(Adolf Muschg – der Andere)
Film by Erich Schmid
Release: 2021, DCP
In his exploration of the cultural dynamic between East and West, Adolf Muschg, the most significant Swiss writer since Frisch and Dürrenmatt, searched for the other in himself in order to understand otherness.
Adolf Muschg, the most important Swiss writer since Frisch and Dürrenmatt, wrote his way into the highest echelons of literature. He was a professor at ETH and president of the Academy of Arts in Berlin. Retracing the path of his novel Heimkehr nach Fukushima (Return to Fukushima), this biographical film travels to the radioactive region, as well as to the Zen monastery where he searched for the 'other' within himself in order to gain a better understanding of otherness. He had a hard start in life, as his father died early and his mother suffered from depression. Half orphaned, he went away to attend boarding school, then studied at the University of Zurich and Cambridge. He later taught in Tokyo, Göttingen, and at Cornell University (USA). He came of age politically in America, influenced by opposition to the Vietnam War and the music of Woodstock during the years of upheaval 1967-1969.
Adolf Muschg, the most important Swiss writer since Frisch and Dürrenmatt, wrote his way into the highest echelons of German literature. His passion was exploring the cultural dynamic between West and East. This biographical film first retraces the path of his novel Heimkehr nach Fukushima (Return to Fukushima), with a visit to the radioactive region. It then moves on to the Zen monastery in Japan where he engaged in his search for the other in himself. There, he sought to gain a better understanding of the nature of the self and otherness, also in the social and political sense.
Adolf Muschg grew up the son of a strict, religiously conservative father and a severely depressed mother. His father died early and his mother was institutionalized. The sexual abuse she experienced in her family as an adolescent was to have traumatic consequences for her son in later years. Weakened by her depression, she was barely there for him. But when he was sick, she took extra special care of him. Those were his best days, the days he felt loved and safe. This 'morbid gain' led to hypochondria, which plagued Muschg throughout his life.
In an effort to spare his mother distress, he endeavored to be a model student, fulfilling all of her extremely high demands at school. She sent him to the Scouts in Zollikon, a hotbed for future leaders where he sang Nazi songs without knowing what they were. During an initiation ritual which involved dunking his head in a pot full of urine, he rebelled for the first time in his life: He left the Scouts, and became a different person.
Adolf Muschg entered the Protestant boarding school in Schiers, then a reform school. He felt like a half orphan there, abandoned by his dead father, his sick mother, and by God. Christianity and discipline dominated. After that he studied German literature and psychology at the universities of Zurich and Cambridge. He later taught at the International Christian University in Tokyo, where he wrote his first novel, Im Sommer des Hasen (The Summer of the Hare). Formative years in the United States followed, where he taught at Ithaca's renowned Cornell University. He was present when a university building was occupied by armed Black Panthers.
Had Muschg been in Europe in 1968 and taken part in the youth movement, "which would have been unavoidable," he remarked, "I could have forgotten ever gaining a post at ETH. I would have been barred from a professorship for political reasons." From 1970, Muschg spent 30 years as a literature professor at ETH Zurich (Swiss Federal Institute of Technology). He encouraged young writers and founded the Collegium Helveticum, an interdisciplinary think tank with fellows from all over the world. Adolf Muschg was intensely political, and one of his texts inspired the preamble to the Swiss constitution. When it was revealed that the Swiss government was using police and intelligence services to surveil hundreds of thousands of respectable citizens, he spoke at a mass demonstration in Bern in 1990 to demand the resignation of two members of the Federal Council.
Soon thereafter he returned to Japan where he met his third wife, Atsuko Muschg Kanto, during a book tour in 1991. He sought out Zen scholars, and the venerable master Daisetsu Suzuki helped him find what he was looking for: the other in himself. "My neighbor in Männedorf can be very different from my neighbor in Kyoto," he said. "The nice thing about the other is that you don't learn anything about him, but you do learn a lot about yourself." Adolf Muschg also explored this theme in his books.
"The core of Buddhism is that the way we are, we are the same as others, because we ourselves are different than we think. It's a complicated thought process, but it definitely doesn't correspond to the Western understanding of human beings: the in-dividual, the indivisible! No, thankfully we actually are divisible."
