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OTTO GROSS : Nietzschean Psychoanalyst, Bohemian, Free Love Guru, Pagan Anarchist


Early Life -
Gross was born in 1877 to the dutiful wife of the bourgeois patriarch Hans Gross, Austrian Professor of Criminology and the 'father of forensic science'. His father was repressive and domineering and Otto would soon rebel against him (later using him as a model for everything he despised about the society of his age). He grew up a troubled hypersensitive individual according to Jung.

Hans had his son take up Medicine, but on qualifying as a Doctor in 1899 Otto signed up as a ship's surgeon and set sail for 'lawless lands' of South America. Here he developed (or perhaps was initially drawn by) a taste for the romantic form of 'Primitivism' popularized by Gauguin. He also developed
here his habit for opium and later cocaine. It may have been at this time that he first began to read Nietzsche, a philosopher who would come to shape Otto's Dionysian worldview.

 

Nietzschean Psychoanalyst - On his return to Europe in 1900 Dr Otto Gross developed an interest in
the emerging 'science' of Psycho-analysis and by 1904 was a close supporter of Sigmund Freud. His
approach to Psycho-analysis was highly unorthodox (to Freud) however, being based as much on the philosophy of Nietzsche than on a slavish adoption of orthodox Freudian theory (although this in itself
was largely a bourgeois reworking of Nietzsche and Darwin). Later Gross would call his infamous 'therapy sessions' the 'practical technology of the Nietzschean project'. His specific modification to Freudian theory was twofold, on the one hand he denied that the subject of Freudian analysis could be cured by personal therapy alone, rather as the subject was in part a product of society social change was deemed necessary as well. For Gross the inner and outer human domains were closely connected. For this reason he became increasingly interested in cultural and political issues. His other 'heresy' was that he totally rejected the idea that the 'unconscious' (or 'will to power') had to be reined in or repressed in order to maintain civilization. Instead he saw any repression as psychologically harmful, and encouraged his patents too lose all inhibition, particularly sexually (often apparently giving his mostly female clientele practical demonstrations!)

Freud was concerned about these views, but was even more concerned about Gross' increasing drug dependency and 'wild' behavior (Gross was mixing with avant garde artists by then, and spending more time in their Bohemian cafe's - where he often practiced his therapy as a kind of show - than he was at his official practice), and Freud would send him to various clinics over the course of their association. Gross' father by this time considered him totally insane and tried to have him hospitalized as a mental incompetent, fortunately his associations with prominent psychologists, and own psychiatric expertise, saved him from this fate. It was however an experience that turned him against orthodox psychiatry, and made of him a forerunner of the 'anti-psychiatry' movement. Gross' own explanation for his 'mad' behavior was invariably a Nietzschean one involving life affirmation, intensity and free experimentation

Despite this at this stage Freud had enormous respect for Gross and regarded him as his most advanced
disciple, along with Jung, and his probable heir even if an embarrassingly heretical one. But this would all soon change.



Ascona - The Swiss community of Ascona (and some of its neighbouring towns) became the cradle for European alternative culture at the beginning of the last century. Founded by a combination of wealthy Theosophists, radical anarchists and volkish 'proto New Agers' it became the talk of the Continental intelligentsia, and was visited at least briefly by just about every major cultural figure of the period. Gross first visited the community in 1905 and would stay on and off till 1913. While there he came a kind of early guru figure at the commune's sanatorium on Mount Veritas offering both therapy and lectures to the community and all those who passed through. In particularly he was able to put his theories into practice here effectively becoming the centre of a sex cult there which preached a gospel of 'free love'. But liberated sex wasn't the only radical thing Gross promoted at Ascona, he also introduced a variety of Bohemian customs to the community (including the popular notion of mind altering drugs being the road to psychic liberation). In effect he became a kind of proto Wilhem Reich and Timothy Leary rolled into one (both of whom were in fact indebted to Gross, the young Wilhelm Reich joining the Freudian circle shortly after Gross was expelled, at the height of his scandal, and had access to his notes; while many refugees from Ascona would end up in Bohemian haunts such as Paris, where they would rub shoulders with decadent American exiles, like Henry Miller, who would take their ideas back to the States). It was in Ascona that Gross would also challenge conventional morality, not only denouncing monogamy as repressive and damaging (while promoting what he called 'multiple fidelity' rather than promiscuity) but also actively assisting in the euthanasia of the chronically depressed (after ascertaining this was their 'free choice'!). When this was combined with rumours of 'orgiastic' group therapy sessions, the promotion of opium and cocaine (as well as hashish and absinthe) as crucial life enhancers and frequent sexual liasons with 'patients', Gross became a figure of scandal and facination known throughout Europe.

But Ascona was a two way process for Gross and it was here that he would covert to the political creed
of anarcho-communism, under the influence of anarchist friends, ranging from Eric Muhsam (a poet and pacifist) to Ernst Frick (a painter, archeologist and
promoter of a more violent direct action). Even more significantly he was converted to a radical neo-paganism by Asconans under the influence of another local cultist, Johann Bachofen.

Bachofen was an anthropologist and mythographer who, influenced by Nietzsche's early cultural theories, analysed Greco-Roman mythology and found within it 'evidence' of prehistoric cults, which he saw in terms of the decline from a past golden age along the following lines:

 
  1. Tellurian Culture - A nomadic Hunter Gatherer society based on polyamory and free 'primitive communism', devoted to a nature goddess (who became Aphrodite). Instinct and Desire based.

  2. Mother Right Culture - A settled Agricultural society based on polyandry and matriarchy, devoted to a lunar and chthonic goddess, a proto Demeter. Emotion and Love based.

