Eighteenth-century libertinism in a time of change: representations of Catherine the Great.
Representations of the sexual behavior of public figures draw on a richly textured assemblage of duties, pleasures, distastes, taboos, allusions, and metaphors, all variously inflected by powerful social factors such as gender, age, and class. In the eighteenth century the famous people whose sexuality was dissected in government documents, such as trial records or diplomatic accounts, in journalism, correspondence, and just plain gossip, were mostly at court, (1) and their inconstant, hedonistic, unsentimental, and even predatory sensuality was often classed as libertine. Much as that term was associated with men, and complex though it was for a woman to live the libertine life, some (allegedly) did, none perhaps more famously than the German princess who had taken the throne of Russia: Catherine the Great.
For geographical, political, and protonationalistic reasons (both Catherine and her royal husband Peter III, grandson of Peter the Great, grew up in Germany), Catherine's German contemporaries were fascinated with the tsarina. The German book and print markets circulated numerous graphic and textual images of her, including speedy translations of accounts from other European languages. In such public representations, and augmented by more private ones, accounts of Catherine's marital and extramarital sexual behavior came into circulation in Germany. Within a few years of her death (1796) the stories were even recycled into two German novels: Miranda, Koniginn im Norden, Geliebte Pansalvins (Miranda, Queen of the North, Beloved of Pansalvin, 1798) by Johann Friedrich Ernst Albrecht and Der Gunstling (The Favorite, 1808) by Caroline Auguste Fischer. Because procreative (hetero)sexuality was an urgently advocated arena of action for rulers, discourse on the sexuality of rulers was legitimized. Furthermore, libertinism was considered and represented to be a widespread practice in the highest levels of society. At the same time, the emerging middle class was sharpening its critique of the all-powerful upper levels of society by attacking aristocratic immorality, especially sexual immorality. So although extramarital sexuality among aristocrats and royals elicited no shock or surprise (and Miranda is an instance of this accepting attitude), it was a frequent target of criticism, often with representations of predatory aristocratic men exploiting vulnerable and good middleclass young women. The French Revolution and its critique of royalty gave a powerful boost to these familiar moralistic attacks, while new middle-class notions of family intimacy and tender, faithful womanhood reinforced the condemnation of libertine aristocrats, including Catherine (evident, for example, in Der Gunstling). Both positions, the accepting and the critical, ignited the public imagination surrounding Catherine II's sexuality during her lifetime, after her death, and until today.
Much as Catherine has served as a sexual Rohrschach blot, she is also a historical figure who ruled Russia for thirty-four years (1762-96). She conducted experiments in enlightened governing, including calling together an assembly of delegates to draw up a law code for Russia, establishing a system of schools, reforming the administration of the country, and alternately tolerating, encouraging, and censoring the expansion of publishing and the development of Russian intellectual life. Like most other rulers of her era, she failed to end serfdom. She significantly enlarged the boundaries of Russia at the expense of Poland, the Ottoman Empire, and the less organized central Asian region, and settled vast areas with new populations. Under her rule, Odessa and Sebastopol were founded and Russia became a power on the Black Sea. Her art collecting and book purchasing laid the foundation for several of Russia's impressive cultural institutions. And her lovers included several distinguished men.
In Love as Passion, Niklas Luhmann attempts an analysis of passionate love not as a human emotion, thus not in anthropological terms, but as a codified medium of communication that developed among members of the seventeenth-century aristocracy, especially in France. Luhmann's claim is that this code was needed to distinguish the kind of relationship that occurred in extramarital affairs from the kind that occurred within marriage. In the seventeenth century, he believes, high-ranking women had obtained greater freedom and more rights than before and this development made it easier for an aristocratic man--married or not--to seek a sexual relationship with a married aristocratic woman. But to persuade her to participate, the lover needed a new discourse (created from a set of pre-existing elements that had developed in the Middle Ages and Renaissance) and, since the woman was already married to someone else, it had to be a discourse that sounded persuasive but did not promise marriage. This was the discourse of passion and intimacy. In the eighteenth century, matters changed somewhat when friendship developed as an alternative form of close personal relationship. As the logic of marriage choice changed during the century and as cultural hegemony shifted away from the aristocracy at the end of the century, there was a choice between grounding marriages in friendship or in passionate love. When passionate love won out, it had in turn to be significantly reinterpreted and redirected to accommodate its institutionalization in marriage. Passionate love shifted from being fleeting, extramarital, and aristocratic, to being eternal, marital, and bourgeois. The enormous change in valence of passionate love for the educated middle class, from an expected but disapproved option of the aristocracy to the foundation of marriage, is an important element in the shift in representations of Catherine from predominantly tolerant representations in the eighteenth century to numerous vilifications of her early in the nineteenth. (Two less ideological reasons for the shift were the simple facts of Catherine's death, bringing the end of her occasional but well-publicized gifts to authors and artists who pleased her, and the arrival on the Russian throne of Paul I, who bore no love for his mother and did nothing to protect her reputation.)
