Figures of Speech HOME

Page: 1 2 3

Warm beds and elevated feelings

Posted by Richard on UTC 2018-09-30 22:33.

A chapter of bed sharing

In Schubert's time the cultural space that would later be occupied by the concept of homosexuality was filled with an innocence that it is difficult for us in our prurient, polluted times and with our polluted minds to appreciate. Bed-sharing is one aspect of this.

We are in the foreign country of the past once more. Until very recently, the living conditions for the common people of Europe were cramped, even in rural locations, but immeasurably more so in the hovels of the rapidly expanding towns and cities. Personal space is the great modern luxury, one where even small children get their own rooms. Even the humblest bed and breakfast must now offer en-suite facilities. That's good. That's progress.

But let us not forget that across Europe, right up to the end of the 19th century, there was a large class of rootless artisans, craftsmen and apprentices who wandered to wherever they could find work and dossed down wherever and as best they could. For the great construction projects of the 19th century gangs of workers went wherever they could find work and lived as cheaply as they could. For all of these itinerants, having their own bed was a luxury – their own room an impossibility. At sea, with restricted space, it was quite normal for bunks to be shared by different watches – the bunk would never grow cold.

British readers may recall the folksong from the north-east of England Keep yer feet still, Geordie, hinnie that dates from the mid-19th century. The story is set in a boarding-house in a narrow bed shared by two male workers. Many Britons, too, will remember the comedy pair, Eric Morecambe and Ernie Wise, who frequently performed sketches in which they were both in one bed – a throwback to the times at the beginning of their career when they were two young entertainers short of cash. No one dreams of thinking that either Geordie and Bob Johnson in their 'little lodging house down by the shore' or Eric and Ernie in their shared bed in their theatrical digs were gay. For most people, until relatively recently, accommodation and money were both scarce commodities, but how quickly we forget!

For most moderns, the bed is now among their most personal and intimate possessions. In 1999 the British artist, Tracey Emin, caused some scandal when she exhibited her own seedy bed as an artefact from her own seedy life and a symbol of her own seedy personality.

In Schubert's time, few people could afford the luxury of a personal bed. Schubert, in his many changes of residence in Vienna, did not take a bed with him. Maynard Solomon takes it as indicative of some homosexual relationship that Schubert, whilst he is away in Linz in 1819, allowed a young student passing through Vienna to doss down in his bed in the rooms he shared with Mayrhofer. [Solomon 200] Schubert gave the student a letter of introduction that bade the generally saturnine Mayrhofer to be nice to the young man. [Dok 84] Solomon represents this as a sort of handover of some gay toyboy between two members of the Viennese chapter of Gays-'R-Us. This demonstrates just that lack of historic perspective into the past that distorts and invalidates all Solomon's reasoning.

Schubert was used to this cramped life: his family had lived fifteen years in an 'apartment' consisting of one room and one kitchen. In that time a dozen children were born here and nine of them died here. In 1801 the family moved into roomier accommodation in a house in the Säulengasse, but in comparison to Himmelpfortgrund, the dormitories of the Stadtkonvikt, into which he entered in 1808, must have seemed like heaven.

Apart from the times Schubert spent in the relatively spacious conditions he had when staying with Schober's family, he was the wandering musical artisan for his age. Deutsch counted seventeen addresses for the nomad in his brief life. [Dok 591]

In Schubert's time in Vienna sharing cramped apartments was a way of life for young men short of cash. The Schubert biography is full of incidents of bed and room sharing. Schubert dosses down in Anselm Hüttenbrenner's 'hutch' after a boozy evening that ended in the production of an autograph of Die Forelle. In September 1825, for an overnight stay in the Aumühle at Atzenbrugg, Bauernfeld, Schwind and Schober shared a 'wide' bed. [Dok 317] When the routes to their own homes were too onerous (and possibly dangerous in the dark), and/or they were all too drunk, Schubert and his friends frequently bunked down together in all kinds of permutations. No one gave this behaviour the slightest thought.

We would expect that there comes a point in the life of most nomads when space to sleep and work and live becomes attractive. As the elder statesmen of the Schubert circles one by one got well-paid jobs, married and/or moved away into stable accommodation, Schubert gained the companionship of the next generation.

His nomadic life continued for a while with Bauernfeld and Schwind, but towards the end we see a slowing down in his restlessness: he enjoyed something of that settled life with the Schobers in 1827 and the first half of 1828, followed by a room with brother Ferdinand's family in his last few months.

