The Artist as Critic: Gustav Landauer on Oscar Wilde

by James Horrox

Horrox, J. (2015) “The Artist as Critic: Gustav Landauer on Oscar Wilde”, The Wildean, No.46. January 2015. pp.53-71.

The German translations of Oscar Wilde produced by Gustav Landauer and Hedwig Lachmann in the first decade of the twentieth century are still widely regarded as some of the leading German editions of Wilde. Lachmann, a prolific and acclaimed translator whose contributions to German literature include the works of Mallory, Conrad, Rabindranath Tagore, Sándor Petőfi and Edgar Allan Poe, has received generous acknowledgement for her role in bringing Wilde to Germany. Landauer on the other hand rarely receives more than a mention, none of his biographers having yet ventured anything substantive as to the context or significance of his evident interest in Wilde.

Born into a middle-class Jewish family in Karlsruhe in 1870, Landauer was inducted into the world of political activism in Berlin in the early 1890s in the anti-SPD student faction the Jungen (The Youth). Already an aficionado and astute critic of Romantic literature and drama, through the Jungen he became involved in Berlin’s radical theatre scene, first in Bruno Wille’s Freie Volksbühne (Free People’s Theatre) and subsequently the Neue Freie Volksbühne (New Free People’s Theatre), which he founded with Wilhelm Bölsche and Ernest von Wolzogen in 1892 and to which he retained close links for the rest of his life. In 1893 he assumed editorship of Der Sozialist newspaper, which ran from 1893 to 1899 and again from 1909 to 1915 serving as a vehicle for his denunciations of Second International Marxism, his abhorrence of which was cemented by a series of run-ins with the SPD in the 1890s, most notably his eviction from Second International congresses in Zurich (1893) and London (1896).

If his activities with the Jungen earned Landauer recognition as an agitator and dissident journalist during the 1890s, the last years of the decade saw the circles he moved in becoming primarily those of the Berlin literati. He associated with leading figures in literary naturalism and the expressionism movement, especially Ernst Toller, Georg Kaiser and the Friedrichshagen poet circle, and he became a prolific contributor to arts and literature journals across Europe. His reputation as an essayist and theatre critic and general ubiquity in Berlin’s cultural scene made him a regular fixture on the city’s lecture circuit, giving talks on art, social issues, theatre and literature in the middle-class salons of Berlin.

The turn of the century marked a break from the militant agitations of the 1890s and a reorientation in Landauer’s outlook towards Jewish, and especially Christian mysticism. His writings thereafter drew on the Christian mystics – in particular Eckhart, whose sermons he translated during a six-month prison term in 1899 – the philosophical scepticism of Fritz Mauthner and the pacifist agrarian anarchism of Leo Tolstoy. While he remained a follower of Russian anarchist Peter Kropotkin, after 1900 it was primarily for his theories of mutual aid and decentralised co-operative production, which informed Landauer’s growing interest in the idea of autonomous co-operatives as foundation stones of the new society – a concept he had been drawn to since the mid-1890s and which he would later attempt to put into practice with the Sozialistische Bund, which he established in 1908 with Martin Buber, Erich Mühsam and others.

Several of Landauer’s biographers have noted the role of Hedwig Lachmann in this shift in focus. The two met at a poetry reading at the Berlin home of mutual friends Richard and Paula Dehmel in February 1899. Separated from his wife, Grete, with whom he had been locked in an increasingly unhappy marriage since 1892, and facing an imminent prison term, on meeting Lachmann Landauer wrote elatedly of how “in the midst of all this misery I cannot destroy an uncommon inner happiness […], the rare joy that I have finally found an intellectually accomplished, spiritually mature feminine creature”.

Stefan Grossman, a colleague at Der Sozialist in the late 1890s, depicts Landauer’s separation from Grete and meeting, infatuation and subsequent relationship with Lachmann as a turning point, symbolic of his abandonment of proletarian politics, from whose protagonists he had become gradually alienated over the latter half of the 1890s, and move towards personal mysticism. Comparing Der Sozialist in its second appearance (1909-1915) to the paper during Landauer’s first stint as editor (1893-1899), Grossman notes how its content “had shifted more to questions of the soul; no longer was Landauer tied to a young proletarian woman, but to the tender breath of a lyrical artist”.