The highest position an artist can hold in the German-speaking world is president of the Academy of Arts in Berlin. Muschg held this office from 2003 to 2006. His term coincided with the Academy's relocation to a new building, a glass palace near the Brandenburg Gate. It is there that the film begins, with a reading introduced by the current president of the Academy, Jeanine Meerapfel, and framed by a conversation with the former president of the German parliament, Norbert Lammert.
Adolf Muschg, the most important Swiss intellectual since Frisch and Dürrenmatt, wrote his way into the highest echelons of German literature. His passion was exploring the cultural dynamic between West and East. This biographical film begins by re-tracing the path of his novel Heimkehr nach Fukushima (Return to Fukishima), with a visit to the radioactive region. It then moves on to the Zen monastery in Japan where he searched for the 'other' in himself.
Morbid Gain and Hypochondria
Adolf Muschg grew up the son of a strict, religiously conservative father and a mother who suffered from severe depression. He was often on his own from an early age. His father died when he was 13, and his mother was institutionalized. A comment by his aunt which he accidentally overheard explained the deeper reason why his mother was depressed her whole life: her father, a flagman who had risen to be a railroad superintendent, had sexually abused her as a girl. These events were to have traumatic consequences for son in later years. Due to her condition, she was barely able to be there for Adolf. All she had the strength to do was take care of him when he was sick – though in such moments she paid extra special attention to him, as if trying to compensate for her general absence. In this way, sick days were the best days of Adolf's life, the days he felt loved and safe – a "morbid gain", as it is called in psychoanalysis, that led to severe hypochondria. Adolf's hypochondria was so bad that he even had healthy organs removed.
Nazi Songs with the Scouts
Born in 1934 and baptized Adolf, he had a hard start in life. He learned about the death penalty, he said, from his father's early death, and about madness from his mother's depression. In an attempt to spare his mother distress, the half orphan was a model student, obediently fulfilling her very high expectations. In his hometown of Zollikon on Switzerland's gold coast, all young boys with any kind of aspiration in life had to join the Scouts. The Scouts corp there was a regional hotbed for future leaders. Only much later did he realize that he had sung Nazi songs there. He was also ignorant at the time of the Zollikon Scouts' battle cry, "Haarus!", a legacy of the fascist Swiss National Front, for whom it was a call to signal the triumph of the thousand-year Reich. Adolf's initiation ritual into the Scouts was in keeping with this tradition, a kind of baptism in which he was given the name "Spirit". He was put in a sack, hung upside down, and was going to be dunked in a pot full of urine. He became claustrophobic, screaming, "Let me out!" This moment was a turning point in his life. He quit the ceremony, left the Scouts, and became a different person.
Boarding School in Schiers
However, Adolf Muschg did not only suffer misfortune in life. When his father died, his 30-year-old half-brother, a famous professor in Basel and a member of the Swiss National Council in Bern, decided that what Adolf needed more than education was an apprenticeship; as a tailor for example. He was taken in by a sympathetic neighbor who organized for him to attend the Protestant boarding school in Schiers in the canton of Graubünden, then still a reform school located far up in the mountains. But as a half orphan abandoned by his sick mother, his suffering was to resume there.
"We are never understood so poorly as in childhood. At boarding school, everything young people needed to know was ignored – or censored. Discipline and more discipline, restraint and the suppression of my true needs. And I wasn't allowed to feel unhappy at all. I was never allowed to feel that I had been abandoned. Instead I had to tell everyone how good I felt at Schiers and how much I liked its style of Christianity and what good friends I had – none of which was even half true."
Formative Years in Japan and the United States
Muschg studied German literature and psychology at the universities of Zurich and Cambridge, where he wrote his dissertation on Barlach. He taught at the International Christian University in Tokyo in the early 1960s, witnessing the first student protests there. In Tokyo he wrote his first novel, Im Sommer des Hasen (The Summer of the Hare), which enjoyed immediate success. He subsequently spent two formative years in the United States and from 1967 to 1969, he taught at the renowned Cornell University in Ithaca (where the famous Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg had studied). Muschg participated in protests against the Vietnam War and worked for the campaign of Democratic presidential candidate Eugene McCarthy (opponent of the Republican witch-hunter Joseph McCarthy). Muschg saw Bob Dylan perform live at his campus and was there during the first ever armed Black Panther occupation of a university building in the United States.
