Among the giants of literature, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe remains unique. One of history's great Renaissance men, he achieved Olympian feats during his 83 years as a critic, journalist, playwright, novelist, painter, statesman, scientist and philosopher. No wonder he is hailed as the ultimate European, a man who felt at ease in many cultures and lived life to the full extent of its possibilities.
Goethe's relations with women are often cited as a primary inspiration behind his extraordinary achievements. He fathered five children with Christiane Vulpius, though only one survived past birth. He courted many beautiful and intelligent women throughout his life. The writer sealed his masterpiece "Faust" with the final couplet, "Eternal Womanhead/ Leads us on high," which seemed to extol the opposite sex as the focus of man's noblest creative energies.
But a new study of Germany's most famous writer has shaken the literary establishment by declaring the poet's life and work were really shaped by his suppressed homosexuality. In a nation that reveres Goethe as much as, if not more than, the British do William Shakespeare, author Karl Hugo Pruys hopes his biography will cause readers to see Goethe in a new light.
"I have broken one of our greatest taboos," Pruys said in an interview. "Goethe's homosexuality is unquestionably central to his life and work. But there has long been a conspiracy to cover this up because of the conviction that Germans would never accept that their favorite national poet was gay."
Pruys, a historian who spent a decade scrutinizing Goethe's writings, argues in "The Tiger's Tender Touch," which just arrived in bookstores, that the 18th century genius harbored serious phobias about women and found his greatest artistic and personal fulfillment through relationships with men.
Pruys said Goethe's reputation as a dashing Don Juan is largely a myth. He insists the poet was actually afraid of women and never touched one until the ripe age of 39, when he was seduced by Christiane.
"Goethe was by no means a womanizer. He was a natural actor who loved the disguise," the author says. "So what if he was married? Oscar Wilde also married and had two kids, but that does not preclude the fact he was gay. We need to take Goethe down from his pedestal and see him for what he really was. Then we will have a better understanding of his work and his times."
Pruys says Goethe married Christiane, who was 16 years his junior and often slept in a separate room, as a reluctant favor. In contrast, he says, Goethe confided the joy of physical love in letters to male friends and said his most sensual experience occurred when he went swimming naked with other young men in the lakes of Switzerland.
The defining relationship in Goethe's career as a writer, Pruys says, was an intensely passionate liaison with the Duesseldorf philosopher Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi. In response to a letter from Jacobi, who said he was "tenderly and deeply in love" with Goethe, Pruys quotes Goethe as expressing his "rapture and bliss" at being treated as the "love object" of his philosopher friend.
Goethe concluded many of his letters to Jacobi and other close male friends with the signature "warmest kisses" and other expressions of physical longing.
Pruys' assertions have attracted a good deal of criticism. Lothar Ehrlich, one of the nation's top literary historians, calls the book "wrongheaded" in its conviction that the cultural icon was masking his true sexual orientation.
"Goethe lived in a uniquely sentimental age; what he wrote about men was not necessarily signs of homophilia but merely the spirit of the Storm and Stress movement of his time," Ehrlich said. "It's true that Goethe may have been confused about his sexual identity in his younger years, but it is foolish to conclude that passionate love for other men was the driving force in his life and work."
Pruys, who wrote an acclaimed biography of Chancellor Helmut Kohl, says, "I am just trying to tell people the truth about the man's real nature. It's no reason for them to feel so uncomfortable."