three pairs of lovers with space

TAORMINA IN 1924 BY FRANZ SCHOENBERNER

 

Franz Schoenberner (1892-1970) was a German writer who wrote his memoirs in three volumes. The first of these, Confessions of a European Intellectual, was published by MacMillan in New York in 1946. Presented here is most of its eighteenth chapter, about his ten days in the fashionable seaside town of Taormina in Sicily, where he stayed with a German sculptor friend who lived there. At the time, Schoenberner was editor of the Auslandpost, the literary supplement of the Allgemeine Zeitung., and was in Italy partly in the hope of interviewing the new Prime Minister, Mussolini.

 

18.  Sicily, Taormina, and Connected Matters

The ideas and ideals of antiquity were great and true, but they became true and real only in an infinitely small section, in the highest strata of society. The Greek conception of man simply excluded the greater part of mankind. The difficulty with great ideas and ideals is always their practical interpretation. […]    

Travel poster, showing the ruins of the Greek theatre and Mt Etna

The insularity, the self-centered isolation of antiquity, was in a rather ironical way reflected and illustrated in the strange little circle of international artists or half-artists, who coming from all the corners of the world, celebrated here in Taormina a somewhat phantomlike cult of antiquity. In many cases this cult was concentrated on a rather special though perfectly legitimate aspect of antiquity, defined by the good Greek world paiderastia, to be written in English paederasty or pederasty. It literally means nothing else than love of children, or in a more distinct sense of male children, since for the Greek the pais or child which really mattered was the boy. This word has at least a first syllable in cornmon with the word pedagogy. You really cannot guide and educate children without loving them. But you can do it even by loving them with an erotic love—and in the Greek, pederasty was akin to pedagogy. It was a spiritual as well as physical relationship—quite naturally because for antiquity the original unity and oneness of body and soul was not yet disrupted by the Christian dualism with its inner conflicts and contrasts. To restore on a higher level the original balance and harmony of this state of paradisiacal innocence becomes possible for us only by a deeper insight into the psychophysical process, in the interdependence and interrelationship, the interaction of what we call soul and what we call body. This insight has been increased by modern psychology, starting with Freud, as well as by modern biology and chemistry. Working from two opposite ends, like the workmen drilling a tunnel, the psychologists and the physiologists necessarily must one day meet. We have already reached the point where apparently purely physical ailments can be cured by psychotherapy and where on the other hand mental diseases can be cured by a biochemical treatment. We have come to understand that body and soul are actually only two different aspects of the same thing, of the same entity: Man.    

It was the natural psychophysical unity of antiquity which made pederasty a perfectly normal and legitimate, socially and morally accepted, form of erotic love. But this original unity once disrupted, this original innocence once lost, cannot possibly be restored. Every attempt simply to imitate the gesture of antiquity is a priori condemned to a tragicomical failure.    

Even the word paederasty was replaced by the hybrid Greco-Latin composition of homosexuality, meaning love for the same sex.    

Driven more or less underground, homosexuality belongs to the many taboos the very mention of which in good society was far into the twentieth century strictly forbidden or at least considered as highly shocking. An added reason for discussing this topic with all the necessary frankness.    

Franz Schoenberner

In medical terms homosexuality is called inversion, meaning an inversion of sex, a tern which covers only one aspect of the phenomenon, the man assuming the feminine role or the woman assuming the masculine role. This play of nature is often caused by physical conditions which we may call anomalies and which by the Greeks were symbolized in the hermaphrodite, the combination of the masculine Hermes and the feminine Aphrodite. We know many cases in which modern surgery by a relatively simple operation has transformed such half-men or half-women into whole men or women. But the man preserving the masculine rule and the woman preserving the feminine role in the relationship even with a partner of the same sex is not really “inverted.” The   example of antiquity as of modern times proves that paederasty in the classical form of the love of an older man for a not yet entirely masculine boy was especially widespread in the very manly society of the Spartans and is even today especially frequent—though mostly as a substitute for the more normal male-female relationship—in every purely manly sphere.    

As we know since Freud, the child before puberty-and often for some years after—is not asexual but rather bisexual, it is between the two sexes and is even normally more attracted by its own than by the opposite sex. The idolizing friendship between young girls or between young boys for each other, the enthusiastic devotion to a favorite teacher of their own sex, has of course—at least unconsciously—an erotic undercurrent.  