How was the unstable set of values and coded behaviors called "passionate love" invoked in representations of the most powerful woman in the eighteenth century? The sexuality of queens and crown princesses was politically always of public interest: without heterosexual activity on their part, dynasties changed branches or died off completely. With the Romanov dynasty at stake and given the German background of the Grand Duchess Catherine (and of Peter), it was logical that ritualized representations of her sexuality would receive widespread attention in the German-speaking world. Newspaper accounts, poems, and festivities celebrated Catherine performing the parts of virginal bride and faithful wife, followed nine years later by more newspaper coverage and poetry honoring her at long last as mother of the heir. Accompanying this well-publicized and still preserved record of expectations fulfilled are traces of rumors about the years without progeny during which the Grand Duchess slowly slid into the dangerous position of barren woman. Once she finally did give birth to a son, rumors spread that Peter was not the father. Yet at the same time that Catherine was being depicted as an adulteress, she was also playing the wronged but patient legitimate wife with a semi-legitimate rival in the form of Peter's widely acknowledged mistress. In short, before she acted the role of libertine, the former minor German princess from insignificant Anhalt-Zerbst played through all the other key permutations of the sexual roles of eighteenth-century female royalty. Several texts illustrate the official and unofficial accounts, some showing the proper, conventional, discreet version of Catherine, but others showing traces of the improper, illicit, and indiscreet.
Wedding poetry of course tells the official story about the dynastic marriage. When Sophie Auguste of Anhalt-Zerbst changed religions, took a new name (Catherine Alexievna), and in 1745 at age fifteen married her sixteen-year-old cousin, the celebration in St. Petersburg was enormous. It was repeated on a tiny scale in Zerbst, where a local employee of the court wrote and published a short musical masque as part of the festivities. In this text, love and virtue speak about the fortunate couple. Love proclaims the following wish for the bride:
May the chaste desire that enchants her breast, Enlarge itself from day to day, That she may bear many fruits of love! (Rollig 7).
Interest in reproductively successful marital sexuality did not exclude desire ("Brunst") but, for the woman, was limited by chastity ("keusche Brunst"). Even so, it is unmistakably Catherine's sexuality that is being publicly discussed in a text such as this.
Other kinds of celebratory texts continue the official account. In 1762, seven years after Catherine had given birth to Paul (whose birth was also celebrated in Germany with various publications, such as Appelgreen and Appelgreen or Richter), Peter at last came to the throne; one of the German prayers printed for the new tsar contained the hope that God would give Catherine more children (Bilbassoff 1: 14-15). This wish fits the official account of a functioning marital relationship between Peter and Catherine.
Six months into his reign, Catherine overthrew Peter. With that, the pleasant official image of a contented royal couple was irretrievably overthrown as well. The manifesto explaining the causes of the coup included a new official account of the marriage, specifically mentioning Peter's failure to acknowledge Paul as legitimate heir, in addition to his dismaying conduct of military affairs and his moves against the Orthodox Church. In Germany, all of the early separate accounts of the coup printed in pamphlets and broadsheets and many, but not all, of the accounts in newspapers mention the allegations of Paul's illegitimacy and hence imply the accusation that Catherine had engaged in extramarital sexual behavior. Peter's repudiation of Catherine, disinheritance of Paul, and planned marriage with his mistress Vorontsova become lines in the mantra of justification for Catherine's coup. A German biography of Peter that was published immediately after his short reign and reprinted twice more the same year elaborated slightly:
The main circumstance was probably that the emperor wanted to declare his prince to be illegitimate, divorce his consort, with whom he had never lived in perfect harmony, banish her with the prince to a convent or even have them killed, and marry the young Countess Vorontsova, a niece of the chancellor and daughter of the Senator Vorontsov (Will 38-39).
Peter III is seen here to have his own personal and political reasons for discrediting Catherine. He could use sexual allegations against her to divest himself of both her and her son, leaving him to acquire a new consort of his own choosing and theoretically also to have a new heir of his own fathering. But Peter may not have waited until he came to the throne to start attacking Catherine with the accusation of infidelity and the assertion that Paul was not his son. (2) A few months after the coup, a local print entrepreneur in a village not far from Erfurt published a history of Russia in which he commented that the infidelity accusation had circulated for years: "The false and bitter charges that Peter raised against his faithful spouse when she gave birth to the now still underage Grand Duke Paul Petrowitz are well known" (Horschelmann 153). (3) Despite the fact that Friedrich Ludwig Anton Horschelmann wrote this assertion from the provincial village of Grossrudestedt, in the Duchy of Saxe-Weimar, and not from a major city or even from a town with a princely residence, the rumors seem to have achieved wide dissemination. (4) Anna Luise Karsch's response to news of Catherine's coup against Peter may corroborate the long-standing circulation in Germany of sexual allegations against Catherine, for Karsch instantly described the new empress with allusions to Livia and Maria Smart, two women emblematic of the imbrication of sexual voraciousness with women holding power (1: 138). Even if the rumor had not spread widely outside Russia in 1754 when Paul was born, alert eighteenth-century readers could have detected it between the lines when Peter III became tsar in January 1762. The failure of Peter's accession manifesto to mention Paul as crown prince signaled the danger to both Paul and herself that Catherine successfully forestalled with her coup.
