By GRIFFIN SMITH-NICHOLS
In a photo dated 1904, the German poet, translator par excellence of Shakespeare and Baudelaire and consummate “aesthetic fundamentalist” Stefan George poses with glowering magnetism in the midst of a spindly crop of German youths, as he was wont to do. This was an early incarnation of the later-dubbed “George-Kreis,” an inner circle of Philhellenists, Renaissance men and introspective esthetes which included the von Stauffenberg brothers, the future would-be assassins of Hitler and which fascinated and perplexed some of the highest names in German literature: Rilke, Thomas Mann and others all met (and occasionally sparred) with George and his acolytes.
Like the central figure of a latter-day Pythagorean cult, obsessed with Hellenic and medieval pageantry, George dons a flowing, laurel-wreathed Dante costume; a fellow Kreis-member dressed as Homer stands beside him, and George himself has his arm wrapped tenderly about the shoulders of a pale-cheeked, milky-eyed youth in the garb of a Florentine squire, his hands gripped nervously at his hips. He was an unsuspecting München youth named Maximilian Kronberger, and he would die of meningitis a mere few months later. George was crushed; one passage from the Lieder included in Der Siebente Ring, published in 1907, reads:
“Nun muss ich gar
Um dein aug und haar
Im sehnen leben.”
George had first caught sight of Maximilian in 1902, and swiftly wormed a place for himself in the then 13-year-old boy’s family life. A flurry of courteously-exchanged introductions and wholesome dining sessions later, the two, the former more than 20 years the senior of the latter, soon met regularly. Maximilian notes in his personal diary that, among other topics of conversation, George insinuated in honey-sweet prose and suggested the purity of Platonic, eromenos-erastes courtship, a friendship that George believed surpassed the frigid bonds of bourgeois married life.
These Hellenic airs nevertheless soon became mired in things unsavory. It seems George’s ideals, their essentially exploitative nature aside, were lost on the youthful object of his affections. Shortly after the incident below, described in Maximilian’s journal, the two almost permanently parted ways:
“George had me wait abnormally long, although he was in the adjacent room. Finally he came, stretched out his hand to me and regarded me a long while… That I should have had no time on Sunday, is a naked excuse, he knows this from his boyhood, etc. Also for the coming Sunday it was a stupid excuse. There he turned himself to me, set his forehead in wrinkles and threatened me with a finger. Then he sat himself at the writing desk and began, if I had no time or, as the case may be, not the will to come, if he should have time, so too he would have neither the time nor the will to receive me, if I came. I bid a cold adieu and extended my hand, but he was utterly unseeing… Do I need to let myself be badmouthed by him like a schoolboy?”
George’s aggressive pederasty was as much a bitter indictment of the cultural stagnation of the prewar fin-de-siècle as it was, to any other observer, emotional manipulation. The social strata of Wilhelmine and later Weimar Germany were anathema to George’s peculiar brand of bleached, anti-modern aestheticism: München itself, in one poem of the “Der Siebente Ring” cycle, is described as a rare urban center not yet “infested” by the “double poison” of moneylending or the roughshod schlepping of the great unwashed; other such cities are, however, beyond hope. The nameless massed Volk becomes “dumpfe,” idiotic, pedantic, disfigured in its lethargy in George’s prose and verse. In “Die Tote Stadt,” where the “menge tages feilscht und abens tollt,” worn cloth and the sickly visage of urban poverty clashes with the “frevel” of luxuriousness of palaces perched high above the slums in lordly arrogance.
To counter the debris and corruption that industrializing Germany availed itself of, George dreamed of a savior: a curly-haired god that teasingly sings to him in his proverbial crypt in the poem “Der Kampf.” Maximilian’s death, then, while striking like a dolorous hammer-blow to George’s emotional well being, became the catalyst for a new religion that George scholars have dubbed an Erlösungreligion, the salvation that would be brought by the coming Apollonian savior-youth; a “schöne große Seele” could still be achieved, even in the midst of a rotten society.
The effusive elegies that followed Maximilian’s death and George’s prolonged period of poetic stagnation elevate the Bavarian cherub to dizzying epithetic heights. In one such selection entitled “Der Widerchrist,” an unnamed salvation figure performs the miracle of turning water into wine; trees uproot themselves to follow the sweetness of his passage. Maximilian is renamed Maximin, deliberately evocative of Imperial Rome; delivering godly kisses to his followers, he becomes a Christ-like incarnation of Orpheus. Maximin deified became a Germanic Antinous, subject to adulation and grief as if he were youth incarnate.
Before the term acquired the noxious connotations with which it is currently irreparably saddled, George styled himself Meister, à la Wagner, or Führer of this new religion in a distinctly Platonic mode: this was an intellectual-leader-pederast who would raise the geheimes Deutschland from its bourgeois fetters and lead the new century into an epoch of light, governed by a loving, masculine ethos. That the erstwhile Maximin had very nearly severed all ties with George seemed unimportant; the dreams of an androphile paradise collapsed with the George-Kreis itself with the death of its crusted, sickly progenitor.
Herein lies the essential tragedy of Stefan George and Maximin: like Faust clutching his resurrected ersatz Helen of Troy in the eponymous work of Goethe, the fantastical Hellenic ideal slips through his fingers and disintegrates. The reign of quantity, as René Guénon dubbed it, could not and cannot be thwarted by the lyrical cavortings of one pederastic-poet. The schöne große Seele, as he wished it into existence, could not be.
“Dies ist ein Lied
Für dich allein:
Von kindischem Wähnen
Von frommen Tränen…
Durch Morgengärten klingt es
Nur dir allein
Möcht es ein Lied
Das rühre sein.”
-Stefan George, “Lied I, Lieder”
Griffin Smith-Nichols is a freshman in the College of Arts and Sciences. Interested in studying Classics, he enjoys cultural criticism, cheap literature, the company of long-moribund civilizations and self-reference in the third person. The E’er Inscrutable appears on alternate Wednesdays this semester. He can be reached at [email protected].