Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Homostudies: Paradigm One

Initially, the first half of the nineteenth century does not seem to have been favorable territory for the emergence of a new understanding of same-sex love. For during this era the older stereotypes of "the crime against nature" and the "sin of Sodom" came to be buttressed by new negative findings, seemingly authoritative, stemming from the field of psychiatry.

Moral insanity is a curious medical diagnosis first described by the French alienist Philippe Pinel in 1806. Moral insanity was a form of mental derangement in which the intellectual faculties remained sound, while the affects or emotions were damaged, causing patients to be carried away at intervals by some kind of fury. Pinel's English follower James Cowles Prichard defined moral insanity as: "madness consisting in a morbid perversion of the natural feelings, affections, inclinations, temper, habits, moral dispositions, and natural impulses, without any remarkable disorder or defect of the interest or knowing and reasoning faculties, and particularly without any insane illusion or hallucinations." Psychiatrists marshaled the new concept to explain how sodomites and other "perverts" could appear to function normally, but were actually quite disturbed.

Other experts embraced the quasibiological concept of degeneration. The naturalist Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon (1707–1788) was the first to define degeneration as a theory of nature. Using dubious evidence, Buffon claimed that entire species degenerated, becoming more sterile, weaker, or smaller due to harsh environmental conditions. It was but a short step to apply this notion to human beings. This idea raised the possibility that Europe might be nurturing a class of "degenerates" likely to erode social norms. This fear fostered support for a strong state which might intervene to eradicate the unfortunates, or at least prevent them from reproducing.

During the 1850s the French physician Bénédict Morel insisted that certain groups of people were in effect traveling backwards in terms of evolution, so that each generation became weaker and weaker (atavism). This claim relied on pre-Darwinian concepts, especially those of Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, who held that acquired characteristics like drug addiction and sexual perversions could be inherited.

Ideas such as these prevailed in Paris, London, Berlin and other major centers of the Western world. Yet a significant challenge came from a remote corner of Europe: German-speaking Switzerland in the 1830s. This may seem an odd time and place for a creative departure from the conventional wisdom. In reality, however, the era was one of ferment in the Alpine cantons, in which ideas advanced as a result of the French Revolution of 1830 fostered the rise of liberal groups such as Young Switzerland. These groups challenged the ascendancy of the entrenched conservative faction.


We owe the first paradigm of homostudies to an obscure Swiss milliner, Heinrich Hössli (1784-1864). His major, indeed his only contribution was “Eros: Die Männerliebe der Griechen: Ihre Beziehungen zur Geschichte, Erziehung, Literatur und Gesetzgebung aller Zeiten (Eros, the Male Love of the Greeks: Its Relationship to the History, Education, Literature and Legislation of All Ages), published in two volumes in 1836-38.. From this somewhat sprawling work, it emerges that Hössli’s most important contribution was to direct close attention to civilizations with a positive approach to homosexual behavior. Working with the somewhat limited resources available to an independent scholar at that time. he discerned two of these: ancient Greece and medieval Islam. In his second volume he presented an abundance of poetic examples from both. While the comparison is implicit rather than explicit, it proved very fertile.

Born in the small Swiss town of Glarus, Heinrich Hössli spent his childhood there, leaving only at the approach of the Russian army in 1799, when he was sent to Bern. There he acquired the trade of milliner by which, on his return, he later earned his livelihood. In 1811 he married and had two sons, both of whom emigrated to the United States. Back in the small world of Glarus, he became known as "Modenhössli"--a fashionista of his day. He pursued his prosperous business until 1851, when he retired, spending the rest of his days roaming through Switzerland and Germany.

As has been noted, Hössli's contribution to knowledge of same-sex behavior and its culture was the two-volume work entitled “Eros.” The first germ of this endeavor had entered Hossli's mind in 1817 when he learned of the execution of a citizen of Bern named Franz Desgouttes, who had murdered his lover Daniel Hemmeler. Two years later he approached the popular Swiss-German writer Heinrich Zschokke (1771-1848), asking him to address the subject because he himself did not feel competent to compose a work of literature. Zschokke did in fact publish his own "Eros oder über die Liebe" (Eros or On Love) in the eighth issue of his miscellany Erheiterungen for the year 1821. This essay mustered a respectable quantity of material on the subject, but concluded by reaffirming the conventional belief of his time that this side of Greek civilization was a revolting aberration which no modern nation should follow.

Disappointed by Zschokke, Hoessli set about composing his own work, having it printed at his own expense. The authorities in Glarus promptly intervened to suppress it. He did, however, bring out the second volume two years later in St. Gall. The unsold portion of the work was destroyed by the great fire that devastated Glarus in 1861. A planned third volume remained in manuscript, which apparently has not survived.

