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The Great Gay-Jewish Poetry Brawl of 1829
[Image: heinrich.jpg?w=640]
Heinrich Heine unleashed a homophobic diatribe that caused considerable damage to his own career

In the shouty Valhalla of pointlessly destructive literary feuds, a place of honour must go to the verbal duel between the poets Heinrich Heine and August von Platen, which amused and disgusted the German literary world in 1829. Two outsiders—a Jew and a homosexual—resorted to crude stereotypes as they attempted to eject each other from an establishment that might rather have dispensed with both of them. More remarkably, this intersectional train wreck took place long before homosexuality emerged as a coherent identity. George Prochnik, in the vibrant new biography “Heinrich Heine: Writing the Revolution,” delivers a rollicking account of the episode, calling it “a game of blind-man’s buff played in explosive suits,” with Heine providing the climactic detonation.

In brief, the circumstances were these: Heine, a master of caustic wit and raw heartbreak, was in his early thirties and had found fame with his “Buch der Lieder” (“Book of Songs”), a collection of outwardly Romantic lyric poems with an ironic undertow that often escaped early readers. Platen bore a noble name—Count Platen-Hallermünde—but had grown up without financial advantages, serving in the military before turning to literature. He had won notice for finespun odes, sonnets, and adaptations of the Persian ghazal. Karl Immermann, a friend of Heine’s, had made cracks about pretentious poets who “vomit Ghaselen”; Heine quoted Immermann’s lines in one of his volumes of “Reisebilder” (“Travel Pictures”) that detoured into politics and literature. Platen, irrationally incensed by this run-of-the-mill literary sniping, struck back in a pseudo-Aristophanic comedy titled “The Romantic Oedipus,” deploying anti-Semitic epithets against Heine. The latter, in his next travelogue, “The Baths of Lucca,” unleashed a homophobic evisceration of Platen—which was widely viewed as overkill and caused considerable damage to Heine’s career. Platen, who already felt alienated from Germany and was based in Italy, said no more. He died of cholera six years later, in Syracuse, Sicily.

Heine retains a high international profile, not least on account of monumental musical settings of his verse by Schubert and Schumann. The poet’s revolutionary sympathies, highlighted in Prochnik’s book, have given him lasting progressive prestige. Platen, however, needs some introduction. His writing may suffer from pretension and hauteur, particularly in comparison with Heine’s earthy brilliance, but his most polished poems have a fine, surging rhythm, and when they land on the topic of forbidden desire they exude a gloomy power. Platen had been enduring intense platonic crushes on handsome contemporaries since his teen-age years, and published several sonnet sequences to the objects of his affections, after the manner of Shakespeare’s tributes to the mysterious “Mr. W. H.” One of a series of sonnets dedicated to his fellow-poet Karl Theodor German ends with these lines:

O how sweet it is that I can flee
To distant regions and can breathe
On a foreign beach in friendlier zones.
Where the last of my bonds have been torn,
Where the wage of noble love is hate and
Ingratitude—how sick I am of my fatherland!

The final line raised eyebrows for decades afterward. In 1885, the conservative historian Heinrich von Treitschke, one of the chief architects of German imperial chauvinism, accused Platen of having engendered a “new, unpleasant variety of German cosmopolitanism.” Platen was, indeed, far from reactionary in his attitudes, as Thomas Mann emphasized in a 1930 essay: “He was a political poet after Heine’s own heart.”

Anti-Semitism does not figure strongly in Platen’s writing. Another of his comedies, “The Fatal Fork,” features an appealing Jewish protagonist named Schmuhl, a wise everyman. Max Brod, in his biography of Heine, notes that Schmuhl is given the wonderful line “And the lamps of heaven are extinguished when the last poet dies.” The insults directed against Heine in “The Romantic Oedipus” are stupid but not exactly venomous: “Baptized Heine, pride of the synagogue . . . Pindar of the little tribe of Benjamin.” There is even a gay joke, as the character Nimmermann says of Heine, “He’s my friend, but I don’t want to be his sweetheart; / Because his kisses smell of garlic.” Platen is engaging in a kind of verbal street fighting for which his snobby sensibility is unsuited, and he shows woefully little awareness of the capacities of his opponent—one of the most slashingly funny writers who ever lived, a Paganini of snark.

