Thursday, January 22, 2015

Gay ol' Berlin

The Gay Capital of the Nineteenth Century - The New Yorker

OK, so everyone's aware of Germany being a bit avant-garde regarding homosexuality in the 20's and 30's, if only because of Cabaret.  (Actually, I still haven't seen it - but I think that's right...)
This review of a book argues that Berlin was actually way ahead of its time in the 19th century, and that a few prominent characters in Germany really can be said to have kicked off the whole gay rights reform movement, despite neighbouring France having actually decriminalised it much earlier.
It's quite an interesting read.  Here, for example:
Gay urges welled up across Europe during the Romantic era; France, in particular, became a haven, since statutes forbidding sodomy had disappeared from its books during the Revolutionary period, reflecting a distaste for law based on religious belief. The Germans, though, were singularly ready to utter the unspeakable. Schopenhauer took a special interest in the complexities of sexuality; in a commentary added in 1859 to the third edition of “The World as Will and Representation,” he offered a notably mellow view of what he called “pederasty,” saying that it was present in every culture. “It arises in some way from human nature itself,” he said, and there was no point in opposing it. (He cited Horace: “Expel nature with a pitchfork, she still comes back.”) Schopenhauer proceeded to expound the dubious theory that nature promoted homosexuality in older men as a way of discouraging them from continuing to procreate.
Not surprisingly, Karl Heinrich Ulrichs seized on Schopenhauer’s curious piece of advocacy when he began his campaign; he quoted the philosopher in one of his coming-out letters to his relatives. Ulrichs might also have mentioned Wagner, who, in “Die Walküre” and “Tristan und Isolde,” depicted illicit passions that many late-nineteenth-century homosexuals saw as allegories for their own experience. Magnus Hirschfeld, in his 1914 book “The Homosexuality of Men and Women,” noted that the Wagner festival in Bayreuth had become a “favorite meeting place” for homosexuals, and quoted a classified ad, from 1894, in which a young man had sought a handsome companion for a Tyrolean bicycling expedition; it was signed “Numa 77, general delivery, Bayreuth.” Ulrichs had published his early pamphlets under the pseudonym Numa Numantius.

I don't know much about Wagner, but I didn't suspect his work of having such an influence.  However, I see that a lesbian blogger has written at length about it.  She says:
In the epilogue to Laurence Dreyfus’s study of Wagner’s erotics, he writes, “It is clear that Wagner’s devotion to depictions of sexual desire was exceedingly unconventional, indeed unprecedented in the history of art.”2  This is certainly because his belief that the repression of female sexual desire as one of the big ills of society was very unconventional. Eva Rieger called the depiction of female sexual desire via Isolde “all but revolutionary.”3  I have covered all this in the posts I referenced above, but I want to make one clear point: all his female characters exhibited very strong desire, including the “virginal” ones such as Elisabeth in Tannhäuser. This was particularly subversive to the dominant sexual culture.
Women–“respectable women”–flocked to hear Wagner’s works, and were among his strongest, most consistent supporters.4  And, while they didn’t scream à la Beatlemania, there were repeated reports of audience members—mostly women or gay men—fainting, having sobbing fits and other sorts of delirium.5  This outsized reaction to him made his critics react in horror, seeing his work as both a manifestation of illness, and a cause of it. They deemed—with their own brand of hysteria— that Wagner seduced the women (and gay men) to mental disease through his over-wrought music. He was damned as degenerate—just as critics damned rock n rollers in the same way. Nonetheless, Wagner won the cultural battle—at least for a time—as a large share of the intelligentsia reacted by embracing him, and Wagnerism was born.
Wagner’s stunning popularity and vast influence (as I wrote about here) opened
the floodgates to much more sexual expressiveness in music and, for that matter, all art. He got away with it, so others now fearlessly followed in his path. In this way, he both directly and indirectly influenced the cultural perception of sexuality. The acceleration of trends towards more open sexuality of the fin de sìecle period, particularly within Germany, France and England, can certainly be traced directly to Wagner.
The things you learn....

Update:   just been reading a bit more about Richard Wagner, and find that his son Siegfried, who continued the family business, was definitely gay - or actually, if one takes ability to have several kids with his wife being any guide - bisexual.   (Rather like Oscar Wilde in that regard.  It would seem that both are now claimed as "gay", but whereas the popular impression of the 21st century gay man is more of one recoiling in horror at the idea of sleeping with a woman, those of the 19th and early 20th century seem to have been somewhat more flexible.)

Anyway, as noted in this site, there is a direct Hitler connection too (I mean, apart from his liking the music):
When Hitler, who was a financial supporter of the Bayreuth Festival, could no longer publicly endorse Lorenz, it was Siegfried’s wife Winifred who used her influence to rescue Bayreuth’s star heldentenor from public disgrace, exile and possible imprisonment over a charge of homosexuality.

Most historians concede that Hitler and Winnifred (below) carried on an affair after Siegfried’s death in 1930; there were even rumors of a possible marriage. Although Winifred was proud of her association with Hitler, when he visited her at Bayreuth, she took pains to conceal the connection. Hitler would register at the Hotel Bube in nearby Bad Berneck, and Winnifred would send her own car to pick him up, so that Hitler's ostentatious Mercedes would not be seen pulling into the driveway at Wahnfried, the Wagner family's villa built for Richard Wagner by King Ludwig II of Bavaria.
  Well, I didn't know that...

1 comment:

Anonymous said...


You'd love the homosexual side of Berlin without a doubt.