I found a copy of The Question of Woman: The collected writings of Charlotte von Kirschbaum on Alibris for around $3 and I recieved it in the mail yesterday. I’m reading from the introduction about her humble beginnings and the very tense manner in which she chose to live her life in the unique and scandalous position of being a member of the Karl Barth household. Here are some of the highlights:
–disowned by her mother for her friendship with a married man.
–she distanced herself from home
–despite forty years in Basel she never
applied for Swiss citizenship but retained her German nationality. This
might have been because Swiss women did not have the right to vote.
–It was her confirmation pastor George Merz, who introduced her to Karl Barth. Merz edited a journal with Barth and served as Barth’s son’s godfather. He brought Charlotte
along to here a lecture. At this point she was in poor health, suffering from a
poor diet and the hard, long hours of work as a Red Cross nurse.
–She suffered for over ten years with a brain disease and when she became incapacitated Church Dogmatics came to an end.
–a discreet veil was drawn over her by Barth’s circle because of the “scandal”
of their relationship.
–she was treated as a family member and paid a monthly allowance (not a salary)
for her needs.
–this odd relationship caused many rumors on the outside and estranged Barth’s
own children, some calling her Auntie but others felt they had to side
with Nelly and be estranged from their dad.
–Per Karl Barth’s wishes, she was regularly visited in the nursing home by family and friends until her death in 1975.
–She is interred in the Karl Barth family burial place.
From my reading in this book’s introduction and in Eberhard Busch’s Karl Barth: His Life from Letters and Autobiographical Texts, there is nary a word about whether a physical sexual relationship was allowed to develope between them. You’ll always here it inferred, but then dropped, just as I’m sure it was during his time. What both of these sources bring out is Charlotte’s dedication to Barth’s work, and her own satisfaction with being a part of the work, albeit in a very precarious standing.
The question remains: “Was their’s a prime example of two friends extraordinary ability to be attracted to one another and yet in control of themselves for a greater good?”
“Were they both naively engaged in the trap of an emotional affair in which they spent forty years sometimes enjoying, sometimes ignoring their feelings?”
Whatever the answer to these, Church Dogmatics is a result. Their writings on man and woman in relation (CD III/II) are put under strain when set against their life situation. How did they regard this? Its all much more of a quagmire than I can afford to look too deeply on today. Eventually I would like to find a copy of Renate Kobler’s book In the Shadow of Karl Barth: Charlotte Von Kirschbaum and also Suzanne Selinger’s Charlotte von Kirschbaum and Karl Barth: A Study in Biography and the History of Theology, though I can’t find these in my price range right now, skin-flint that I am. Let me know if you have a copy or come across one for a good price.
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