Bildung and Sexuality in the Age of Goethe

Document Type

Book Chapter


During the lifetime of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832), German-speaking central Europe produced one of the great flowerings of culture in human history. The era’s literature, music, philosophy, art, and architecture continue to provoke and entrance. It is less well known that this epoch also conceived sexuality distinctively, not so much out of the legal and medical discourses that would reconfigure sexuality at the end of the nineteenth century, but rather out of anthropological arguments related to race and Bildung. The period’s neoclassicism, its cult of friendship, and its acknowledgment (or appropriation) of female desire all demonstrate that the age’s conception of sexuality must be understood on its own terms to reach a more accurate comprehension of its literary texts. Despite its centrality to the intellectual and cultural history of the West, the Age of Goethe does not typically figure prominently in lesbian and gay histories. The vocabulary of "homosexuality" did not yet exist - the world had to wait until 1869 for the first appearance in print of a word that combined the Greek prefix homo with the Latin root sexus and described a person with a sexual orientation toward a member of their own sex. The words Homosexualität and homosexual (homosexuality and homosexual) debuted in German in Karl Maria Kertbeny’s essays arguing for the decriminalization of sodomy in the German penal code (Tobin, "Kertbeny’s"). Because the vocabulary was different, the language of erotic love and desire that existed in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries is not immediately legible to the twenty-first-century reader.

Publication Title

The Cambridge History of Gay and Lesbian Literature

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legislative discourses, erotic fantasy, lesbian relations, early modern, Spanish world theologians, medical specialists