Obituary for Dieter A. Hagenbach
by Lucius Werthmüller
On Wednesday, 17 August 2016, after a short illness, my friend Dieter Hagenbach – publisher, bookseller, author and founder of the seminal Sphinx Verlag (Sphinx Publishing) – died in Basel at age seventy-three.
Dieter Alfred Hagenbach was born in Basel on 24 July 1943. This is where he grew up and lived most of his life.
Having finished high school, Dieter studied Arts and Architecture at the Art University of Düsseldorf. An educational journey lead him to India, to the matriarchal tribes of eastern Assam, as well as to observatories in Delhi, Jaipur and Varanasi; a research project brought him to London’s Centre for Arts and Cultural Enterprises. In 1969, with Jürgen Rahn, he formed the multimedia team «Cosmic Correspondence» with exhibitions at art spaces in Baden-Baden, Basel and Düsseldorf.
Back in Basel, in the fall of 1975, Dieter founded Sphinx Verlag and opened the Sphinx bookstore. With Sphinx Verlag, he achieved pioneering work for the German speaking countries. Among other notables, he published the complete oeuvre of G.I. Gurdjieff, Necronomicon and further art books by HR Giger as well as classics of magic and mythology ranging from Eliphas Levy and Aleister Crowley to Joseph Campbell. Next to several hundred other titles, he released the New Age bible The Aquarian Conspiracy, by Marilyn Ferguson, the Illuminatus trilogy, by Robert Anton Wilson & Robert Shea, as well as books by John C. Lilly and Timothy Leary, who were his good friends. Thus, in 1971, he briefly hosted Leary while the High Priest of LSD was applying for political asylum in Switzerland, the CIA on his heels. In 1984, Dieter wrote a letter to Dr. Kurt Furgler, then President of the Swiss Confederation, asking that Leary be allowed to re-enter Switzerland. The request was denied.
From 1977 to 1986, Dieter was the publisher of «Sphinx Magazin» and the German edition of the «Brain-Mind Bulletin». In the mid-seventies he met Albert Hofmann, remaining friends with him until the latter’s demise. In 1986, Dieter published Hofmann’s collection of essays Einsichten – Ausblicke (Insights – Outlooks).
In 1990, Dieter founded a literary agency, which, after 2001, was continued by his partner Hans Bender in Bern.
Dieter and I first met in the early nineties, only keeping loose contact. Later in the decade, we collected ideas and designed concepts for a jointly organized conference around the topic of LSD and psychedelics to be held in 1993 – to mark the fiftieth anniversary of its discovery. However, at the time, Albert Hofmann opposed publicity for his «problem child» so we stuck our concepts in a drawer, as a conference around the topic in Basel without him would have required explanation.
1993 marked not only the fiftieth anniversary of the discovery of LSD but also Dieter’s 50th birthday. For this new period of his life, Dieter wished to start a new project – the Gaia Media Foundation (www.gaiamedia.org). The non-profit foundation, established in Basel on 23 June 1993, had the objective of disseminating information leading to a holistic understanding of nature and human life.
He asked me if I would back him as Foundation Councilor, to which I readily agreed. For his milestone birthday Dieter asked for support for his newly initiated structure instead of presents. His birthday party also marked the foundation ceremony for his new baby. In attendance, next to many other friends, were Anita and Albert Hofmann, Claudia Müller Ebeling and Christian Rätsch as well HR Giger, who Dieter knew well, and who I met for the first time on this occasion.
Until 2009, and in collaboration with Michael Gasser, the other half of the Foundation Council, Gaia Media operated the Gaia Lounge and the Gaia Bazaar, a popular stomping ground for lovers of psychedelic as well as spiritual and ecologic literature, also selling a large selection of ethno-botanical specialties. Presentations by Albert Hofmann, Alexander Shulgin, John C. Lilly, Christian Rätsch and Luisa Francia were given among many others. The Gaia Media Foundation published a newsletter, issued in hard copy until 2006. Later Dieter published his newsletter monthly and electronically, in German and in English. He called it his “good news letter” to counterbalance the bad news dominating most media.
