Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Beachy's Gay Berlin

While it offers little that is new, this book is readable, covering an important period in gay history. Beachy was not ploughing fresh ground - not even in the English-speaking world. Exactly forty years ago, there appeared the breakthrough book of John Lauritsen and David Thorstad, The Early Homosexual Rights Movement (1864-1935). Anyone who was keeping abreast of these matters in those exciting days of gay liberation read this revelatory book. I certainly did. It was buttressed by a similar volume by James Steakley. Then in 1975, the Arno Press issued an important set of reprints, including a volume of Documents of the Homosexual Rights Movement in Germany (1836-1927), as well as stout volumes by K.H. Ulrichs, Benedict Friedlaender, and Ferdinand Kaarsch-Haack. The last volume is particularly important since it covers same-sex behavior among tribal peoples, a true first. Initially, Magnus Hirschfeld's magnum opus of 1914 was hard to find, but then it was republished in Germany and translated into English. So for anyone curious to look - and we all should be - a lot of valuable information has been available now for years.

These publications were the foundation of the material summarized in the Encyclopedia of Homosexuality, which appeared in New York in 1990.

Beachy does offer an innovation of a sort. He accepts the Social Constructionist view that the modern homosexual identity emerged in the second half of the nineteenth century. However, he wishes to shift the primary locus of that change from Britain, France and the US to Germany, specifically to Berlin. The reason it seems is the interaction of two factors: an upsurge of elite scholarly and medical writing, some of it by homosexuals themselves; and the flowering of a bar and entertainment subculture. The last was swept away after 1933, to be reinvented after World War II. As for the writings, some of which I have mentioned above, their circulation was limited to a small circle of intellectuals. It is not clear how these two disparate factors interacted to produce a new identity. Now somewhat dated, the identity thesis is itself questionable, inasmuch as human beings have engaged in same-sex acts from time immemorial.

Some have complained that all this is ancient history - of only antiquarian interest. What does this stuff have to do with us? There are in fact several connections. In 1924 when Henry Gerber started the first (unfortunately temporary) gay rights group in Chicago. he was specifically imitating the German groups. As a soldier, Gerber had been stationed with the US Army in Germany. Later, when it was launched in LA, the gay movement as we came to know it adopted the term "homophile." This expression was invented by a German, a man named Karl-Günther Heimsoth: via Isherwood and others the adjective came to circulate among the LA founders. Finally, Kinsey amassed a large collection of the German books, some of which he had translated for the use of his own group. Kinsey also emulated Hirschfeld's system of gathering masses of case histories.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Alan Turing film

I got round to seeing "The Imitation Game" yesterday. I found it to be more accurate than I had expected. Moreover, since it was not a documentary, one must allow for dramatic license - especially if it is in a good cause. Yet how much is this a good cause? Mainly it is I think, but still there are elisions and exaggerations that are misleading.
Here are three significant flaws.
1) As usual, the Polish contribution in the thirties is obscured. Polish mathematicians cracked the code and hit on the idea of a machine to keep up with the daily German changes. Turing's more elaborate machine was an extension of this principle. In the movie the Poles are only given fleeting credit for bringing the machine itself, not for their essential work in dealing with it.
2) Turing seems to have had no contact with the Soviet spy. That fictional relationship seems to be put in to suggest, falsely, that Bletchley Park had something to do with Stalingrad. It did not. It was the Red Army that won the war - not as bizarrely suggested here, Alan Turing. At the end of the film we are told that historians believe that Turing shortened the war by two years. What historians?
3) Turing's arrest and conviction for homosexual offenses were horrible. However, the chemical castration was temporary and he ended it about a year before his apparent suicide. There is no certainty that he did it with a poisoned apple.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

The Transatlantic Migration

The rise of Nazism forced many professors and other intellectuals to leave Germany, generally for the English-speaking countries. The Austrians came soon after. There were smaller contingents from Hungary, Italy, and France. I have a personal interest in this matter because by and large these are the brilliant individuals who educated me.

Recently the fructifying effect of this elite migration has been the subject of a good many monographs. Generally, these are organized on a disciplinary basis. An exception, casting a wider net is Mitchell G. Ash and Alfons Söllner, eds., Forced Migration and Scientific Change: Emigré German-speaking Scientists and Scholars after 1933, Cambridge, 2002 (Publications of the German Historical Institute). Among the topics included in this book are these: physics, life, and contingency: Born, Schrödinger, and Weyl in exile; the impact of German medical scientists on British medicine: a case study of Oxford, 1933–45; emigré psychologists after 1933: the cultural coding of scientific and professional practices; psychoanalysis: from Oedipus to culture; dismissal and emigration of German-speaking economists after 1933; the Vienna Circle in the United States and empirical research methods in sociology; from public law to political science.

