Rudolf Ritsema

Rudolf Ritsema Fund at the Museo delle Culture, Villa Heleneum, Lugano

The Fund, hosting the sinological library of my deceased friend and mentor and honoring his life and work, was inaugurated on the 9th of May 2014 with an informal gathering attended by many old friends of Rudolf. The Fund is now open to scholars and interested lay-persons. An interactive device provides information and pictures.

Rudolf Ritsema was born in Velp, near Rheden, Netherlands, on October 3rd, 1918. The family of his father, Ipo Christiaan Ritsema, was from Friesland; that of his mother, Frances Johanna Van den Berg, partly from Friesland and partly from Great Britain. The British side of her family descended from French Huguenots.

From his mother and his maternal grandmother Rudolf inherited a spontaneously religious nature, the sentiment of ‘being carried by God in life’. Mother and grandmother were the first embodiment of Sophia in his life: also in later years wisdom always came to him through the feminine. Ipo Christian was by temperament a scientist, a rational thinker, trained in chemistry and with a deep interest in biology. From him Rudolf inherited the fascination with the natural world and the profound interest in history and geography.

Ipo and Frances’ marriage was a stormy one, and as a nervous and sensitive child Rudolf was very disturbed by the conflict at home. When it became apparent that his health was seriously suffering from it, a psychologist advised Ipo and Frances to remove the child from the family environment. At the age of eleven he was then sent to the Odenwaldschule, an avant-garde international boarding school in Germany devoted to the reform of lifestyle and society.

This move turned out to be a real blessing for Rudolf: he developed a deep lifelong bond with the charismatic directors of the Odenwaldschule, Paul and Edith Geheb, and the creative environment of the school allowed him to heal and grow, following his deeper inclinations and acquiring trust and ease in his social interactions.

With the ascent of Nazism the school was forced to relocate to Switzerland, where it took the name of École d’Humanité. It was there, toward the end of his studies, that Rudolf met Catherine Gris, a young music teacher from Geneva, who became his lifelong companion.

After the baccalauréat Rudolf studied biology at the University of Geneva, but the war put an end to the flow of money from his parents in Holland and he had to give up his university studies. A time of severe economic hardship ensued. Rudolf worked at odd jobs to support himself. But he avidly continued to study and read on his own, particularly French and German literature, Tibetan Buddhism and Jungian psychology.

In the darkest hours of the war, when the shadow of Nazism loomed large over the whole of Europe, Rudolf lost all contact with his parents. During these difficult years he found solace in meditation, practicing for many hours a day – and going for long hikes with Catherine in the mountains of Valais, which evoked for them the Tibetan experiences of one of their favorite authors, Alexandra David-Neel.

In 1944 Rudolf and Catherine began analysis with Alwina von Keller, whom Rudolf had previously met as an English literature teacher at the Odenwaldschule. Since they had no money Alwina asked them to pay just a nominal fee, on the condition that they would one day in the same way share with others what they were now acquiring.

It was through Alwina that Rudolf first encountered the I Ching. Edith Geheb had a copy of the German translation of the I Ching that Richard Wilhelm had published in 1923, and during a visit to the École d’Humanité in 1944 Rudolf and Catherine were introduced by Alwina to the use of the oracle.

Rudolf’s first question to the oracle was “Who Am I?”, and the answer he got was Hexagram 16, Enthusiasm, which truly mirrored back to him the connection he had instantly felt with the the book. Immediately he wanted to engage in a deep study of the I Ching. Since in those war years the book was difficult to find in Switzerland, he asked Alwina to lend it to him. But Alwina was a bit wary of the young man’s excessive enthusiasm, and she only agreed to let him have the book for a week. In that week Rudolf worked day and night at his typewriter and managed to copy the whole first volume, containing all the main oracular texts.

Rudolf and Catherine got married on the 8th of May, 1945, the day of the armistice. The following year they moved to Holland, where Rudolf got a job as head of the Oriental antiquarian department of E.J. Brill, a renowned bookstore and publishing house. The job was a great challenge for him. He had practically to create it from scratch, and in it he developed both his organizational skills and his knowledge of Eastern cultures and traditions. He became very adept at buying and selling the libraries of scholars and rare book collectors. He worked long hours, staying in his office till late at night. But during the weekends he cleared his desk of all the librarian business and carried on his I Ching research. He studied classical Chinese in order to be able to read the original text. In 1949, shortly before Mao’s takeover of Beijing, thanks to his librarian connections he obtained a rare copy of the precious Palace Edition, the canonical edition of the I Ching published by the emperor Kang Hsi in 1715.

Meanwhile in the summer of 1947 a severe illness had seriously disrupted his life: poliomyelitis brought him to the threshold of death and paralized him from his feet up to the diaphragm. For many months he was completely unable to walk. Catherine, much smaller and thinner than he, had to move him around. In those challenging circumstances she proved herself the strong and courageous woman she remained throughout her life.