Landauer’s published correspondence from the period prior to his relationship with Lachmann contains no references to Wilde. There is no indication of his having expressed an interest in him when he visited London for the Second International congress in 1896 or during the year he and Lachmann spent in England in 1901-1902. Lachmann’s famous Salomé translation was published in Austrian journal Wiener Rundschau in 1900 [‘Salome: Tragödie in einem Aufzug von Oscar Wilde (London); Deutsch von Hedwig Lachmann; Mit Zeichnungen von Beardsley’], but it seems to have been only after their return to Germany in late 1902 that Landauer embarked on his own Wilde editions, all of which, atypically of the body of work he produced in the first years of the twentieth century, are credited as collaborations with Lachmann.

In 1904 their translation of ‘The Soul of Man under Socialism’ was published in Berlin by Karl Schnabel/Axel Juncker [‘Der Sozialismus und die Seele des Menschen’] with Wilde’s letter to the Daily Chronicle about prison conditions [‘Aus dem Zuchthaus zu Reading’], ‘L’Envoi’, [published under the title ‘Aesthetisches Manifest’] and Lachmann’s translation of ‘Sonnet to Liberty’ [‘Sonett an die Freiheit’].

In 1907, their translation of The Picture of Dorian Gray was published in Leipzig by Insel-Verlag [as Das Bildnis des Dorian Gray] with ‘The Decay of Lying’ and ‘The Critic as Artist’ [‘Zwei Gespräche von der Kunst und vom Leben’]. Landauer also printed at least one excerpt from his ‘Soul of Man’ translation in Der Sozialist [15.12.1909: ‘Oscar Wilde, Die Botschaft Christi (Sozialismus und Menschheit) – ein Auszug aus: ders., Der Sozialismus und die Seele des Menschen (Berlin 1904, 162-166)’]. In July 1905 he penned an approving review of Max Meyerfeld’s recently-published edition of De Profundis for the Berlin literary magazine Das literarische Echo:

Wilde’s prison diary belongs to the most moving and proudest revelations of the human spirit. It derived from both the poet’s misery and happiness (about himself), from a tortured soul and from self-awareness. It has a wonderful tone throughout, full of mildness and force. In some parts, he might be overly sensitive, unable to remain silent and feeling the need to talk, to embellish. It must be assumed that this was a consequence of prison’s loneliness, a feverish response to depression and the deprivation of speech. When one considers that the notes were written towards the end of a long and rough prison term, it is astounding how clear they are. Not only the contents, but also the form. The artist and the spirit clearly triumphed over misery and torment.

I welcome Wilde’s confession that he cried every day during his time in prison, even it is as alien to me as to those who took offence at the revelation. If we accept the innocence of Antiquity with which Wilde expresses, in his best hours, his sexual and aesthetical pleasures and desires, one can accept his tears in the same way that one can accept the cries of Philoctetes. It does not necessarily belong to the writer’s nature to act like a hero. If he were a hero, he would not need to write. Shakespeare’s Hamlet or Hofmannthal’s Jaffier are writers who get caught in heroic adventures. We find it understandable and appropriate how they act under these circumstances. Should we expect something different from real writers? The writer always embarks on a journey into the world of facts, either as an observer who beautifies reality and elevates it to cosmic spheres, or as a sufferer who creates a new world from his longing and turns his desires into the universe. In either case, his courage is different from the courage of a hero. He will inevitably be called a ‘difficult nature’ by common men. Homer might have been a sort of Falstaff to those who lived with him. After all, the abnormally developed desires of a poet do usually not only show in his art but also in his private life in which he is forced to accept the confines of a modest individual being. If his imagination was the kind that sees heroism and artfulness everywhere, then he might have been a Homer in his poetry and a bragger among his mates at the inn.

Everything that might bother us about Wilde’s conduct derives from his fantastic desires determining his personal life; in other words, from the genuineness and greatness of his artistic being. Personally I am more bothered by his clothes than by his nakedness – usually it’s the latter that attracts more attention.

Wilde’s fantastic desires were the basis of his final realisations: that imagination, in its highest form, turns into love and a feeling of unity with the world and humanity, and that the ultimate love for mankind and compassion is nothing but the imagination of the artistic human being. This is where, during his hardest times, he found peace and redemption: in the realisation that it was only one thing that drew him to the beautiful bodies of dubious young people and that created his ‘Salome’ and his poems. It was the same thing that filled a heavenly human being like Jesus: the realisation that everything is one and the same: namely, love looking for itself. Since the world is not one, it can only become one in embrace and mania (Wahn). The sexuality of a longing human being, the imagination of an artist, and the creative and transformative love are all forms of a spirit that wants to conquer and own everything eternally alien to him. This is why we can be proud of Oscar Wilde and this is why he is a representative of our generation: he transformed everything into spirit, he was committed to himself with force and diligence, yet he never focused on himself with his desires and thoughts but always on the entire world. That is why this book inspires us and gives us joy – even if it makes us cry sometimes, but these tears do not weigh too heavily.