Here is a new classification, emphasizing disciplinary cross-overs.

THE HUMANISTS.  The operated in a whole array of fields, including history, classics, literary studies, art history, musicology, political theory, and traditional philosophy (e. g. Theodor Mommsen, WernerJaeger, Erich Auerbach, Erwin Panofsky, Manfred Bukofzer, Hannah Arendt, and Ernst Cassirer). These scholars sought to provide more searching and precise interpretations of traditional culture, without intending to rock the boat.

THE SUBVERSIVES. Most prominent were the Marxists (Herbert Marcuse, Theodor Adorno), though they had to tread carefully because of anticommunism. Then there were the logical positivists (Rudolf Carnap, Hans Reichenbach) who sought to demolish all earlier philosophy, replacing it with a new model ostensibly more suited to a scientific age. In art, the surrealists and abstractionists wanted to replace earlier art with their own creations, as did modernist architects such as Walter Gropius and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. Finally, the Freudians and other psychotherapists practiced subversion on the individual level.

THE SCIENTISTS and MATHEMATICIANS allied with them. Here Albert Einstein is the iconic figure. However, there were also crack mathematicians such as Kurt Gödel and John von Neumann. For their part, Enrico Fermi, Edward Teller and others were instrumental in creating the atomic bomb.

THE PERFORMING ARTISTS.  They sought to raise standards in their own field.  Conductors included Julius Rudel and Bruno Walter; composers, Paul Hindemith and Arnold Schoenberg.  Hollywood and Southern California welcomed directors like Ernst Lubitsch and Billie Wilder, and also writers like Bertold Brecht and Thomas Mann.


Yesterday at the Metropolitan Museum of Art I took in the current exhibition of Cézanne's portraits of his companion, later his wife, Hortense Fiquet. The sitter seems lost in a world all her own, while the artist's approach is cool and detached. Contrast the large offering of Picasso's portraits of his own wife in his later years, Jacqueline Roque, now at Pace. The big canvases are filled with fiery colors and the quasiexpressionistic distortions of the artist's later years. Why this difference? Is it the glacial, methodical Frenchman, a true disciple of Descartes, vs. the Spaniard's "fandango" exuberance?

I don't think so. I learned from E. H. Gombrich to be wary of the temptation of the physiognomic fallacy, to try to psychoanalyze portraits for a true index of feelings. The art of portraiture has its own conventions, which offset any emotional weighting we may detect in them.

The relationship of Cézanne and his wife was stable, so both must have been satisfied with it. And so was Picasso's relationship with Jacqueline, who proved a highly competent manager of his household and not just a sex object.…/listings/…/madame-cezanne

Friday, December 05, 2014

Nietzsche and Pound

I am currently working on a piece comparing and contrasting two archetypically controversial figures of modern times: Friedrich Nietzsche and Ezra Pound. Electronic searches have yielded several respectful comments by Pound in his earlier years regarding the German thinker.
Yet quite by accident I came across a real gem. Writing in 1933 about the concept of the Will to Power, Pound dismissed N. as a "hysterical teuto-pollak," managing to combine two ethnic stereotypes into one put-down. In a sense his source was Nietzsche himself, because the philosopher believed himself to be of aristocratic Polish extraction (a view that has since been refuted). When Nietzsche's writings were first received in the US, however, some ascribed his emotional intensity to his "Slavonic" heritage.
After teaching for many years in an inner-city college, I learned to be wary of stereotypes based on my students' background. Any assumptions of that kind were almost invariably wrong. Many though still cherish such judgments.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Lost in translation?

A recent list in The Guardian proposed 100 novels that one should read.  They were all in English, and this is surely not right.  Still the question arose of the adequacy of translations.  Here is my response.

How much in fact can one gain from reading a novel in translation, as distinct from the original text? Balzac, for example. wrote at great speed and with little attention to linguistic precision; his novels are important for character. plot, and social analysis. So go ahead and read them in translation: you won't miss much. With Flaubert it is just the opposite. He claimed. a little improbably, to have spent three days on a single sentence. Flaubert's exquisite music only comes through in the original. 

A classic of modern Italian literature, Quer pasticciaccio brutto de Via Merulana by Carlo Emilio Gadda, presents a different problem because of the writer's extensive use of Roman dialect. Once I could handle it. but no longer. The Trimalchio scene in Petronius' Satyricon similarly characterizes the arriviste by his use of vulgar Latin instead of the literary standard.

