Gerd-Klaus Kaltenbrunner’s Work and Thought
An Interview with Martin J. Grannenfeld by Lucian Tudor
Introductory Note: Gerd-Klaus Kaltenbrunner (1939-2011) was an Austrian Catholic Traditionalist philosopher who was influential among conservatives and traditionalists in the Germanophone world. He is particularly well-known for his extensive corpus of works dealing with conservative, traditionalist, and religious theories and portraits of numerous thinkers involved in these philosophies. However, his works and thought are, unfortunately, not well-known in the Anglophone world. In order to help introduce Kaltenbrunner to the English-speaking world and to encourage further studies and translations, we have chosen to interview Martin Johannes Grannenfeld – a German Catholic Conservative and editor of the website Geistbraus – who is among those who have studied Kaltenbrunner’s works in depth and has been inspired by them.
Lucian Tudor: How did you first become acquainted with Gerd-Klaus Kaltenbrunner and his work?
Martin J. Grannenfeld: It happened by mere chance. Around 2003, I read about the mythological figure of Prester John, a mighty oriental Christian priest-king during the Middle Ages, who was prepared to help the crusaders with a great army. I was somewhat fascinated by this figure, thus I looked for literature about him – and in the Bavarian State Library in Munich I found a book named Johannes ist sein Name. Priesterkönig, Gralshüter, Traumgestalt by an author I didn’t know then – Gerd-Klaus Kaltenbrunner. From the very first sentence I was thrilled. Unlike many other scholars, Kaltenbrunner didn’t demystify the legend. Quite on the contrary, he revealed its metahistorical core, and outlined a fascinating, rich, and deeply symbolic cosmos of ways to see our world and the beyond. I understood immediately that I had found an author whose writings were different from everything I had read before, and who would certainly keep me occupied for quite a while.
Lucian Tudor: Kaltenbrunner has written extensive studies on Dionysius the Areopagite, Prester John, and Anne Catherine Emmerich. Can you tell us about these figures and what you found most significant about them in Kaltenbrunner’s books on them?
Martin J. Grannenfeld: Kaltenbrunner wrote two large books about Dionysius and Prester John. His work about Anne Catherine Emmerich is much shorter and less complex. He intended to write another extensive study about Melchizedek, the mysterious priest-king from the Old Testament, but there exist only drafts of this work.
His book about Prester John was written in 1989 and published in 1993. Its first sentence, “Prester John has never lived and is nonetheless one of the most influential figures of the Middle Ages,” can be regarded as a motto: the mystical, invisible world can be more real than the visible everyday life. Subsequently Kaltenbrunner drafted a complex picture of this metahistorical “John” – comprising not only Prester John himself, but also his spiritual ancestors John the Evangelist, his disciple John the Presbyter, and the esoteric school of “Johannides” – which is not primarily meant as a historical fact, but rather as a “Johannide,” i.e. a mythologic-symbolic way of thinking. In the second half of his book, Kaltenbrunner linked Prester John with the other great myth of the High Middle Ages: the Holy Grail – and interpreted some of the Grail epics against the background of the Johannide philosophy.
The other book, Dionysius vom Areopag. Das Unergründliche, die Engel und das Eine, was published in 1996. It is even more voluminous, comprising more than 1000 pages. Like the book about John, it focuses on one figure – Dionysius the Areopagite – and draws a specific theology out of this encounter. Like John, the figure “Dionysius” is composed from several single persons by the same name: a) Dionysius the Areopagite from the Bible, b) the author of the famous writings, c) the bishop of Paris from the 3rd century, d) the Greek God Dionysos, to whom the name Dionysius is dedicated. Starting with multifarious reflections on the Greek and Christian spiritual background of these figures, Kaltenbrunner finally sketches – inspired by Dionysius’ negative theology – a great picture of a hierarchical world, which comprises everything from the ugliest scarab up to the nine spheres of angels, and above all, the inexpressible and incomprehensible God – the “One,” as Dionysius calls Him.
Lucian Tudor: From your reading, what are the most important principles of Kaltenbrunner’s religious philosophy?
Martin J. Grannenfeld: 1. The Invisible is real. 2. History is full of symbolic meaning. 3. Legends, myths and tradition are important keys to the Eternal. 4. The esoteric core of all religions converges.
Lucian Tudor: How does Kaltenbrunner believe we should understand the Sacred and the mystical experience?
Martin J. Grannenfeld: Kaltenbrunner is strongly influenced by negative theology and Platonism. God only discloses Himself through the hierarchy – the great Jacob’s Ladder where the angels descend and ascend, and our knowledge of the Eternal with them. We can ascend the Ladder, but we can never reach God: the inner core of His essence is beyond our thinking and our language. Kaltenbrunner insists that Buddha, Lao-Tse, Shankara, and Meister Eckhart would have been able to communicate, because they were very far in their hierarchical way of understanding the divine mysteries.
Lucian Tudor: Kaltenbrunner appears to have been very knowledgeable about a variety of religious beliefs and sects; what led him, in particular, to Catholic religiosity?
