- Liaisons dangereuses: Sex, Law, and Diplomacy in the Age of Frederick the Great
Toward the end of his seminal essay, "One Hundred Years of Homosexuality," David Halperin tries to illustrate how certain societies have located fundamental truths in arenas other than sex and sexuality. In contrast to the Freudian West, which spent decades discovering and rediscovering that a vast number of dreams meant that the dreamer wanted to sleep with his mother, Halperin points to Artemidorus, a dream interpreter from the second century of the Common Era who "saw public life, not erotic life, as the principal tenor of dreams": "Even sexual dreams, in Artemidorus's system, are seldom really about sex: rather, they are about the rise and fall of the dreamer's public fortunes, the vicissitudes of his domestic economy." Dreams about having intercourse with one's mother, for instance, might mean that the dreamer will have success politically, go into or return from exile, or a variety of other possibilities. 1 Mary Lindemann's study of a sensational murder in eighteenth-century Hamburg suggests that one need not go all the way back to the ancient world to make a similar point. Although sexual relations were at the heart of the constellation of figures in which the murder took place, there is little indication that anyone at the [End Page 649] time felt that even the sexual behavior of the people involved-let alone anything as nebulous as their sexuality-provided any deep truths. Instead, the interpersonal relationships, even those that were sexual in nature, point primarily to societal, economic, political, and diplomatic structures. Lindemann shares the interests of her eighteenth-century sources, using this sexual murder as an entrée to a series of fascinating insights into the life of republican Hamburg in monarchical Europe.
Hamburg, October 1775. A man claiming to be Count Joseph Visconti was found dead, the victim of twenty-three stab wounds. Visconti, who was not a count at all, as subsequent inquiries with Milan would document, died in the home of a courtesan, Anna Maria Romellini, who was supported by the representative of Spanish interests in Hamburg, Antoine Ventura de Sanpelayo. Sanpelayo was at the scene of the crime, invited earlier that evening by Romellini, who was being importuned by Visconti, her former lover. Sanpelayo's friend, the Prussian nobleman from Silesia, Joseph, baron von Kesslitz, was also present and was eventually accused of killing Visconti. Kesslitz claimed self-defense, but the authorities in Hamburg found it suspicious that two men (and a woman presumably on their side) would need to inflict such damage on a man when he was apparently unable to wound either of them seriously at all.
The sensational and international nature of the death, plus the savage brutality of the stabbing, provoked painstaking analyses by the authorities in Hamburg. Lindemann unpacks the story with all due deliberateness-at times almost too slowly. Her rhetoric threatens to undermine her argument when she repeatedly asks questions like, "So why the fuss? Why not simply bury Visconti quietly and hustle Romellini out of the city on one pretext or another?" (28). Later, she follows up with another set of similar questions: "If so much evidence indicated that Kesslitz had only acted in self-defense-the conclusion of the Senat's own syndic-why continue the case? Why allow a legal process to mortify Kesslitz? Why was he only released five months later under conditions that left his honor forever suspect?" (57). Frequently, these are precisely the questions in the reader's mind. While it is helpful that Lindemann articulates them, Lindemann might have been able to build up the suspense of the story more artfully.
Her challenge, of course, is the sheer complexity and intricate nature of the story she has to tell. Eighteenth-century Hamburg's elaborate legal system consisted of an imposing array of institutions with overlapping jurisdictions. The Niedergericht (Lower Court) was the court of first instance and jealously guarded the rights of the citizens...