- The Temple by Stephen Spender
Faber, 210 pp, £10.95, February 1988, ISBN 0 571 14785 2
‘Mayn’t your politics simply be the result of sexual maladjustment?’ This question, unobtrusively formulated in Stephen Spender’s Forward from Liberalism (1937), lurks as a sub-text in some of the most significant writings of his generation. For authors like Auden, Isherwood and Spender, the struggle for sexual freedom was a stimulus to political dissent. Around 1930, the centre of gravity both of their lives and of their writings was displaced to Weimar Germany, where a Reichstag committee on the penal code had resolved to lift the criminal sanctions against homosexuals. Germany was the country where sexual freedom and social progress seemed to go hand in hand. And the fact that the Soviet Union had been the first European country to revoke the laws against homosexuality gave Communism a particular appeal. In conservative Britain, by contrast, male homosexuals risked imprisonment and disgrace. And a crippling system of censorship made it impossible to write frankly about feelings.
This embargo on telling the truth lasted until more liberal legislation allowed the veterans of the Thirties to lift the veil on their double lives. Isherwood’s Christopher and his Kind (1977) gives the most vivid account of the Weimar sub-culture, where ‘Berlin meant Boys.’ His earlier autobiographical writings, as he ruefully acknowledges, had been exercises in ‘avoiding the truth’. Similar equivocations had characterised Spender’s autobiography, World within World, published in 1951. Even at that date it was not possible to be explicit about the ‘personal problems’ for which he and Isherwood had found a cure in Germany.
These omissions are remedied in The Temple, an autobiographical novel based on those liberating German experiences, drafted in 1929-31 and now published for the first time – almost sixty years after the event. One of the consequences of censorship, Spender recalls in his Introduction, ‘was to make us wish to write precisely about those subjects which were most likely to result in our books being banned’. When an early version of the novel was submitted to Geoffrey Faber, the publisher’s response was that the book was both pornographic and libellous. Thus the manuscript gathered dust for three decades, until in the early Sixties – ‘during some financial crisis of the kind to which poets are liable’ – it was sold to the University of Texas. And there it might have lain indefinitely, if a friend had not happened in 1985 to remind Spender of its existence. The novel now published is based on the original draft, extensively rewritten with the final section transposed from the golden summer of 1929 to the more sombre Germany of 1932.
Set mainly in Hamburg, with an idyllic interlude in the Rhineland, The Temple openly explores that homosexual sub-culture which Isherwood had dealt with so allusively in his Berlin novels of the Thirties. Spender’s narrative lacks the vitality of Goodbye to Berlin or Mr Norris changes trains. Its merit is that it engages far more directly with the political implications of sexual dissent. In an ‘English Prelude’ set in Oxford, Paul (Spender’s autobiographical persona) is lectured by his friend Wilmot (representing Auden) on the dangers of repression. ‘England’s No Good,’ Wilmot proclaims. ‘Germany’s the Only Place for Sex.’ After Paul’s arrival in Germany, this is confirmed by his second mentor William Bradshaw (Isherwood): ‘Everybody in Berlin is equal ... It all comes down to sex.’
Sexuality, in this view, is an egalitarian force. ‘Nakedness is the democracy of the new Germany,’ Paul reflects after he has been taken to the open-air swimming pool by his Hamburg host, the young businessman Ernst Stockmann. Only elderly frumps like Ernst’s mother are heard to disapprove of this permissiveness. The younger generation, particularly Ernst’s bevy of homosexual friends, exult in the new attitude towards the body. ‘We Germans are tired,’ observes Joachim, the photographer whose Bauhaus-style studio is the scene of orgiastic parties. ‘After the War and years of starvation, perhaps we need to swim and to lie in the sun and make love.’ It is Joachim’s sensuously-sculpted photographs which bring it home to the previously repressed Paul that the male body is a ‘temple’. Joachim, too, is modelled on a historical personage – the photographer Herbert List whose evocative image of a young man bathing is on the dust-jacket of the novel.
There is a strong suggestion in The Temple that this cult of the body has political implications of a left-wing kind. Repeated references are made to Magnus Hirschfeld, the campaigner for homosexual freedom who was one of the gurus of the Left in the Weimar cultural revolution. Paul, like Wilmot and Bradshaw, seems to share these radical sympathies; and the same is true of many of their German friends. Ernst Stockmann, who like Paul is partly of Jewish descent, is attracted by socialism and communism. For Joachim, too, during the election campaign of November 1932, the only manifesto which makes any sense is that of the Communist Party. The position of the Nazis is represented by an apostle of Nordic purity named Hanussen, who regards sexual deviance with revulsion. Hanussen is dedicated to the destruction of all those who have ‘fouled German blood: Jews and Bolsheviks, decadents, expressionists, homosexuals’.
