Gustav Landauer and Oscar Wilde

For reasons I don’t fully understand, this old paper of mine seems to have been getting a lot of attention recently. When Gustav Landauer first appeared on my radar back in 2005 he was a pretty obscure character, but becoming less so thanks to Richard Day’s Gramsci is Dead (2005) and later Gabriel Kuhn’s Revolution and Other Writings (2010), which led to a resurgence of interest in his ideas, and in Kuhn’s case made available the largest collection of his writings ever published in English. But much of the material being written about Landauer back then tended to view him almost exclusively through a 21st century activist lens, and inevitably the picture that emerged was somewhat skewed as a result, sidestepping aspects of his thought incongruous with modern leftist sensibilities, but also eliding large areas of his life and work that fed into his political and philosophical writing, including his literary criticism, his work as translator and theatre critic, and the Jewish and Christian mysticism that was basically the driving force behind his writing for the entire second half of his life.

The Oscar Wilde translations Landauer and his wife Hedwig Lachmann produced in the early years of the 20th century are still highly regarded in Wildean circles. In 1904 their translation of ‘The Soul of Man under Socialism’ was published in Berlin by Karl Schnabel/Axel Juncker along with Wilde’s letter to the Daily Chronicle about prison conditions, ‘L’Envoi’, and Lachmann’s translation of ‘Sonnet to Liberty’. In 1907, their translation of The Picture of Dorian Gray was published in Leipzig by Insel-Verlag with ‘The Decay of Lying’ and ‘The Critic as Artist’. At least one excerpt from the ‘Soul of Man’ translation appeared in Der Sozialist in 1909. In 1905 Landauer reviewed Max Meyerfeld’s edition of De Profundis for Berlin literary magazine Das literarische Echo, and the following February penned an epic defence of the otherwise critically panned 1906 Berlin première of A Florentine Tragedy at Max Reinhardt’s Deutsches Theater.

Gabriel Kuhn had translated a few sections of Landauer’s writings on Wilde for me for an earlier paper in The Oscholars journal. For the 2015 article we decided to publish his translations of Landauer’s reviews in their entirety (in the web version on this site the Florentine Tragedy essay is summarised for the sake of brevity – the print version has the full essay), along with commentary drawing on Landauer’s correspondence, including exchanges with Fritz Mauthner, Richard Beer-Hofmann and Austrian playwright Hermann Bahr, among others.

Landauer was a complex and often seemingly contradictory figure, impossible to pigeonhole in any one particular intellectual or political tradition. Both conservative and revolutionary, nationalist and internationalist, religious and anticlerical, of both right and left, he totally defies categorisation, and as is often the case with such people he finds admirers across the political spectrum. If a writer can be claimed by both sides as their own but fully co-opted by neither, they are someone worth paying attention to. People who can say “I am [X], (and nothing else)” rarely are.