The book has also been published in English, Wilde’s own language, by Methuen and Co. in London. Both the English and the German editions are mutilated, though. The English even more. The German edition has more text, but most additional passages are torn from their context. In the English version, the omissions are at least not as blatant. The German translation is often good, but does not always reproduce Wilde’s wonderful and nuanced style. The construction of his sentences is also unsatisfying. The translator also struggled with parts of the epistemology and with Wilde’s Platonic-Spinozian forms of expression. But I do not want to go into too many details here. After all, we probably would not have this document in German at all were it not for Herr Dr. Meyerfeld. Besides, interest in the book will remain and there will hopefully be an expanded and improved edition soon.

The following February, a similarly sympathetic review of the 1906 Berlin première of A Florentine Tragedy at Max Reinhardt’s Deutsches Theater was included in his essay ‘Three Dramas and their Judges’ [‘Drei Dramen und ihre Richter’, Die Schaubühne 2.6, 8 Feb. 1906] alongside reviews of the premières of Richard Beer-Hofmann’s Graf von Charolais’ [Count of Charolais] and Hugo Hofmannsthal’s ‘Gerettetes Venedig’ [Venice Saved].

History remembers this production as a low point of Wilde’s reception in Europe. The production, which ran for just six performances, saw Wilde’s play performed together with John Millington Synge’s The Well of the Saints (translated by Max Meyerfeld) and Georges Courteline’s Le Commissaire est un bon enfant (translated by Siegfried Trebitsch), and received a solidly poor critical response. The Berliner Tageblatt wrote: “Wilde baffled the audience, Synge bored it, Courteline amused it without winning it completely over.” The Vossische Zeitung described the evening as comprising “three plays which, though different from one another in mood and ambition, have this in common – that they are ideas merely, dramatic sketches, not elaborated dramatic works. […] From the point of view of literature, the evening at the Deutsches Theater was as light as a feather […] the audience thought the performances rather poor on the whole. The applause for some actors had to struggle against the opposition to the plays, which in the end became quite audible.”[1]

Of the reviewers present at the première, Landauer, as Meyerfeld would later acknowledge in the introduction to the 1907 book version of his translation, was the only one to stand up for the play. In a trenchant and broad-ranging critique of the performance he excoriated the critics for their lack of background research, reminding his readers that the final manuscript of the play had been stolen from Wilde shortly before his arrest in 1895 (“Those who know which company [Wilde] kept during those times will not be surprised”) and that the piece at hand was only an unfinished fragment based on an early manuscript happened upon by Wilde’s literary executor Robbie Ross – a “rather eccentric and uncultured man” who may well, Landauer speculates, have provided a copy “full of omissions and changes, just like his edition of the prison letter”. The play itself is “the noble work of a writer who becomes greater for us with every new piece that emerges”, he maintains. “When the manuscript thief, the executor of Wilde’s will, the stage director, the audience and the critics came together they killed Wilde’s Renaissance drama cruelly … The decisive thing is that the play is a small masterpiece. I will argue this against all the critics of Berlin.”

* * *

In his efforts to distance Wilde from the Berlin production of A Florentine Tragedy Landauer may have been a lone voice, but he was an uncompromising one. In a letter to the Austrian playwright Hermann Bahr a week after the publication of his Florentine Tragedy review he refers to Wilde as “the English Nietzsche” – no minor accolade from Landauer. The admiration articulated in his reviews is reinforced elsewhere in his correspondence. In a letter to Fritz Mauthner in November 1907 he refers to his recently-published translations of ‘The Critic as Artist’, ‘The Decay of Lying’ and The Picture of Dorian Gray, remarking, with regard to Dorian Gray: “the language in the original is very beautiful and strong, aside from one or two tacky passages. The language is always spoken, never just written, and I hope I managed to reproduce this. I enjoyed the work […] because it demanded active writing. I’m translating a good book by Kropotkin at the moment and it bores me to death. I have nothing to do but replace one language with another.”

