Barbara Burns talks to Peter Morgan, whose book Stefan George: The Homosexual Imaginary has just been published by Legenda.

cover of Stefan George

BB. Stefan George was one of the most significant poetic voices of the early twentieth century in Germany, a complex and controversial intellectual figure grappling with his sexual identity as well as with weighty issues of culture and politics. His work can seem difficult or even inaccessible today. But despite the challenges George poses us, your study never seems to lose sight of a body of poetry that you confess to finding ‘profoundly moving’. Why is that so? Is it possible to give us a sense of what it is that you find so powerful and inspiring in his writing?

PM. This is a great question. It goes directly to the heart of the book. I came to George’s poetry almost by chance. We didn’t study it as students, and I didn’t read him in any depth until around three years ago. When I did, I responded to the language in a way that surprised me. I love poetry, but George’s works moved me like those of no other poet.

Peter Morgan

While working on a different project, I realized that George was always there in the background for the writers I was working on, but that I knew nothing about him. I bought the works and sat down to read them just as Covid hit. Yes, the language is challenging, but it sent me flying in a way that only the greatest poets have. George draws on every register of the German language, from archaic forms through to dialect, to create an imaginary world that is at once exhilarating and enchanting. It has a physical effect on me. Perhaps not for all readers, but certainly for me as a homosexual man in his sixties. George documents the stages of a homosexual man’s life in verse at a time when no literary models existed. It is a difficult life and it takes detours through stages that are problematic, challenging, even questionable, but the poetry remains honest and true to itself, describing existential states of self-denial, self-doubt, secret joy and growing awareness of a community of other men who offered community, friendship and even finally, love, not just the commonality of suffering and mutual contempt that characterized so much gay men’s literature then and even now.

I belong to a generation that can still remember the exclusion of homosexuality from social life, the contempt, dismissal, and disgust expressed by people at the very thought of homosexual male attraction. The representation of lacerating gay self-hate in Mart Crowley’s The Boys in the Band (1968), the gasps of horror and disgust at the first on-screen gay kiss in John Schlesinger’s Sunday, bloody Sunday (1970). George’s world was every bit as bad, but he managed to discover himself, to love other men, and to express that in poetry that has no equal in any of the languages that I know. For this reason, it is a body of work that both interests me historically and in literary terms and moves me profoundly in personal terms.

BB. George wrote in an era when the social and legal context for gay men was radically different from it is today. To what extent has George’s sexuality been identified as an important element of his lyric persona, both during his lifetime and subsequently?

PM. Yes, George predated by decades the vaunted – and overstated – openness of Weimar society. He began writing in the late 1890s. Germany was unique in Europe in regard to the early advocacy of homosexuality by figures such as Karl Heinrich Ulrichs in the 1860s. It was ahead of Britain even before the Oscar Wilde trials hindered constructive social discussion until well after the War. Even in 1913, E. M. Foster was unable to complete his gay novel, Maurice and would not countenance publishing it during his lifetime. Stefan George began writing, that is, in an environment in which homosexuality was a topic of public discussion, albeit not of general social acceptance. Intellectuals and professionals in the medical, psychiatric, and legal fields were engaging with male and female homosexuality as an unchangeable, ‘natural’ aspect of individual identity. George did not participate in this discussion; on the contrary he distanced himself from it. But he proceeded to discover himself in his lyric individuality and to chronicle that discovery in a large body of poetry. His reticence to engage publicly and to out himself as a homosexual man was also no doubt due to the legal danger involved. Despite the relative openness of discussion at least from the early years of the twentieth century, this was a period of fear and blackmail and of the legal consequences of being identified as homosexual. His early poems do not express openly homosexual feelings, but they do begin the processes of exploration of the sexual self.

In terms of the recognition of this aspect of George, German Studies has been very reticent and even in some quarters remains so. Of course, the sexual prudery of the pre-68 era conditioned this, but it was strengthened by the unfounded belief that George was a misleader of young men, even a paedophile, where in fact this cannot be substantiated and has its origins in scurrilous publications by George’s contemporary, the poet Rudolph Borchardt. Academic condemnation of George has been based on narrow-mindedness, even bigotry regarding his sexuality. The post-68 reception, interestingly, remained equally bigoted, but in terms of politics as well as sexuality: George was seen as a political reactionary and quasi-Nazi, when, in fact, he rejected Nazism and everything associated with it. Together, sexual and political bigotry skewed the perception of George’s poetry until quite recently. Those who did recognize the greatness of the poetry tended to either ignore the biography or to distinguish George the poet from the man, in the process censoring any discussion of George’s homosexual imaginary. Even since the eighties, there has been little open discussion of George’s sexuality as a part of his poetry.

