Friday, January 22, 2016

Mad King Ludwig

Last month my petite amie and I had the privilege of visiting the two refuges that Ludwig II of Bavaria (1845-86) built for himself in the German Alps,  Linderhof Castle and Neuschwanstein. Linderhof, a vest-pocket version of Versailles, glistened with gilded furnishings, garish chandeliers, and expensive glass work. One of the other Americans in our group commented on Ludwig’s lack of taste, though Susan and I, who love kitsch, did not concur. Neuschwanstein, meanwhile, perfectly combined the sublime and the ridiculous. We admired its snow-white walls and soaring turrets, and its commanding view of the lakes and landscape below. However, I found the castle’s interior, its masculine dark-wood facings and huge Romantic paintings, more a subject of psychological curiosity than admiration. The stories with which Ludwig illustrated his famous retreat all came from Wagnerian operas, like Parzifal and Tannhauser, in which chaste blonde warriors fought evil and avoided (for the most part) romantic entanglements with the opposite sex. I know nothing of Ludwig's sexual orientation, but I got the strong impression that he did not much like women.

The Bavarian government hated Ludwig's extravagance, though soon after his deposition and death (some say murder) the state opened both of the "Mad King's" castles to tourists. Officials recognized, I think, that both Linderhof and Neuschwanstein were ideal tourist sites, in that both sought to transport visitors into a semi-imaginary past. As time machines to a fake past, they tell us more about the mindset of their 19th-century builder than about the eras that inspired them. Linderhof, which Ludwig built in emulation of Louis XIV, celebrated a time when monarchs ruled absolutely and by divine right. The generation before Ludwig's, the Congress of Vienna crowd, had wanted to bring that era back, but their children learned that the French and Industrial Revolutions had destroyed it. The guillotine and Napoleon* killed the divine right of kings, and industrialization, without which a modern state could neither prosper nor defend itself, required an educated populace who wanted a say in their own governance. Ludwig wanted the respect and power of a Sun King, but his parliament and ministers wouldn't allow him these courtesies. In any case, the Bavarian king couldn't follow Louis's example, because his French predecessor kept his rivals in check by binding them in the elaborate rituals of Versailles. Ludwig was too shy to dominate Bavaria's political class; he built Linderhof to get away from the royal court, not to create a new one.

Neuschwanstein, the more famous of Ludwig's castles, evokes a more intriguing and dangerous historical fantasy. Despite its telephones and central heating, New Swan Stone's builder clearly meant to evoke the mythologized medieval past that charmed the disaffected elites of nineteenth-century Europe. Wagner's operas, Walter Scott's novels, the paintings of the Pre-Raphaelites, and similar media allowed the haute bourgeoisie and marginal aristos to distance themselves from the awful present, with its sooty cities and grubby, grasping commoners, in favor of a pseudo-reality characterized by chastity, cleanliness, simplicity, aristocracy, and masculine courage.

As Corey Robin has observed, this retreat into an imagined medieval past inspired a new generation of industrial-age reactionaries. King Ludwig merely wanted to retreat into his castles and his fantasies, but these elitists wanted to drag the rest of society with them into a new medieval era. They valorized inequality, worshiped a tiny elite, denigrated the proletarian majority whose labor sustained them, and marginalized and infantilized women. Friedrich Nietzsche and his followers belonged to this group, as did English intellectuals like G.K. Chesterton and C.S. Lewis. Ludwig was not a reactionary in practice, but he drank from the same poisoned cup as other reactionaries and proto-fascists, and one is glad that, as a mere king, he never acquired sufficient power to put a Wagnerian** agenda into practice.

(Above photos are by the author.)

* While Napoleon did make himself emperor, his reshuffling and deposition of so many European monarchs demonstrated quite clearly that there were earthly powers superior to kings.

** Although Wagner himself, at least in his youth, was a liberal revolutionary and got into considerable trouble for it.

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