Considering the energy he invested in Wilde over the course of this decade however, and given the enthusiastic tenor of his reviews and readiness to stand up for Wilde when others did not, references to Wilde in Landauer’s published correspondence are surprisingly scarce. This may be due in part to editorial decisions by his literary executors, and it should be remembered that a substantial portion of his personal correspondence remains unpublished, but if he was less disposed to discuss Wilde than some of the other authors whose works he rendered into German there is much in his published commentaries to suggest why. The oblique reference in his Florentine Tragedy review to “the company [Wilde] kept”, for example, is given further elaboration in a letter to Auguste Hauschner, dated February 10th 1906 – two days after the publication of the review:

That young people enjoy each other’s nakedness and enter tender relationships I can only find beautiful. That women might be excluded from this, I find ugly. And when aesthetic pleasure starts to mix with sensual desire, this exclusion – i.e., the fact not to be with women or to even think about them – becomes unnatural, cowardly and repulsive. That this happens at all is the result of distorted cultural references (Greece) and of our appalling educational system that instills deep insecurities with respect to the other sex. As a consequence, people even pay others, male prostitutes, for their company. I find this tragic. But I could not write about any of this in my article. I could only mention briefly and dryly the class of people to which the manuscript’s thief probably belonged. In uncultural times, as today in England, it is difficult to express pleasure and sexuality in beautiful ways. Furthermore, the lower class bordering the criminal class must have appeared intriguing, exciting, and attractive to Wilde in comparison to the fossil aristocracy.

All in all, Wilde has given us a great deal of beauty, melancholy and spirit. All of his confusions – which we only got to know about by chance and under pitiful circumstances – derived from a deep longing for beauty. In any case, we need to be careful in our judgment. After all, we cannot know what exactly happened. To use terms like ‘perverted’ seems entirely inappropriate. Wilde’s most loyal friend, Lord Douglas (often called his seducer), has a beautiful wife and a child. When I recently asked him whether he didn’t fear posterity’s judgment, he said: “What is posterity? My posterity is my son.” This does not sound perverted in any way. It is wrong to call these artists “sick.” Maybe you now understand why I try to abstain from moralising when speaking about these things.

Landauer’s views on sexuality and relationships would bring him into conflict with some of his closest associates over the course of this career, Erich Mühsam being one well-documented case in point. In 1903 Mühsam published a defence of gay rights campaigner Magnus Hirschfeld, who argued for homosexual emancipation on the basis of homosexuality being inborn. When Mühsam distanced himself from his publication a few months later, still arguing for homosexual emancipation but rejecting Hirschfeld’s scientific studies and instead focusing on the virtues of “erotic friendship”, Landauer wrote to him expressing his “great happiness” at his disavowal of his earlier views. Mühsam’s relationship with the openly homosexual writer Johannes Nohl during the first decade of the 20th century was unsettling to Landauer, who feared that Nohl’s homosexuality might “damage Mühsam’s development”.

In 1909 Mühsam established a branch of Landauer’s Socialist Bund which, under the influence of psychoanalyst Otto Groß, sought to integrate principles of free love into Landauer’s theories of community-building. Asserting that psychoanalysis led to homosexuality, Landauer attacked Groß in Der Sozialist, frustrated by the hold he seemed to be developing over Mühsam and others in the Bund. When Swiss peace activist, trade unionist and prominent Bund member Margarethe Faas-Hardegger submitted an article criticising marriage and the nuclear family, bearing all the hallmarks of Groß’s influence, to Der Sozialist, Landauer was livid. “Are we to publish this filth?” was his reply. “As long as the paper is in my care, your article will not be published as it has been submitted”. “We need form, not formlessness” he insisted; “it would be madness to dream of abolishing the few forms of union that remain to us”.

It was precisely this fear of the injurious effects of ‘formlessness’ that underpinned Landauer’s conservatism on issues of homosexuality, psychoanalysis and free love. His philosophy of anarchist free association centred on the belief that capitalism and the state would be gradually displaced by ‘community’, and in his view a marriage “in which two people complement one another to the highest point of productiveness” was the prototype and foundation of such community. It was on the basis of this exclusive belonging together, Landauer believed, this ‘natural community’, that the larger community would be rebuilt. In a letter to Faas-Hardegger two months after their exchange of views over her anti-marriage article Landauer hints at how these attitudes may have coloured his reading of Wilde, noting: “I love this man like only a few, and I know that he would be my friend if he was still alive. But mark my words: in this genius there resides an inner weakness that demands us to be strong – otherwise his generous gifts will enter our veins like venom”.

Whatever his reservations, Landauer saw in Wilde something that lay at the very heart of his own writing, particularly during the last two decades of his life. Landauer’s theory of the spiritual revitalisation of community hinges on the mystical belief in the universal quality of the individual ‘true self’, linking isolated individuals to the world and leading to unity with it. Sinking into oneself and so becoming one with the world enables the individual to reconnect with the “primeval and common community in the innermost core of our most secret being”. This led Landauer, via Nietzsche and the Christian mystics, to a conception of artistic creativity through isolation as a noetic state enabling insight into primordial truths inaccessible to the discursive intellect, and thence to his conviction that “the imagination of the artistic human being” – of which he saw Wilde as a shining example – has a unique and vital role to play in the renewal of spirit and community.