In the opening section of his magnum opus Hössli likened the prevailing condemnation of Greek love to the witchcraft delusion of early modern Europe. He then set out the differences between the Greek conception of love and that of his own time, with copious references to classical history and literature and a plea for the toleration of male-male love.

The second volume repeated his theses on the naturalness of the passion. Yet its most important feature was an anthology drawn not just from classical Greece, but also from poetry of Islamic lands (Arabic, Persian, and Turkish), which Romantic authors had translated into German. Instead of segregating the two civilizations--Greece and Islam--Hössli boldly interspersed the literary material, sandwiching Muslim texts amidst the Greek ones. His belief, which has been partly sustained by modern scholars, was that the cult of the beautiful boy in Islam continued the earlier concepts of Plato.

Courageously, Hössli sought to refute stereotypes about Greek same-sex love that ranged from making it merely a contemplation of male beauty to stigmatizing it as child abuse. Throughout Eros. Hössli insisted that this form of love had not vanished, and was still thriving in modem times.

In his lifetime Hössli's work achieved no recognition, but was acquired and read by a small educated public. It contained among other things the essence of Karl Heinrich Ulrichs' notion of "a female soul trapped in a male body," and sought to document the universality of male homosexuality as no previous author had done. The composition of an amateur, not a professional writer, Eros ranks as the first sustained protest against the intolerance that male same-sex love had suffered for centuries in Christian Europe, and as such was appreciated by later activists who quoted it and reprinted excerpts.


His geographical isolation notwithstanding, Heinrich Hössli did not emerge from a vacuum. As regards ancient Greece he relied on the abundant material German classical philologists had assembled for several generations. The recovery of this formerly taboo material, a very impressive accomplishment in its own light, took place in the larger context of the ascent of German classical scholarship to dominance in Europe during the latter part of the eighteenth century and the early years of the nineteenth.

The year 1767 saw the posthumous publication of a landmark tract on ancient homosexuality by Johann Matthias Gesner. Born in 1691, the son of a pastor in eastern Germany, Gesner served as professor of poetry and eloquence at the University of Göttingen from 1734 until his death twenty-seven years later.

Gesner’s little book bore the provocative title “Socrates sanctus paederasta.” In part to ensure limited circulation, but also in keeping with standard practice for international scholarship in his day, the text appeared in Latin, with quotations in Greek from the original sources. Somewhat disappointingly, Gesner convinced himself of Socrates’ sexual continence and purity. The whole account reflects the assumption that classical antiquity knew two types of paiderasteia.. There was the sexually active form, familiar to us today, in which an adult practiced sexual relations with a youth. This must be condemned. However, Gesner believes (not entirely without support from the sources) that there was a second type, which was chaste (“honesta”). Just as today we hear that there is bad cholesterol and good cholesterol, Gesner distinguishes between bad paiderasteia and good paiderasteia. Socrates, the centerpiece of Gesner’s investigation, practiced, he held, only the good type. He was a sanctus paederasta, with “sanctus” employed in the sense of “blameless.”

Given the emblematic role that Socrates played in the educational establishment of eighteenth-century Germany, it is hard to see how, in his new Apology for Socrates, Johann Matthias Gesner could have reached any other conclusion. As the very model of the exemplary classical personality Socrates must be blameless. Embedded in his text, though, is a more subversive message. Some ancient Greeks did not restrict themselves to sancta paiderasteia, the chaste form, but sought sexual fulfillment in dalliance with their younger partners. Ensuing decades were to see a franker acknowledgment of this option. Moreover, this discussion took the form of a series of essays couched in the German vernacular, so that the issue was no longer confined to a narrow circle of erudite scholars.

As this account has begun in Göttingen and will for a time continue there, it is worth asking what the basis for its exceptionalism was. For that university had special characteristics fostering what was, for the time, a remarkably unfettered view of ancient sexuality. The university was founded in 1737 by the elector George Augustus of Hanover, better known as king George II of England. As a result of George I’s assumption of the English throne in 1714, Hanover and England had been united in personal union, a connection lasting until 1837, when the two were separated owing to the fact that the Salic law forbade queen Victoria from succeeding to the throne of Hanover. During its great period the university harbored an extraordinary corps of luminaries, including the philologist Christian Gottlob Heyne, who succeeded Gesner as professor of poetry and eloquence; the historians G. C. Gatterer and L. T. Spittler; and the statistician Gottfried Achenwall. Foreigners flocked to this unusual center of learning with its fine library. Göttingen’s special standing reflected its standing in the first golden age of German universities while, at the same time, under relatively liberal English patronage, it stood somewhat apart from them.

