Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Douglas Messerli | "Forbidden Love" (on John Henry Mackay's Der Puppenjunge, The Hustler)


forbidden love
by Douglas Messerli 

John Henry Mackay, Der Puppenjunge, 1926 (translated into English by Hubert Kennedy as The Hustler [Xlibris, 2002])



How to talk about John Henry Mackay’s 1926 novel, The Hustler (Der Puppenjunge)? This fiction about the Berlin gay sexual world between the wars, is a true love story featuring a male hero, Hermann Graff, an intelligent, hard-working, and somewhat sophisticated young adult who, moving to Berlin from the countryside, encounters and falls in love with a fifteen-year-old street hustler, Gunther (whose last name, Nielsen, is mentioned only late in the work). How can we evaluate a work today, accordingly, which documents what our culture can only perceive as a despicable, perverted and criminal act? Of course we can leave it simply as that, a document of another time and place that gives us significant insight into certain segments of the population, and reveals, at times quite graphically, the not-so-hidden underworld of German gay life of the 1920s until Hitler put an end to its existence.

     And as such, as a document, Mackay’s work, in its social, sexual, psychological, and economic concerns, is quite significant as a portrait of the culture. The Hustler traces the journey of a young country bumpkin, tortured by his indentured servitude, who escapes to the big city, joining hundreds of other youths like him, whose only way of surviving was to walk the streets portrayed in this book—Friedrichstrasse, Under der Linden, and, most importantly, The Passage—or nightly frequenting bars such as the Adonis in order to pick up young and older gentlemen who, after having sex or simply enjoying the company of these young boys, paid them a few marks which allowed the hustlers to survive for another day. 
     Certainly, we know that thousands of run-away children and young adults on the streets of our larger US cities still survive in this fashion today; but hardly anything except journalistic reports, a few film references (one thinks, particularly of Gus Van Sant’s My Private Idaho, which hints of such incidences), and photographic evidence of artists such as Philippe-Lorca di-Corcia (although his subjects are generally “of age”) have sought to artistically reveal their plight.  MacKay’s book, on the other hand, takes us deeply into the culture, hinting at a society, detailed in Robert Beachy’s Gay Berlin (see above), that included all levels of society. Young Gunther is “purchased” for a healthy sum, paid weekly by a Count whose only desire appears to be to look at the naked boy, laying upon a bear fur rug, on evenings. As in Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice, this voyeur is represented as far more detestable type that those who actually embrace the young boy for one or two nights. At a later point, Gunther joins a group of artists, teachers and other invited bourgeois businessmen in their homes, where several young boys are celebrated and decently paid for their favors. As in Beachy’s book, it appears that nearly everyone in the society is busily pursuing pederastic urges; the only exception seems to be the military, perhaps because so many of them were selling their services to others who preferred older uniformed boys and young men.
     If today, this bustling trade in pederasty seems shocking, it is perhaps useful to remember that throughout Europe, particularly in Germany, Italy, and Spain, and even in England, whose draconian homosexual laws made such activities less obvious (but which were advocated in books by notable figures such Havelock Ellis and John Addington Symonds), the role of childhood was not so sharply demarcated from adulthood as it is today. Indeed, one might argue that it was only in the Victorian era that childhood began to be perceived as individuals to be set off a realm in which young boys and girls might be permitted to live in innocence and indolence, separated and segregated both in terms of the workplace and the bed. 
     Throughout the centuries before the later decades of the 19th century there was no distinct line between childhood and adulthood; children worked in the fields, factories, and mines; young boys and girls were often perceived as fair game for adult sexual activities. Indeed, in Mackay’s book, after Gunther’s confusion as to why he is being looked over and touched within the Passage, when he discovers that it’s all about sex, he suddenly is relieved; after all, he recalls, he’s often been the subject of sexual probing by the local priest without being given anything in payment but a couple of apples. In Berlin he, at least, is properly remunerated.
      Psychologists and social workers have given us ample evidence that such abuse of children today results in a lifetime of social difficulties and psychological problems (see, for example, my discussion of Joel and Ian Golds’ and Suspicious Minds elsewhere in this volume). Being neither a psychologist nor sociologist, I might ask, nonetheless, whether other, earlier cultures, evidenced the same degree of social and psychological problems, outside of violence and verbal abuse, in children who had had sex with adults? Where the young boys involved in love affairs with Greek aristocrats prone to depression and suicidal thoughts later in their life?  In other words, does the culture’s very abhorrence of an act help to create an environment that helps to traumatize its victims? Since that is our cultural perspective, however, perhaps it does not truly matter that we are justifiably appalled by acts of pederasty. Yet, at the same time our culture, in its open acceptance of homosexuality, is also facing the fact that many young people identify themselves as being gay, bisexual, or transgender at a far earlier age than in previous decades, which may possibly effect the sexual behaviors of youths who previously could not have imagined engaging in such sexual activity while being underage. In other words, although as a culture we might still desire to insulate childhood as a period of innocent discovery and wonderment, our children themselves may redefining their own roles with regard to adolescent sexual activity.
   What Mackay’s book also makes clear is that, despite the fact, as Beachy observes, the Berlin police were far more open-minded about the homosexual and lesbian behavior of their inhabitants, there was still plenty to fear from the “cops,” particularly for the young hustlers who, when arrested, where often put away in brutal institutions, as is Gunther, until they came of age. Gunther returns to the country having been left, through his incarceration, without any will or desire; a walking dead man, he has been destroyed not through the sexual attentions of his johns, but through the inattentions of the prison system. When Hermann Graff naively implicates himself as Gunther’s lover, he, on the other hand, is arrested and imprisoned only for two months.