The rhetoric of illegitimacy and infidelity, however, did not conveniently disappear when Catherine no longer had the immediate problem of justifying her seizure of power. Two years later, for example, a work of classic eighteenth-century hybridity appeared; Anecdotes fusses, ou lettres d'un officier allemand a un gentilhomme livonien, ecrites de Petersbourg, despite the claims in its title, was an epistolary work written by a German who had never been to Russia; it was published in French by a press in London; two German translations followed immediately (Bilbassoff 1: 36-37, 46-47). In this work, Catherine's marital behavior was still being discussed under the guise of criticizing Peter III for raising distasteful questions:
It is not fitting for me to judge whether the emperor had reason to cast doubt on the faithfulness of his consort. I cannot hide from you in the slightest that there is no one in Russia who approves of the prince speaking about that so boldly and often using expressions that are no honor to him. No one would ever have thought of such detestable things, if he had not himself offered the occasion; and no one has ever believed that the empress could be capable of such debauchery. Is it not painful for this princess and for the whole nation that the only heir to the throne, who is beloved and valued by all his subjects, was declared a bastard by his own father? (Marche-Schwann 29-30).
The author keeps the salacious rumors in circulation, using such words as "detestable" (verhasst) and "debauchery" (Ausschweifungen) even while claiming not to believe the charges.
In the first phase of the French Revolution, Louise de Keralio, in her 1791 denunciation of French female rulers entitled Les Crimes des reines de France, wrote: "A woman for whom all is possible is capable of anything; when a woman becomes queen, she changes her sex" (qtd. in Maza 82). Catherine's seizure of the throne completely transformed her sexual options. Married aristocratic women were expected to produce legitimate heirs and were thus generally excluded from libertinism until they had borne at least one son; married queens and crown princesses were expected to maintain the semblance of fidelity permanently (example: Maria Theresia). But once Catherine came to the throne, and after Peter's convenient death (while under house arrest a few days after the coup), she was a queen who was both unmarried and ruling. The difference between the chaste consort (as first routinely and then anxiously proclaimed in the pre-coup years) and the later libertine queen, arrogating to herself the same right to take lovers as most male monarchs used, seems to fit Keralio's description: it is as if Catherine underwent a public sex change halfway through her life. It is not surprising, then, that immediately after the coup the new empress allowed Grigorii Orlov to demonstrate his status as favorite. In that light, many readers of the hybrid Russische Anekdoten in 1764 probably noted that although the narrator claimed to believe always in Catherine's virtue and to regret the rumors, he did not actually refute them. In short, Catherine II not only took lovers but did so openly after she came to the throne.
For this openness eighteenth-century commentators gave various explanations. One was straightforwardly tactical. The Frenchman Claude Carloman de Rulhiere depicted the English ambassador to St. Petersburg as advising Catherine that "when you dispose of restraint, when you name aloud the person whom you honor with your goodness, when you make it understood that you will consider any mortification to that person as a personal insult against you, then it will be easy for you to live in accordance with your own desire" (30). The cultural setting that tolerated libertinism made this kind of advice possible. At the same time, the openness exposed rich lodes for the textual and graphical deployment of Catherine's sexuality.
This abounding material was not dependent on a continuous flow of factual information. Indeed, the openness of the favorites at court did not mean that Catherine's affairs were explicitly mentioned outside of court or that public discussion of them was tolerated, especially in print. Thus, the tsarina's backers in France worked vigorously to prevent publication of the little book in which Rulhiere recounted Catherine's sexual experience up to the time of the coup. (In fact, much of it was corroborated by Catherine's own memoirs published in the mid-nineteenth century.) But, beside publication, there were other effective forms of communication, most notably conversations, the circulation of manuscripts, and private letters. During the early years of Catherine's reign, Rulhiere's manuscript was read aloud in salons (it was finally published immediately after her death). As her reign continued, completely new stories of sexual experimentation circulated, some of them leaving faint traces visible today. One example is in a note that Lichtenberg wrote to one of his correspondents: "Do write me the anecdote about the empress and the trumpeter. Call her Cousin Meichel and the other one.... Mouthpiece; then no one will understand it but you and I, but in any case also use a separate large sheet of paper and I will burn it up. Please, please" (3: 35). The passage reinforces also the necessity of taking precautions in writing such material in Germany during Catherine's lifetime. Heads of state could of course be less careful. Friedrich II sneered of Catherine and her first lover after the coup: "It is a terrible business when the prick and the cunt decide the interests of Europe" (qtd. in Alexander 137).