In the forefront of Albert Hofmann’s 100th birthday, on 11 January 2006, we retrieved our old ideas and began to make plans for a symposium, «LSD – Problem Child and Miracle Drug» (www.lsd.info). As he grew older, Albert Hofmann successively opened up, supported our project, and ultimately looked forward to it. As a result, we worked closely together and were in contact on an almost daily basis.
On 11 January 2006, in the Museum of Natural History in Basel, the Gaia Media Foundation organized a ceremonial act in honor of Albert Hofmann where his contributions in the field of chemistry were held up both by Representatives of the City of Basel and the Director of Research of Novartis (Novartis was born of the consolidation of the drug companies Sandoz and Ciba-Geigy). The symposium on the following weekend was a tremendous success. Several thousand participants from all continents and a total of thirty-seven countries, as well as around 200 international journalists were in attendance. From The New York Times to The Guardian, the world press commented. The greatest compliment for us, however, was the observation Albert made during the closing session when he declared: «Due to this event, my problem child definitely turned prodigy!»
With the planning of another conference during Easter 2008, our close ties endured. The World Psychedelic Forum (WPF, www.psychedelik.info) was designed as a counterpoint to the World Economic Forum (WEF), in Davos. One month after the event, Albert Hofmann died, only a few days after we had visited him one last time at his beloved Rittimatte. Following his demise, we wanted to honor our friend with an illustrated booklet and a few texts. This work in progress grew steadily, ending as a book of 400 pages, published in German in 2001 and as Mystic Chemist, The Life of Albert Hofmann and his Discovery of LSD, in the US, in 2013. It bears witness to the life of Albert Hofmann, while delivering an encompassing history of LSD and its influence on culture and society.
During the two years of research and work on the book, Dieter and I were in steady, almost daily contact, mostly at our offices in Basel. These meetings remain legendary among our colleagues both for our scuffles about details and our wrestling for fitting formulations.
Dieter and I were very different in many ways but we also complemented each other quite nicely. Our quarrels were often heated but never hateful. He was infatuated with detail, precise, organized and structured, and he had an unerring eye for graphic finesse. His outer appearance was carefully groomed; during his later years he always wore white or beige. Everything he did, he did in style, and made an aristocratic impression.
After the publication of the Hofmann biography we gave several presentations together. Luckily, a Californian publisher soon bought the English rights. Dieter worked just as intensely on the translation as he had on the book itself, and thus, for the launching of Mystic Chemist, we traveled to California where we presented the book on 19 April 2013, the sixtieth anniversary of the discovery of LSD, as part of a Conference staged by MAPS (Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, www.maps.org) in Oakland. Dieter was especially pleased with an invitation to present the book at the legendary City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco, where avant-garde Beat authors such as Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Alan Ginsberg or Gregory Corso had been published and had held many readings.
Over the last three years, Dieter mainly published his monthly Newsletter and stayed in touch with his large network all over the world. We didn’t see each other as often anymore. He visited our offices once a week to pick up the mail for the Gaia Media foundation, exchanged a few words with those present, and he and I would talk briefly about current affairs concerning the Foundation or about personal matters.
On 22 July 2016, two days before his birthday, Dieter received the devastating news that made it difficult for him to accept the birthday wishes that reached him from all over on the following Sunday. On the morning of 17 August he told Asti Hagenbach, M.D., he had been in another world that night und that it had been so very beautiful that he had not wanted to come back. In the evening, at 23.40 h, he heaved his last sigh in her presence.
We talked about life after death on several occasions. Dieter was convinced that there was some kind of continuation but didn’t want to visualize it. The Chinese emperor Wu once asked the Indian sage Bodhidharma what the highest meaning of the highest truth is. Bodhidharma answered; “Open space, nothing holy,” an answer befitting Dieters outlook on life.
Dieter leaves behind a brother, Rudy, a sister, Jacqueline, as well as his nephew, Alain Hagenbach.
Thank you, Dieter, for the time we spent together and for our common projects. We both always knew we could not have made it alone.