    Today, of course, Gunther might be “freed” and, hopefully, redeemed through social help and education. Hermann would likely be imprisoned for numerous years and forced to wear a monitor around his foot for the rest of his life, while unable to live anywhere in American cities with their numerous parks and schools, while in Mackay’s book, Hermann, after sharing his tale with a sympathetic aunt, is awarded an inheritance and allowed to return to Berlin to seek a more appropriate young boy with whom he might establish a true love relationship—at least until his young companion grew a moustache!
    And that is the problem in discussing Mackay’s The Hustler. He did not intend his work as merely a “document.” Mackay, an anarchist opposed to a great many of the current German laws, particularly Paragraph 175 (the German law against sodomy), was advocating, like Adolph Brand, for whose magazine he contributed poems, for boy-man love And like the influential spokesmen for gay acceptance in Germany, Karl Heinrich Ulrichs and Magnus Hirschfeld, he argued that love for young men was something in-born, unchangeable, and therefore, something which a educated populace should be able to accept. Indeed, his views where reiterated, although far more circumspectly, by the American sexual documentarian, Alfred Kinsey, who suggested in the 20th century that instead of judging those who behaved sexually aberrantly, it was perhaps better to try to comprehend why they did so, and how prevalent their behavior was.
     Were Mackay’s fiction simply an example of a piece of bad literature written more as a piece of propaganda than a work of art, again we might forgive it. But as translator Hubert Kennedy reminds us, Christopher Isherwood—who obviously himself experienced some of these Berlin sexual adventures—wrote of the book: “I have always loved this book dearly—despite and even because of its occasional sentimental absurdities.” And yes, The Hustler, at moments, is indeed sentimental, even maudlin, particularly when Hermann feels he has lost his young would-be lover forever. But you don’t have to be a gay man to empathize with Mackay’s hero, and you certainly don’t need to be a child-abuser to feel sympathy with Gunther’s and Hermann’s unfortunate fates.
     Mackay’s wonderful dialogues between the young hustlers as they come together to enjoy an occasional celebratory dinner at the famed Hustler’s Table at Uncle Paul’s saloon is nearly as good as scenes in Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist. And Gunther’s insistence on reading pulp fictions and in watching the comic sensations of Harry Piel’s films, reminds one of the stubborn adolescent vapidity of Lolita.
     That said, Mackay’s book is not a self-conscious, clever, comic fantasy of pederasty such as Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita; but it is still far more honest than the numerous cinematic and literary works such as Gigi, Lili, and Daddy Long Legs, all starring, coincidentally, the long-legged gamin Leslie Caron, who gets away with striking up long-terms relationships with older men by playing a 15 or 16 year-old who is actually in her early 20s. And certainly Hermann is far more respectable than Woody Allen is in his relationship with the supposedly underage Muriel Hemingway in Manhattan. Hermann refuses to even have sex with Gunther until they have begun to establish a real friendship, which is why the boy, frustrated with emotions of true love he does comprehend, bolts, leaving the strong-willed but desperately panting older man behind.
     Many of us, of course, will assert that such a plot-line is typical of child-abusers who pretend that the children really want their sexual attentions, thus inwardly justifying their behavior. Perhaps that is true, but it surely be better to be loved by someone like Hermann in Gunther’s very believable world, than to be toyed with by all the others. Obviously that does not justify anything. And, perhaps, in the context of the unforgiveable hatred of most of society against potential sexual predators, we can no find any room in our lives for an understanding of Mackay’s character nor allowance for the views the author is promoting.
     Our laws permit us to discuss the ideas of this book only as a creation of words, while having nothing to do with a living being behind them. Today even a psychologist who might suggest that some sexual encounters between adults and juveniles are possibly initiated by the youths themselves, is liable to get him or her censured and even barred from his profession. Near the end of his life, even Mackay surely knew that the growing acceptance of homosexuality within his culture would never embrace his particular manifestation of it. Almost as a mini-manifesto, Mackay agues through the voice of Hermann Graff:

                     He knew his sexual disposition. He knew how it stood with him. 
                     He still read a great deal, but did not trouble himself for an ex-
                     planation where there was nothing to explain. Many of the theories
                     now posed he held to be false and dangerous.
                        He was a love just like any other love. Whoever could not or
                     would not accept it as love was mistaken. The mistake reflected
                     onto those who were mistaken.
                         They were still in the majority, those who were mistaken. And
                     therefore in possession of force.
                          But they were mistaken there too. For force never has power
                     over human sentiments. The most human of all feelings—and
                     strongest except hunger—was love.  (p. 158)

Mackay knew even during the active sexual world of Berlin in 1926, surely, that his hero and those like him were doomed to defeat, even if he could not imagine that all gay activity would soon come to temporary end within German society. Today, even the actions of the gods, like Zeus, is reprehensible enough to bring out an army of well-meaning society members ready to string up the offender to the nearest lamp post. There is no longer any possibility of salvation for a Hermann Graff. But, he breathes, if only momentarily, still in this book.

Los Angeles, January 13, 2015

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