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Stefan George: Homoeroticism as Catalyst and Synthesis

While most literary figures of the fin de siècle are noteworthy for the extremes to which they took aestheticism and eccentricity, few can be said to be as controversial and contradictory as Stefan George. In one stroke of the pen he could combine the spiritual and sensual, the Hellenic and the Decadent, the Gnostic and the Catholic, the religious and the erotic, the nationalistic and the cosmopolitan -- he is in essence the symbol of the period’s desire to establish an elite realm for poetry between the poles of ancient and modern. On both a personal and a poetic level, George’s homoeroticism is ever apparent, but critics have for the most part eschewed any thorough analysis of the role it plays in his poetic philosophy. A detailed examination of how George’s homoeroticism is intertwined with his decadence, aestheticism, cultural criticism, and religious imagery is not only long overdue, but also reveals the peculiar synthesis and coherence between these seeming contradictions.

The literary movements of the fin de siècle, most notably symbolism, decadence, and aestheticism, are remarkably intertwined and interdependent; any literary-historical examination of George’s place amongst other European authors of the period is necessarily focused on detailing and reconciling these overlapping boundaries and genres. George, like Wilde, Gide and Verwey, exhibits characteristics that cannot be placed into one particular category. His poetic stylings -- the emphasis on form and sound, a predilection for hermetic imagery and coded language, as well as the decadent aspects of his early works -- clearly have much in common with the French Symbolists: Mallarmé above all was a model for the young George, and comparisons through him to Verlaine and even Baudelaire are readily drawn. In this realm also fall the obvious parallels between George and Wilde: their perceptions of gender roles, certain aesthetic qualities, and indeed the public persona and reputation which came to overshadow their own literary output all bear witness to their rather unique role in the literary culture of the time. (The obvious differences in tone and style between George and Wilde, however -- their differing conceptions of modernity, dandyism, and above all homosexuality, deserve analysis in their own right.) While these elements may place George rather firmly in the symbolist/decadent sphere of influence, other features of George’s poetry, such as his attitudes toward mass culture and modern society, and his philosophical and ideological expressions, combined with his references to Nietzsche and the apparent (though deceptive) similarity to poets as diverse as Platen and Rilke, add several more strands to the complex web of Georgian influence and development. It has long been accepted that George’s place in European poetic culture cannot be measured by any one work or publication, and that he underwent a striking development over the course of years: from his early, clearly decadence-derived Algabal and Pilgerfahrten, to the refined aestheticism and symbolism of Das Jahr der Seele and Der Teppich des Lebens, and onward to the political and cultural prophecies set forth in Der Stern des Bundes and Das neue Reich, George’s works are a constantly shifting tapestry and mirror of his own philosophical and personal evolution. What has not yet been shown, however, and what I hope to illustrate, is how his homoeroticism -- perhaps the one constant in an ever-changing sea of personal and aesthetic visions -- acted as both catalyst and unifying element in George’s poetic development.

There have been numerous studies devoted to an analysis of George’s place within the European Symbolist movement and his relationship to other decadent authors. Missing from nearly all of these studies, though, is an acknowledgment of the complicated, even polyvalent, nature of George’s homoeroticism and the resulting influence on his poetic expression. When homosexuality is even remotely thematized, critics tend to note the similarities between George and authors such as Wilde or Gide, stressing in particular their tendency toward self-dramatization and the cultivation of a public persona, as well as the more obvious poetic similarities and common influences. Few, however, take into account the centrality of homoeroticism in George’s poetical aesthetics or even in his political visions, the distinctive inflection of which distinguishes George from his contemporaries. Whereas Wilde’s image as dandy, for instance, was informed by his homosexuality, even to the point of becoming a matter for public controversy, George’s homoeroticism played a far more hermetic and elitist role, and was closely tied to his appropriation of Hellenic ideals. In part, this may be explained by an examination of the differences between Victorian and Wilhelminian culture, but I believe the difference lies far deeper. George’s particular aesthetic ideals -- his combination of ancient Greek aesthetics and modern decadent imagery -- can be seen as a direct correlative to his homoerotic sensibilities, which underlie every aspect of his poetic expression.

As the foremost German exponent of the European art pour l’art movement, George is often perceived as an elitist aesthete -- a characterization which is neither unjust, nor one to which George would likely have objected. Complementing this elitism, and indeed an extension of it, is George’s role as a cultural critic. His rejection of mass culture and his establishment of a select school of disciples gathered around a single master poet is, in effect, a critique of the emergent mass culture and the corresponding loss of individuality. The habitus of this elite circle of followers, however -- the makeup of the group, their relationship to George (what Keilson-Lauritz refers to as the “Erotisierung des Meister-Jünger-Verhältnisses”), the continued references to ‘love’ and ‘submission’ in their poetry and prose -- all bear witness to the paramount role homoeroticism plays in every aspect of George’s poetic philosophy. Even the cultic fascination with hermeticism and exclusivity can, in at least some sense, be partially attributed to the inflection of George’s homosexuality. Though seldom overtly stated, homoerotic themes and references pervade not only George’s own poetry, but the works of his followers as well -- not all of whom, it should be reminded, were themselves homosexual. To a certain extent, surely, this thematization of male-male friendship and love is merely an extension of the long-standing German tradition of the Freundschaftskult, but the unique Georgian stylings -- the combination of homoeroticism with literary aestheticism and sociopolitical ideals -- set the George-Kreis apart from other Freundschaftsbünde -- even openly homoerotic ones such as Brand’s Gemeinschaft der Eigenen.

