough to sit for the theological examination.

After declining an offer to start a career as a Protestant minister in Arosa, Spitteler went in 1871 to St. Petersburg at the invitation of General Standertskjöld. He worked there eight years as a tutor in Finnish families and visited Finland many times. During this period Spitteler spent most of his time on  Prometheus und Epimetheus (1881), written in Biblical prose, which he had started while a student in Heidelberg. It contrasted ideals with dogmas, personified by two mythological figures. Prometheus is an individualist who opposes his brother, King Epimetheus, an example of the herd instincts inside of us. The epic closes with the return of the brothers to their home in a lonely valley.

This enigmatic work, published at Spitteler's own expense under the pseudonym Carl Felix Tandem, did not gain much attention, except when Spitteler was later accused of having borrowed themes from Nietzsche's Also Sprach Zarathustra. Nietzsche, who recognized something of a kindred spirit in Spitteler, had recommended him to the editor of the Munich periodical Kunstwart in 1887. Spitteler was well acquainted with Nietzsche's ideas, and published in 1888 in the Berner Bund a review of Nietzsche's work. In Meine Beziehungen zu Nietzsche (1908) Spitteler later defended himself against accusations.

Spitteler returned to Switzerland after the death of his father. Abandoning all hope of making poetry his living, Spitteler held a mastership in a school in Neuveville on Lake Basel. With his friend Joseph Viktor Widmann he kept a girls' school for a short time. He worked as a journalist for Grenzpost (1885-86) and then as a staff member of Basler Nachrichten.  From 1890 to 1892 he edited the Neue Züricher Zeitung. In the 1880s he also published poetry, including Extramundana (1883) and Schmetterlinge (1889). 

In 1883 Spitteler married Marie Op den Hooff, who had been his pupil in Neuveville. When his wife's parents died and left in 1892 a sizable inheritance, the family moved to Lucerne, where Spitteler devoted himself entirely to writing. His breakthrough work, the epic verse Der olympische Frühling, appeared in several installments between 1900 and 1905, and was revisited in 1910. With the publication of Felix Weingartner's pamphlet Carl Spitteler, ein künstlerisches Erlebnis (1904, 2nd. ed. 1913) the poet started to receive recognition outside Switzerland.

Spitteler's dichotomy between Prometheus and Epimetheus was picked up by Carl Jung, who created in his book Psychological Types his introvert / extrovert distinction. Jung also sent a copy of his book to the author. Spitteler did not respond immediately but later referred to the book during a lecture and said that his Prometheus and Epimethus meant nothing, "that he might just as well have sung, 'Spring is come, tra-la-la-la.'" (Jung in Memories, Dreams, Reflections, 1963) Jung returned again to Spitteler's reaction in Modern Man in Search of a Soul (1933), stating that "poets are human beings, and that what a poet has to say about his work is often far from being the most illuminating word on the subject." Gottfried Keller wrote of Prometheus that "What the poet wishes to say I do not know after reading his work twice; but in spite of all obscurity and indefiniteness I feel it all with him, feel the deep poetry that it contains."

Olympian Spring, an epic in five books, was a combination of mythology, fantasy, and religion. Basically Spitteler transformed the "waxing and waning of the gods into a myth of the seasons." (Carl Jung) Written in iambic hexameter which was not a popular form of poetry, the story described colorfully mythical figures as they journey to Olympos, fight for power, and tangle themselves in intrigues. In the last book Zeus sends Heracles on a mission to the world: "Stupidity, I challenge thee! Malice, on the fight! Let's see who'll master him whom Zeus hath sanctified!"  The epic was immediately acclaimed as a masterpiece and compared to Milton's achievements. 

Spitteler's autobiographical Imago (1906) was a love story, which examined the power of the unconscious, focused on a conflict between an uncompromising creative mind and middle-class restrictions. The novel had a success among psychoanalysts, but Spitteler himself was not happy with the work. It has been said, that Spitteler's treatment of the concept of the imago influenced the psychoanalytical understanding of human mind. Rejecting the method of dream analysis Spitteler once said, "Dreams cannot be told; they dissolve when the rational mind tries to grasp them in words."

