Saturday, December 09, 2023

Free love and alienation - the proverbs of hell, rewarmed



Free love is a phrase that is well and truly dead – dead of mockery, dead of the emotional exploitation of which it became the instrument, deniability raising the old ghost of guilt in the service of nubile bodies forever lined up at the porn shoot. Yet it had a long, long career, and it is still not so dead that the phoenix of some kind of program joining sex, liberty and utopia cannot leap from the ashes of lovers, factual and fictional, who took the principle of free love with deadly earnestness.

Free love was the politics of Bohemia, and Bohemias were political entities as well as artmaking contexts. A Bohemia that does not contrast love, as the central socially binding feeling, to the bourgeois compromise with desire – happiness – is no bohemia at all.

We must begin with alienation – when have we ever not?  Alienation, in the Cold War, found its advocates – the German sociologist Arnold Gehlen, the sort of house philosopher of Adenauerism in Germany, saw alienation as the great civilizing process. But more generally, throughout the 19th and 20th century, alienation was a negative. There were, by my count, three great separate interpretations of alienation:  the reactionary, the liberal and the radical – all in one way or another turned from happiness to love as the foundation of society. That perfect bourgeois conjunction of happiness and utility – consumerism – lead to alienation, which was akin to but causally different from the alienation resulting from the social conditions of the working class.

Yet in these traditions, it is the liberal that is most critical of love. I remember once talking with a Mexican Trotskyist friend of mine, who remarked that love was the most important thing in life. At that time, I found that an astonishing statement. I found it shockingly sentimental. Looking back today, I can’t say I disagree so much about the love part as about the ‘most important’ part – my perpetual inner émigré has a hard time believing that lives happen in such a way that there is a most important part to them. This might be either the wisdom of the Dhammapada, or cheap nihilism, or a little of both.


Still, love has been a pretty powerful legitimating force in face of alienation - it has provided the single biggest rival to the modernist cult of happiness. The idea that love is the foundation of the truly human community is perhaps central to the counter-traditions that emerge under capitalism.  The critical viewpoint on happiness is drawn back to love by the force of historical events, as the family is reconstituted around the love match, and the sovereign is reconstituted as either the state or the “people”.  Of course, from the liberal point of view, there is a strong critique of the notion that love is the foundation of community. The word for that is totalitarianism. It is, perhaps, no coincidence that Hannah Arendt went from doing dissertation work on love to writing her massive opus, The Origins of Totalitarianism. When Calasso speaks of how the ancien regime sweetness of life turned sour – how Wormwood fell to earth and turned the waters bitter – he is touching on the fact that what volupte loaned the incipient happiness culture – a more and more simple tie between pleasure and happiness – produced, as it were, a cultural vacuum which the literature of sentiments, that quasi-institutionalisation of romantic love, filled. A dangerous void.

There is a dimension of the alienation from the happiness culture which seeks, in the mythic, to re-discover the human limit. At first, this might seem an entirely reactionary program. Yet it turns out not to be so simple.

The symbolic definitely does battle with the utilitarian. The two arise in a shared cultural space. And the fatal tendency of the utilitarian to take its claim to the concrete, its grasp of pleasure and pain, and turn them into abstractions – the decisive step of which is turning them into units, as if, like a stream of light in Newton’s sense, we were talking about corpuscles – means that utilitarianism has a secret need of symbols. On the side of myth, however, the tendency is to look for the secret histories of the great tradition – surely there is a minotaur of some kind at the center of the encyclopedia. This brings us, by sure steps that have been repeated over and over again, to conspiracy and chance. To which the gnostic historian must dedicate, finally, his narrative, these being his tropes for cause.


Free love, then, might not be so silly after all. Or rather, it is so massively silly that it poses a question that eventually undermines all social arrangements that deny that the question has any validity. To deny, for one thing, that there is anything free save free enterprise. Against which, we can put Novalis’s manifesto-like remark: “Love is the end of ends of world history, the amen of the universe.”

Novalis is not a nobody in the history of free love, but a clue. Myself, I think of the “free love ideology” as a product not of the libertines of the 18th century in France, but of the German romantics of the end of the 18th century in various little burgs in Germany. Like Therese Huber.


These are some facts about Therese Huber between 19 and 25.


She was born in Gottingen, the daughter of a wellknown professor, Christian Gottlob Heyne, and Therese Heyne, born Weiss, in May, 1764. She was thus a little older than the revolutionary generation, those born in the 1770s.