Stefan George was a much more central artistic figure in the early 20th century than his post-war reputation would suggest. Here we see the cover of his volume The Seventh Ring, 1907, by the celebrated book designer Melchior Lechter (1865-1937), and the score of Arnold Schoenberg's op. 15, a setting of The Book of the Hanging Gardens.

BB. How does your approach to George differ from the way in which academics have interpreted and categorized him in the past?

PM. My approach is different in a couple of ways. Firstly, there is the foregrounding of George’s homosexual consciousness as the primary factor in his literary creativity. Secondly, I focus on the body of poems themselves. So many of the works about George concentrate on the phenomenon of George, the group of young male followers that he built up, and the influence that many of these figures would subsequently have in Germany and elsewhere. Some scholars do not analyse a single poem in any detail. Others look very selectively at the poetry in order to identify right-wing, even fascistic meanings from the earliest poems onward. Thirdly, the George phenomenon was highly effective in his time: George worked hard at his image in a very contemporary way. He ensured that photographs of him were staged and performed, and he created an ‘aestheticist’ public image of himself that verged on the bizarre. He cultivated a cold, distanced, severe and elitist public profile that is at odds with the intimate self-revelation and self-exploration of his works, and especially with the admission of individual personal love in the final poems. But I suppose most importantly, my study is different in placing George first and foremost as a gay male poet who created poems that are the equals of any of the other German greats, whether Goethe, Schiller, Hölderlin or Rilke.

BB. What was your experience of studying German in Australia, and how did you discover George’s poetry?

PM. My education in German Studies is a little unusual. I owe my love of German literature to my teachers at Monash University in Melbourne. There I came under the influence of Leslie Bodi, a Hungarian who survived the Holocaust, worked in Budapest after the war as a colleague of Georg Lukács, and fled to Australia with his wife and child at the beginning of the 1956 revolution. Leslie Bodi taught German as the lingua franca of Central Europe, and while we received a first-class education in German literature from the Nibelungenlied to the present, it was presented within an intellectual context and tradition rather different from standard Germanistik as pursued in Germany and Austria at that time. I only pursued German studies because of Leslie Bodi. He opened up a whole world for me as a young man from the Anglo-Celtic south-eastern lower middle-class suburbs of Melbourne in the sixties. Others in that department were also wonderful teachers and inspirations, particularly David Roberts and the late Philip Thomson. Having said that, however, this was a left-wing university in the early seventies, and we did not read George at all in our studies. For that reason, I was very surprised when I first started reading George and mentioned it to Leslie shortly before his death in 2015, when he was well into his nineties. I was expecting him to dismiss George, but he responded immediately that there are indeed great poems and that he had bought and read the works as a young man before the war.

The main stimulus for me to read and engage with George in the first place was another book that I have just finished, called ‘Coming out in Weimar’, a study of the body of gay novels produced in German over the first three decades of the twentieth century. While working on Albert Rausch, a (rightly) little-known gay novelist, I realized that so many of these writers were influenced profoundly by George. He was the common denominator for many of them. Later, working on Klaus Mann, the brilliant and unstable elder son of Thomas Mann, I came to realize just how powerful and broad George’s influence was. Klaus, like so many of them, was profoundly influenced by and grateful to George.

BB. How did George respond to the rise of Nazism, and in what ways are his historical and political context important for an understanding of his work?

PM. During his main period of creativity, George remained distanced from political affairs. His interest was in creating an alternative aesthetic realm of the imagination that he referred to as ‘secret Germany’ or ‘das neue Reich’, in opposition to the existing Second Reich of Wilhelm II. His apolitical stance changed with the outbreak of the First World War. He opposed it from the beginning as an expression of the crudest martial interests of the Kaiser, of a citizenry that had lost all sense of German tradition and history. Towards the end of the war, he wrote his most politically charged poem, ‘Der Krieg’ (1917) in which he castigated the political powers of the time for the mutilation and killing of young men. The language is charged with outrage, contempt, and profound grief.