His view of Wilde as such is elaborated most explicitly in his 1905 De Profundis review, and in a letter to Richard Beer-Hofmann he reiterates it thus: “What Kleist has done [in the ‘Prince of Homburg’], namely to point out that the human being, no matter what he is and does, is always unique and identical at the same time, is also true for […] Wilde’s ‘The Duchess of Padua’, ‘Salome’, ‘The Sphinx’, ‘The Ballad’, and in fact for everything Wilde has ever said. At the centre is the complete artistic expression of that which exists but cannot be grasped”. Wilde, who “heard ‘the cry of Marsyas’ in all of modern art”, symbolised this fusion of the self with the world – in Christian mysticism, ‘Becoming God’ – a notion embodied also in the figure of Christ, who for this reason held a deep fascination for Landauer during the period of his life he spent translating Wilde. While London anarchist paper Freedom found “the only objectionable feature” of ‘The Soul of Man’ to be its “attempt to read into the teachings of Christ the spirit of our own age”, the ‘Soul of Man’ excerpt Landauer chose for publication in Der Sozialist in 1909 appeared under the title ‘Oscar Wilde: The Message of Christ (Socialism and Humanity)’. Not only was it the very realisation that “everything is one and the same: namely, love looking for itself” that in his view drew Wilde to “the beautiful bodies of dubious young people”, this was also “the same thing that filled a heavenly human being like Jesus”.

* * *

Landauer saw in Wilde a fusion of Nietzschean individualism and socialist communitarianism not at all dissimilar to his own, expressed in a personality with whom his own experiences of the monastic isolation of a prison cell made it impossible for him not to identify. Equally, his discovery of and ensuing fascination with Wilde cannot be disentangled from his relationship with Lachmann; evidently it was she who introduced Landauer to Wilde’s work, and it was often said by those close to him that a marriage of the sort he and Lachmann enjoyed was precisely the kind of deep reciprocal relationship to which Landauer referred in his promotion of marriage as the foundation of community. It is therefore also significant that at the time of the April 1909 correspondence on Faas-Hardegger’s anti-marriage article Landauer was in the throes of an intense but short-lived affair with Faas-Hardegger, which put a severe strain on the Landauer household and threw him personally into a period of emotional turmoil. Neither is it coincidental that April 1909 was the month Lachmann gave birth to her and Landauer’s second daughter.

Landauer’s infatuation with Faas-Hardegger quickly fizzled out, and by all accounts left no lasting damage to his marriage. After the publication of his 1909 ‘Soul of Man’ excerpt in Der Sozialist it is almost a decade before Wilde’s name appears again in his published letters. The last reference comes in a brief, offhand remark to his daughter Gudula in a letter dated November 24th 1918: “That socialism is the basis on which individuals can develop freely”, he writes, “is absolutely right; but this is no new idea. It has been remarkably laid out, for example, in Oscar Wilde’s ‘The Soul of Man under Socialism’”.

If Landauer had put Wilde aside in the intervening decade, Lachmann’s death in February 1918 may have prompted him to revisit the translations the two of them had worked on. But that this first mention of Wilde for almost a decade appears just days before he set off for Munich, to the epicentre of the Bavarian Revolution, lends it political resonance also. Over the following months Landauer served in various roles in the Munich uprising, alongside other writers and artisans such as Ernst Toller, Erich Mühsam and Kurt Eisner (who, as Hakim Bey writes “believed quite literally that poets and poetry should form the basis of the revolution”), including a brief tenure as Minister of Culture and Education in the first Bavarian Council government in the spring of 1919. As to the nature and extent of Landauer’s relationship with Wilde during these final few months of his life, however, we may only speculate.

The full version of this article appears in The Wildean, No.46, January 2015


[1] Respectively, Monty Jacobs, ‘[untitled]’, Berliner Tageblatt, no. 22, 13 Jan. 1906, p. 2, and Alfred Klaar, ‘Theater und Musik: Deutsches Theater’, Vossische Zeitung (Berlin), no. 20, First Supplement, 13 Jan. 1906, p. 2. Translations by Horst Schroeder, in “The ‘Two Early and Disastrous German Productions’ of ‘The Duchess of Padua’, The Wildean No 31, July 2007.

Translations of Landauer’s De Profundis review and quotations from Sein Lebensgang in Briefen prepared by Gabriel Kuhn, to whom I’m very grateful