Martin J. Grannenfeld: Kaltenbrunner, born 1939 in Vienna, was raised as a Catholic. However, after he grew up, his belief took a back seat, and his interest in politics, history and culture became more important. Catholic thinkers like Franz von Baader remained important for him, but it was only in the mid-nineties – after the publication of his Johannes and before his Dionysius – that he rediscovered his faith. Father Georg Alois Oblinger, a Catholic priest who accompanied Kaltenbrunner during his last years, told that one day, while strolling in his garden, Kaltenbrunner suddenly understood that God really existed. He had always had sympathy for the Catholic Church (at least in its traditional form, since he didn’t like the modern liturgy and the Popes Paul VI and John Paul II) – but he had looked to it simply in a cultural way, not in the way of a believer. His Dionysius is a striking testimony of his newly discovered faith: For example (inspired by the Old Testament story of Balaam’s donkey), he asks in all naivety if some sudden, irritated movement of our domestic animals might be caused by sudden encounters with angels, invisible for humans…?
Lucian Tudor: We often encounter nowadays people who ask for “scientific proof” that God and the supernatural exist. How does Kaltenbrunner address this kind of mentality?
Martin J. Grannenfeld: Mostly he ignores it. His Dionysius, the only major book he wrote after he became a believer himself, is obviously addressed towards an empathic, traditionalist reader. Kaltenbrunner’s concern was not primarily apologetics, but the conveyance of his spiritual insights to like-minded persons.
Lucian Tudor: Kaltenbrunner discussed in his works a vast variety of philosophers with differing viewpoints, some of them not even Christian. How did he reconcile his Catholic beliefs with his interest in the works of “Pagan” intellectuals such as Ludwig Klages and Julius Evola?
Martin J. Grannenfeld: Kaltenbrunner had an exceptional knowledge of Occidental thinkers, writers, and artists – some famous, some less known, some virtually forgotten. He wrote several hundred essay-portraits about them, most of which have been collected in his six “Europe” volumes, consisting of two series: Europa. Seine geistigen Quellen in Portraits aus zwei Jahrtausenden (three volumes, 1981-85) and Vom Geist Europas (three volumes, 1987-92). Kaltenbrunner had always pled for an “inspired Christianity” (“geistdurchwehtes Christentum”) without any ideological blinders. This explains why even after his rediscovery of faith he continued to be interested in all the different thinkers he had known and portrayed before. However, Julius Evola and the “Traditionalist” school founded by Rene Guenon held an exceptional position in Kaltenbrunner’s philosophy. Their concept of Integral Tradition, the Sacred, kingship, and priesthood was very close to Kaltenbrunner’s own views. Leopold Ziegler, the Catholic exponent of the Traditionalist school, was especially influential to Kaltenbrunner. His book about Prester John can in fact be read as a transformation of Guenon’s and Evola’s philosophy into the spiritual cosmos of Christianity.
Lucian Tudor: What are essential principles of Kaltenbrunner’s theory of Conservatism?
Martin J. Grannenfeld: Kaltenbrunner pointed out that conservatism cannot be a synonym for intellectual idleness. Referring to a poem by Goethe on breathing in and breathing out, he described conservatism as a sophisticated balance between things that stay and things that change. He thought that the real conservative has to be un-conservative in some matters, open to new solutions in order to prevent destruction of human culture and society as a whole. For example, nowadays, with war and poverty being absent from Europe, the contemporary conservative has to develop new ways of struggle, battle, heroism, and asceticism.
Lucian Tudor: How does Kaltenbrunner understand Tradition, specifically, and how does he believe that traditional values can be revived in the modern world?
Martin J. Grannenfeld: The concept of “Tradition” became important for Kaltenbrunner in the 80’s. As mentioned before, he got more and more influenced by Integral Traditionalism as taught by Guenon and his followers. Parallel to the shift from “conservatism” to “traditionalism,” Kaltenbrunner’s concern in changing today’s world declined. He focused more and more on the single, remote individual, who preserves Tradition during the “spiritual winter” – a human network scattered through space and time, but unified in spirit. During the last fifteen years of his life, he took the most radical consequence of this world-view, becoming a hermit, living on his own in the countryside, without a telephone, without even a door bell, just with his books and his large garden.
Lucian Tudor: Traditionalists are often associated with a “cyclical” view of history in which the world goes through lengthy stages, beginning with a Golden Age and ending in a Dark Age. This is opposed to the “linear” and “progressive” views of history, although there are arguably other perspectives. Considering his Traditionalist influences, could you tell us if Kaltenbrunner held the cyclical view of history or did he offer another view?
Martin J. Grannenfeld: Kaltenbrunner certainly never held the cyclical view in a strictly “pagan” or “Indian” sense that after a huge fire everything starts again. Nevertheless, Kaltenbrunner was a cultural pessimist – his favourite centuries lay a long time in the past: the Greek antiquity, the High Middle Ages, the Baroque Period or the days of Goethe. Unlike Guénon and Evola, however, he was not very interested in speculation about a prehistoric “Golden Age.” As a literary person, an era without written documents did not concern him too much – with the only exception of the first chapters of Genesis, especially about the Nephilim and Melchizedek, with whom he dealt in his Dionysius.