  3. Dionysian Culture - Late Agricultural society based on polygamy and paternalism, devoted to the prototype of Dionysos. Intermediate period based on Passion and Intuition.

  4. Apollonian Culture - 'Classical' Civilisation based on monogamy and patriarchy, devoted to a solar deity who became idealised as Apollo. Intellect and Reason based.

Bachofen believed this simplistic thesis was universally true and that anthropology could be deduced from a study of mythology alone. Not all of his followers agreed (and his basic thesis is certainly not
supported by contemporary anthropology), but many were captivated by the mythic power of his narrative, and the poetic richness of its alternative mythological account of history, and the world, as opposed to the banal Christian or scientific paradigms. Moreover there was, and still remains, an intuitive truth to Bachofen's basic vision, when seen as a functional mythological simplification of the psycho-cultural forces beneath a complex social evolution. Gross saw Bachofen's ideas as being the perfect form of narrative for his psycho-analytic social psychology. Radical disciples of Bachofen, like Gross, also believed that the process could be reversed by gradually going back through these stages and eventually recreating a neo-Tellurian Eutopia. This could be achieved because our very psychology had been conditioned by these cultures, they claimed, and contained their structural patterns in its layers. The earlier stages were also seen as of longer duration than the later stages and so were more 'deeply engrained' in human nature.

Synthesising all this material Gross developed an extremely popular radical philosophy that now seems
half a century before its time (in fact laying the groundwork for what would happen over 50 years later),
complete with catch phrases like 'the psychology of the unconscious is the philosophy of revolution' and
the 'free love alone can heal the world'.

 

Gross and Jung - Freud was horrified by these developments and began to denounce Gross as a heretic,
no doubt concerned about the effect he was having on the public perception of psycho-analysis. In 1908
he instructed Jung to confine him to a clinic and subject him to psycho-analysis (reluctantly as while the only one capable of the task Jung despised Gross at the time).

The resultant analytical session became a legend within the underground history of Freudianism, an amazing non stop twelve hours of intense psychological probing and confrontation. At first things went Jung's way and he elicited from Gross a picture of a neurotic hyper-sensitive, with strong paranoid tendencies (probably related to his drug abuse), but soon as he he tried to probe deeper he continually 'became stuck' and could go no further. It was at these times that Gross turned the tables and began to analyse Jung in turn. The session was finally terminated by Gross escaping through the window, and off over a garden wall in search of a fix. At the end of it all Jung would later declare himself a changed man following this event. While not joining Gross in his 'folly' he came to admire him enormously, calling him 'my twin brother' and declaring him a great genius. More personally Jung seems to have been somewhat liberated by the experience, and was soon after allegedly involved in his own 'scandalous' sexual liasons. But more interestingly his subsequent psychological theory takes on an increasingly Grossian form, with his early Freudian belief in 'libido' now becoming an almost mystical pantheistic faith in a cosmic life force, of which sexuality was just a part, an energy whose nature previous cultures understood in terms of mythological narratives which had been coded into our collective unconscious. All of which became synthesized into what Jung called his 'psycho-anthropology', a fusion of psychology, anthropology and myth, with previous patterns of human social evolution conditioning modern psychology. All of these ideas had first been put forward in less developed (or less dogmatic) forms by Gross and Bachofen, and originally been rejected by Jung. Similarly where Gross had spoken of the liberation of the individual from the bonds of society and the recreation of self as a more complete being (drawing on a psychological interpretation of Nietzsche), Jung would talk of individuation and self realisation.


Freud was now furious and declared Gross persona non grata in psycho-analytic circles, going as far as having him removed from the 'official history' of the movement, ostracized and consequently forgotton.

 

Other Grossian Influences - Despite his rejection by Freud Gross remained an influencial figure, though
one increasingly confined to smaller circles of avant garde artists and bohemians. Berlin Dadaists
were particularly impressed by his ideas of liberational transgression, and Franz Kafka was a life long proponent of his views. Perhaps one of the most interesting of his effects was his influence on Frieda Weekly, then a resident at Ascona, who became his lover (despite both being 'happily' married). Frieda later became the wife of D H Lawrence whose philosophy strangely mirrors that of Gross to an extraordinary degree. Frieda's sister would marry the Sociologist Max Weber, who while publically criticising Gross' views as a 'danger to decent society' was none the less also subtly influenced by them

 

The Death of Gross - Gross seems to have been badly effected by his rejection from mainstream psychology and left Ascona in 1913. The First World War saw him become a military doctor in charge of
an army hospital but following this he seems to have failed to find a new niche. After drifting aimlessly for several months he seems to have ended up sleeping rough. In 1920 he was found unconscious in the curb of a Berlin side street and died of pneumonia shortly after.

Ascona survived as a radical social experiment after his death till at least the mid 1930's, but after this
increasingly became a haunt of wealthier artists and life style bohemians, before degenerating into a New Age 'holiday camp' for the rich and idle, along with their favoured artists. Frick was the last radical to stay in the community as a 'founding father' (the original founders having left for Spain, and later Brazil, in the 1920's), but when he too died in 1956 the original community died with him. Though by this time the legacy of Ascona was finding new fertile soil in France and America.

Only today is the importance of Otto Gross being rediscovered.

 


Further Reading:

The Mountain of Truth, Martin Green

The von Richthofen Sisters, Martin Green

The Jung Cult, Richard Noll

Pilgramage to Truth Mountain, Alex Martin, in Strange Attractor Journal 1

On Monte Verita - http://www.csf.ethz.ch/about/highlights

International Otto Gross Society - http://www.ottogross.org