A similar need for caution may explain the uneven distribution of visual satires on Catherine, particularly satirical cartoons that allude to her sexuality. During the course of her rule Catherine was involved in controversial activities, such as dividing Poland and conducting bloody wars against the Ottoman Empire. In images satirizing such events, sexuality was frequently part of the visual code of the critique. (5) The preserved examples from Germany, however, all treat both sex and satire very cautiously. One example originated in France, where it was called "The twelfth cake, le gateau des rois," but also appeared in numerous titled and untitled copies (Figure 1). It contains in its depiction of the division of Poland a subtle sexual reference: Catherine is in conversation with her former lover Poniatowski, now the king of Poland; his undone hair flows loosely down his back, a transference of conventional sexual imagery from the sexually undone woman to the sexually and politically undone man. Such details were probably only understandable to those who already knew the reports of Catherine's pre-coup affair with Poniatowski--information that Rulhiere's salon readings of his manuscript had put into at least limited circulation and which had apparently reached the engraving artist Noel LeMire (who signed the work with an anagram of his name, Erimeln [Geisbauer 192]). Poniatowski holds on to his slipping crown, which he had received when Catherine forced him on the Poles as their king; on the right side, Friedrich II and Joseph II converse together, Friedrich with his phallic sword drawn.
[FIGURE 1 OMITTED]
There are several much less pointed German versions of the caricature, this time with their titles in only one language. Engravers who copied designs from one another often allowed minor deviations to creep into the marginal areas of the print, as in this case, but the single-language German (and other) copies also rob the image of all critical effect. Now allusions to Poniatowski's sexual relations with Catherine are erased: he looks at the map instead of toward her, and a wig replaces his loose hair in the other version; furthermore, he points heavenward instead of grasping his crown, as though the excision of large slices of his territory were the will of God rather than an assault on his country and throne. Friedrich's sword is back in its scabbard (Figure 2).
[FIGURE 2 OMITTED]
As the years went by, satirical images of Catherine did not remain so tame or so highly coded. Once the French Revolution erupted, a barrage of caricatures of her that suddenly edged much closer to the lewd began to appear, mostly in England (where, with artists such as Gillray and the Cruikshanks at work, a "golden age" of caricature was underway), (6) and secondarily in France. The possibility that the closer one got to Russia the more effectively indecent and satirical materials could be suppressed, and the fact that during the Revolution it was of course far more dangerous in Germany to satirize monarchs of any country than it was in France are perhaps two reasons for the present untraceability of German political cartoons attacking Catherine after 1788. Yet the existence of pornographic political cartoons against her outside of France and Britain is documented in an eyewitness account of Catherine's reign by the Swiss Charles Francois Philibert Masson. In his book, which first appeared in France in 1800 and was translated into German that same year, Masson wrote about Polish caricatures he had seen, especially one that was extremely vicious:
Among the satirical engravings that were made in Poland about the empress of Russia, one is especially remarkable, entitled "Catherine's Mealtime." The empress sits alone at the table. From one side some Cossacks offer her the still bloody limbs of Swedes, Poles, and Turks, whom they have just murdered. On the other side lies a row of young, naked men side by side, like barrels in a wine cellar, and by means of a specific manual operation an old woman draws from these living kegs a juice that she catches in a goblet and hands to the empress for her to drink. Below this despicable caricature are some verses worthy of it. One can with a little decency translate them thus: Since you love men so much, eat their flesh and drink their purest blood! (161-62).
This is a blasphemous image of extreme debauchery and depravity, with multiple young men being objectified for the satisfaction of an empress with a reputation for sexual voracity, as made clear in the verse Masson paraphrases. The pornographic image of a powerful woman being sexually "serviced" by troops of men, especially guards or soldiers, is both a legacy of classical images (Messalina) and a bizarre reversal of the far more common reality of wartime rapes of women.
Recent work on eighteenth-century pornography has stressed the philosophical and political elements of such images and texts during the ancien regime, arguing that they make vivid "the irrationalities of the ancien regime moral system" and suggest "the feminization of both the aristocracy and monarchy" (Hunt 330, 329). Bawdy representations of, for example, Marie Antoinette bring the targeted woman down to the level of a common prostitute. The coded and uncoded semi-pornographic depictions of Catherine that began to appear in 1789 and continued for years after her death consistently invoke anxieties about a woman in power and the power of women, represented by sexuality and female sexual appetite. Depictions of Catherine as a powerful woman tended to slide into those of her as a lascivious woman. Even so decorous a posthumous account as the biography written by Johann Gotffried Seume (but published anonymously in 1797) said it was no secret that the empress was "somewhat passionate in the physics of love" ("in der Physik der Liebe"), but claimed she never infringed on "feminine modesty": "All who have been much in the company of the empress insist that they have never seen a woman more modest in her conversation and conduct" (141-42). Passionate and extravagant but in other respects well behaved is the pattern Seume tried to describe; he could not deny the passion since it was "no secret." He tried to resist strict (bourgeois) sexual morality not by endorsing aristocratic libertinism but by arguing that Catherine's lovers may have been expensive (due to her generous gifts to them) but were not a harmful weakness. And since Catherine had practiced leniency, the critic should as well. Seume attempts to package Catherine's active sexuality as regrettable but not of profound importance.