The real inversion is in most cases a sort of infantilism, a protracted stage of not entirely achieved puberty, a stage and state of mind which in consequence of the inevitable social complications within the framework of our moral and often hypocritical conventions is likely to degenerate into a real neurosis. For the acute esthetical sense of antiquity the ambiguous charm of a not fully developed boy was equally—not less but not necessarily more—attractive than feminine beauty. But there was nothing of exclusiveness about it, nothing of a morbid aversion against the other sex. On the contrary, to have a wife and children was a very important social function contributing to the preservation of the state. But the married wife, as in the Orient, was limited to the sphere of the home. The only woman who really was a companion of man, and took part as an equal in respect to intellectual as well as erotical education, in the social life of a manly society was the hetaira, which literally means nothing else than feminine companion. It was a highly respected and highly paid profession, the tradition of which was never entirely lost. It produced—at least up to the nineteenth century—some outstanding feminine poets, writers, artists, politicians, and so on, who really had not more in common with the poor little streetwalker than the physician of a king has with the corn-cutter, both are paid for their services.

Boys at Taormina by Wilhelm von Gloeden, 1905

For the Greek boy, on the other hand, it was a disgrace if he was not attractive enough to be chosen by a riper man who was to become his guide, his teacher, his protective friend—and lover. On a more matter-of-fact basis a similar situation still existed in Taormina, for the Sicilian fisher boys. Their normal career, sanctioned by a long tradition, was to live for some years with a more or less wealthy foreigner in his villa until at nineteen or twenty they decided to marry. Whereupon as a sort of wedding gift or dowry, the furnished villa usually was turned over to them. It would have been a pity to spoil such a precious property by using it, and so most of these boys, having become men, preferred to live with their numerous families in the primitive little fisher cabins in which they had grown up. They rented the villas to some foreigners, who in their turn would perhaps show some day a particular interest in the male offspring of their landlords. There were always some nicely furnished villas for rent in Taormina and a lot of good-looking boys around. They reflected in their physical type all the different races and people who in the course of the centuries had passed over this island; Greeks and Romans, Normans and Arabs and slightly negroid Africans, not to forget Germans and Anglo-Saxons.    

There were girls too, of course, but they remained, like the wives, mostly invisible and were strictly taboo. For a foreigner to make love to a Sicilian girl—if ever he got this rare chance—would have been a very unhealthy occupation, since the Sicilians are used to defending their strange and rigid code of honor with expertly handled knives or old but straight-shooting guns. The only women available were foreigners too, who in many cases on their part offered marvellous and eagerly exploited chances for the riper youth of Taormina. Gifted with the inherited talent for fishing, but unwilling to exercise this rough profession, many ambitious young men of Taormina succeeded in catching what to them always appeared as a gold fish, though for more European standards it sometimes was hardly a silver fish.    

But of course there were a lot of really rich people around among the foreigners and even among the native Sicilians. [Here Schoenberner digresses to tell the story of the richest of the latter, the proprietor of some elegant hotels, who had laid the foundations of his fortune following the devastating earthquake of 1908, when, as “a modest watchmaker” he had swindled those who came to sell the diamond rings of the dead].

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The last known photo of Wilhelm von Gloeden, 1920s

The “rich foreigners” of Taormina were much more colourful perhaps because most of them were really rich only in the eyes of Sicilian fishermen, or perhaps because most of them were a bit “queer” not only in their erotic habits. Breaking free from the usual social conventions, they had become prisoners of their dreams, and lived in the strangely isolated sphere of Taormina a strangely artificial life of their own. Their particular worship of antiquity had something touchingly anachronistic and involuntarily parodistic, like the terribly sweetish pictures which one of the oldest members of this little colony used to produce for sale, in order to make a living.[1] Originally a Prussian officer descended from an old Junker family, he one day had discovered his real vocation and had escaped to this enchanted island. He had grown a beard and had become a photographer. To his own and his fellow believers’ delight, he took innumerable pictures of pretty fisher boys. Disguised in a somewhat fragmentary Greek costume or without any costume, but with little wreaths of flowers in their hair and a Pan’s pipe in their hands, they were supposed to revive the feeling of antiquity. For a more objective observer this sentimental masquerade had something irresistibly comical. But of course the expression of emotions which you do not share seems always somewhat “funny.” And even a couple of quite normal but too visibly enamored lovers will sometimes have for the cool observer a delightful ridiculousness. 

I am, of course, far from believing in the Anglo-Saxon phobia against “being emotional.” This, in the last analysis, puerile fear of every expression of emotion originates in the adolescent’s deadly fear of losing his uncertain manly dignity, and it often produces eventually a real atrophy of emotional capacity. The free expression of true and strong sentiments is never sentimental, because sentimentality involves indulgence in an exaggerated expression, out of proportion to the real sentiment, while consciously enjoying just this exaggeration, like an actor enjoying his own acting. Strangely enough, a certain kind of sentimentalism and exhibitionism seems characteristic of at least a certain type of homosexual, as I could observe in Taormina.     

