But Is It Gay? Kissing, Friendship, and 'Pre-Homosexual' Discourses in Eighteenth-Century Germany

By Wilson, W. Daniel | The Modern Language Review, July 2008 | Go to article overview
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But Is It Gay? Kissing, Friendship, and 'Pre-Homosexual' Discourses in Eighteenth-Century Germany


Wilson, W. Daniel, The Modern Language Review


Many queer studies scholars have been too ready to read past cultures through the lens of homosexuality in its modern configurations. Taking as an example the correspondence between Gleim and Jacobi published in 1768, this article uses kissing between men as a touchstone for this issue. It delineates an early modern culture of friendly kissing between men that shows no signs of homoeroticism, arguing that the depiction of the Gleim-jacobi correspondence as gay derives from masculinist attacks by the Sturm and Drang and from Anna Louisa Karsch's ambiguous statements. It closes by seeking criteria for detecting homoeroticism in such texts.

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In the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, Germany was something of a 'developing country' culturally, and the same goes for its sexual culture, or so it seems. There was no urban centre of the size and vitality of London or Paris, and certainly not the kind of fully developed homosexual subculture that existed in London. Nevertheless, scholars have begun to uncover much more sexual heterodoxy than previously expected, especially as a subject of literature. Anyone who had really been interested might have noticed long ago that the major works of erotic literature in the eighteenth century included crucial homoerotic moments, and sometimes much more than moments: the most important of these are Christoph Martin Wieland's Comische Erzahlungen of 1765, one of which was the tale 'Juno and Ganymed', omitted in later editions; Wilhelm Heinse's notorious novel Ardinghello, not to mention his translation of Petronius's Satyricon with a preface in which Heinse defended homosexuality; Goethe's Rdmische Elegien, one of the central works of Weimar Classicism; and Friedrich Schlegel's novel Lucinde, the major document of sexual liberation in the Romantic generation. To be sure, these works generally portray 'Greek love' as contrary to nature, and valorize heterosexuality; homosexuality is often treated only as a stepping-stone in the hero's development to heterosexual safety. However, the canonical authors obviously felt compelled to include male--male desire among the varieties of sexuality, even if they ultimately adopted a traditional Christian stance towards it.

This literature has not remained undiscovered by queer studies; in fact, it has become a favoured period for the examination of homoerotic culture in Germany. (1) I wish to argue, however, that scholars of this period have read too much queerness into male--male relationships of this time, or at least the wrong kind of queerness. While nominally taking into account the pre-nineteenth-century discourses on male--male relationships, they habitually ignore them when it comes to the analysis of particular cases. And I do not exclude my own work from this critique. (2) In this period and particularly in the heyday of Empfindsamkeit, it is exceptionally difficult to identify homoerotic characteristics. And certainly, I maintain, a new orthodoxy has grown up by finding homoerotic traces almost at will, by viewing what was fundamentally an age alien to us through our decidedly modern sexual eyes.

A book that made a considerable splash in the eighteenth century, but was then more or less forgotten only to be rediscovered by scholars working in queer studies, is Johann Wilhelm Gleim's intensive, two-year correspondence with Johann Georg Jacobi, his junior by twenty-one years, which the two writers published in 1768. (3) Bernd-Ulrich Hergemeller christens the collection 'die erste dezidiert homoerotische Briefsammlung dieser Art', (4) and Heinrich Mohr calls the letters 'erotische Dichtungen'. (5) Simon Richter, in his important article on 'Gender, Epistolary Culture, and the Public Sphere', is at first rather more careful. He rightly refuses to call Gleim and Jacobi 'homosexual', but then goes on to describe the signifiers often applied to this circle, and notes their affinity to 'the homosexual style known as camp', suggesting: 'Perhaps Gleim and his circle of friends were more in control of their behavior than previously thought.

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