Tag Archives: Oscar Wilde

(Not) Remembered Dead and Alive: Inside Reading Gaol

On Saturday I visited ‘Inside: Artists and Writers in Prison‘, an exhibition cum art installation in Reading Gaol. Curated by Artangel it features the work of contemporary  artists and writers. Some of them have experienced prison themselves, either as detainees- such as the Chinese artists and activist, Ai Weiwei,who was held without formal charge for 81 days – or as the children of prisoners, as in the case of novelist Gillian Slovo whose parents were frequently arrested for their involvement in the fight against apartheid in South Africa.

Wilde in Gaol

What first brought the exhibition to my attention was that it includes the cell of Oscar Wilde, who famously spent two years of his life in Reading Gaol. From 1895 to 1897 he served a sentence of hard labour, following a conviction of ‘indecent conduct’ with other men. Wilde’s case is well known, not least because the furore around his trial prompted the first public debates about homosexuality in England. But the shockwaves caused by his arrest, sentencing, and untimely death in 1900 – Wilde’s health never recovered from the physical toll of his sentence – are somewhat less well documented.

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Marlene Dumas’s Oscar Wilde (2016). ©HeikeBauer

In my work on the Berlin-based Jewish sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld, I frequently found references to Wilde’s trial, which typically focused on legal issues. Hirschfeld, who had relationships with men and publicly campaigned for the decriminalisation of homosexuality, cited Wilde’s fate as an example of the cruelty of a law that condemned men simply on grounds of their sexuality. In one account, however, he mentioned how he once encountered a group of young male students who had decided to remember Wilde by symbolically pinning his prisoner number to their shirts and reciting his ‘The Ballad of Reading Gaol’ together.

Hirschfeld’s encounter with these students reveals the emotional cost of Wilde’s persecution on men who identified with him. But it also demonstrates resistance in the face of attack, and the importance of literature and the arts in gathering collective strength. ‘Inside’ presents readings of ‘The Ballad of Reading Gaol’ each Sunday. Unlike the private gathering observed by Hirschfeld, they are public performances, featuring famous figures from across the arts whose connections to Wilde emphasise cultural, rather than necessarily queer allegiances across time.

Emotional Links

The exhibition’s engagement with the impact of homosexual persecution specifically, in contrast, is both overt and more subtle. It includes an appearance by Hirschfeld, who in 1919 played a supporting role in the silent movie Anders als die Andern [Different from the Others]. Directed by Richard Oswald and released in mainstream German cinemas, the film is sometimes described as ‘the first homosexual movie’ because of its sympathetic portrayal of the plight of a pianist who ends up taking his own life when, after suffering  attacks first of a blackmailer and then the law, it becomes clear that he would not be able to live freely as a homosexual man.

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Still from Anders als die Andern (1919). Hirschfeld is on the right. ©HeikeBauer

‘Inside’ shows the movie on a television screen in one of the cells in A Block, a part of the prison that had housed, amongst others, prisoners condemned to death. In the exhibition, many of the cells here focus on homosexuality including, for instance Marlene Dumas’ portrait of Wilde next to a photograph of Wilde’s lover, Lord Alfred Douglas, and Nan Godin’s responses to Jean Genet’s Un Chant d’Amour, a film inspired by Genet’s own time in prison, which explores tough but tender male same-sex eroticism in a carceral context

Within this context, just as at the time of its production, Anders als die Andern serves an instructive function: it shows how the life of an decent, cultured man could be made unlivable simply because he desired other men. However, showing the film alongside Dumas’ and Godin’s work – which in different ways engages with base notes of sexual obsession including in relation to the lives of petty criminals and social outcasts – problematises such an idealised image of homosexual victimhood. It brings into view that people who make (it into) history are mostly those with certain privileges, education included.

Of course we should remember them. But we must also remain alert to the gaps in our knowledge about past lives, gaps that reflect long histories of social, racial and gender injustice and erasure.

Who is WoodFord of Soton?

The graffiti surrounding the television screening Anders als die Andern serves as a reminder that the lives of most of the men who spent their time in this cell are unknown. Who, for example, is WoodFord of Soton, whose handwriting remains inked onto the prison wall? Who are Saz & Gee, their names linked together by the swirl of the ampersand?