Lucian Tudor: What are the fundaments of Kaltenbrunner’s theory of culture?
Martin J. Grannenfeld: Kaltenbrunner never sketched an explicit theory of culture. Culture meant for him rather a never-ending dialogue with thinkers and poets from all times. He did not approach thinkers from a modern, patronizing, “enlightened” position, but as equals, at eye level, no matter how ancient and strange they may be. In the beginning of his Dionysius he even wrote a personal letter to his hero. Kaltenbrunner is certainly more attracted by non-mainstream authors, individuals, and often forgotten thinkers, but he also adored well-known and famous writers like Goethe, Novalis, and Angelus Silesius.
Lucian Tudor: What did Kaltenbrunner say about social ethics, the individual’s role, and holism?
Martin J. Grannenfeld: A common topos in Kaltenbrunner’s philosophy is, as abovementioned, the remote individual preserving knowledge for the society. Kaltenbrunner often mentioned that the world as a whole is threatened by nuclear, ecological, and spiritual destruction, and that the effort of an elite is required to prevent or at least attenuate the upcoming catastrophe. Hence his sympathy for ascetics, hermits, mystics, monks, thinkers and writers in general. Particularly, the ecological concern is quite special for Kaltenbrunner and distinguishes him from many fellow conservatives, who abandoned environmental issues after the political left took possession of this complex in the late 80s. In his last years, living in harmony with nature became more and more important for Kaltenbrunner – he grew ecological food in his own garden and did not even possess a car. But all this was not condensed into a theory (he did not longer write texts during his last 15 years), but mere practical exercise.
Lucian Tudor: What did Kaltenbrunner conclude about the problem of secret societies and conspiracy theories?
Martin J. Grannenfeld: Frankly speaking, Kaltenbrunner did not see secret societies as a “problem” at all, but as an important means for the conservation of ideas rejected by the mainstream. He wrote a short text on the matter in 1986, entitled “Geheimgesellschaften als exemplarische Eliten” (“Secret Societies as Exemplary Elites”), which was included into the second edition of his book Elite. Erziehung für den Ernstfall. In this sketch, he did not only describe Freemasonry, Rosicrucianism, the Illuminati, etc., but also secret societies which managed to grow large and usurp a whole state – like the Bolsheviks in Russia, or formerly the Jesuits in Paraguay. However, he pointed out that this can be a possible escape from the typical loyalty conflict between the secret society and the state which every member has to face; his true sympathies lie without any doubt with the small, hidden groups without any political power. Kaltenbrunner’s text about secret societies could be regarded as a link between his earlier “conservative” and his later “traditional” views: getting less and less interested in changing the world in respect to the political, and more and more concerned about its spiritual renewal.
Lucian Tudor: Can you please summarize Kaltenbrunner’s position on political forms (monarchy, republic, democracy, etc.)? What political form did he see as ideal and did he believe that political corruption could be minimized in a certain system?
Martin J. Grannenfeld: In his heart of hearts, Kaltenbrunner was an aristocrat. Although he was sceptical about a restoration of the traditional nobility, he felt the necessity of a skilled elite in government, culture, and warfare. He did not directly reject democracy, but warned of the mediocrity which often accompanies it. In his early works, no specific sympathy for republic or monarchy is visible – aristocratic republics like Venice are approved by him as well. In the 80s, however, culminating in his Johannes, he is more and more absorbed by the idea of a universal Christian monarchy, with a supra-national emperor exercising spiritual-metapolitical leadership over the occidental Christianity – like it used to be in the best times of the Middle Ages, e.g. under the rule of Frederick Barbarossa or Emperor Charles IV.
Lucian Tudor: We are aware that very little of Kaltenbrunner’s work is available in English and he is not well-known in the Anglophone world. In your opinion, what is the best starting point from Kaltenbrunner’s works? Also, what would you suggest is the best book to translate first out of works?
Martin J. Grannenfeld: I would suggest the same book which happened to be my first one: Johannes ist sein Name – Kaltenbrunner’s great essay about Prester John. This is in my opinion his best written and most inspiring book, comprising everything that makes Kaltenbrunner so unique. It is shorter, more concise and also more optimistic than his later opus magnum Dionysius vom Areopag, and yet more intriguing and unconventional than his earlier political and cultural writings. I really hope that one day an English translation of this work (and of other works by Kaltenbrunner) will be available! This will be a big step to make this great thinker of our time better known.
Lucian Tudor: Thank you very much for the interview.
Grannenfeld, Martin Johannes. “Gerd-Klaus Kaltenbrunner’s Work and Thought: An Interview with Martin J. Grannenfeld.” Interview by Lucian Tudor. Traditional Britain Group, 19 March 2015. <http://traditionalbritain.org/blog/gerd-klaus-kaltenbrunners-work-and-thought-an-interview-with-martin-j-grannenfeld/ >.