Carl Spitteler the free spirit
Carl Spitteler was born in Liestal in the canton of Basel Land and lived with his family in Lucerne for 32 years where he worked as a freelance writer. In 1919 he was awarded the Nobel prize for literature, the first Swiss recipient of this award.
In 2019, the University of Lucerne and the city and canton of Lucerne paid tribute to Spitteler and his extensive literary accomplishments in a jubilee celebration. (more information in German: Die Universität Luzern im Zeichen Carl Spittelers)
You can find out more about the Nobel Prize winner in the audio contribution or in the complete text "Carl Spitteler the free spirit".
After having strayed through Eastern and Central Switzerland, 19-year-old Carl Spitteler, who would later become the only Swiss-born Nobel Prize winner for literature, took refuge in Lucerne’s 20 Bruchstrasse. Here he lodged with Julius Rüegger, a senior clerk. Growing up in a bourgeois Protestant family home in Liestal, he was unable to fulfill his authoritarian father's wish that he achieve a decent law degree and thus had to escape parental authority. Spitteler, alas, found no institutional home in Lucerne. This atheist free spirit found no common ground with the Theological Institute, which had grown out of the cantonal school in 1864 and was entirely geared towards priestly practice. He did, nevertheless, study Protestant theology in Basel, but then refjected a position as pastor in the Canton of Grison. Instead, he became a private tutor in Tsarist St. Petersburg and later in Neuveville on Lake Biel. In addition, he wrote reviews, as editor of the “Neue Zürcher Zeitung”, amongst other publications.
At the beginning of his literary career it already became evident that Spitteler shies away from the masses like the devil avoids holy water. His epic ‘Prometheus and Epimetheus’ written in free rhythm is reminiscent of the poetic style of his contemporary, Friedrich Nietzsche. In this particular work one hears Prometheus calling to his brother Epimetheus: “Arise! Let us be different from the many that swarm together in one big heap!” Throughout his life, Carl Spitteler wanted to distance himself from the general zeitgeist of the masses.
The article series “Lucerne as centre for excursions” gives a striking impression why, after years of wandering, Spitteler settled here as a freelance writer with his family in 1893. ‘There is space on Lake Lucerne,’ he is convinced. This space is made up of the horizontal of the lake, and the vertical of the mountains. But here, too, the peculiarity of the poet who knows how to stand out from the emerging mass of tourists, becomes evident: he does not like the Stanserhorn because the cable car is too steep; Pilatus is for Lucerne as Vesuvius is for Naples and is therefore of no interest to him. It is only the Rigi from which he gains pleasure, stating ‘a day of good weather in Lucerne that is not used for the Rigi, [...] is a complete waste of good weather’. From the Lucerne-based ‘Gotthardbahngesellschaft,’ Spitteler received a lucrative order for a travel guide titled “Der Gotthard”. And here too, he systematically shirks away from the traditional sights towards which tourists gaze, and from the common molds of perception.
The soul must be an empty film on which the environment is imprinted. This is the only way to create a realism that is capable of idealism, as is shown in Spitteler’s confessional ‘Imago.’ This text, that deserves to be read, also features in the early psychoanalysis of Sigmund Freud and Carl Gustav Jung. Even ‘Olympic Spring’, the long verse episode for which Spitteler officially received the Nobel Prize in 1919, takes the direttissima between real description and ideal. It is, however, more likely that it was with his most political text that Spitteler first made an impression on a global audience. He wrote “Unser Schweizer Standpunkt” (Our Swiss Viewpoint), the publication with which he struggled most, four months after the outbreak of the First World War. In this text, he pleads for absolute neutrality and castigates the solidarity of the French-speaking Swiss from the Romandie with France and the German-speaking Swiss- with the German Reich – something that greatly displeased his own German-speaking readership.
In this way, the former bohemian remains true to himself as a loner, who has meanwhile become established very much as a non-tourist in Lucerne the city of light and tourists. The founding of a ‘Universitas Benedictina Lucernenis’, as was aspired to before his death, would hardly have moved him.