Unlike Wilde – or even the fictional pianist whose story is told in the film – the historical imprint of most of the inmates of Reading Gaol does not go deeper than the thin layer of ink graffitied onto their prison cells. Indeed, in the case of the nineteenth-century women inmates whose existence is documented in a collection of prison mugshots displayed in B Wing, even such superficial evidence of their own words has long been erased by the coats of cheap white paint that now cover the prison walls.

Perhaps it is this knowledge that gives A Wing a particularly haunting quality. Erasure in the form of death features prominently here via an installation by Doris Salcedo of cell-sized, upturned tables memorialising the anonymous men executed in the prison. The tables grow fragile leaves of grass, a feature reminiscent of Walt Whitman’s 1855 collection of poetry, Leaves of Grass. Much revised throughout his life, Whitman’s poems are an affirmation of democracy, (homoerotic) pleasure and male friendship. They became hugely influential in the emerging homosexual subcultures of the later nineteenth-century including Wilde’s circles.

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Detail from Doris Salcedo, Plagiara Muta [Silent Prayer]. ©HeikeBauer

Yet the leaves of grass we find ‘Inside’ are no hopeful allusions to natural beauty and a book of life whose pages are yet to be filled. They are reminders of the dead whose life has been extinguished in Reading Gaol, and of those whose lives have vanished into obscurity. It is their lives, as much as the lives of Wilde and other famous prison inmates around world, that continue to raise questions about the role of prisons in society.

‘Inside: Artists and Writers in Reading Gaol’ is open until 4 December 2016.

Public talk on the sometimes deadly modern history of homosexuality

After a fantastic History of the Body conference at the IHR last Saturday, I’m now looking forward to discussing my research as part of the ‘Be Birkbeck‘ series on identity.

The talk is free, but you need to register to secure a place: bebirkbeck@bbk.ac.uk

‘Dead Wilde: Magnus Hirschfeld and the Violent Shaping of Modern Queer Culture’

Speaker: Heike Bauer

Venue: Keynes Library, 43 Gordon Square, WC1

Time: Weds, 27 May 2015. 6.30-8.30pm

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How did the death of Oscar Wilde impact on the women and men who identified with ‘the love that dare not speak its name’? This talk explores an archive of little known writings on homosexual death and suicide by the influential sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld (1868-1935).

Hirschfeld is best known today for his sexual rights activism, foundational studies of transvestism and opening of the world’s first Institute of Sexual Sciences in Berlin. But he was also a chronicler of the effects of hate and violence against lesbians and homosexual men. His writings contain many accounts of homophobic attack from around the world including observations on the trial and death of Oscar Wilde. These accounts suggest that such attacks had a wide-ranging impact, affecting not ‘just’ the victim but also the women and men who identified in some way with her or him.

The talk explores this unique record of queer life and death, 1900-1930. It demonstrates that violence, as well as affirmative cultural politics, shaped the emergence of modern sexual identity. The talk will also address the critical challenges of this archive: how to engage with the negative, and often violent, aspects of queer history without reinforcing pernicious stereotypes about miserable lesbian and gay existence?

Talk on Magnus Hirschfeld, Oscar Wilde and how death shaped modern queer culture

I’m looking forward to discussing some of my research on death and modern queer culture at Birkbeck this May. The talk is free and open to all. You can book your place by emailing bebirkbeck@bbk.ac.uk. Further details below.

Heike Bauer – Dead Wilde: Magnus Hirschfeld and the Violent Shaping of Modern Queer Culture
Wednesday 27 May 2015 | 6.30 – 8.30pm | Keynes Library, Room 114, 43 Gordon Square, London WC1 0PD

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This lecture is part of the Be Birkbeck lecture series.

How did the death of Oscar Wilde impact on the women and men who identified with ‘the love that dare not speak its name’? This talk explores an archive of little known writings on homosexual death and suicide by the influential sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld (1868-1935). Hirschfeld is best known today for his sexual rights activism, foundational studies of transvestism and opening of the world’s first Institute of Sexual Sciences in Berlin. But he was also a chronicler of the effects of hate and violence against lesbians and homosexual men. His writings contain many accounts of homophobic attack from around the world including observations on the trial and death of Oscar Wilde. These accounts suggest that such attacks had a wide-ranging impact, affecting not ‘just’ the victim but also the women and men who identified in some way with her or him.