The following winter, on the suggestion of a neurologist who had recommended a warmer climate for Rudolf, the Ritsemas spent a month in Ascona, where Alwina had taken up residence in Casa Shanti, next door to Olga Froebe’s Casa Gabriella. This sojourn was highly beneficial for Rudolf, who at the end of this month had started to recover his ability to walk.

At the end of their stay in Ascona, Catherine gave a piano concert, and Olga was invited. She immediately developed a liking for the Ritsemas and invited them to stay the following winter in Casa Eranos, the apartment above the Sala she had built for her guests.

From then on every year Rudolf and Catherine spent a month as Olga’s guests at Eranos and a warm friendship developed among the three of them. Olga was also deeply interested in the I Ching, and Rudolf’s profound knowledge of it helped to create a bond between them. In those years Rudolf would frequently write commentaries on the I Ching texts for Olga and for Alwina and her clients, explaining various possible readings of the Chinese sentences. Through this work he developed an understanding of the words of the oracle as dreamlike images that draw our attention to aspects of our situation that would normally elude our ordinary perception.

In 1956 together with Olga Froebe and the biologist Adolf Portmann he started being involved in the planning of the Eranos sessions. Olga Froebe died in the spring of 1962, after asking Portmann and the Ritsemas to be her successors and to carry on the work of Eranos. The Eranos Foundation was then created, and Adolf Portmann was its first president. Portmann kept teaching and residing in Basel, while Catherine and Rudolf moved to Eranos and took over the day to day management of the center.

The Ritsemas poured an enormous amount of energy and creativity into Eranos, just as Olga had done. From 1962 to 1982, the year of Portmann’s death, he and the Ritsemas jointly carried on the tradition of the Eranos sessions devoted to fundamental archetypal research.

Meanwhile in his free time Rudolf continued his I Ching research, which reached a turning point around 1970. At that time he grew dissatisfied with writing critical commentaries on the Wilhelm translation and conceived the idea of an entirely new translation – a translation that would avoid as much as possible any a priori interpretation, allowing the questioner a direct personal contact with the archetypal images.

This vast project took twenty years to materialize. Various people helped in the beginning stages, notably James Hillman and Robert Hinshaw. Toward the end of the 80’s the American poet Stephen Karcher joined Rudolf Ritsema and helped him to carry it to completion. Together they produced a first provisional translation of ‘the Eranos I Ching’ titled Chou Yi, The Oracle of Encompassing Versatility.

In 1988, with a sudden and controversial decision, Rudolf radically changed the course of the Eranos conferences. He had come to feel that the momentum of those important gatherings had slackened and that the Eranos conferences had become something of a showcase for academics. He therefore decided to turn the meetings into a spiritual laboratory with a personal experiential character, something Olga had wished to realize many years before.

He put the I Ching at the center of the Eranos activities. Throughout the 90’s the Eranos meetings took place around a large round table and involved a limited number of people (twenty or thirty at the most). Beside lectures and discussions, the Eranos Round Table Sessions would now include existential questions participants would ask of the oracle and interpretation and discussion of the answers received.

Of course not everyone liked this new course. Some of the lecturers moved away from Eranos, and some even started their own separate ‘Eranos’. Others enjoyed the alchemy of this conjunction of intellectual and existential sharing and kept contributing to it.

In the early 90’s Rudolf passed on the presidency of the Eranos Foundation to the Jungian analyst Christa Robinson. He was then free to devote a substantial amount of his time to completing various other translations of the I Ching.

In the last twelve years of his life Rudolf published two revised versions of his English translation of the I Ching (the first one, I Ching, The Classic Chinese Oracle of Change, with Stephen Karcher in 1994, the second one, The Original I Ching Oracle, with myself in 2005); an Italian translation, Eranos I Ching, Il libro della versatilità (with myself in 1996); a German translation, Eranos Yi Jing, Das Buch der Wandlungen (with the Swiss linguist Hansjakob Schneider in 2000); and a French translation, Le Yi Jing Eranos (produced by Imelda and Pierre Gaudissart, working under his direction, in 2003).

(All these translations always took the Chinese original as a starting point. Rudolf never approved translations into other languages of his own translations. I know of two examples of this, a Dutch and a Spanish translation, which he never considered part of the ‘Eranos I Ching’ family.)

Rudolf Ritsema died the 8th of May, 2006, on the 61st anniversary of his wedding with Catherine, having well accomplished the task he had set himself after that first hexagram obtained in 1944. A task which he came to understand more and more in the sense stated by the name he gave Hexagram 16 in his translations of the I Ching: Providing – i.e. providing (through the I Ching) spiritual sustenance for himself and for others.

He and Catherine left no children, but a large family of younger friends (whom Catherine called ‘our spiritual children’), spread out all over the world. People who have found in them from time to time guidance, comfort, challenge, inspiration. A firm bond still joins them, like it happens with people who have been together deeply touched by a strong and unusual encounter.

Catherine Ritsema died on the 21st of January 2008.