Within twelve years of Catherine's death two novels about her appeared, both German. In one she is called Miranda, Queen of the North, and in the other, although initially referred to only as "she," the Catherine character is named Iwanova. Written in 1798, less than two years after Catherine died, the Miranda novel is by a man, Johann Friedrich Ernst Albrecht; ten years later, in 1808, the Iwanova novel, Der Gunstling (The Favorite), is by a woman, Caroline Auguste Fischer. (7) Albrecht had already published a novel, Pansalvin, Furst der Finsterniss, und seine Geliebte (Pansalvin, Prince of Darkness and His Beloved), about Potemkin, in which Catherine also figures, and later he wrote several more centering on other men in Catherine's life. An important difference between the Albrecht and Fischer texts is their contrasting interpretation of passionate love, Albrecht still accepting aristocratic libertinism and Fischer seeming to refuse any version of love that was not exclusive, eternal, and aimed toward marriage. As a woman writer, Fischer's unstable public status probably would have made directly questioning the emerging code of sexual morality especially difficult.
Miranda depends for its depiction of Catherine overwhelmingly on Rulhiere's just-published account of the coup and his stories of the Grand Duchess's lovers in the years before Peter III came to the throne; after the Rulhiere materials, which take up more than three quarters of Albrecht's novel, the years of Catherine's reign are treated swiftly so that the book ends with the empress's (natural) death. What makes Miranda interesting is both its indebtedness to Rulhiere and its invention of discourses that Rulhiere alluded to but left undeveloped. These include dialog between palace guards about their class-based relation to the Grand Duchess, conversations between bourgeois members of the crowd cheering the self-proclaimed new empress, and a stranger's interrogation of a Russian Orthodox priest about the ethics of Catherine's ascent to power and her reign. Furthermore, in an invented secondary plot a young German officer, who is tricked into believing Catherine loves him and has married him, is exiled to Siberia, where he conducts long discussions with a Russian statesman also banished there. The result is a novel with many crosscurrents, some critical of Catherine, some admiring.
Albrecht depicts men at court--with Orlov coded as "Zadro"--as sexually attracted to Miranda, who is witty, confident, ambitious, and lustful:
Queen Miranda had always been receptive to love and this seemed to increase with her greatness.... Zadro was no longer the only one who was allowed to carouse in the blissful pleasure of the oversized royal charms. Miranda was a friend of society; she especially loved certain games associated with tender jests and caresses. To satisfy this inclination, she had founded a circle, which actually consisted of intimate friends of both sexes, to which, however, others occasionally obtained entry through the introduction of one of the initiates. Among the male intimates some occasionally acceded to a secret rendezvous with the queen, at which others enjoyed that which Zadro had until then considered only himself to have a right to. Since it was not so easy for any stranger who was not distinguished both by the bloom of youth and an advantageous education to obtain entry to that intimate social circle, Miranda found opportunity in this way also to heighten the pleasure of loving embraces by means of delightful change and to increase it with new charms (306-07).
The lubricious story of Catherine's intimate circle, often repeated in early posthumous accounts of her, is laden with semi-pornographic hints.
This sexualized but not censorious view of the empress from within her circle is combined with a distinctly critical but not particularly sexualized political view. For example:
She knew how to obtain for her throne a splendor that blinded thousands and transported them to astonished admiration of a greatness that to a clearer eye consisted more in a deceptive shimmer than in reality. Along with all the appearance of a wise, active self-government, working tirelessly for the increasing perfection of the state constitution and the prosperity of the subjects, there nonetheless very quickly arose at Miranda's court the most sumptuous Asiatic luxury, and the queen who appeared so active spent by far the greatest part of her time at her toilette, at the dinner table, and at amusements (305-06).
Although Albrecht is sometimes labeled a Jacobin and some of the criticisms of Catherine in the novel seem to support that designation, none of his overt criticisms attacks her sexual behavior, except as a distraction from the task of ruling. Many scenes are far more obviously written for their titillating effect on the reader.
In a scene set early in Miranda's marriage, while she still goes by the name Auguste (reminiscent of Catherine's original German name, Sophie Auguste) and before a fertile lover had been found for her, Miranda/ Auguste and another woman watch the guards practicing their formations in the palace square. When Auguste asks the Countess which of the guards she would choose, the Countess ponders before deciding that the best solution would be to love the whole regiment, at which Auguste laughs, embraces her, and agrees that nothing could be better (82-83).