The talk explores this unique record of queer life and death, 1900-1930. It demonstrates that violence, as well as affirmative cultural politics, shaped the emergence of modern sexual identity. The talk will also address the critical challenges of this archive: how to engage with the negative, and often violent, aspects of queer history without reinforcing pernicious stereotypes about miserable lesbian and gay existence?

Heike Bauer is a Senior Lecturer in English and Gender Studies at Birkbeck, University of London. She has published widely on the history of sexuality, nineteenth and twentieth century literary culture, and on translation. Her books include English Literary Sexology, 1860-1930 (Palgrave, 2009), the 3-volume edited anthology Women and Cross-Dressing, 1800-1939 (Routledge, 2006), and the edited collections Queer 1950s: Rethinking Sexuality in the Postwar Years (Palgrave, 2012, with Matt Cook) and Sexology and Translation: Cultural and Scientific Encounters Across the Modern World (forthcoming with Temple University Press in 2015). She recently co-edited with Churnjeet Mahn a special issue on “Transnational Lesbian Cultures”, Journal of Lesbian Studies 18.3 (2014), and is currently completing the AHRC-funded study A Violent World of Difference: Magnus Hirschfeld and the Shaping of Queer Modernity. Click here for the project blog, or follow her on Twitter: @Heike_Bauer

This event is free and open to all, but booking is essential.

A Violent World of Difference: One Year On.

A year ago I started this blog as a way of publicising the work I’d be completing as part of an AHRC-funded project entitled A Violent World of Difference: Magnus Hirschfeld and Queer Modernity.  I set out to discuss any issues that would come up in the course of my research but also to put together a record of the activities I planned to organise as part of the Fellowship.

As it turned out, the blog proved to be more expansive but also more productive than I had anticipated. It now covers topics that range from my encounter with casual racism during the difficult time when my dog went missing in the woods to discussions of queer soldiers during World War I and an account of Oscar Wilde’s (Prison) Friends. All of these entries are in some way connected to my Hirschfeld project. Some of them explore, for instance, how stereotypes are perpetuated and the damage this causes. Others consider possibilities of resistance, not least because Hirschfeld’s work is most famous today for its innovative and radical aspects including his homosexual rights activism and groundbreaking conception of what he called ‘transvestism’.

Below I outline some of the findings of my project to date. This is not a final or fully comprehensive account. A book will follow in due course. And I’m also planning to continue the blog with occasional posts on issues relating to the history of sexuality and anti-queer violence. The examples I discuss below give a sense of what my project is about. They have been especially important for the direction of my research as they changed my understanding of Hirschfeld’s work and the issues that define the modern history of same-sex sexuality more broadly.

A Deadly History

Over the course of the last year I found many examples that indicate that the history of modern homosexuality can, or should, not be understood as a simple progress narrative. This insight is of course not new. Many existing histories of same-sex sexuality have focused on the importance of affirmative cultural production and representation for the emergence of lesbian and gay identities and subcultures from the latter nineteenth-century onward. However, my research shows that direct experiences of violence, and the witnessing of
violence against others, equally shaped a collective sense of modern queer existence.

Magnus Hirschfeld’s own sexual reforms politics were partly motivated by the suicide of one of his patients, a young man who left him a series of letters in which he described as unbearably shameful his desire for other men. The death prompted Hirschfeld to undertake what became one of the earliest statistical surveys of homosexual suicide, conducted during the first two decades of the twentieth century. The material he collected offers specific insights into the reasons given – mostly fear and shame – by the women and men who killed themselves. It furthermore indicates the traumatic impact of these deaths, as Hirschfeld records his on emotional responses to the suicides as well as documenting how other women and men reacted to them. While it may ultimately be impossible to determine why some people kill themselves, this archive nevertheless demonstrates that there is a collective shape to queer suicide: that social isolation as much as the active persecution of bodies and desires that do not fit specific norms plays a role in why some people end their lives.

A Violent Omission

A main aspect of my research on the ‘missing’ and neglected parts of Hirschfeld’s archive thus deals with the shaping of queer subcultures. Another key finding has been that the history of the emerging homosexual rights movement in Europe cannot be understood as separate from the history of European colonialism. Scholars have paid considerable critical attention to the intersections between race, sexuality and colonialism across time. Yet we know surprisingly little about the impact of colonialism on early sexual rights politics and the work of sexologists such as Hirschfeld.