The correlations between sexual and political dissidence become most explicit during the episode in the Rhineland when Paul and Joachim encounter an irresistible lad in lederhosen named Heinrich. The ensuing affair between Heinrich and Joachim, registered by Paul in terms that hint at a paradise regained, unexpectedly acquires a political dimension when Heinrich declares: ‘I am a Communist.’ This inspires Paul to compose a poem which transposes the tryptich of male friendship into a political allegory:
Under the domed sky and athletic sun
Three stand naked: the new, bronzed German,
The Communist clerk, and myself, being English.
The poem anticipates that within ten years Communism, represented by Heinrich, will emerge as a redemptive force to destroy the bourgeois world of Paul and Joachim:
The third – this clerk with world-offended eyes –
Builds with red hands his heaven: makes our bones
The necessary scaffolding for peace.
It seems likely that these lines expressed the political drift of The Temple in the early version of 1929-31. For this poem, entitled ‘In 1929’, was included in Spender’s Poems, published by Faber in 1933. And it anticipates that guarded commitment to Communism which was to become explicit in Forward from Liberalism four years later. If Spender had been able to publish The Temple in its original form, it might have come to seem a period piece: an evocation of that golden summer when, as the Introduction puts it, ‘Germany seemed a paradise where there was no censorship and young Germans enjoyed extraordinary freedom.’ The author who has now completed the novel is not the impressionable young Englishman of 1929, however, but a Tiresias who has foresuffered all. With the bleakness of hindsight he endows the pursuit of sexual liberation with undertones of aridity and disillusionment.
Thus the ideas of Auden and Isherwood, culture-heroes of the Thirties, acquire a bitter retrospective irony. ‘Wilmot knew all about the complexes of Freudian guilt ... One must not be repressed. Repression led to cancer.’ Paul himself expounds the theory to Ernst, shortly before the scene in which they make love: ‘If you do not feel guilt ... you will not catch a disease from an infected partner.’ The love-making that follows turns out to be ‘arid’ and ‘repulsive’ (Paul almost prefers intercourse with Irmi, the token woman in the homosexual sub-culture). And as the summer wears on, the cult of ‘sun and air and water and making love’ propounded by the more congenial Joachim also loses its charm. During the Rhineland idyll, Paul gets sunstroke, which leads him to record in his notebook: ‘Now I no longer imagined the sun as a healer, but as evil, poisonous, serpent-like.’
This disillusionment with the hedonistic cult of the body is underscored by growing doubts about its ideological implications. After being in Germany for two months, Paul begins to find these ‘brand-new Germans’ who ‘worship their body as if it were a temple’ rather ‘ludicrous’. And why is it that the members of the German Youth movement contorting their bodies on the beach are ‘mostly middle-aged’? His dreams of the political transformation which might be brought about beneath ‘the athletic sun’ begin to fade when he discovers, on his return to Hamburg in 1932, that Heinrich with his long fair hair was probably never a Communist at all and collapse entirely when Joachim explains that Heinrich has now in fact become a Nazi. Although still sharing Joachim’s studio-flat, Heinrich keeps a storm-trooper’s uniform in the cupboard and spends almost every weekend with Hanussen, the fanatic of sexual and racial purification.
In the final section of the novel, the political implications of sexual dissidence become the central theme. Heinrich is not the only member of the homosexual sub-culture who is drifting into the orbit of Nazism. Perhaps, Paul muses, Joachim may be partly to blame for the patronising way he has treated the boys he picks up. In paying for the favours of Heinrich, Joachim has ‘subsidised the mirror image of his darkest self’ – his ‘wicked, sensual, animal existence’. Perhaps he drove Heinrich into a position where he had no choice but to ‘sink down into the anonymous mass of his fellow evil-doers – the storm-troopers’.
The problem is compounded by Joachim’s own ambiguous response. His reaction on discovering Heinrich’s Nazi uniform in his flat is to spit all over it. But when Heinrich returns with a Nazi thug named Horst to smash up the flat in retaliation, Joachim is betrayed by the ambivalence of his own emotions. For he finds Horst – ‘dressed in black leather’ – sexually attractive, even in the ensuing orgy of destruction.
This culminating scene, with its undertones of masochistic fantasy, can be read as an allegory of the submission of the Weimar Republic to the brutal onslaught of Fascism. Joachim can only stand and watch as Horst smashes up his precious Bauhaus furniture. ‘Perhaps I was too busy looking at Horst,’ he subsequently explains, still nursing the knife-wound which the Nazi has inflicted on him:
His uniform was too black to look like any Nazi uniform I had seen. It went with his hair and his eyes and the little straight moustache ... I kept on wondering whether I was attracted to Horst ... He must be WONDERFULLY strong.
It is on this note that the novel ends. Paul returns to England while Joachim – though still claiming to be anti-Nazi – is ‘going to hunt for Horst’.
The quest for emotional liberation culminates in a sombre political allegory. The equation of homosexual attachment with progressive politics is discredited by Joachim’s cryptofascist fantasies. Through Horst, Spender invokes the dangerous glamour of a masculinity which gains its erotic appeal from muscle-power, uniforms and black leather. We are obliquely reminded that homosexuality made its own contribution to Nazism, at least among the storm-troopers, led by the notorious Ernst Röhm, while the figure of Hanussen represents the more puritanical faction in the Nazi movement, dedicated to the elimination of ‘degenerate’ homosexuals.
