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“Höhere Begattung,” “höhere Schönheit”: Goethe’s Homoerotic Poem “Selige Sehnsucht”

From: Goethe Yearbook
Volume 20, 2013
pp. 117-132 | 10.1353/gyr.2013.0029

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The main problem in writing on Goethe and “homosexuality” is that many readers will expect his own sexuality to be at the center, particularly since previous books have set the tone. This is particularly true of nonscholarly attempts, but scholars are not immune to the fascination with making Goethe “gay.”1 It is time, I think, for us to question our methods and assumptions, which necessarily involves taking into account the historical distance between us and same-sex love in the eighteenth century.2 The effect of ahistorical interpretations is not only that few scholars pay attention to them. For they ultimately detract from the literary texts and what they have to say to us. There has been little attempt to get to the bottom of what should be burning issues, given our own age’s conflicts over homosexuality and Goethe’s central role in German identity: What were Goethe’s views on same-sex love, how did he deal with power relations, the “problem of the boy” (Foucault), the closet, and other thorny issues? And an analysis of these works and his thoughts quickly leads into an area that is essentially ignored in almost all these treatments: Goethe grappled with the ancient Greek and Roman models of same-sex love, in which the desire is one-way, desire of an erastēs for a (usually younger) erōmenos, of a “lover” for a “beloved.” I have attempted to show elsewhere that in his works beginning with the poem “Ganymed” (1772?) and the play Götter Helden und Wieland (1773), right through to the penultimate scene of Faust II (completed in 1831), Goethe was intent on unsettling this unidirectional model of “Greek love,” giving a voice and subjectivity to the younger partner, making the beloved into a lover, paying attention to his feelings and desires. Despite his inspiration from dissident ancient texts that gave impetus to an alternative, egalitarian model (for Goethe’s early period, they are Pindar and Theocritus), this is a revolutionary moment in the European portrayal of same-sex male love, which had clung quite tenaciously to the usual ancient pattern. Goethe’s reversal presages in important ways the modern relationships between equals that dominates male-male desire.3

I am not suggesting that we cannot be bold in our interpretations—only that they be grounded in clear evidence, historical contextualization, and immersion in Goethe’s sources. But within those limitations, we find that Goethe’s approach to same-sex love is bound up in a web of subtle allusions, primarily to Greek and Roman texts, but also to his own works. One of his major treatments of same-sex love is the Schenkenbuch of the West-oestlicher Divan, published in 1819. The love of the older poet for a young cupbearer—his age is indeterminate, but patterns of puberty and terminology would suggest that he may be as old as eighteen or nineteen4—is so obvious that commentaries gingerly point out “homoerotic” motifs in the poems, but steering clear of words like “homosexual.” In this, they follow Goethe, who suggested in the prose part of the Divan that the Schenkenbuch treats the love for a boy “unseren Sitten gemäß in aller Reinheit” (FA I, 3.1:224). Nevertheless, even in the prose section, the changes Goethe made to the anecdotes from Saadi (Sa’dī) smuggle sexuality into the depiction of pederasty in the “Schenkenbuch.” In the poems themselves, a plethora of imagery relating to Greek and Roman antiquity, but most particularly to Goethe’s medieval Persian sources, clearly suggest sexuality.5

The primary impact that gave rise to Goethe’s project was the Austrian diplomat and scholar Joseph von Hammer’s two-volume German translation of the poems of the medieval Persian poet Hāfiz, which happens to be one of the most openly homoerotic of any available translations from the Persian in Goethe’s day (other translations of Persian poetry generally bowdlerized the texts without comment).6 For it remains one of the big secrets of Divan scholarship that “das beherrschende Motiv” in medieval Persian literature is love for boys—it does not treat love of women at all.7 The misunderstanding arises partly...

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