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
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
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
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
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
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
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
“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
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