King Ludwig II’s Wagnerian Obsession
By the time we get to Munich, the cold sopping spring has turned to a sultry summer—in like a lion, out like a lamb shank, meat falling right off the bone. Sunbathers in the Englischer Garten lie sanguine and naked in the grass. But instead of joining them in Edenic glory, my boyfriend Nick and I choose a two-and-a-half hour train ride to the Austrian border for a tour of Neuschwanstein Castle. A stuffy shuttle and surprisingly taxing hike later, we stand in King Ludwig II’s courtyard, waiting for our tour group to be called.
Idling about in sunshine I often notice the broad-chested and the sturdy-legged, for whom summer wear looks charmingly crowded. My wandering eye settles on an attractive Brit who appears to be part of the only other gay couple on this tour. His t-shirt is emblazoned with the name of what I assume is his alma mater, something I find more reasonable among men in their 40s than those fresh from commencement. The straps of his backpack cling to his square shoulders as he allows his partner to sip from a water bottle before returning it to the pouch. I smile, he looks away, and the tour begins.
Schloß Neuschwanstein inspired the castle design for Disney’s “Sleeping Beauty,” but Ludwig’s inspiration came from Richard Wagner’s work. There is strong evidence that the king was a total queen, and to my eye, it’s written all over every magnificent wall. Each room is embellished with exquisite impracticalities, furnished with shockingly ornate wood- and metalwork—the whole place screams theatrics, flamboyance, the operatic Sturm und Drang of romance and Romanticism. I mean, his bedroom closet is literally a deep dark cavern, jagged stone walls, chilly drafts, and everything. The subtext is not subtle.
Not, that is, in retrospect—one in which closet is a loaded term and Liberace never came out of one.
Ludwig was nothing short of obsessed with Wagner, but politics demanded that he straighten himself out. Looking around the throne room, and trying to make nonchalant eye contact with the other gays, it’s obvious that didn’t work. The hall has this whole Byzantine revival going on, which takes commitment if you’re going to do it right. Neuschwanstein does—religious murals, floor mosaic, a chandelier designed to look like a crown. In the battle for Ludwig’s soul, the castle is his last stand against a monarchy threatening him to grow up and rule like a man. Quit dicking around with all this opera nonsense, wasting everyone’s time and money in the process. The pressures of statesmanship, the anguish of an unacceptable sexuality, an obsession made manifest: Ludwig is prime material for literature. Roughly 70 years after the king’s death, American novelist David Stacton made it so, with the epic novel Remember Me.
Stacton was a homosexual like King Ludwig and myself, and claimed, “My talents are melodramatic and a mite grandiose,” according to The Guardian’s 2013 profile “David Stacton: The Method Man.” So it’s no wonder that Neuschwanstein might spark his imagination in much the same way as it does mine. Remember Me failed to sell well after its 1957 publication; the publisher Faber revived it in 2012, but, however ironically, the novel continues to exist on the fringes of memory. Still, its lineage of obsession—its overtly supplicatory title—intrigues me: the dramatic arc that it suggests, of man after man hitching his legacy to one slightly more renowned. (See how I too hitch!)
I nudge Nick and indicate the men I have noticed. In this sea of straight people—few of whom seem at all bashful about touring a grand Bavarian icon in sweatpants and tube socks stuffed into their sandals—it’s nice to know we’re not alone in this Wagnerian fever dream. I won’t pretend to be overly familiar with his work; we had intended to see the Ring Cycle the last time it was in Seattle but missed it. That’s the way of things with us, and so it takes on this mystical quality for me, an anticipation that heightens the whole drama. A will they or won’t they. At the risk of sounding trite, life is full of little dramas like that. And when it isn’t, I invent them in my mind. There’s the handsome couple we befriend on a guided tour who become lifelong travel companions. There’s the unresolved rivalry with an old schoolmate, which I envision culminating in a confrontation after one of my readings—very well attended of course. The ongoing saga of office politics. The clandestine episodes of reckless lust. They season the mundane and accentuate the exciting, regardless of whether or not they’re rooted in any sense of reality.