In Miranda, Albrecht depicts a frankly sexual woman and intermittently uses a female first-person narrator typical of many eighteenth-century pornographic novels. Caroline Auguste Fischer, in contrast, writes Der Gunstling almost entirely from the perspective of a man. Fischer's narrator appears for most of the novel to be a male paragon of virtue, a man who from the start is fearful of Iwanova's attention. Indeed the first sixth of the book reads like a novel of workplace sexual harassment: Alexander is trying to do his important work, but his boss keeps making passes at him. Finally he has to tell the boss he is not interested, because he does not love her and cannot be forced to love her. She is furious. Immediately thereafter, Alexander becomes the guardian of an innocent and beautiful fifteen-year-old girl and promptly begins to fall in love. Everything about his love for Maria is validated as reasonable, positive, and virtuous. (Contrasting with Maria's classically virginal name is Iwanova, Eva nova, new Eve. The name is laden with connotations of danger and evil and sounds vaguely Russian--one of Russia's other eighteenth-century women rulers was named Anna Iwanovna. That this novel set "in the north" is a reading of Catherine is further reinforced by Iwanova being called "the Great" [110-11] as Catherine was during her lifetime.)
At exactly the same time that Maria appears in Alexander's life, Iwanova takes as her lover a handsome and innocent young man, R. Everything about this relationship is invalid: R. is dumb, revels stupidly in his pathetic status, and is the pawn of courtiers; for Iwanova he is only a stand-in for Alexander, and at the same time she uses him in an effort to make Alexander jealous. Before long, however, her majesty (her position is not explicitly labeled) gets bored with the young man. This boredom is sure proof that--by Alexander's standards of love, which correspond to the increasingly dominant bourgeois notion--Iwanova's feelings for R. were not love: "love" includes sexual passion, but it belongs with marriage, and it lasts for a lifetime, indeed, for eternity (156). Likewise, Iwanova's feelings for Alexander in their excessiveness and immoderateness, qualities that, Luhmann argues, in an earlier time had been indexical for passionate love, are now reinterpreted as not-love. Alexander comments as though to Iwanova: "Unhappy one! on your lonely throne, you were begging for love, and it was denied you. The terrible pain threatened to destroy you, and you fled into the arms of lust. Ach! you saved the appearance of life and sacrificed true living. Your example is a warning to me!" (50). Iwanova's willingness to substitute lust for love demonstrates that her emotions do not meet the new standard.
While the needy, calculating, promiscuous, and carnal Iwanova is presented as less admirable than the restrained, chaste, and rational Alexander, this simple contrast omits emotional privileges of the statesman over the female monarch: first, the statesman has been raised since his childhood to control his emotions, and, second, at the end of the day he is able to escape from court and restore himself emotionally at home. But his emotional self-control is not uniformly admired. When confronted with one of the instances of Alexander suppressing his emotions in favor of his reason, Iwanova exclaims, "You clumps of ice, who will ever understand you! But it is the compulsion under which you have been groaning ever since your youth. So, then, you believe that groaning and being in want are the human lot" (98). The change from the familiar singular form of address a few lines earlier to the plural familiar here ("Ihr Eismassen!") makes it clear that Iwanova is describing not just Alexander, but the collectivity of excessively rational people and probably more specifically the group of educated men. And although she is repeatedly shown overcoming her emotions in the novel, she suggests here that such behavior is constricting and undesirable. Yet Alexander's case shows that even the man who has so fully internalized emotional inhibitions and courtly etiquette requires regular periods of respite, available to Alexander by being with Maria (43, 65-66) and symbolized by replacing his ornate court coat with a plain one (65, 129). This relief and sustenance, of exactly the type the nineteenth-century bourgeoisie were beginning to expect from the family, is the opposite of Iwanova's situation on her "lonely throne."
Before meeting Maria, Alexander had thought that work offered sufficient emotional satisfaction, but afterward he decides it does not (50). Yet he fails to recognize the implication of this for Iwanova, as evident in one of the best realized episodes in the novel, describing her emotional collapse after she has dismissed R. Coming to her apartments for a signature, Alexander finds the monarch lying on the floor. When he asks if he should call for help, her answer is an existential question, "Where is help?" Alexander tries glibly to say help is in Iwanova's heart and spirit, and she retorts: "My heart is without hope, so you switched quickly to spirit" (95). Silenced, Alexander tries to move her to a chair, the only one available being, significantly, her throne, "the place where Iwanova belongs." When Iwanova, not wanting to return uncomforted to duty, complains that he is still uninterested in her, he utters a cry about his own happiness that puts her on alert. "How are things with Maria?" she asks (96). The thought of her girl-rival is not comforting but it does rouse Iwanova so that she gets up and goes back to the work of ruling.