Christoph Meiners (1747-1810) served as professor of philosophy at the University of Göttingen from 1775 until his death. Delving deeply into the riches of the university library, Meiners produced a torrent of books and publications over a period of thirty-five years. His interests encompassed psychology, aesthetics, the history of philosophy, and the history of religion. He published a four-volume History of Women (1788-1800). Although as early as the fourteenth century Giovanni Boccaccio (in his De claris mulieribus) had initiated an elitist tradition of extolling famous women, Meiners may rank as the first to attempt a full-scale history of women from a general standpoint, heralding later accounts.

A volume of miscellaneous writings contains his essay on the “male love of the Greeks,” intended as a prologue to a more complete account of the differences between that leading people of antiquity and the advanced modern nations. (That work appeared in the same year.) Meiners begins by differentiating the ancient Greek concept of love from the modern one. The idealism and the emotional intensity modern men invest in the opposite sex was deployed by ancient Greek men towards their own sex. Hence the expression “Männerliebe,” which Meiners was probably the first to popularize in this context. The main reason for this difference between ancients and moderns is the seclusion of women, and their consequent exclusion from education. Because of this separation Greek men did not regard women as their equals.

Not surprisingly, Meiners expatiated at length on the pure form of male-male love. Although he does not cite Gesner, his encomium clearly stands alongside his Göttingen predecessor’s concept of “blameless pederasty.” In fact Meiners avoids the term pederasty altogether. He departs from his predecessor in one important respect, for Meiners believes that necessary to provide a historical analysis of his subject. He believes that there were three stages. The first belongs to the heroic age of Greek society, in which male comradeship, as between Achilles and Patroclus, Orestes and Pylades, was necessary as a bulwark in turbulent times. He compares these relationships with similar ones found in medieval Europe (the chivalric link between the knight and his squire) and the contemporary Americas.

The institution of the gymnasium dominated the second stage. The beauty of the youthful male bodies on display there gave male love an added aesthetic dimension. Still it remained pure. Only in the third stage did the phenomenon deteriorate into carnal indulgence, something unknown to Socrates and Plato. Meiners regards this decline as part of an overall pattern of decadence.

Meiners’ view had two essential components: the diversion of ideal love towards males as a consequence of the seclusion of women; and a three-part sequence, from heroic rigor to mature classicism, followed by decadence.

The next figure, Friedrich Wilhelm Basilius von Ramdohr (1757?-1822), also attended the University of Göttingen, where he studied law and aesthetics. A lawyer and diplomat, Ramdohr was passionately interested in art. This affinity was sealed by his 1784 sojourn in Rome, where he imbibed the aesthetic approach so eloquently championed by Johann Joachim Winckelmann (who had died in 1768).

Ramdohr’s diffuse magnum opus, Venus Urania (1798), addressed the topic of love understood as passionate friendship. He was writing at a time when friendship—one need only think of the case of Goethe and Schiller—was exalted in Germany. Yet Ramdohr identified a neglected component, for he believed that such same-sex friendships were erotically charged. There can be no true friendship without a core of sexual feeling. Sometimes regarded as heralding the work of Sigmund Freud, the insights of Ramdohr find a closer parallel in the novels of the Englishman D. H. Lawrence, who presents several deeply-felt portrayals of passionate friendship among men.

Like Lawrence, Ramdohr seems to have had such feelings himself. But boundaries must be imposed, for when, as among the ancient Greeks, this component becomes overt, love vanishes, leaving only lust. Accordingly he gives with one hand what he takes away with another. Sexual feelings, he insists, are powerfully felt when two persons of the same sex are friends: they experience love. Yet when the partners attempt to advance to physical expression, love goes out the window. Accordingly, Ramdohr’s endorsement of homoeroticism is restricted solely to what we would call the platonic form.

Friedrich Gottfried Welcker (1784-1868) returns us, though briefly, to Göttingen, for it was there that he published his groundbreaking essay on Sappho. Shortly thereafter, in 1819 he was called to the new university at Bonn.

During the opening years of the century several German authors, notably the literary critic Friedrich Schlegel, had frankly characterized the Greek poet as an early practitioner of same-sex relations with women. Differing from the custom in other Western European languages, where the term tribadism was preferred, these writers freely used the word “lesbisch” to refer to her presumed sexual orientation. Yet Welcker, writing in 1816, would have none of this, rising instead to his self-appointed task of rescuing the poet from the taint of “a current prejudice.” For Sappho, or so he strenuously argued, did not engage in physical love with members of her own sex.