George’s era was essentially over with the war. He continued to write and maintained his group of loyal followers, but the relevance and the impetus of the earlier decades was gone. Between The Star of the Covenant of 1914 and his death in 1933 he published only one more volume, the retrospective and cumulative leave-taking of The Kingdom Come of 1928. George had nothing to do with emerging Nazism and repudiated the Nazis until the end. Their thuggish brutality, political coarseness and antisemitism appalled him. His figure of Maximin, after all, was based on a Jewish youth, Maximilian Kronberger, and many of his most faithful followers were Jews. In the end he moved to Minusio in neutral Switzerland, where he was sheltered from the attentions of the new NSDAP government’s Minister for Culture, Bernhard Rust, who offered him membership of the Prussian Academy. The carrier of the letter rejecting Rust’s advances in 1933 was his Jewish protegé Ernst Morwitz.

Two monuments. Left, to Stefan George, in Bingen am Rhein; right, to Claus von Stauffenberg, whose last words before his execution in 1944 — some say — were ‘Es lebe das geheime Deutschland!’. In 1933, he and his brothers, members of the George circle, had obstructed the wish of the new Nazi state to be present at the poet's burial in Switzerland.

BB. Do you have a favourite poem by George, or one which you think encapsulates something of his journey to self-understanding as a gay man?

PM. The great Frankfurt School social theorist Theodor Adorno considered ‘Im windes-weben’ (‘My question erred …’ in Morwitz’ translation, 1905) from The Seventh Ring ‘the most irresistible poem in the German language’. I tend to say this about quite a few of George’s poems. But one of the main obstacles to appreciating George in anything but his native language is the question of translation. George is very difficult, perhaps impossible, to translate adequately. George’s late disciple, Ernst Morwitz, devoted his life after the war in the US to translating the complete poems. His translations are impressive, but they don’t transmit the magical power of the originals.

A particular favourite is a quiet little 12-line poem, also from The Seventh Ring: ‘Windows where at dusk I once looked across the fields with you’. But the stand-out great poems are ‘Come into the park they say is dead’ from The Year of the Soul, and the breathtakingly beautiful final poems from The Kingdom Come. Here George maintains his commitment to the bodies and souls of the men around him, but in a spirit of care, not of leadership. A new sobriety has taken over, a sense of himself as an ageing man who has finally come to understand what is important and what is not. There is a lack of unity in this volume as a whole that suggests loss, even fragmentation, as the old world breaks up and a new lyric world moves to take its place after the experiences of the First World War in which the men George loved were killed or committed suicide. These poems take the archetypally German genre of the Volkslied or folksong to new heights. Most moving of all is the final love poem, ‘Du schlank und rein wie eine flamme’ (‘You slim and pure like a flame’), inspired in July 1918 by the death of Bernhard von Uxkull-Gyllenband, in which George creates a testament to love and to presence. While many have recognized the beauty of this poem, no-one has drawn attention to the way in which the language of homosexual love functions in its evocation of youthful masculinity, creating a unique set of metaphors in the corpus of European love poetry. This poem cannot be mistaken for a heterosexual love poem: the evocation of male love is powerful and unparalleled.

BB. How does studying George’s work broaden our understanding of the development of homosexual identity in Europe? Does it still feature on university reading lists?

PM. In an ideal world, a selection of George’s poems would belong in a university course in German Studies and would be the basis for discussion of the emergence of a gay man’s voice in German literature of the early twentieth century. However, the study of literature has been reduced dramatically in university courses in British, American and Australian universities over the past decades. While much of George’s language is difficult, there are many poems that are quite accessible, including the favourite anthologised poem, ‘Come into the park they say is dead’, or the final poem, ‘You slim and pure like a flame’. These could well be used to render reading lists more inclusive and to contribute to gender and sexuality studies more broadly.

BB. How does this book on George complement your other research projects, and what’s next?

PM. I’ve just finished ‘Coming out in Weimar’, that larger study of the sociogenesis of gay men in German fiction from the beginning of the twentieth century until the outbreak of war that led to the book on George. It was in Germany that the modern identity of the homosexual man was first articulated with the neologism that we now all use (i.e. ‘homosexual’). The modern homosexual man was recognized as potentially having a life, not merely a sexual orientation. German writers began to explore the possibilities of a homosexual man’s life in a wave of literature that lasted for four decades, until Nazism closed it down.

My next task is to finalize the second volume of my study of the life and work of the Albanian dissident writer, Ismail Kadare. The first volume, The Writer and the Dictatorship, was published by Legenda in 2010; the second volume will cover the works since the fall of the dictatorship in 1990, and includes Kadare’s role as a commentator and critic of contemporary Albanian society, politics and culture. Beyond that, I’m planning a study of the influence of post-war Central European, mainly Jewish, refugees on Australian intellectual life. This will be undertaken with a group of colleagues around the country over the next four years. After that it will be time for retirement, I expect, something I try not to think about …

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