At his death the nomad Schubert left behind – apart from some clothes – one mattress, one pillow and one blanket.

A chapter of kisses

The letters within the Schubert circle are full of enthusiastic kisses and untramelled, openly expressed emotion. All this unrestrained emotion can be a puzzle for the modern time-traveller and create some difficulties for the translator: no one writes in this way anymore, in great streams of emotion.

A long essay could be written on the culture of kissing male friends in continental Europe, particularly in Catholic areas. Readers of the correspondence among the friends of the Schubert circles will recognise this and think nothing more of it. But even I can remember a time when, in these areas, male friends – and, of course, family members – kissed each other enthusiastically on any pretext. Coming from a repressed background I grew to enjoy it perhaps more than I should have, but also learned quickly that in Protestant areas a firm, manly handshake was quite sufficient.

A chapter of Empfindsamkeit

In order just to begin to understand this foreign country we have entered, we have to read plenty of 18th- and early 19th-century German literature. You could do worse than start with our piece on Klopstock's poem Der Zürchersee, in which you can accompany nine young couples who are still able to shout for joy and sing out their emotions in the boat taking them to an island paradise and the Hütten der Freundschaft, 'tabernacles of friendship'.

Poems were not just read aloud but 'sung' (that is, generally recited from memory). Klopstock is considered one of the leading representatives of the culture of Empfindsamkeit, 'sensitivity, receptivity, empathy, feeling' which became one of the dominant cultural themes in the second half of the 18th-century and persisted well into the 19th-century. (The translator knows that trouble is in store, when four English words need to be laid side-by-side to illuminate one German word.)

Empfindsamkeit is everywhere in this period. Modern readers will find the openness and directness of Johann Peter Hebel's (1760-1826) Unverhofftes Wiedersehen from 1811 charming – unattainably so in a modern work in English. The Empfindsamkeit of the Germanic soul reaches one of its highest points in Joseph von Eichendorff's (1788-1857) Mondnacht from 1835 – utterly untranslatable into an English that a modern will comprehend, but which in combination with Robert Schumann's wonderful 1840 setting will bring the stoniest German listener to tears.

Mondnacht
Es war, als hätt der Himmel
Die Erde still geküßt,
Daß sie im Blütenschimmer
Von ihm nun träumen müßt.
Moonlight night
It was as though the sky had quietly kissed the earth, so that the earth in the shimmer of blossom had to dream of the sky.
 
Und meine Seele spannte
Weit ihre Flügel aus,
Flog durch die stillen Lande,
Als flöge sie nach Haus.
And my soul stretched its wings out wide and flew over the quiet land, as though it were flying home.

Empfindsamkeit is not just in Hebel and Eichendorf, it is everywhere in that period. The cure for the modern polluted perception is to read the German diaries and correspondence of the period, which are almost universally full of deep and heartfelt emotion.

A chapter of manly emotions

Those who read the personal letters of the Schubert friends will find them brimming with Empfindsamkeit and openly expressed emotions. The modern reader finds such soul-searching odd, particularly since it occurs mainly between young men.

Indeed, the diligent reader who cares about such things may compare the enthusiastic, spirited tone of the letters exchanged between the men with the careful, restrained tone of letters written by females.

The very orderly, Biedermeier relationships between the sexes seem to have set limits on what was written down in communications between men and women, particularly in these times when letters might be opened at will by the authorities. Letters of passion were delivered by hand, often by go-betweens – we perhaps think of Franz Schober's clandestine communications from Breslau with Justina Bruchmann after the forced end of their secret engagement. The fate of male-female love letters was too often the fire, laments the historian.

For the men, however, there were no such inhibitions. As we have seen, there was at that time no concept of the homosexual male personality. The consequence is that men were free to express whatever emotions arose within them openly. And they did – we find expressions of feeling and emotion that today would never be written down by heterosexual men.

The language space in which one man could express his love for another was still uncluttered by assumed homosexual personality traits or physical actions. A man was free to do that without any risk of misunderstanding. No one at the time would assume that such Empfindsamkeit could at any moment topple over into the bubbling cauldron of homosexual practices.

This is the real meaning of the word-frequency charts reproduced in Chapter 1 and the reason why the modern reader must not jump to unwarranted, 21st-century conclusions.

In contrast, the innocence assigned to male-male letters could not be assumed in male-female letters – even the innocents of the Biedermeier age knew quite well where that could lead.