Welcker shared the exaltation of the noble, chaste form of Greek pederasty defended by Gesner and Meiners, even adding new arguments. In this light one might expect that he would view Sappho as the exponent of an ideal love corresponding to that represented by Socrates and Plato. Not so. Welcker doubted that idealized male love of the Greeks had a feminine counterpart, for women were incapable of such high-minded detachment from sensuality. Barred from status as the patron of a higher form of love, Sappho assumed a more modest place as the exemplary director of a girl’s finishing school. Later Welcker’s illustrious pupil Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendorf (1913) aggressively championed this reductive view, which remained dominant throughout Western Europe for a century after Welcker wrote.

Returning to our main account, the following years saw both advance and consolidation. Karl Otfried Müller (1797-1840) conceived the idea of a multivolume history of Greece based on the distinctive characteristics of the various subgroups. The masterwork of this series is his two-volume work on the Dorians, of which the first edition appeared in 1824. Although pederasty played but a modest part in this work, it launched the idea—to be explored in much more detail by Erich Bethe in 1907—that Greek pederasty had a particular Dorian stamp. Preoccupation with the Dorians long remained of particular concern in Germany, for of all the branches of the ancient Greeks the Dorians were believed to have the greatest affinity with modern Germans.

Friedrich Jacobs (1764-1833) spent much of his uneventful life in his native city of Gotha, where he was a teacher and museum director. His main philological work was his edition and commentary on the Greek Anthology, which contains much homoerotic material. In an 1829 essay on the education and morals of the Greeks he attempted a form of damage control. The physical expression of male love was, he held, not central to the ethos of the ancient Greeks. Instead, it reflected from the mad extravagance of a few wild individuals. This essay remained little known.

Quite different was the case of the popularizing work of Wilhelm Adolf Becker (1796-1846), professor of classics at the University of Leipzig. In his early studies of poetry Becker realized that the texts could not be understood without marshaling the findings of archaeology and what can be gleaned of the private life of the ancients. It was to illuminate private life that he composed his highly successful Charikles, first published in 1840, and subsequently revised and enlarged by other hands. This contains a chapter frankly discussing the facts of Greek homoerotic behavior, which he describes as “etwas sehr gowöhnlich”—something quite common.

Moritz Hermann Eduard Meier (1796-1855), the son of a Jewish merchant, became an honored professor of classics at. the venerable University of Halle. In 1837 he published a lengthy encyclopedia article on “Päderastie.” For the first time, this article attempted to sum up the facts of what came to be called “Greek love” in a comprehensive and relatively nonjudgmental manner. Significantly, almost a hundred years later the French scholar L.R. Pogey-Castries (pseudonym of Georges Herelle) saw fit to translate this article, attaching his own ideas to it as commentary.

The appearance of Meier’s balanced synthesis in 1837 marked the end of a major phase. This phase began in 1775 when Meiners took the bold step of sharing scholarly inquiries about ancient Greek sex love with the general public. Meier’s work coincided with a new development—the appearance of gay scholarship—something he did not anticipate, and may not have welcomed,

The date of Meier’s work, 1837, is significant in that it fell precisely into the gap between the two volumes of Heinrich Hössli. The two men do not seem to have been aware of each others' work. But Hössli could access the previous deposit of material, at least in part. References in his work show that he consulted Meiners, Ramdor, and Müller. Silence does not attest lack of knowledge, so that he may have known other contributions as well.


As far as we know, Hössli’s magnum opus was never reviewed, and copies of the original edition are rare today. However, they made their way to a select few. One of these was Karl Heinrich Ulrichs (1825-1895), who published a series of twelve booklets in defense of gay rights from 1864 to 1869. Although classical learning serves more as a series of examples rather than functioning as the main focus, Ulrichs was thoroughly trained in a gymnasium and the Universities of Göttingen and Berlin. With this background he was able to combine the professional standards of the classicists with the personal convictions and passion of Hössli. Scholarship and the call for gay emancipation flowed together.