Kannst du ein wohl gemeintes Wort vertragen?
--Ich muss, vergib.
Ich will dir's einmal deutch und deutlich sagen:
--Wer hat dich lieb?

(from 'Auf der Milch-und Honingwiese')

In Meine frühesten Erlebnisse (1914) Spitteler returned to his childhood. At the beginning of World War I, Spitteler urged his fellow Swiss Germans to be less pro-German, and advocated the view that Switzerland should not take sides intellectually with Germany or France. He received the Nobel Prize at the age of 75. Due to illness he was not able to attend the ceremony. Romain Rolland proclaimed him in a tribute "our Homer, the greatest German poet since Goethe." Spitteler died on December 28, 1924, in Lucerne. Spitteler's last work was Prometheus der Dulder (1924, Prometheus the Sufferer), a new and rhymed version of his first work.

For further reading: Totalitat Des Mangels: Carl Spitteler Und Die Geburt Des Modernen Epos Aus Der Anschauung by Philipp Theisohn (2001); Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, Vol. 4, ed. by Steven R. Serafin (1998); World Authors 1900-1950, Vol. 4, ed. by Martin Seymour-Smith and Andrew C. Kimmens (1996); Nobel Prize Winners, ed. by T. Wasson (1987); Carl Spitteler by W. Stauffacher (1973); Spitteler's "Olympischer Frühling" und seie epische Form by O. Trommel (1965); Essays and Addresses on Literature by John George Robertson (1935); The Tyranny of Greece over Germany by E.M. Butler (1935); Spittelers Weg und Werk by R. Faesi (1933)

Selected works:

  • Prometheus und Epimetheus: ein Gleichnis, 1881 (under the pseudonym Carl Felix Tandem)
    - Prometheus and Epimetheus (tr. 1931)
  • Extramundana, 1883 (under the pseudonym Carl Felix Tandem)
  • Ei ole, 1887
  • Schmetterlinge. Gedichte, 1889
  • Der Parlamentär, 1889
  • Das Bombardement von Åbo. Eine Erzählung aus Finnland, 1889
    - Turun pommitus: mukaeltu kertomus eräästä uuden ajan historian tapahtumasta (suomennos: Meeri Allinen et al., 2011)
  • Friedli, der Kolderi, 1891
  • Gustav: ein Idyll, 1892
  • Literarische Gleichnisse, 1892
  • Der Ehrgeizige: Lustspiel in vier Aufzügen, 1892
  • Spazierfahrten in Finnland, 1892
  • Jumala. Ein finnisches Märchen, 1893
  • Balladen, 1896
  • Der Gotthard, 1897
  • Conrad der Leutnant: eine Darstellung , 1898
  • Lachende Wahrheiten , 1898
    - Laughing Truths (translated by James F. Muirhead, 1927)
  • Der olympische Frühling, 1900-05 (4 vols., revisited in 1910)
  • Gras- und Glockenlieder, 1906
  • Imago, 1906
    - Imago (tr. David Spooner, 2006)
  • Glockenlieder, 1906
  • Gerold und Hansli. Die Mädchenfeinde. Eine Kindergeschichte, 1907
    - Two Little Misogynists (tr. J..F. Muirhead, 1922) / Two Little Misogynist (tr. Mme. la Vicomtesse de Roquette-Buisson, 1922)
  • Meine Beziehungen zu Nietzsche, 1908
  • Meine frühesten Erlebnisse, 1914
  • Rede über Gottfried Keller, 1919
  • Prometheus der Dulder, 1924
  • Das entscheidende Jahr, 1925
  • Selected Poems of Carl Spitteler, 1928 (translated by Ethel Colburn Mayne and James F. Muirhead)
  • Briefe von Adolf Frey und Carl Spitteler, 1933 (ed. by Lina Frey)
  • Musikalische Essays, 1947 (ed. by Willi Reich)
  • Gesammelte Werke, 1945-1958 (11 vols., ed. by  Gottfried Bohnenblust et al.)
  • Kritische Schriften, 1965 (ed. by Werner Stauffacher)
  • Carl Spitteler, Joseph Viktor Widmann: Briefwechsel, 1998 (ed. by Werner Stauffacher)

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