A final and perhaps most significant connection can be seen between George’s homoeroticism and his use of religious -- particularly Catholic -- imagery, which found elaboration in his aesthetic of cultic, ritualistic, and prophetic visions. Many authors of the fin de siècle turned to Catholic themes for both aesthetic and political reasons, and George is no exception. Recent scholarship has begun to examine George’s relationship to Catholicism, in particular his “Rituale der Literatur” (Braungart) and his appropriation of biblical imagery. Here again, however, homoerotic elements can be seen to set George apart from his contemporaries. A comparison between George and other symbolist poets who embrace biblical language and themes, such as Rilke, brings the palpable sensuality and erotic nature of George’s religious imagery clearly to light. Also worthy of investigation is a comparison between George and other homosexual Catholic poets, such as Platen and Pater, for it is here that the issue of Hellenism and modernity comes once again into play. George, enmeshed in a complexity of influences, displays a unique synthesis of seemingly contradictory elements -- ancient Greek ideals, avant-garde decadence, Catholic ritual and cultism -- and infuses all of these with the underlying homoerotic nature of his aesthetic vision.

This analysis of the interdependence of George’s homoeroticism and aesthetics would not be complete, of course, without reference to the contradictory nature of George’s expression of the matter itself. While embracing and expressing homoeroticism on many different levels, from the religious cult of Maximin to the sensual language of his poems, George at the same time can be seen to veil these references in layer upon layer of artistic hermeticism and political elitism. An analysis of George’s aesthetic ideals -- including genre considerations, for example his attitudes towards theater, music, and the visual arts, as well as his biographical, textual, and theoretical illustrations -- helps to understand George’s evolution from decadent symbolist to critical prophet. Throughout the course of his development, one can clearly perceive the ubiquity of homoeroticism as a synthesizing motif, even a catalyst, which underlies George’s aesthetic and poetic philosophy.

Preliminary Outline:

I.  Introduction and Background
A.  Definition of terms, noting overlap and interdependency: decadence, symbolism, aestheticism, homoeroticism
B.  Fin de siècle movements and topoi
1.  Symbolism and decadence: overview of relevant themes and authors, focusing on elements that will tie in to George in later chapters
        a.  French Symbolists, Huysmans
        b.  Wilde, Pater, Poe, Couperus
2.  Decadence and homoeroticism: often inseparable, but why the connection, and to what extent does George fit in?
        a.  Wilde, Gide, etc.
        b.  Other decadents
3.  Aestheticism and homoeroticism: forerunners and contemporaries of George
        a.  Platen
        b.  von Andrian
        c.  Brand and Der Eigene
4.  Aestheticism and Catholicism: not sure how to correlate these, but I’m working out the connection and George’s own use of Catholic/religious elements
5.  Catholicism and the Antike, as well as Nietzsche and others extremely relevant for George
6.  Cultural Criticism and Political Ideology: compare with other literary movements, will become important for George in sections VI and VII below
II.  George and Homosexuality / Homoeroticism
A.  In biography as well as poetry
1.  Maximin and other experiences, overall discussion of homoeroticism in George’s life
2.  Hofmannsthal
B.  In the George-Kreis
C.  In poetry: this will be the most detailed section, with analyses of individual poems as well as overarching themes and frequently occurring motifs analyzed in terms of homoerotic symbolism, tied in to section III-D.
D.  Excursus: George and Wilde
1.  Comparison of attitudes and gender roles
2.  Dandyism
3.  Public life / persona
4.  Aesthetics, etc.
III.  George and Symbolism / Decadence
A.  George’s place in European symbolism
B.  Characteristics and unique aspects of Georgian symbolism
C.  Excursus: Avant-Garde and George: examine his attitudes toward modernity and avant-garde
D.  Role of homoeroticism in George’s symbolism, with poetic examples, tied in to section II-C.
IV.  George and Aestheticism / Hellenism
A.  Greek and Roman imagery in poetry and in life
B.  Still undecided: tied in to homoeroticism how, exactly?
V.  George and Catholicism, Religious Imagery, Culticism, Ritual
A.  Examination of George’s poetic (religious) imagery
B.  Excursus: Ritualism and George, tied in to homoeroticism (see Braungart and others)
C.  Problems in reconciling Hellenism and Catholicism?
D.  Homoeroticism as vehicle / catalyst, leading to next section
VI.  George’s development / shift in aesthetic terms
A.  Include genre considerations (prose and theater vs. poetry)
B.  Excursus: George’s attitude toward other arts (music, visual arts) and change over time
C.  Homoeroticism as a unifying element
1.  As catalyst and as indicator of George’s development from ‘decadent’ to ‘aesthete’ to ‘prophet’
2.  Also as catalyst for shifting perceptions and reception of George in later years?
VII.  Influence / importance / relevance to current scholarship, as well as concluding statements

Written and © Nancy Thuleen in 2002 at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

If needed, cite using something like the following:
Thuleen, Nancy. "Stefan George: Homoeroticism as Catalyst and Synthesis." Website Article. 20 January 2002. <http://www.nthuleen.com/papers/dissabstract.html>.