According to Therese Huber’s correspondence, her first memories were of her mother – of her mother being ill. This was when she was three. “I was never my Mother’s favorite, certainly not, I was ugly, bulky and probably never brilliant. Until my thirteenth year, I don’t remember anybody ever tell me I had a mind or that I was droll.” Of her mother she says, further, that she was “no housewife, we were raised in filth and disorder.” Her earliest memories were of her stained clothing. Moreover, her mother had “a lover until she died, almost in her forty fifth year.” Her lover lived in the house. He was a music student by the name of Forkel.

Therese always had the fantasy that she had been adopted.

Therese Huber later wrote about her first husband, Georg Forster: “He had the fortune of unpretty men, that women had to come to meet him half way, which, with his very soft heart, always vouchsafed the joy of a very intense friendship.”

At eighteen, Therese was mad to get out of her house and the town of Gottingen. By this time, she had a stepmother. Georg Forster, her father’s friend, though much older than her, promised to get her out of the house. So she accepted his proposal for marriage in early 1784.. He promptly took off for Vilnius, where he’d been promised a position. He was gone for eighteen months.

Therese promptly set out for Gotha to care for a sick friend, Auguste Schneider, the mistress of the Baron of Gotha. In a letter, Therese wrote a friend that “people’s image of me as a coquette, the girl in a novel, had begun to disappear, and one sees only the girl of reason, whose lively foolishness is forgiveable on account of her good heart.” But if she thought of herself, now, as calming down and assuming the dignity of the betrothed woman, she found, on her return to Gottingen, that things were difficult for a headstrong girl whose older, ugly fiance was in Vilnius. She was surrounded by admirers in her father’s house, while her father remained at his desk and her stepmother remained unconcerned – a situation that Henry James would have known what to do with. It was now that she encountered a man, FLM Meyer, who proved to be, as her biographer Geiger puts it, ‘fateful’ – misfortunate - to her. Later she wrote a friend that “Meyer led or ruled me, for he took my childish virginity in thought and deed.”

Meyer was a well known writer at this time. He was, according to Geiger, ‘shamelesslessly” egotistical. And he couldn’t do without women. He moved in that Enlightenment society under the motto that he couldn’t, ‘for the sake of one woman, be untrue to the whole sex.” The Casanova type. One of Sade’s fuckers.

At the same time there was a friend.

Henry James, too, would have given Therese the ambiguous friend.

This friend was the most ambiguous of the Romantic divas, Therese’s “evil spirit”, according to her biographer: Caroline Michaelis. “Sensuous and without morals already as a girl.” Over her lifetime, Caroline was married thrice, once to a man named Boehmer, then, when he died, to August Schlegel – this marriage was partly because she’d been banned for revolutionary activities in Gottingen when it was occupied by the French, and partly because she’d scandalized the town by having a child as the result of an affair with a French soldier, a situation Schlegel volunteered to remedy - and then finally, in Jena, marrying Schelling. According to Geiger, this woman urged Therese to marry Forster, who she – Karoline – knew Therese didn’t love – out of jealousy. When Karoline and Schelling were living together in Jena, Hegel came to stay with them for a year. He knew the two well. When she died, Hegel wrote a letter to a friend, expressing his relief and joy that she was gone. She had an effect on people.

In 1785, Forster came back from Vilnius. He then “committed out of weakness or goodness or blindness one of the unbelievable errors of his error strewn life: instead of standing apart from the third man [Meyer], coolly, peacefully, with the intention and the hope of driving the memory of his intruder gradually out of the heart of his bride … he entered into the intoxicated state of friendship, full of illusions, that filled both of them. Soon he was using the brotherly ‘du’ on the newcomer and the secret lover; Meyer became his “Assad”, he appeared as a member of the “trinity” in the letters to theological friends. “Forster was more enthusiastic than both of us,” Therese wrote 20 years later, “had us all swear eternal love, and never asked for a kiss from me that I should not also offer Meyer.”


For this little circle, the French Revolution came as a revelation.

I don’t want to claim for Caroline and Therese the “invention” of free love: but rather, its modelling, its performance. This circle did not arise out of the 18th century’s decaying patriarchy as eccentrics, since all around them people were devising stories about the happy social order, the order of the future. Against Sade, who had a very darker vision of happiness – Sade realized deeply that the happiness of some not insignificant few depends very much on the unhappiness of others, and not some unintentional neglect of the exploited but a very intentional enjoyment of that unhappiness – there stands Swedenborg, Henry James’s father’s master thinker.

Even though Swedenborgians proper disclaimed the free love ideas that grew out of certain Swedenborgian factions in the nineteenth century, it is certainly true that Swedenborg was a great promoter of the notion that liberty is love. As his biographer puts it:


“We must guard, however, against supposing that the spiritual is not real and bodily; for everything inward has its last resort in substantive organization. The bodies of angels are as ours in every part, but more expressive, plastic and perfect. Their conjugal union, which is true chastity and playful innocence, is bodily like our own; nay, far more intimate: its delights, immeasurably more blessed.”