By paying close attention to what it meant that Hirschfeld came of age, professionally and politically, during the period of Germany’s ‘official’ reign as a colonial power, which lasted from 1889 to 1919, I have been able to gain a better understanding of the violent conditions that shaped whose bodies and lives became part of the homosexual rights movement, and on what terms. This research re-contextualises the development of Hirschfeld’s own understanding of racism. He famously completed one of the first modern studies racism, which was published posthumously in 1938. The study was no doubt prompted by Hirschfeld’s own persecution by the Nazis. Yet I found that Racism can also be read as the belated product of Hirschfeld’s experiences of German colonialism, further supporting my argument that emergence of the modern homosexual rights movement is entangled with the traumatic realties of colonialism and racial oppression.

Precious Critical Time

I recently went to an AHRC Leadership conference where someone described the new Fellowship scheme as a double deal: a combination of the previous fellowship award, which primarily provided research time, and a network grant, which aims to facilitate research collaboration by providing the means for organising and hosting a series of meetings between experts.

My own experience certainly supports this description. The AHRC Fellowship has enabled me to
focus on completing research for a book by providing time away from my usual teaching and admin duties and by making it possible for me to visit some of the key Hirschfeld archives, which are spread around the world. But the award has also enabled me to organise a series of events ranging from a public film screening to an academic symposium and a specialist workshop for humanities scholars and health professionals (see my Events page for further details).

I’m looking forward to developing these links and exploring new research that is beginning to emerge from this project. Watch this space for more information!

h.bauer@bbk.ac.uk

5 January 2014.

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Oscar Wilde’s (Prison) Friends

Oscar Wilde was born on 16 October 1854. On the 160th anniversary of his birth, mainstream and social media began to circulate a photograph of the man who is thought to be the ‘little dark-eyed chap’ whom Wilde befriended in Reading goal.

It is not known whether or not the man in the picture, Harry Bushnell, really was Wilde’s close friend in prison, let alone if he was Wilde’s lover. But the spotlight on their relationship suggests that Wilde’s tragic fate continues to have an affective hold in the twenty-first century.

Hirschfeld’s Wilde

Wilde died in November 1900 aged 46, not long after he was released from Reading gaol where he had served a sentence of two years hard labor following his conviction for homosexual conduct in 1895. The writings of Magnus Hirschfeld reveal that Wilde’s imprisonment and premature death had considerable impact on homosexual men at the time.

Hirschfeld himself wrote about Wilde’s tragic fate to illustrate what he called the ‘hell’ experienced by those homosexual women and men who were socially ostracised and persecuted. He also described an encounter with a group of young male Cambridge students who shortly after Wilde’s death had gathered together to read aloud ‘ The Ballad of Reading Gaol’, further marking their allegiance to Wilde by attaching his prisoner’s number, J.3.3., to their shirts.

Hirschfeld’s moving account of the event indicates the emotional impact of Wilde’s fate on those who identified in some way with him. But it also provides hope amidst the sadness of the  occasion: Hirschfeld lingers on the image of a queer community that continues to flourish despite – and to some extent because of – death and persecution.

Wilde Affect

The current attention to Harry Bushnell carries some of the same emotional weight. Sensational revelatory impulse notwithstanding, it suggests an investment in making bearable Wilde’s suffering by imaging possibilities of intimacy in the harsh conditions of Reading gaol. Of course it would be tempting to dismiss outright such claims as hopelessly naive and sentimental. Yet imagining Wilde being loved, desired and cared for at that point in time when his life was being so cruelly denied is also a form of resistance to the attempted negotiation of his influence: it serves as a poignant reminder of Wilde’s role in the formation of affirmative modern queer subcultures.

24 October 2014.

 

24 March 2014. Mutual Friends and Queer Reading Communities

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The open access online journal, 19: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Long Nineteenth Century, published by my colleagues at the Birkbeck Centre for Nineteenth-Century Studies, will be celebrating its 10th anniversary in autumn 2015. This date coincides with the 150th anniversary of the publication of Charles Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend. 