The very casualness of Platen’s anti-Semitism rightly enraged Heine because it was symptomatic of a societal prejudice that was inescapable and well-nigh universal. One of the great flourishes in “The Baths of Lucca” is a mock tirade about how Platen’s anti-Jewish gibes are too tame to merit serious consideration. I quote from the translation by Jefferson Chase, who analyses Heine’s wit in his book “Inciting Laughter”:

In “King Oedipus” [“The Romantic Oedipus”] you can read about how I’m really a Jew; how, after a few hours of writing love poetry, I sit right down and start circumcising ducats, how I spend every Sabbath squatting around with long-bearded Moishes singing the Talmud, how on Easter night I slaughter some defenceless Christian, always selecting some unfortunate writer out of pure malice—No, dear reader, I refuse to deceive you. Such well-drawn images are nowhere to be found in “King Oedipus,” and the fact that they aren’t is the only flaw I’m criticizing. Now and then Count Platen gets his hands on the best of motifs and doesn’t know how to use them. If he only had a tiny bit more imagination, he would have at least depicted me as a covert pawnbroker: what comic scenes suggest themselves!

If Heine had left it at that, modern readers might sympathize with him fully. Certainly, it is hard not to laugh along with Heine’s merrier insults: “In Munich, Platen is a household name among all who know him, and he will certainly be immortal as long as he lives.” But Heine did not leave it at that; for better or worse, he was constitutionally incapable of leaving it at that.

The critique of Platen’s homosexuality proceeds on several levels, from the lofty to the trashy. One may as well begin with the trashy—a barrage of anal-sex jokes that must have gone down well in frat houses of the period. Heine pictures Platen going around Munich wearing a laurel wreath, and then claims that one of the poet’s acolytes was seen in the Munich Hofgarten with the “shadow of a laurel wreath between his coattails.” Heine says that he didn’t mind that Platen openly despised him, for that was preferable to “having Count Platen love me behind my back as an intimate friend.” He reports that a friend of his had described Platen’s poems with the word “Sitzfleisch”—the German expression for sitting long hours at work. Heine asks, “You are surely referring to their painstaking formal excellence?” The friend responds, “I’m also referring to their content”—buttocks. Heine also compares Platen to an ostrich who buries his head in the sand, “leaving his backside waving in the air.” And, having set up allusions to Emperor Nero and his marriage to the freed male slave Pythagoras, Heine delivers the kicker: “The Count actually wishes we were all Neros and he, our singularly special friend Pythagoras.” To use modern parlance, Platen wants to be the bottom in a gang bang. (Heine misread the Roman sources here: Nero played the bridal role in the relationship with Pythagoras.)

Amid the school boyish sniggering, it is difficult to accept Heine’s mock-earnest announcement that he has nothing against his rival’s private life. Still, he does mount an interesting argument to the effect that Platen’s poetry suffers from its inability to achieve sexual candour. According to Heine, Platen might have become a real poet if he were living in Roman times, enjoying the uninhibitedness of a writer like Petronius. (Heine cannot resist adding, “And if he were a completely different person than he actually is.”) Instead, hemmed in by social norms, Platen is oblique, repressed, “sober and timorous.” It’s almost as if Heine were judging Platen against the standards of modern gay culture, according to which an artist who remains closeted would be often described as stifled and self-loathing. The obvious problem is that coming out of the closet was not a viable option in 1829, decades before the first glimmerings of a gay-rights movement in Germany. In fact, Platen was as bold as he could possibly have been, testing the limits of what was publishable. He had endured other attacks on his sexuality and had become alienated from German society as a result. Karl Kraus, a later master of the no-holds-barred polemic, castigated Heine for showing no awareness of the “diversity of sexual love.”

But there is a further twist to the literary assault, one that might get to the heart of the matter. In an enormously long paragraph, mock-scholarly in tone, Heine takes apart Platen’s much lauded technical excellence, his command of meter and rhythm and rhyme. Platen has power over language, we are told, but he merely overpowers it, and, like the young men he pines after, it does not love him back. The poems are mere virtuosity: all form, no content. “Never do profound natural voices, such as we find in popular song and in the mouths of children and other poets, issue from the soul of a Platen, to blossom in the form of a revelation,” Heine tells us. This is exactly the kind of critique to which Jewish writers, artists, and composers have so often been subjected: they may acquire fluency in German culture, but it remains foreign to them. Heine has triumphantly turned the tables, using the homosexual framing to condemn the formal emptiness of a poet who otherwise satisfies all the requirements of true Germanness. The high aristocrat with his sixty-four ancestors is exposed as effete and decadent. The problem, as Prochnik writes, is that Heine chose the wrong target. He simply victimized a fellow-outsider.

