Stadiums, nude bathing, eugenics, and, one might add, a strong whiff of anti-Semitism—doesn’t this all remind one of something? It is true that various components of Kessler’s obsessions early in the century were shared by the Nazis later. That is partly because they were the obsessions of the Western world. Stadiums: In 1911, Kessler records that van der Velde objects that there aren’t even enough modern sports one could play in the stadium. “I answered,” writes Kessler, “that we were building a stadium in Berlin, the Swedes one in Stockholm, and that the English have built one for the Olympic games. In Athens the ancient stadium will be used.” This ancient, original stadium was the only one used in the 19th century, while the London stadium, put up at White City for the 1908 Olympics, was the first in modern Europe (and 20 years earlier than the notorious Nuremberg stadium).
So Kessler and his architect are talking about a new idea, but one that will spread internationally over the next century, until every major city boasts a stadium. As to eugenics and racial purity, Kessler’s meaning is not entirely clear, for in the same period, after a club dinner in Berlin, he records his impression of the
new generation, young people between twenty and thirty years old, who seemed to me to be much more racially pure, slender, sporty, and agile than we were; smooth-shaven, fresh, energetic faces like those of young Englishmen and without the faded sick sweetness of young worldly French from high society. Most of them have traveled widely, in China, in New Zealand, in America.
It almost seems as if being clean-shaven and well-traveled were a part of racial purity.
The ideal of beauty, though, was definitely male, with more than a touch of Whitmanism. It was men bathing naked in rivers. It was the officer’s muscular thigh straining against the flank of his horse. It was working-class boys stripped almost naked for the Whitechapel boxing ring. It was Nijinsky’s dancing. It was Gaston Colin posing naked for Maillol. It was the nude in art, but the nude conceived, not as a kind of aesthetic category hovering above the level of physical desire (high-minded nudity made respectable by a cache-sexe), but the nude as the very expression of desire itself.
One expects, in this period, such an intense level of conscious homosexual preference to combine with a certain degree of misogyny, especially if the love involved is a love for heterosexual men. Kessler loses his great loves to marriage, and this clearly gives him dreadful pain, which he faces with difficulty. Lesbianism seems to appall him, and he describes an encounter with Colette and her female lover in revolted detail. Kessler associates women with sexual prudery of a kind not found in all cultures, “nor even,” says Kessler,
among men if they are not influenced by women. You need only see boys among themselves, or students, or the officer corps, the junior officers, traveling salesmen. The woman, syphilis, and the church have created this hypertrophy of shame.
Yet, when he describes the pioneering male couple, the artists Shannon and Ricketts, he notes—without admiring them for it—that they both hate women and that in the past Shannon has posed for the women in Ricketts’s paintings. He goes on:
According to [William] Rothenstein, a similar relationship exists between Swinburne and Watts-Dunton, who also still live together, as women haters who have gone deaf over the years.
The next paragraph, though not explicitly confessional, tells us much about Kessler’s erotic perambulations:
In the evening the Strand, Piccadilly. The great elemental phenomena that have moved me deeply: the sea, the mob, only then mountains, streams, plains, stretches of sky. The metropolis contains the same poison of longing as does the sea. The same mobile melancholy, dreamy, objectless melancholy.
If he was losing himself among the mob in Piccadilly or the Strand, or on another occasion inexplicably composing his mail on Tower Bridge (the upper level of which was once notorious for prostitution), he was putting himself in the way of sexual adventure. And here he finds his way to a boxing match in a Whitechapel music hall:
Only men and boys, no women, no colors, merely black, gray, and, up above, the pale pink of the faces in a thin, gas-lit haze of smoke. The boxers fought naked, or almost as good as naked, in swimming trunks and shoes. A few magnificently slender and thoroughbred young fellows among them. Not completely full-blooded like the Greeks but beautiful, slender half-bloods.
And since we can also tell that he was gathering information about Oscar Wilde, and that he had no objection, in principle, to prostitution, we can guess that this “poison of longing” sometimes found satisfaction.