The golden dreams of youth are recorded in The Temple with the disillusioned eye of age. Its hybrid form is a source of critical rigour, but entails a loss of vitality. In addition, episodes already familiar from World within World recur in The Temple in a format which is too reminiscent of the biographical record. Telling the truth, it seems, may be inimical to telling a good story. This connects with the disturbing paradox of creativity and censorship. The Spender of the Eighties is able to write about sexuality in terms denied to an earlier generation: but the freedom to describe characters ‘struggling to attain orgasm’ or ‘gummy from intercourse’ is no guarantee of artistic success.
Can it be that the censorship which weighed so heavily on homosexual authors during the Thirties was a stimulus to the imagination? The question is likely to occur to any reader who contrasts the naive enthusiasms recorded by Isherwood in Christopher and his Kind (‘Berlin meant Boys’) with the subtleties of his early novels. If Mr Norris changes trains is a landmark in modern fiction, this is partly attributable to the legislation which obliged Isherwood to suppress the homosexuality of his authorial voice. This resulted in a novel of enthralling ambiguity, arising from the tension between the studied detachment of the narrator and the passions which convulse all around him. It is this tension that is lacking in The Temple, which places Paul’s quest for emotional liberation at the centre of narrative sympathy – only to leave that quest largely unfulfilled.
Can it be that the quality of the writing is inversely proportional to the freedom of sexual utterance enjoyed by the author? This hypothesis seems to be confirmed by the work of other European modernists, not only Auden and Isherwood, Virginia Woolf and E.M. Forster, but Proust and Gide, Thomas Mann, Musil and Hesse. Trapped in the tortuous syntax of a patriarchal society, their texts enact a struggle for emotional expression which is all the more impressive for its ambiguity. Resistance is the matrix of desire, linguistic decorum the stimulus to imaginative subversion. It was surely for this, rather than for any overt celebration of sexuality, that Ulysses was banned. Joyce’s images of sexual ambivalence subvert the established order far more effectively than any homosexual tract.
It is this dimension of ambivalence, with its concomitant textual density, that is lacking in The Temple. When we are told that Paul (in bed for the first time with Ernst) ‘came very quickly’, the sexual experience enacts the precipitation of the text. There is no withholding of meaning. The figure of Paul, even as he hovers between homo-erotic and heterosexual impulses, lacks the complexity of thought and feeling which we might have expected from the author of World within World. The earlier autobiography, though still constrained by what Spender calls ‘decent and conspiratorial convention’, offers a more complex picture of the author’s ‘secret selves’.
There is, in short, a dialectic between cultural decorum and artistic innovation which tends to be overlooked by the advocates of uninhibited self-expression. To say this is not to minimise the anguish suffered over so many decades by those classified as sexual deviants. The criminalisation of homosexuality is certainly one of the most mournful chapters in the history of European civilisation. Ninety years ago Oscar Wilde was condemned to walk the treadmill at Pentonville Prison six hours a day for alleged indecency. Less than fifty years ago, after the Nazi seizure of power, homosexuals in Germany were being sent in their thousands to concentration camps, in accordance with ‘the Nordic principle that degenerates should be exterminated’. And now a public panic-stricken about Aids, unwilling to acknowledge that promiscuity (not homosexuality) is the cause, has singled out the gay community as a scapegoat.
How then should artists and writers react to the current measures designed to exclude works which ‘promote homosexuality’ from our schools, libraries and theatres? For an answer, we might turn back to Spender’s World within World, which challenges those who operate with simplistic ‘psychiatric labels’ and affirms sexual ambivalence as a fundamental birthright:
I have come to wonder whether many contemporaries in labelling themselves do not also condemn themselves to a kind of doom of being that which they consider themselves in the psychological textbook. For example, I suspect that many people feel today that a conception of friendship which can be labelled homosexual, on account of certain of its aspects, excludes normal sexual relationships; and conversely that the heterosexual relationship should preclude those which might be interpreted as homosexual ... Yet when we look into the lives of men and women in the past, we see that relationships which today would be labelled abnormal existed side by side with the normal. Men labelled themselves less and adjusted themselves more.
A writer ‘vividly aware of an ambivalence’ in his attitudes towards men and women may be in the best position to subvert the simplistic categories imposed by society on our polymorphous emotional endowment: ‘The relationship of a man with the “otherness” of a woman is a relationship of opposite poles. Yet I never lost my desire to share my creative and intellectual adventures with a man, whose search was the same as mine.’ Echoing Goethe, Spender insists on the value of both polarity and identity. It is narrowness of emotional sympathy that is questioned, in World within World and – by implication – in The Temple. The narcissistic cult of the body seems arid, but truths in manhood darkly join, deep-seated in our mystic frame.