The fallout was disastrous for both men. Although Platen was hardly a popular figure, the sheer cruelty of “The Baths of Lucca” turned sentiment in his favor. Prochnik argues that the affair more or less spelled the end for Heine’s ambitions in Germany: his hopes of becoming a professor in Munich were dashed. He left for Paris in 1831, where he remained for the rest of his life. Anti-Semitism undoubtedly played a role in the backlash: characterizations of Heine as a pitiless mocker accorded with stereotypes of Jewish malevolence. In the end, though, things were worse for Platen. He had been shamed on a monumental scale, and it is for this shaming that he is best remembered. Heine had anticipated this outcome at the beginning of his diatribe against Platen: “I shall play my part in making him known, even famous.”

The great German literary critic Hans Mayer, who was both Jewish and gay, has a chapter about the Heine-Platen affair in his book “Outsiders,” which first appeared in German in 1975 and has undeservedly gone out of print in its English translation. Mayer was trained in the post-Marxist tradition and had connections with the Frankfurt School, but in “Outsiders” he focusses on the mechanics of gender, sexuality, and racial identity, which were historically underserved in Marxist thought. In the case of Heine and Platen, Mayer demonstrates how each poet off-loads onto the other the kind of bigoted stereotype under which he himself suffers. Each tries to escape the margin by pushing the other from the centre. It is, in the end, a sorrowful spectacle—a “double phenomenon of self-identification of the attacker with what he attacks.” Both men lose, because they are, in the end, fighting themselves.
Note: No trees were destroyed in the sending of this contaminant free message. However, I do concede, a significant number of electrons may have been inconvenienced.
[-] The following 1 member Likes andy's post:
  • Cardiganwearer

Never stop digging out these snippets. They're always interesting even if they don't prompt a discussion, or even a reply. They're always a good read.

This one is excellent, a spat between to poets nearly 200 years ago. It really doesn't matter now, except it does. It shows us that humanity doesn't change much and people can take big risks in trying to triumph in an essentially trivial argument where there are no winners. Refreshing, too, to see a bit of Marxist literary analysis. I didn't think anyone still did that.

Some great turns of phrase in there. Who wouldn't aspire to be the Paganini of snark.

Keep up the good work.

(... That's quite enough sucking up to the management, thank you ...)
[-] The following 1 member Likes Cardiganwearer's post:
  • andy

Thanks @Cardiganwearer... will keep posting them! Wink I find them quite intriguing too!
Note: No trees were destroyed in the sending of this contaminant free message. However, I do concede, a significant number of electrons may have been inconvenienced.

Interesting when anyone Jewish acts out homophobia. From my personal experience, and from numerous anecdotes over many decades, Jewish males, especially when young, are ( as we say in Oz) 'up each other like rats up a drainpipe'.
I’m somewhat dissapointed though to learn Heine was inclined towards such attacks having been an admirer of his poetry as used by Schumman and Shubert.

Aus meinen Tränen sprießen
Viel blühende Blumen hervor,
Und meine Seufzer werden
Ein Nachtigallenchor.

Und wenn du mich lieb hast, Kindchen,
Schenk’ ich dir die Blumen all’,
Und vor deinem Fenster soll klingen
Das Lied der Nachtigall. From my tears spring forth
many a flower in bloom,
and my sighs become
a choir of nightingales.

And if you love me, little one,
I will give you all the flowers,
and at your window shall sound
the song of the nightingale. Back to Song List

Little one? Maybe von Platen should have accused Heine of being a pedophile?

I’ve been a lover of German art song (Lieder) since forever but resist the tempation to post examples on music sections of the forum as even most classical music lovers find it heavy going.

I’m not so sure I detect the odour of marxist analysis in that essey but then I’m no expert in dialectical materialism.
[-] The following 1 member Likes Karl Rand's post:
  • andy

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