And this, from Conjugal love:

“The Lord provides similitudes for those who desire love truly conjugal, and if they are not given in the earths, he provides them in the heavens. The Divine Providence of the Lord is most particular and most universal concerning marriages and in marriages, because all the enjoyments of heaven stream forth from the enjoyments of conjugial love, as sweet waters from the stream of a fountain; and that on this account it is provided that conjugial pairs be born, and that these are continually educated, under the auspices of the Lord, for their several marriages, both the boy and the girl being ignorant of it; and after the completed time, then that marriageable virgin, and then that young man fit for nuptials meet somewhere as if by fate, and see each other; and that then, as from a certain instince, they know that they are partners, and, as if from a certain dictate within, think in themselves, the young man, that she is mine, and the virgin, that he is mine; and, after this has been seated for some time in the minds of both, they deliberately speak to each other, and betroth themselves.”

These words, abbreviated for conversation’s sake, could have issued from the mouth of Georg Forster.


In 1792, Georg Forster had ended up in Mainz, a city in Hesse. The region had become a conflict zone between the French revolutionary armies and the various armies of the coalition formed under the terms of the Brunswick manifesto, to rescue the ancien regime, i.e. the house of Bourbon.

Forster was overworked as the head of the archive and library. At the beginning of 1792, he had not taken a public political stance, although in private letters he expressed a clear sympathy for the Jacobins. He was hiding from his wife Therese the exact extent of his indebtedness, which was crushing – Georg Forster was never a prudent man when it came to cash.

Therese seems to have been emotionally and intellectually of the left. Geiger, her biographer, in 1909, found this so scandalous that he tried to mitigate it by claiming that Therese was Forster’s ‘pupil’. It was far more likely she was his comrade. This marriage and its failure has attracted a host of commentators who have puzzled themselves over the fact that Therese left Georg for another man, and yet the two seemed to rely on each other even after the separation. The solution – that their sexual incompatibility did not hinder their affinity with each other on the basic level of friendship – seems too shocking to propose – especially for those who want to tell a story of betrayal. But Therese seems to have cared for Georg, although she didn’t love him.

The man she did love was Ludwig Ferdinand Huber, a Prussian official and intimate of Schiller. Therese met Huber through Forster, in 1788. In 1790, Huber was living with the married couple. Therese was moving in a direction taken by her mother – who lived with her lover in the house of her husband:


“We stood in a doubtful relationship one to another for 1 ½ years. In the beginning I pushed him away, everything now came together, he wanted to forget [his relationship to his fiancé, Dorothea Stock], and a miserable doctor pulled him away from the border of the grave. The noble, humane Forster saw a lot in the young man, drew him nearer, I became used to him, he saw me for a year and went through all the gradation of feeling, my unhappiness strengthened my love for him – although I though of none – finally circumstances offered a hand. I don’t know in which moment, before we could guess ourselves, he had exposed to me his relationship with that girl. I pondered the thing and found decisively the result: he must confess to her that he didn’t love her any more, that time had changed his feeling, that he had no more rights upon her heart. … “ As Therese says, it took 2 ½ years for Huber to come to this point.

Some biographers have said that Therese Huber used her status, when Forster was dead, to suppress much of the information about what was happening in Mainz in 1792.

If the scene was not loaded for an explosion yet – a disaffected couple, sickly children, an overworked world famous intellectual, the French revolutionary army in the area, the wife’s lover in the house – into this scene came the ambiguous friend: Caroline Michaelis.

Why Therese would invite her school friend Caroline, lately widowed, to stay with the household in Mainz is a puzzle. Or perhaps it isn’t – perhaps Therese, out of fairness, wanted Georg to have a lover too. Although Georg was not sexually faithful, apparently he had sex in the approved way, with lower class girls. The libertine solution.

Caroline was of course as strong willed as Therese. Caroline’s letters from Mainz give another account of the Forster-Huber household. It is a sign of how narrowly the circles intersect that he chief correspondent was Meyer, the writer who had been Therese’s admirer – who “took” her virginity from her, according to Therese in an ambiguous reference. Surely Caroline knew about that. Even before she went to Mainz,she had written to Meyer: “I have never depended on her friendship – among women, there can be none.”