Baron Karl von Stempel ((Pietro Nicolosi, I baroni di Taormina, 1959, p.67)

I remember for example the really touching and amusing case of a Baltic baron, let us say, Stamp,[2] whom I came to meet several times through my friends. A stout little man of about sixty, he booked not in the least aristocratic. His round face with its gray mustache recalled rather the stubby physiognomy of a sea lion. He was proud of having among his ancestors the second-rate poet Kotzebue, whose spectacular plays were the big success of the German stage in Goethe’s time—so much so that even the theater director Goethe had – reluctantly—to play them on the stage of the Weimar Hoftheater, where of course they made a much better box office than Iphigenie or Tasso, Baron Stamp cherished this only legitimate family relationship to the great era of German classicism—to which Kotzebue really did not belong. One evening, sitting with us on the terrace of his villa, he recited by heart—animated by the excellent Sicilian wine and the even more exciting moonshine silvering an enchanted landscape—long and terribly pompous poems of Kotzebue.    

Among the listeners was of course also his so-called son, a rather average type of Sicilian fisher boy whom he had legally adopted and tried to educate in the best traditions of German idealism. The young man himself had of course gladly accepted the aristocratic name and the other material advantages of his new position, but he showed not the slightest desire for learning. Several tutors had tried to introduce him to the austere realm of science, classical and modern languages, and all the other branches of knowledge indispensable for future university studies which the good old baron had planned for his “son.” The son quite naturally preferred to parade his fine suits on the plaza, to spend his liberal allowance with his native friends in playing for hours a game of dice, or to knock about at perilous speed in the baron’s car. A special complication was that the various tutors often proved to be themselves more interested in the physical charm than in the intellectual progress of their pupil; whereupon one day the baron decided to sacrifice his personal well-being to his educational ideals, and to leave the delightful but dangerous climate of Taormina for the fresher but healthier atmosphere of Munich, where his son should attend a real German Gymnasium. But the plan had not turned out too well, because the swarthy boy became a great attraction for women of every age and—worse—seemed to be attracted by them. Whereupon the baron ruefully decided to return to Taormina, where the women were relegated to the background and remained mostly invisible.    

When we met, the baron was still heavily occupied and preoccupied by the problem how to combine his noble pedagogical ideals with a hardly educational situation. His passion for this boy included a deep feeling of fatherly responsibility, and with a typical German seriousness he cared for the intellectual and spiritual development of his son not less than for his physical health. Having entirely broken with his past, this strange old man lived entirely for this youth, whom he loved with a touchingly absolute and even unselfish love.    

Boy in Sicilian girls' costume by von Gloeden

He had been almost fifty when one day, while still living on his old estate in Latvia, he suddenly had the revelation that no women ever had given or could give him real happiness and that—being frank with himself—he felt much more attracted by boys than by girls. In open protest against what he felt to be a hypocritical prejudice, and defying an anticipated condemnation, he hastened to write to all his friends and neighbors a polite letter notifying them of his startling and enchanting discovery. He explained that he did not want to continue, under false pretenses, a social intercourse which he could appreciate only if, without any ambiguity, his new status was accepted and, so to speak, officially acknowledged. This original gesture of a slightly puerile fanaticism for truth had the easily foreseeable consequences of an almost complete ostracism. His neighbors would not have cared in the least about the purely personal affairs of the old baron Stamp, but they naturally resented being annoyed by a rigid moralist trying to impose his own very special conceptions of morals upon others and forcing the issue quite unnecessarily.    

This moral and intellectual obstinacy, this tendency to go to the ultimate and the absolute, seems to me a typical German trait. By following up a purely abstract idea with a murderous and often suicidal consequence, this logical and ideological passion totally disregards and so finally destroys every reality. The inability to make any compromise between theory and practice means a lack of talent for simple human living. In a somewhat humorous form, baron Stamp’s attitude illustrates a tragic fatality of the German spirit, the deepest root of its greatest achievements and its worst aberrations. And it explains the great immortal nostalgia of German art and philosophy for the natural balance, the perfect harmony of antiquity.

