It’s been very German around here lately, hasn’t it? Four of the last five posts relate to natives of my host country, and today things take a further turn for the wurst as we visit the ultimate German eccentric of the last, oh, 200 years or so.
It’s hard to know what there is left to say about Bavarian king Ludwig II; Luchino Visconti’s sprawling four-hour 1972 epic Ludwig tells you all you need to know about him (and, frankly, quite a deal more). Ludwig continues to exert a fascination disproportionate to his political achievements and is today better remembered than most of the sabre-rattling Prussians, doughty Saxons and myriad dull princelets of the geo-political patchwork which would, during Ludwig’s reign, form the German Empire.
If you’re not familiar with Ludwig’s CV, here it is in outline. He was born on this day in 1845, and ascended the Bavarian throne in 1864, his subjects initially smitten with the handsome young king. But it soon became apparent Ludwig was more interested in his private obsessions than the drear business of ruling. Chief among the king’s enthusiasms was the composer Richard Wagner, on whom Ludwig lavished state funds.
In 1867, Ludwig was engaged to his cousin Sophie, sister of Sissi (Empress Elisabeth of Austria), but the engagement was broken off, with the real reason – Ludwig’s homosexuality – naturally figuring nowhere in official announcements. Ludwig became ever more withdrawn and stopped taking part in official functions. He spent enormous sums on fanciful palaces, much to the alarm of government officials. In 1886 he was deposed on flimsily substantiated grounds of insanity, and died by drowning a few days after his deposition in circumstances which have never been convincingly explained. The official verdict of murder-suicide (a doctor died with him) remains controversial.
It is those very castles which so distressed his courtiers which have ensured his posthumous legend. Superficially Ludwig and his kindred spirit Sissi may have adopted the frock-coats and crinolines of their more prosperous subjects, like many European royals chastened by almost a century of sporadic proletarian revolt. But both wilfully refused to conform to their roles and used their positions to retreat from the world and its nuisances, to construct their own fantasy kingdoms. “It is essential,” proclaimed Ludwig, “to create such paradises, such poetical sanctuaries where one can forget for a while the dreadful age in which we live”.
Ludwig’s “sanctuaries” included his imitation of Versailles at Herrenchiemsee, the less literal French Rococo pastiche of Linderhof, and – most famously – the Wagnerian medieval medley of Neuschwanstein, now visited by over a million people a year. His castles in the sky became castles of bricks and mortar, historicist confections removed from their apparent function for a ruler who wanted the trappings of kingship without the grunt work.
The enduring question about Ludwig remains: was he mad? Certainly building a to-scale replica of Versailles, the Death Star of the ancien régime, is something we might rather expect of an unhinged Central African despot than a constitutional monarch. And madness most definitely ran in the family; his brother Otto, for one, was literally barking mad (his impersonation of a dog was among the episodes which prompted his removal from public life).
Ludwig also had an obsessive need for solitude. One example among many: he had an elaborate mechanical table built which meant his food could be served without him coming into contact with servants (cf. Des Esseintes’ arm’s-length relations with the help in J.K. Huysmans’ A Rebours). He wished to be gloriously, utterly alone in a nocturnal world with only the ghosts of Wagnerian heroes and French monarchs for company.
All of this, along with his sexuality, was enough to have him labelled insane. But as he protested when confronted with the diagnosis, “How can you declare me insane? After all, you have never seen or examined me before.” A fair, and indeed lucid comment, you’d have to agree, and ultimately Sissi’s description of him as “only an eccentric who lived in a world of ideas” seems the most fitting.
Both Ludwig and Sissi took the abstractions of Romanticism and not only made them reality but practised them at the level of an extreme sport. In so doing they inspired the Decadent writers who furthered the Romantics’ cult of self. Ludwig, particularly, was a shibboleth of French Decadent sensibilities. Apart from Huysmans, Ludwig’s self-imposed exile to the dominion of dreams inspired writers such as Catulle Mendès, Paul Verlaine, Robert de Montesquiou and later Jean Cocteau and Philippe Jullian. Alongside his obvious appeal to such precious spirits, Ludwig arguably served as a prism for their fascination with an absolutism still too contentious to directly engage with in republican France.
In his time and after, Ludwig received numerous epithets, including The Dream King, The Swan King, The Virgin King and – less tactfully – The Mad King. Montesquiou imaginatively labelled him the “13th Caesar”, but it is the poet’s description of him as Rex Luna which serves him best; not quite lunatic, but driven by compulsions which scorned the light of day, making sense only in the moonlit realm of reverie and illusion.