A chapter of joy

When Empfindsamkeit and Nature are stirred together we end up with the basis of the German Romantik, something that is utterly alien to our modern times, something from a very foreign country indeed.

It is not an accident that Eichendorff is the most popular lyricist of German song. The habit of singing is gradually declining in the ever more decadent German Lebensraum – there was a time when most German children would without realising it have at least one of his poems by heart (wrapped within a song) before they even went to school. As arguably the most popular German poet (even to this day) there are good grounds for believing that Eichendorff is saying things that many German readers agree with or believe or feel – and so in this sense he is a reliable proxy for that elusive thing, the German soul.

Let's just sample some fragments, picked more or less at random (except for Wünschelrute, which simply has to be in any selection).

Und über mir Lerchenlieder
Und unter mir Blumen bunt,
So werf ich im Grase mich nieder
Und weine aus Herzensgrund.
And above me the the songs of the larks and beneath me the colourful flowers, so I throw myself down on the grass and weep from my deepest heart.
Frühlingsfahrt
Es zogen zwei rüstge Gesellen
Zum ersten Mal von Haus
So jubelnd recht in die hellen
Klingenden, singenden Wellen
Des vollen Frühlings hinaus.
Spring journey
Two sturdy apprentices left home for the first time, went out rejoicingly into the bright ringing, singing waves of the full spring.
Wünschelrute
Schläft ein Lied in allen Dingen,
Die da träumen fort und fort,
Und die Welt hebt an zu singen,
Triffst du nur das Zauberwort.
Dowsing rod
If a song sleeps in every thing, those there dreaming on and on, and the world will rise up singing once you only find the magic word.
Wem Gott will rechte Gunst erweisen
Den schickt er in die weite Welt,
Dem will er seine Wunder weisen
In Feld und Wald und Strom und Feld.
Those whom God wants to favour, he sends them into the wide world, he wants to show them his wonders in field and wood and stream and field.
Und sein Hütlein in die Luft
Wirft der Mensch vor Lust und ruft:
Hat Gesang doch auch noch Schwingen,
Nun so will ich fröhlich singen!
And the man throws his hat up in the air for joy and cries: when song also has wings, so I shall now joyfully sing!

We moderns, we who live such agreeably cushioned lives but nevertheless still writhe, day in, day out, with a thousand fears and worries, we moderns struggle to understand the joyful hearts of the 18th and 19th centuries – the sheer lust for life.

How could this be, this happiness, in an age without effective drugs, without anaesthetics for operations or dentistry; in an age of dead infants, an age of disease and pestilence that would strike without warning and without apparent reason; life in an age of events that had no causal explanation; life in an age famed for its political repression and the misery of economic 'pauperism'.

A few people – of whom Johann Mayrhofer (1787-1836) was one – lived in a nearly perpetual dark hypochondria of one thing or the other (for Mayrhofer it was cholera). It would therefore be misleading for us to leave the impression that the period was only populated by Sunny Jims; there were plenty who tumbled into the mental darkness the Germans, those specialists at Weltschmerz and all other forms of gloom, describe so elegantly as geistig umnachtet, in 'spiritual night'.

Mayrhofer attempted suicide in the Danube in 1830, he finally succeeded by throwing himself out of a third-floor window in 1836; Heinrich von Kleist (1777-1811) killed himself in a grim double suicide in the woods; Friedrich Hölderlin (1770-1843) survived nearly forty years of madness in isolation; Friedrich Hebbel (1813-1863) died young after years of poverty and hunger; Johann Heinrich Merck (1741-1791), a friend of Goethe's, his gossipy letters an entertaining read, put a bullet through his heart; in the last quarter of the 18th century there were plenty of would-be Werthers who, following the example of the eponymous hero of Goethe's novel, killed themselves for love.

But in the depths of the German forest, the dark shadows only make the sunlight seem brighter, for in the midst of all this misery we are astonished at the calmness, humour and elevation of so many of the letters and diary entries from the period. We might even call them 'gay'.

In the particular case of Schubert there was much youthful joyfulness, but after 1823 syphilis knocked much of the youth and much of the joy out of him. The evidence is that he experienced from then on numerous dark, depressive moments with some patches of light between them. Whether his cluster of great compositions in the years 1827 and 1828 arose from the dark or from the light or the transition from one to the other– well, who can answer that question?

Page: 1 2 3