A personal account of the Tübingen conference from Joyce Pijnenburg, Amsterdam
Together with a few fellow students of the MA in Mysticism and Western Esotericism, I arrived in Tübingen from Amsterdam by train. I had never been in the city before, and because I had been working so feverishly on my paper, I had not taken any time at all to dive into its rich history. I knew hardly more about it than its having been a centre of origin for Rosicrucianism, as well as of the scholarly tradition of the ‘Tübinger Schule’ – (in-)famous in the world of classical philosophy for its Plato-interpretation. These facts, added to the fame and age of the city’s university, would have been ample reason to hold the very first conference of the ESSWE in Tübingen. The first glances allowed to us of the city, during our walk from the station to the hotel, told me that it might be an even more fitting site for this event than I could have imagined. The park was quiet, the houses on our way up the hill were charming, and the streets full of students like ourselves. A sensation of scholarship dominated the atmosphere.
The conference started off with a lecture by the renowned Egyptologist Jan Assmann. Notwithstanding the evident relevance of his work for our field, I had not expected Assmann to expound on esotericism as such. But he did, in a clear and balanced elaboration on the Egyptian and also the Greek features of early esotericisms. Assmann was one of the few people to present on ancient esoteric discourses. This lecture was an appropriate start, not only because of the historical antecedence of its subject matter.
This was only the beginning of three inspiring days. Perhaps it was because this was the first get-together of so many scholars of esotericism in Europe for decades that, outside the keynote lectures, I myself, as well as almost everyone I met, seemed to have difficulties in choosing which presentations to attend. Yet we had to decide, and so, after having marked in my program the lectures I definitely did not want to miss, I sneaked in and out of halls, sometimes at the risk of disturbing a presentation. Luckily, this turned out to be possible, despite the squeaking floor of the middle room and notwithstanding the extremely tight conference schedule – or perhaps, rather, thanks to it.
Three days filled with lectures of generally high quality could not but lead to a form of intellectual Stendhalism: we learned very many, very interesting facts, in very little time. Let me freshen our memory in a brief overview of a number of presentations.
We were informed about the “double bind of secrecy” in the construction of esoteric traditions; about the role the concept of mnemohistory might be able to play outside the history of Egypt; about young Pico’s recognition of (non-traditional beauty) in discordia concors; about yet another inversion, the female side of Kabbalah as active principle; about the role of light and love in Ficino’s cosmology, as well as the role of Orphism in his discussions of love; about the reception history of the Giants of Genesis; about Kabbalah as contemplation in Reuchlin; about the westernness or non-westernness of western Sufism; about dolphins and sexual practice of Kabbalah; about the way in which Blavatsky connected the future to the past; about the esotericism of Hermes Trismegistus; about the rationale behind the order of saints of the Crowleyan Ecclesia Gnostica Catholica. And we also learned that Islam means nine mountains and thus stands for Chechnya; that the scarab with the human head is the key to knowledge of the world; that the four stands for Christ and for materialization; that English myths serve the construction of tradition of the Dutch goddess movement; that the writings of the Dutch novelist Couperus are full of esotericism; that the hierarchy of the Left Hand Path is based on kabbalistic demonology; that Leadbeater possibly took his information from Bailey rather than from a hidden master; that the mysterious Konx Om Pax originally marked the end of a mystery ritual; that esoteric constructions of tradition, in their pointing beyond the present, can be understood as divination. Most of the time these presentations did not only provide information, but also much food for thought and stimulus for discussion.
These discussions went on, albeit in a more leisurely pace, in the Biergarten amongst crowds of Tübinger students. Happy about the success of the conference, our symptoms of Stendhalism decreased while we relaxed over some pints of home-brewn Weizen (the nectar of the Neckar) and a plate of Spätzle or Knödel. Until the early mornings, young and established scholars merged in the merry-making, while we animatedly reflected on the rapid development of the field, on our various study projects and on the future of publishing.
All in all, the conference was a splendid official start-off ceremony of our society.