Thursday, November 06, 2014

Post-Midterm reflections

The results of the election had been predicted. Still, once the returns were in, I would have expected some reexamination on the part of adherents of both parties.
As an independent who is generally skeptical of the way politics is conducted in this country, I can offer some objective (I think) comments. I am not surprised at the Republican gloating: they are not good at introspection in the first place, and judge, not unrealistically, that they did well. Their main problem is to contain the excesses of the Tea Party, while appearing to conciliate them - a tough assignment.
What I keep seeing though is the same-old Democratic Party memes. One is that, after all, Obama is really wonderful, when clearly he is not. Another is the notion that rank-and-file Republican voters are stupid and voted against their own interest. As a number of analysts have shown, these voters are (alas, perhaps) not voting against their own interests, as they (not the punditocracy) perceive them. But are they stupid, we are told. This is a problematic assertion for supposed believers in popular sovereignty to make. Trust the people - except when they are overruled by the bicoastal elites.
Another illusion is the notion that if the qualified nonvoters had voted the results would have been different. A number of academic studies have shown that in the aggregate nonvoters would have voted much the same as voters. If we would end disenfranchisement - especially of ex-offenders - the results might be different. But I am speaking of the electorate as we actually have it.
Then there is the notion that demography will bury the Republicans. That does not seem to be happening now - and may be a pie-in-the-sky vision anyway.
I am far from saying (as some maps seem to suggest) that the US has become a Republican country. It may become so, though, if liberals do not relinquish their tendency to recycle their own tired memes about how superior they are to the yahoos. The "yahoos" are Americans like the rest of us. As people with modest resources they ought to command the sympathy of the liberal elite. But they do not

Monday, November 03, 2014

Goethe and the gay-friendly approach

The term "gay friendly" is commonly used to designate places and institutions that make an effort to welcome gay men and lesbians. Gay friendly, however, are also courageous individuals who without having any personal stake in the matter defend gay rights, sometimes vociferously. A case in point is the NFL player Chris Kluwe, whose energetically stated writings leave no doubt where he stands.
While this enlightened approach is currently prominent, it is not new. Perhaps the first eminent gay-friendly person was the German writer J. W. von Goethe (1749-1832). Basing himself largely on his studies of classical antiquity, Goethe repeatedly stressed the continuity and naturalness of same-sex love. Until recently, there have been efforts to obscure this aspect of the writer's work, especially in Germany, where he is a national institution. Conversely, a few have sought to "out" Goethe, even though it is unlikely that he ever gave physical expression to his perceptions.
The tendency to posit a "gay Goethe" illustrates an uncritical tendency that sometimes occurs in histories of homosexuality - to reason from the work to the life. Once the continuity of the gay-friendly theme is recognized, this mistake should become less common.

A major dichotomy

Today the world hangs in the balanced (I do not think that is an exaggeration) with regard to the legal position of same-sex conduct.
Medieval and early modern Europe had inherited the repressive approach stemming from the Bible and enshrined by Theodosius and his successors in the late Roman Empire: sodomy, so called, must be severely repressed. With unfortunate ramifications, this approach was reinforced by Henry VIII in his anti buggery law of 1537.
In 1791, however, the French National Assembly struck down the feudal sodomy laws in that country, a wise step reaffirmed by the Code Napoleon. French armies secured, in effect, the sodomy exemption in Italy, Spain, the Netherlands, and French Switzerland. Most of the rest of Europe, including the UK remained unreformed. Still the beneficent effects of the Code spread to Latin America, and also to such distant countries as Ottoman Turkey and Japan.
But the repressive legacy of Britain also spread, notably to the Caribbean and to British India. In the US we have only recently freed ourselves from this malign legacy. Sadly, the repressive torch (if that is the right term) of repression has been taken up by Muslim-majority countries. Colonial French West Africa, once freed of the scourge because of the Code, has been overtaken by it, because of Islamic influence and also the mistaken notion that same-sex love is a "Western imposition."
I wish I could say that a favorable outcome of this Manichaean struggle was assured, but it is not.

Presocratics - Open questions

The two postings following this one are two tentative efforts to understand an ancient conundrum, the Presocratics of Greece.  Here is an introduction to the issues.


1.  What is the best overall term for this current: Presocratic, Preplatonic, or first philosophers?

2.  Was Thales truly the first?  What is the status of Hesiod and the Orphics in this regard?

3.  Was there (as the conventional view has it) a sharp break with the Near East and Egypt, or were there important elements of continuity?

4.  Did science, heralding its later development, start with the Ionians?  Or later with Democritus?

5.  Why was there so much focus on opposites, as seen in the famous table that Aristotle ascribes to the Pythagoreans?

6.  How many of the thinkers were involved in pederastic relationships?

7.  Did the philosophy of Being start with Parmenides?