Writing Workshops and Think Tank at the ETH
"If I had been in Europe during 1968-69 and had felt forced or required or impelled to participate in the youth movement, which would have been unavoidable," he says looking back, "I could have forgotten ever gaining a post at ETH. I would have been barred from a professorship for political reasons." Starting in 1970, Adolf Muschg spent 30 years as a literature professor at ETH Zurich (Swiss Federal Institute of Technology). While there he employed liberal didactic techniques, even allowing non-registered students into his classes. He held open writing workshops for young talents, the participants of which included writer Ruth Schweikert and the later winner of the German Book Prize and the Swiss Book Prize, Melinda Nadj Abonji. At the end of his tenure, he founded the Collegium Helveticum, an interdisciplinary think tank at ETH with fellows from around the world.
Participation in Politics
In the mid-1970s, Adolf Muschg stood for election to the smaller chamber of the Federal Assembly in Bern, the Council of States. Despite receiving support from Max Frisch and Günter Grass he was not elected, though he was appointed to two cantonal commissions, one of which was preparing a thorough overhaul of the Swiss constitution. The current preamble is still based on a text by Adolf Muschg. The writer and professor was intensely political. When the Swiss government spying scandal broke, in which it came to light that there were 900,000 secret files on over 700,000 individuals and organizations, including many reports by informants, Muschg spoke at a mass demonstration on March 3, 1990 in front of 30,000 concerned citizens. In his words, "Switzerland must be aired out before we can breathe here again." He called for the resignation of those responsible and two members of the federal state government.
Cultural Dynamic between East and West
Soon thereafter he went abroad again, first on a fellowship to America, than to Japan, where in 1991 he met his third wife, Atsuko Muschg Kanto, during a book tour. He visited Zen scholars Shin'ichi Hisamatsu and Sekkai Harada and finally found what he was really looking for with the venerable master Daisetsu Suzuki in Kamakura: the other in himself. "Japan was the other in my life that I wanted to integrate. I got to know my own boundaries there and more or less learned to live with those boundaries – with or without Japan, but Japan was the medium for it. We have to balance out what we call East and what we call West. I discovered that not all clichés are true. My neighbor in Männedorf can be very different from my neighbor in Kyoto. If we're lucky, the other gives us an opportunity to get to know ourselves better. The nice thing about the other is that you don't learn anything about him or her, but you do learn a lot about yourself." Adolf Muschg also explored this theme in his books.
The Other in Oneself
"I did the Zen practice of zazen, sitting as long as my knees could take it. Of course, I couldn't think about anything but my aching knees. It takes a long time to forget the pain, and there are many ways to forget it. At some point the pain gets so intense that it becomes empty. And we are no longer used to seeing fullness in emptiness. For example, the Japanese see the new moon in the full moon. And yang in yin, light in darkness. They belong together. And we separate them, especially in the digital world, where we constantly have alternatives in mind: either or, black or white, ephemeral and eternal. Zen Buddhism doesn't make this distinction. The ephemeral is eternal, and the eternal is ephemeral. The core of Buddhism is that the way we are, we are the same as others, because we ourselves are different than we think - at first glance it's a complicated thought process. It definitely doesn't correspond to the Western understanding of human beings: the in-dividual, the indivisible! No, thankfully we actually are divisible."
This Eastern view of the Western concept of the individual (in-dividere = to not separate) not only lets us see human relationships in a different way: it also expands our sociopolitical awareness when dealing with difference and otherness, with people who think differently and those who are different from us.
President of the Academy of Arts
The highest position an artist can hold in the German-speaking world is president of the Academy of Arts in Berlin. Muschg held this office from 2003 to 2006. His term coincided with the Academy's relocation from Berlin's Hansaviertel district to a new building, a glass palace on Pariser Platz next to the famous Hotel Adlon near the Brandenburg Gate. To his regret, however, not much else changed during his presidency other than that the architecture of transparency began breathing new life into a location that had suffered such terrible wartime damage and that had been surrounded by the Berlin Wall during the Cold War. The film begins at the new Academy building, with a reading by Adolf Muschg that is introduced by its current president, Jeanine Meerapfel, and framed by a conversation with the former president of the German parliament, Norbert Lammert.