Once the potential of this fusion became clear, the new approach served as the basis for the material assembled by the circle of Magnus Hirschfeld (1868-1935), especially in their remarkable scholarly periodical Jahrbuch für sexuelle Zwischenstufen (1899-1923). A distinguished physician of Jewish origin, Hirschfeld devoted an almost superhuman dedication and energy to his twin causes of homosexual emancipation and gay scholarship. His monumental Die Homosexualität des Mannes and des Weibes (1914) remains the longest printed book ever published by a single author on the subject. While the monograph is deliberately as inclusive as possible, two areas that figure prominently are classical studies (encompassing history, biography, literature, and lexicography) and sexology. It is generally acknowledged that the creator of the discipline of sexology was the German psychiatrist Richard von Krafft-Ebing (1840-1902; Oosterhuis, 2000). Beginning with Krafft-Ebing’s landmark Psychopathologia sexualis (1886) this field took its place in the array of “German sciences,” being practiced most brilliantly in Hirschfeld’s base of Berlin.

The culminating figure in this remarkable roster of German scholars in the field of ancient Greek homosexuality is Paul Brandt (1875-1929), better known under his pseudonym of Hans Licht. He received a solid classical education, composing a doctoral dissertation on the challenging topic of Pindar’s grammar. Brandt adopted his pseudonym of Licht in order to shield himself form possible consequences. Despite this precaution, a colleague at the Leipzig Gymnasium denounced him, and Brandt was forced to transfer to another institution in a remote mountain location. For this reason, much of his work was created under heroic circumstances, away from research libraries.

In a series of periodical contributions Brandt-Licht worked methodically through the main branches of classical literature as it pertained to homosexuality. These were then synthesized in his great work of 1926-28, still often consulted in the English translation. Although the book is in principle about all sexual life in ancient Greece, there is a strong emphasis on the records of same-sex behavior.

Brandt-Licht’s death in 1929 coincided with the beginning of the world Depression, shortly followed by the ascendancy of Adolf Hitler in January 1933. This sequence of events put an end to the major of German research on ancient same-sex behavior. After 1945 German gay scholarship revived slowly, for the most part observing other priorities. Although one laments the relative loss of classical sexual scholarship—what might have been-- in a sense this research had served its purpose, allowing the calmness of distance to prevail over sometimes overheated contemporary concerns.

While Hirschfeld attempted, with remarkable success, to create a comparative, universalizing approach, Brandt-Licht implicitly endorsed the “Greek miracle” approach, emphasizing the exceptionalism of the Greek experience. Recent fundamental examinations of the Greek material, such as those by Sir Kenneth Dover, William Percy, and Thomas Hubbard, tend, whether intentionally or not, to ally themselves with this sense of ancient Greek distinctiveness (though Hubbard does follow the story into its Roman aftermath). Others, especially feminists, tend to limit the exemplary value of ancient Greece, emphasizing such components as misogyny and slavery. For his part, Martin Bernal has compared Egypt with Greece, but always to the disadvantage of the latter.

It seems that Heinrich Hössli, an industrious amateur, rushed in where angels feared to tread. He recognized that a balanced account of same-sex behavior in the past--and by implication in the present--must be comparative.


At all events, the preceding, somewhat extended account shows that Hössli’s attention to ancient Greece was in no ways exceptional, at least in Central Europe. By contrast, the gay aspect of Hossli’s other preferred civilization, Islam, was far less well documented. But evidence was not entirely lacking. In 1812-13 the Austrian orientalist Joseph von Hammer-Purgstall had published his versions of the Divan of the noted Persian poet Hafez of Shiraz (1325/26–1389/90). In the introduction the scholar pointed out the homoerotic aspects.

This publication seems to have touched off a craze for Middle Eastern poetry in Germany. One of the first to catch the fever was Goethe, who received a copy of the Hafez translations from the publisher in May of 1814. Reading this publication reawakened in the German poet an earlier vein of interest in Islam, and he devoted much of the rest of the year to reading books on the Middle East. In the following year he wrote his first poems dedicated to Hafez, whom he hailed as his “twin.” He was attracted to the fact that his Muslim predecessor, surrounded by the religious orthodoxy of his day, nonetheless contrived to march to a different drummer. Under this inspiration Goethe’s poetry flowed forth: in 1819 he had enough for a full-scale collection, which he published under the title of West-östliche Divan. In this cycle the homoerotic element is not as prominent as in the Persian model, but it is there, especially in the book dedicated to the Saqi or cupbearer. Goethe--or his poetic persona--beckons this servant to his side as “a pretty boy” and twice mentions the exchange of kisses.

In these same years, the German gay poet August Graf von Platen began to issue an extensive series of imitations of Hafez called ghazals. These poetic effusions augmented the climate of enthusiasm for Oriental poetry that Hossli was able to tap into.

[This chapter incorporates some material from Wayne R. Dynes, et al., eds. The Encyclopedia of Homosexuality, New York: Garland, 1990. Electronic version:]


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