April 15, 2021

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The Great Gay-Jewish Poetry Brawl of 1829

6 min read
Heinrich Heine unleashed a homophobic diatribe that caused considerable damage to his own career.Photograph from Getty

In the shouty Valhalla of pointlessly destructive literary feuds, a place of honor 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 trainwreck 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 analyzes 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 defenseless 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.)

Alex Ross

2021-02-05 10:00:00

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