Soon Caroline is writing in a more sympathetic way about Georg. In particular, she writes a letter linking the ugly men of the revolution – Mirabeau, ostensibly – with her own “beauteous” figure. Strikingly, Caroline “reads” herself into her situation – which has forever been the subject of speculation – with Georg by reading Mirabeau’s famous at the time letters to his lover, Sophie, of which she writes to Luise, her correspondent, that she should read them, except that she imagines Luisa won’t have time, and won’t read in bed, being more inclined to sleep, and is too “good” for a “ugly monster” [hassliche Bosewicht] as the extraordinary Mirabeau was, who had virtues and talents enough to supply a thousand normal people, and too much true intelligence to seriously be a monster, as one can conclude out of particular features. He may have been ugly, he says that often enough in the letters – but he loved Sophie, for women certainly don’t love the beauty of men – and yet the ugly man imposes himself through his exterior on the unruly masses…”

Caroline provides an interesting insight into a aesthetic dimension of the Revolution: the part played by ugly men. Mirabeau. Robespierre. Chamfort, the great pamphleteer of the revolution. Marat. It was a revolution of ugly men, diversified by a few beauties, who in the course of the revolution all had their heads chopped off.


The triangles of the Therese and Georg Forster household seem to pop up in bohemias, to become its romantic myth. Jules and Jim, again and again. In the ruins of the patriarchy, in that wreck, we see how difficult it is to get away from the Father and his arts of sublimation.


The anonymous genius of the fairy tale is the genius of history as well, with that same penchant for the fatally ambiguous symbol, where, as though in a besieged city in an endless backlands war, love and death exchange sniper fire with each other among bombed out buildings and constantly shifting zones of engagement. This city could be the New Jerusalem. It could be Stalingrad. It could be the Republic of Mainz, where Georg Forster assumed a revolutionary role in 1792, as his household expanded to include his wife Therese's lover, Huber, and the ever present Caroline Boehmer. It was in December of 1792 that Therese took the kids and her lover and left. Forster went to Paris, as a delegate.

One has to be sensitive enough, then, to the way the fairy tale sticks in the historic fact to understand the depth of certain symbols.

For instance: on November 19, 1831, Prosper Enfantin, responding to the uproar in Saint Simonian circle that had greeted his proposals for free love, responded with a speech in which he outlined the details of his system, which echoed Fourier and Swedenborg in separating marriage from “true” marriage, the latter of which would rekindle the numbed feelings of conjugal couples by giving them the theoretical liberty to love. It was hard to tell how this theoretical liberty translated into physiological fact, although by this time, Enfantin had, like Swedenborg before him, lowered the barrier between the symbol and the thing.

The uproar continued, with certain leaders of the Saint Simonian family denouncing Enfantin’s plan, and the newspapers reporting on his immorality. So he lead a retreat to his home in Menilmontant of forty male apostles, who attempted to live a life of pure communism. As one of the signs of sublime fraternity, Enfantin had shirts made for the apostles that buttoned down the back - and thus could only be buttoned with the aid of a helper.

Enfantin’s shirts deserve a place with Aristophanes unsexed circular human, in the Symposium, and Magritte’s hooded lovers blindly kissing – symbols that overwhelm one’s ability to immediately interpret them. Enfantin’s shirts hang over the whole impassioned debate about free love – half a sign of mutual aid, without which there can be no freedom, and half a strait jacket.






Bruce said...

Thanks for the great essay.

Anonymous said...

Have your read Ingeborg Bachmann's Bohemen liegt am Meer

- Sophie

Roger Gathmann said...

Sophie, the only Bachmann I've read is Malina. Interesting titel you cite, though. Do you know the obscure but fascinating Munich bohemian, Grafin Fanny zu Reventlow? A "free woman", to use Doris Lessing's phrase. She wrote a lot about the pre wwi bohemian set in Munich's Schwabing district. An interesting figure whose own work is very neglected today.

Ray Davis said...

Sparky sturdy stuff, Roger -- I'll be mulling this one for a while. Thank you.

Sophie's pointer also sparks in a couple of different directions. Bachmann was a bohemian in your sense, favoring disorderly love & anger over security or happiness, but the poem also incorporates the Bohemia of Shakespeare & the Bohemia of the Austrian empire, a bit north of Bachmann's own ex-Austrian homeland. It's also one of Bachmann's last poems, published after her death & written long after her renunciation of a very successful poetic career in favor of librettos & prose, which re-paced the path of Austria's earlier Great Poetry Hope, Hofmannsthal. That spirit of renunciation shows up both here & in the poem which closes her big posthumous collections, "Keine Delikatessen".

Anonymous said...

To add to Ray's comment above. Ingeborg Bachmann also had a 'triangle' of love and letters. She and Paul Celan had a 'relation' while the latter was married. She also corresponded with Celan's wife after his suicide. The two greatest post-WWII poets of the German language , neither of whom were native Germans.

- Sophie

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