Alexander answers Iwanova's question by saying that Maria is living the life of innocence. This innocence is edged, however, with incest. Because Maria does not know the code of intimacy, as Luhmann calls it, she thinks her hugs for her guardian are because he is her "father"; she has no other word for her feelings and no awareness of his more than fatherly love for her. Alexander too invokes fatherliness, noting that he is almost old enough to be her father and that emotionally he fulfills the role (33). (8) Allwina, Maria's governess and companion, warns Alexander that outside observers might think he and Maria are engaged, and she reminds him that he was recently fearful about "the appearance of any sort of guilt" (42). They avoid naming the taboo directly ("any sort"), and Alexander tries to suppress it by shifting the parental position to Allwina, calling her "Mother of my Maria," and shifting the paternal role away from himself, asserting that his only plan is to be a man (43). Yet he continues to elicit and accept Maria's daughterly embraces and familiarities. Later he tells her: "I wanted to be your father and wanted to remain that and did not want to make room for any other feeling. I wasn't able [to abide by this plan]" (130). Alexander's inability to resist his love for Maria is treated as a sign not of incest, nor of insufficient emotional control, but of an irresistible love. Her persistence in calling him father is similar. When Maria at last recognizes her feelings as love, she continues to articulate them partly in fatherly terms, even when Alexander's behavior is far from paternal. When she rejects his offer to send her to England, he kisses her: "I pulled her quickly into my arms and covered her face with burning kisses.`Oh my father, my beloved' she cried, `now we are alive!'" (135). The many evocations of incest are deployed not to indicate a problematic relationship (although Allwina hints at that) but to articulate the new kind of love different from libertine passion.
A critical mark of this new love is its immediate progress toward marriage (something that Iwanova never mentions), and precisely this, the urge of the new kind of love toward its denouement in marriage, precipitates the final crisis of the novel, for the courtier must have the monarch's permission to marry. Using his popularity among Iwanova's subjects and her dependence on his work as leverage, Alexander insists that he will no longer help her rule the empire if she does not allow him to marry Maria. She appears to acquiesce but then poisons their wedding bed. Maria and Alexander die.
The libertine woman, the ruling woman unsexed by the manly virtues that her position entails (46), is the target of demonization, and the pure maiden, whose sexual potential has only been evidenced symbolically through her passion for arts and learning, is her idealized counterpart. Maria's spontaneous and unwitting love for Alexander and her uncomplicated immunity to other aspiring lovers (whose intentions she also does not recognize), underscored by her youth, beauty, and conventional femininity, contrast with Iwanova's carnal and tactical exploitation of R., her repeated efforts to force herself physically on Alexander, her inability to accept the love of Alexander and Maria, and her treacherous response to Alexander's plan to marry. Although Fischer's novel is seemingly ready to concede to Iwanova a male role as ruler, Iwanova's obsession with Alexander has turned her into a murderous monster. And yet of the three main characters in Fischer's novel it is Iwanova who survives. Fischer does not kill her.
Iwanova's survival is knowable because of the laconic final pages of the novel by an unidentified narrator who invites a radically different reading of the novel. Here, as Anita Runge points out, Alexander's adamancy in rejecting Iwanova and demanding the right to marry Maria is identified as excessive and as driving Iwanova to extremes (172; Runge 200-01). Here it is reported that Iwanova is assisted in organizing the murders by two other people whom Alexander had judged harshly (including Allwina, whom he had dismissed for advising Maria to make a conventional courtly excuse rather than always saying only the truth; 105-07). Rereading Alexander's behavior as arrogant rather than high-minded also fits with the title of the novel. Favorites at court had power and influence, but only as long as the approval of the ruler continued; that approval also often connoted a sexual relationship. Alexander forgets his role, forgets that he derives his power not from his popularity but only from the empress whom he spurned. He also forgets what he knew about Maria, who is shown from the start as dangerous to men, specifically to fatherly ones, and who repeatedly associates love with death. Orphaned since she was five, Maria had been raised by an aunt whose recent death is reported at the start of the novel. A few months later her uncle, Count G., returns from nine years' absence: "As a five-year-old child, Maria had been torn from his arms. Now he saw the most beautiful maiden embracing his knees, and heard her call him father. It was too much." He smiles and dies (33). Her maidenly beauty and the suggestion of intimacy contained in the word father and in the daughterly gesture of embrace suffice to kill the count.
The text's version of love and especially of love's culmination in marriage also invites a more problematized rereading. Maria's notion of love and marriage as union with the beloved, knowing his thoughts and feelings, and excluding all else, matches closely with Luhmann's account of passionate love--except for the expectation of marriage. Alexander himself calls Maria's notion of marriage an unreachable ideal, for men's serious public duties distract them and teach them to devalue women and women's work (139-41). Even though Maria claims that, forewarned, she will not be disappointed, the novel makes the insightful argument that the gender characteristics and gender roles being promoted at the time and embodied in Maria and Alexander will lead to an unhappy, unsatisfying marriage for the woman, as it did for Alexander's mother (141). Der Gunstling criticizes libertinism but also questions the realizability of the nineteenth-century bourgeois alternative.
