On Measuring The World: Fear of a Gay Planet

29Jun08

In which The Gay Recluse is once again perturbed.

Have you heard about Measuring The World, the international bestseller by German/Viennese author Daniel Kehlmann? It sold more copies than any other German-language book since Patrick Suskind’s Perfume, and was highly acclaimed by critics everywhere for its playful use of language and magic realism: according to the Sunday Times, “[h]ere for once is a popular hit as sophisticated as it is engaging.” There are many more where that came from!

The book is about two eighteenth-century scientists, one a genius mathematician who figures out many mathy formulas and the other an explorer/naturalist who maps the Amazon. At the end, they meet and don’t really like each other! Both are based on real historical figures, and the explorer–Alexander von Humboldt–was gay in real life, which is to say he was a hot guy who never married and was romantically involved with several men throughout the course of his long life.

And because this is the 21st century and Kehlmann is a progressive young writer, Humboldt is gay in the book too! How do we know this? First he can’t get it up for a young girl who is left in his hut by the village chief to pleasure him. Then he doesn’t have sex for the rest of his life with anyone (or at least that is described in the book), even though right at the end we are told his “brother leaned back and gave him a long look. Still boys?”

“You knew?”

“Always.”

Oh and we are told that Humboldt is also really uptight about his sidekick journeyman ever having sex with the locals (which happens a few times in South America) and he’s an emotionally repressed psychopath who spends half the book pining for a small dog he lost in the jungle (the dog even haunts his dreams) but then he locks up a group of dogs in a room of hungry alligators to study “what happens.”

There it is, in a nutshell! What courage and insight! What incredible sophistication! It’s hard to a imagine a more vivid portrait of what it must have been like for Humboldt, one of Europe’s most famous men during his lifetime, to negotiate the waters of same-sex attraction. No wonder critics were astonished!

So you see, this book is a wonderful psychological portrait into a “real” person! You should definitely read it — we can’t wait for the movie! — the end.

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4 Responses to “On Measuring The World: Fear of a Gay Planet”

  1. 1 Frank

    “Which is to say he was a hot guy who never married and was romantically involved with several men throughout the course of his long life”. Rubbish. It could have been like that, it could have been different. There is no historical proof that Humboldt was gay. Not one letter, not one witness. Sorry, but you shouldn’t mix up your phantasies with real history. Kehlmann’s book is a novel, but your statement is just plain wrong.

  2. Frank, I’m not going to get into a back and forth about whether Humboldt was gay; a simple google search will reveal plenty of information along the lines of this:

    “Alexander von Humboldt never married, and throughout his life — he died at age 90 — he had a series of very close relationships with other men. One of the first, formed while he was still a young man, was with a fellow student named Wilhelm Wegener. Some of von Humboldt’s correspondence with Wegener survives:

    “When I measure the longing with which I wait for news of you, I am certain that no friends could love one another more than I love you,” von Humboldt wrote. “When I recall all the signs of your friendship, I feel tormented in the thought that I don’t love you as much as your sweet impressionable soul, your attachment for me, deserve.”

    Years later, he wrote a similar letter to another companion, Reinhard von Haeften, saying that he had decided against making a trip across Germany:

    “It would have meant seeing you six days later, and such a loss cannot be made up by anything in the whole world. Other people may have no understanding of this. I know that I live only through you, my good precious Reinhard, and that I can only be happy in your presence.”

    Of course there are those who dismiss this sort of thing as “typical” of men at the time, just as there are those who view being gay as a negative, and will want photographic proof of Humboldt with a cock in his mouth before admitting the obvious.

    All of this, however, misses the point of the above post, which is that my problem with Measuring the World is that that Kehlmann made the character gay and then did nothing to explore what this might have meant, which is a sign of weak writing, regardless of the historical truth of the situtation. Plus he conforms to a tiresome gay stereotype — the sexless old queen — that again is the sign of lazy writing.

  3. 3 c.

    “…just as there are those who view being gay as a negative, and will want photographic proof of Humboldt with a cock in his mouth before admitting the obvious.”

    Well, I hate to say it, but even that delightful scenario might fail to convince those who are committed to not seeing and not knowing. One could always describe such an image as fake or “out of context.”

    If only all it came down to was “lazy writing.” Still, you’re a hero (not to mention unique) for knowing what you’re talking about.

  4. Thanks for the kind words, C!


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