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Strangely enough, the break with social conventions in one distinct sphere evidently had revolutionized the baron’s social conceptions in general. When during the revolt of the long-suppressed Latvian population, the whole Baltic aristocracy left their estates in order to escape the wrath of the revolutionaries, Stamp decided to stay. He wanted to come to some understanding with the enemy, whose grievances suddenly seemed not unjustified to him. He had the courage to attend their meetings and once, when an orator charged the big landowners with shameless exploitation of their poor peasants, he suddenly rose to his feet with the protesting cry, “But I am ashamed.” It was one of those great scenes of confession and conversion, those crises of conscience which are so typically Russian—not only in the literary realm but even in that of political reality. He voluntarily agreed to some far-reaching social reforms as far as his own estate was concerned, and was accordingly considered as a traitor by all his aristocratic neighbors, because such a crime against the economic privileges of their class was much worse even than his offenses against moral conventions. Life became unbearable for him and, being the last of his name, he simply decided to sell his old family estate held for seven centuries by his ancestors and to move to Italy; to Taormina. The day before he left, he put a pair of oxen to a plow and, with his own hand, leveled the graves of his ancestors. Nobody understood that this sacrilegious gesture of defiance was at the same time one of proud piety. No foreigner should be obliged to give a sort of hospitality to all the old deceased baron Stamps in the soil which once—and for seven hundred years—had been their own. It was his symbolic farewell to the past. 

Photo by Wilhelm von Gloeden

Perhaps it was a sort of vengeance that he later decided to give his good old name to a little Sicilian fisher boy, who was much more than a son to him. He had built himself a large villa, which, as is usual in Sicily, had grown from year to year and would never be definitely finished. Building is a lifetime occupation in these regions, because it is relatively easy to build on and with rocks One day you decide it would be lovely to have a large terrace in front of this or that room; you have only to blast some rocks and to level the ground, and there is the terrace. When it then turns out that another room would be convenient, you close the terrace with walls, using the stones left over from the terrace. Then a new terrace is planned, and another new room, and so on; everything growing organically out of, and adapting itself to, the rock.   

When he showed me his house, he vividly described his future architectural plans. Pointing to some other cliffs which could be removed and transformed into rooms, he said with a sentimental undertone in his voice, “That will be for my son when he marries.” As I heard later, this event occurred much earlier than the old baron had expected. The son, helped by a brand-new car which he had just been given as his own, eloped with a girl, in the classical tradition of the Sicilian fuga, in which the young people run away together, are married by the priest in the next village, and remain hidden somewhere in the mountains until, by long and complicated negotiations through family friends, a reconciliation of the respective fathers is achieved. The father of the girl of course has to be more difficult to placate in his ire, because, theoretically, he is honor bound to take bloody vengeance on the seducer of his daughter. Or he may at least refuse to give her a dowry, which would be bad enough. But generally all these delicate questions are straightened out between the two parties involved; whereupon word is sent to the young couple that they may return. The happy ending is a highly spectacular celebration of reconciliation combined with a belated wedding feast, in which the whole population takes part.   

Von Stempel's tombstone in Taormina (photo. Giovanni Dall'Orto)

Poor old Stamp could not help but go through all these motions, and he went so far as to receive his prodigal son, not with a relatively cheap fatted calf, but with a new and rather expensive car—since in the meantime the little rascal had sold the first one. I hope the old baron died before his son and his numerous grandchildren had relieved him of the rest of his fortune.[3]

 

[1] Wilhelm Iwan Friederich August von Gloeden (1856-1931), who settled in Taormina in 1878 and remained there (except during the 1st World War) until his death. His photos were exhibited internationally and were sufficiently renowned to be primarily responsible for Taormina’s standing in the first half of the 20th century as a fashionable international resort and home to pederasts from inhospitable northern European countries.

[2] Baron Karl von Stempel (1862-1951), an aristocrat in Courland (soon to be in Latvia) of German ancestry, who, aged 42, suddenly acknowledged his pederasty, gave up his wife, two adult children and career, moved to Taormina with his mother (née Kotzebue). He was described in the novel Les Amours singulières (1949) of his friend Roger Peyrefitte.

[3] The old baron sadly did not die before. His adopted son, “whose surname was Castorina, methodically stripped Stempel of his wealth. Despite the warnings of his friends and the urgent reminders of von Gloeden (who also recognized that Castorina was dangerously attractive) Stempel's dependence on him did nothing but grow. Eventually, when Stempel had literally lost everything and was well advanced in years, Castorina simply left Sicily without even saying goodbye. He learned that he had left for Argentina, where he reportedly started a family. Apart from these bare facts, nothing else was known about him. By now impoverished and unable to look after himself (he was in addition to everything gone blind) Stempel was saved by a Taorminese whom he had helped in the past. The young man and his wife took the Stempel home and the foreign colony did what they could for him.” (Charles Leslie, Wilhelm Von Gloeden, 1856-1931. A memory of Taormina, 1985).

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