It has been suggested that one of the consequences of the Clinton-Lewinski scandal of 1998-99 was "the necessary admission that the American President has a body" (Leonardo 9). In the eighteenth century it was not a surprise to discover that kings and queens had bodies: their sexuality was part of their jobs. American presidents come into office as the result of a kind of birth-without-a-woman, by election. Most kings come into office specifically because of who their mother and (ostensible) father are, and their own duty in turn is to procreate, especially to have sons. When Catherine underwent what Keralio had called a female ruler's sex change (see Maza 82) and began to indulge in kingly sexual behavior she initially had the permission of rank, though not of gender. As long as Catherine reigned, she could appropriate to herself the body of the king with all its privileges, including suppressing most criticism of her sexual behavior without needing to hide her dalliances. Then times changed. Criticism no longer came mainly from male monarchs and their factions, angry at having to share their exalted rank with women and in some cases incensed that the queens and empresses who came before them had delayed their arrival on the throne. Criticism also came from the self-righteous bourgeoisie, eager to assert their moral superiority to the aristocracy by assailing the licentiousness of the upper classes. After Catherine's death the powerful woman could be sexually demonized, and the unmotherly, unchaste aristocratic woman could be vilified. What better punishment of an overtly sexually active, self-directed woman than to invent the story of the horse? (9) This story even today continues to circulate as oral tradition, despite the fact that the societies where it exists are all societies of the written word. The assertion that Catherine's excessive sexuality, carried to the extreme of bestiality, had killed her, demonstrates the neatness and economy of a fable and uses the readily available stuff of eighteenth-century pornographic prints. Catherine the "Great" could be transformed from the most powerful woman of her century into the most ignominious. Under the guise of a "joke," the libertine woman would be crushed to death again and again for centuries.
All translations are mine, unless otherwise noted, and are from the German, in cases when texts exist in both German and French. I wish to thank Kathy Phillips and the Yearbook reviewers for their helpful comments on earlier drafts of this paper.
(1) German examples can be found in Meise and Osswald-Bargende.
(2) I have so far found no text printed before the coup that contains this allegation, but it may have spread through less formal circuits.
(3) This claim is repeated almost exactly in one of the first biographies of Peter III (Denkwurdigkeiten, 70). Of course if Catherine's coup against Peter had not been successful, Horschelmann's value judgments against Peter would probably have been reversed.
(4) Exactly how illicit news of this kind may have reached the populace of Germany is hard to trace. Grand Duke Peter had many retainers from Holstein (where he was the Duke), with whom he drank and talked; they may have repeated some of his comments within informal communication networks that reached back to Germany. Peter also treated the Prussian ambassador as a friend and thus gave Friedrich II extensive information about his activities and his thoughts; in fact, he corresponded directly with Friedrich even before becoming tsar. Some of the many other foreigners--German, French, Dutch, English, and others--working in St. Petersburg may have spread rumors that Peter was disclaiming Paul. Or some of the German courts that had representatives in St. Petersburg perhaps heard this rumor from their diplomats, and it then spread from the courts to a broader public.
(5) It is possible that Western Europeans kept track of Catherine's lovers by means of newspapers and magazines. There may have been ways of referring to Orlov, Vasil'chikov, Potemkin, and their successors that signaled their status to readers of the time.
(6) For a rich and well-illustrated analysis of British satirical images of Catherine, see Carretta.
(7) Confronting varied listings for the year when Der Gunstling was published, Runge explains: "The novel appeared in 1808; in the following year a copper engraving was supplied, and the titles decorated with this engraving bear the date 1809" ("Nachwort" 202). Der Gunstling has received the least critical attention of Fischer's three novels. See Purver; Runge; Zantop.
(8) One of the criticisms frequently leveled at Catherine II is connected in the novel with Alexander, not Iwanova: the issue of falling in love with a much younger person. This matter is sufficiently disturbing to Alexander that he mentions it frequently (e.g., 138), and when Maria dreams about their transformed relationship, she imagines him "not much older" than she is (121).
(9) The story and some speculation about its origins are in Alexander (332-35).
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Ruth P. Dawson, Professor of Women's Studies at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, is grateful to the Stiftung Weimarer Klassik for the opportunity to study eighteenth-century German representations of Catherine the Great at the Anna Amalia Bibliothek in Weimar. Her book, The Contested Quill: Literature by Women in Germany 1770-1880, appeared in 2002 in the University of Delaware Press.
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|Publication:||Women in German Yearbook|
|Article Type:||Topic Overview|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2002|
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