To mark both occasions, the people at 19 have set up a great experiment in virtual reading community building: between May 2014 and November 2015, they will publish Our Mutual Friend online in monthly installments that follow the rhythm of the original publication. The first part has already been published here. Comments and reflections from international scholars and students will follow in due course.

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This experiment in collective reading, which builds community around a text, speaks to a particular concern of my own research: the role of literature in forging queer communities across the modern world. Magnus Hirschfeld’s writings are peppered with literary references. They show that he was particularly interested in representations of same-sex love and desire, and, especially, in those queer books whose authors were also involved in some way in major political debates of their day – for instance, Oscar Wilde and Britain’s anti-homosexuality laws, and Emile Zola and anti-Semitism in France feature prominently in Hirschfeld’s work.

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While Dickens plays no significant role in Hirschfeld’s writings – which reflects Hirschfeld’s interest in overt rather than subtle representations of queer existence – I am nevertheless intrigued by the Our Mutual Friend reading experiment. For its emphasis on reading as a collective activity is a forceful reminder that books create ‘felt experiences’ and a sense of collectivity that reaches across time and space.

Follow the Our Mutual Friend Reading Project here: http://dickensourmutualfriend.wordpress.com/2014/03/21/first-monthly-instalment-may-1864/#comments

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4 January 2014: Magnus Hirschfeld

Why turn to Magnus Hirschfeld (1868-1935) to reexamine the difficult aspects of modern queer history and culture?Screen Shot 2014-01-05 at 10.12.40

Hirschfeld is a well known figure, especially in the German history and historiography of sexuality, and he continues to inspire a number of German sexual reform organisations. My own reasons for turning to his work are, however, emphatically not about recuperating him as a ‘role model’ for queer activism. Like others, Hirschfeld was not free of the prejudice of his time. While his achievements should not be diminished, I think it is equally vital to pay attention to the norms that underpinned his thinking. For if we want to understand how prejudice is perpetuated and how norms work themselves into basic assumptions about what it means to be human, then we need histories that are attentive to the often paradox and difficult aspects of the queer past.

My project examines how violence, death and suicide shaped modern queer culture. Hirschfeld is of interest to me because his many activities place him at the centre of modern sexual politics. He was a sexologist and homosexual rights activist who, in 1919, founded the world’s first Institute for Sexual Sciences in Berlin. He is best known today for his concept of ‘sexual intermediaries’ (sexuelle Zwischenstufen), the idea that there exist infinite variations in gender and sexuality, and for his campaigning for the abolition of Paragraph 175 of the German Penal Code, which criminalised homosexuality. Hirschfeld is also remembered as one of the first transgender theorists. At the same time, however, like so many of his contemporaries, he promoted eugenics, pursuing the problematic belief that humans could be ‘improved’ via carefully managed reproduction, a belief that seems to jar with his equality activism and anti-racist politics.

ImageHirschfeld’s political activism, his Jewishness and homosexuality made him a target for rightwing attacks from the 1920s onward. In May 1933, while he was in exile, the Nazis destroyed his Institute and burnt many of its books in the first of the infamous book burnings.

While Hirschfeld’s activities were shaped by the German contexts in which he mainly worked, he also forged many international connections. I am particularly interested in his hitherto under-examined contributions to British and U.S. culture. Hirschfeld not only travelled regularly to the States, where he gave popular lectures, but he also collaborated with, for example, English sexologist Havelock Ellis, wrote about writers such as Oscar Wilde and himself entered literary history via the work and private papers of figures such as W.H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood.

While Hirschfeld’s main influence was in the male scientific and artistic circles of his time, he also collaborated with leading feminists such as Helene Stoecker, with whom he worked at the Institute, and the writer Franziska Mann, Hirschfeld’s sister with whom he wrote a pamphlet about women’s suffrage. These collaborations offer new insights into the – often problematic – intersecting histories of feminist and gay politics

Hirschfeld’s work, then, provides insights into the role of sexology in the international literary and political reform cultures of the early twentieth century and it helps us understand better the transnational contexts that shaped modern sexuality debates. Most of all, however, his writings contain an archive of little known writings on verbal and physical attacks on homosexuals, writings that document the range of difficult experiences that shaped modern queer life. Over the course of the project, I will research, collate and critique this material – and publish my findings here and, ultimately, in book form.