My overactive imagination keeps me company when I’m lonesome, but it can cloister me from the people I’m closest too. Who but characters in my favorite novels can so deeply understand my interior? What but the “Liebestod” aria from “Tristan und Isolde” can reflect true intensity of emotion? It can begin to feel like the fiction is the real world and the rest of this is just the entr’acte. David Halperin offers a redux on gay affinity for musical theater in a chapter of How to Be Gay. “What’s Gayer Than Gay?” He suggests Broadway. Riffing on ideas originally presented by literary critic D.A. Miller, Halperin considers the art form inherently queer, constantly interrupting the mundane with clever scripts, singing, dancing and quick, bright scene changes. “The Broadway musical permitted [gay men] to partake in queer ways of being and feeling. It put them in imaginative and emotional possession of a queer reality.” To quote Miller, it’s an art that realizes a “sublime vision.” And it can be so difficult to truly share a vision, much less a sublime one.
Collective attraction to what is implicitly familiar would neither be foreign to Stacton, whose own preoccupation with men on the fringes of what was considered acceptable he named a “fellow-feeling” in a conversation with his editor. The Guardian quotes the author as explaining, “Such people are comforting, simply because they have gone before us down the same endless road.” I get that fellow-feeling when I read about David Stacton and King Ludwig II; I also get it when I meet gay men with 10, 20, and 30 years on me.
And it’s pretty clear that Ludwig got it bad: he reportedly exchanged 600 letters with Wagner, give or take. As the story goes, however, the composer’s interests wandered and the king grew sullen and reclusive. Now—I’ve sent a few emails (to authors still among the living), and my fanaticism for David Bowie has occasionally bordered on the obsessive, but none of my flatterings have yielded a correspondence even close to that of Ludwig and Wagner’s. Nevertheless, I know what it’s like when passions fade, when the novel ends, or when repeated listens to a favorite album can’t spark the energy that prepares me to leave the house in the morning. I become a zombie, mindlessly traversing the day. Poor Nick when I become this vacant. You would not believe how long I can lie on the hardwood and analyze the ceiling between shallow, labored breaths. Although I am desperate to pull him into my sublime visions, these colorless intermissions are an embarrassing displeasure.
King Ludwig was eventually declared insane and found dead shortly thereafter. Accident, suicide, murder: who knows! For a brief time—he slept in his yet unfinished castle a recorded 11 nights—Ludwig enjoyed inhabiting his own sublime vision, one designed by Wagner and transposed onto a breathtaking and rustic hillside. Moreover, the suspicious nature of his death all but matches the operatic fantasy in which he lived.
Bavaria didn’t wait to open Neuschwanstein to the paying public. They hoped to settle quickly the extreme debt Ludwig incurred while building it. The tour exits through the servants’ areas, and as we leave, my love for king and castle are in full bloom. His eccentricities combined with his love of Wagner created a tourist trap that not only made Bavaria a pretty penny within a decade or two of Ludwig’s death, but has also kept people coming back for well over a century. His legend has inspired novels, movies, games and stage musicals—though tragically, no operas it seems.
An obsessive imagination drew upon the life’s work of one artist and gave birth to a national treasure. As a writer, as a gay man, I crave good narrative arcs, and Ludwig of all people could have no problem with my romanticizing his. Stacton certainly found it easy to do so, and curiously seemed even to follow Ludwig’s footsteps down that same endless road to the afterlife. Their deaths share peculiar echoes: homosexuals who never saw the full appreciation of their greatest labors, men in their early 40s who died under mysterious circumstances. Setting aside the possibility of murder or natural causes, Stacton presumes the king committed suicide in Remember Me; in turn, the novelist may have succumbed to illness of either body or mind. Little definitive has been written about either, so I let my imagination run away with itself, toward the most romantic conclusions.
Descending the spiral stairs to the gift shop, I have lost track of the other men who have given me that old fellow-feeling. They entered the passage before us, but to be honest, I don’t need to engage them here. Maybe we’ll run into each other again by happenstance. Maybe we’ll be on the same train, maybe in the same line at the beer garden. It’s not like I have Isolde’s love potion to machinate a friendship. And I’ve only written this one little essay for them. I wouldn’t want anyone to think I’m obsessed. ¶