Karl Hugo Pruys
Die Liebkosungen des Tigers. Eine erotische Goethe-Biographie
Berlin: edition q, 1997. Pp. 228. DM 34.00
Reviewed by Holger A. Pausch

The fact that Reuters, one of the most influential news agencies, considered the publication of a popular biography on Goethe dealing with his sexuality as newsworthy enough to send around the world, could be considered a most remarkable situation, for this honor is rarely accorded to books. For this reason alone, I believe that Pruys’s “erotic” Goethe biography deserves a closer look, even though it is obviously not intended as a scholarly treatise on Goethe’s homoerotic inclinations as reflected in his life and works.

It is the ambition of this inoffensive and entertaining book to destroy all those well-known legends and heavily romanticized fables which characterize Goethe as a womanizer, untamed and wild (187). And indeed, more than a few of these fabrications continue to persist, a fact to which every German student is able to attest. In Pruys’s view, Goethe should be observed as a writer who suffered under his ambivalent sexuality because societal and juridical prejudices forced him to hide his true identity. Having studied law, Goethe was of course very aware of the legal reprisals regarding homosexual acts (43). Under these unpleasant, oppressive, and dangerous conditions, Pruys argues, Goethe gave in to societal pressures and expectations when, in his middle years (1788), he entered into intimate relations with Christiane Vulpius (12). All of his other so-called “love affairs,” along with their heart-rendering and dramatically staged separations, constituted nothing more than a facade devised to hide his inability to physically relate to women (15). As a man and a poet, Goethe loved all young women as a “plurality,” but none of them as individuals who would induce sexual desire (39). He was an affectionate and tender lover who kept his distance, and who in his younger years, most likely never “bared a woman’s breasts” (35).

Instead, men such as Daniel Salzmann, Herder, Lavater, Jacobi, Klinger, Lenz (67), and many others not mentioned by the author, were Goethe’s objects of emotional and intellectual desire as they consistently took center stage in his existence. Pruys describes Goethe’s erotic relationship with Ernst Wolfgang Behrisch in Leipzig and later his obsession with Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi, a philosopher six years senior to the then twenty-five-year-old Goethe. Pruys claims, without any possible concrete evidence, that Jacobi was the most handsome man Goethe had ever laid eyes on when he hopelessly fell in love with him (53). As he continues his “revealing” line of argumentation supported by numerous suggestive quotes from Goethe’s works, letters, and the correspondence of his contemporaries, Pruys suggests possible physical encounters with the young Carl August after drinking parties at court or the Thuringian hunting-lodge. Similarly unrelated claims are made to support Goethe’s supposed homosexuality: his interest in homosexual conditions in Italy (108); his passion for disguises (37); his collection of silken underwear-178 pants and undershirts to be exact (132); his original ink drawings, including one work which depicts an antique statue fash­ioned with a tremendous erect penis and huge testicles (107); his passion for pornographic voyeurism, which in later years he hides behind his love for art (19); his defense of “Greek love” etc., etc. Nevertheless, it is ultimately refreshing to follow Pruys’s reasoning with all the highly circumstantial evidence it entails, though some of this evidence is substantial and important in nature.

Such assertions, however, target neither the central problem nor the difficulties of Goethe’s vita erotica at hand. First of all, it should be mentioned that Pruys’s pretense to outdo Goethe scholarship by claiming to have suddenly unearthed realia in Goethe’s life previously hidden but now exposed is purely a sales gimmick. Both Goethe scholarship and the author’s contemporaries were aware of his sexual “ambivalence” or “bisexuality” (neither term is fully adequate or precise). The difficulty of Pruys’s book is best understood in connection with the following sequence of questions: Why has the homoerotic, homosocial, and homoplatonic discourse been “edited out of scholarship on German Classicism despite the period’s strong identification with Greek antiquity” (A. Kuzniar, ed., Outing Goethe and His Age [Stanford UP, 1996] 15)? Why “against their better knowledge, scholars of German culture have for the last 200 years regularly falsified literary history by assuming, consciously or not, that the complex period known as the Age of Goethe was fundamentally structured along heterosexual lines” (S. Richter, in Kuzniar 33)? Lastly, how was it possible to appropriate and colonize Goethe as a figurehead for national propaganda and ideological indoctrination purposes when the strategies employed by nineteenth- and twentieth-century Germanists have no use whatsoever for Goethe’s same-sex inclination? In fact, his homosexuality had to be covered up and “edited out” at all costs in order to make him a suitable representative of nationalistic ideology. Traditional conservative factions of German literary scholarship for the main part carried out this project with great success. Soon these critics represented a section of scholarship which was all but synonymous with the notion of homophobia. Pruys raises none of these questions, a fact that might be excusable insofar as his monograph is not intended for the scholarly community, but rather for a broader and more general readership, one which would better appreciate the “scandal” of Goethe’s hidden sexual agenda.

Less forgivable is the fact that considering the number of trail-blazing publications in the course of the last thirty years, the author is happily or sadly unaware of fundamental concepts in cultural history and theory, feminist and queer theory or of basic trends in gender, feminist, and gay studies. Eve Sedgwick’s Epistemology of the Closet, Foucault’s The Order of Things or, more importantly, his History of Sexuality compose a basic corpus of material essential to the understanding of theories of sexuality. None of these works is even cited. In the context of Goethe, this book does not even come close to a gender-transitive reading of late-eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century same-sex relationships, a time when gender polarity had not yet reached its peak and when the neologism “homosexual” had not even been invented. In brief, Pruys’s pseudo-psychologizing style, which characterizes this presumptuous book, does not do justice to Goethe’s sexuality in the context of his cultural environment. As the book stands, the reader does not find much more than twentieth-century clichés superimposed on Goethe and commonly held views which contend that the typical “homosexual” is a closet case who suffers under his same-sex desires in his silken “drag” underwear. Thus, the yield of this work is not very impressive. However, his biography does for the first time introduce this topic to a larger audience not versed in Goethe scholarship, and because of this reason alone, one might dare to postulate that Pruys’s contribution could be considered positive. Yet, as is frequently the case with “love-affairs,” particularly this author’s with Goethe (5), one might wish that the pursuer, in this case Pruys, would have been more experienced in the field of cultural studies and better informed about his “object of desire,” namely Goethe and his age.