Today, when I introduce myself to people, I say I graduated from Oberlin with an honors degree in early U.S. history, with a focus on women’s history. When I was in high school, I hated the idea of specializing in anything. I was a sporty kid who loved reading classic literature, playing the viola, studying every history, speaking German, learning about the natural world, and knowing everything about figure skating. If you looked on the sidebar of my LiveJournal, you would see that I admired Bobby Kennedy and Henry IV of France. I enjoyed Sir Thomas Moore’s story as much as I enjoyed reading about Mikhail Gorbachev. I loved the Age of Exploration as much as I loved the Meiji Restoration. There was no rhyme or reason to my historical exploits. Perhaps it was childish, but I loved everything.
Flash forward today. If you asked me who my favorite historical figure was, I’d be torn between Mercy Otis Warren and Lucy Stone. It’s embarrassing to admit, but I actually needed Google to confirm that Henry Navarre was indeed Henry IV of France. The point I’m trying to make isn’t that I’m ashamed of this. To some extent, we all miss something of the sheer joy of uncontrolled intellectual exploration. It’s a part of growing up. The point I’m trying to make is that I’ve lost a lot of that random knowledge, especially as far as history is concerned. Which is why my fascination with Ludwig II of Bavaria is so astounding.
I first encountered dear old Ludwig (or Luddy, as my friends and I called him way back when) as a freshman in high school. Like most people, it was his three fairytale castles that impressed me. Like the hook to a senior thesis, the castles were an easy, eye-catching entrance to a somewhat confounding story. I toured Neuschwanstein, Linderhof, and Herrenchiemsee. Then, wanting more, I read websites, biographies, and architecture journals. As my mastery of the German language grew, so, too, did my fascination with this young king. It all reached a rather exciting climax my junior year of college, when I took a month to explore Europe by myself after my study abroad program in Ireland.
I revisited Neuschwanstein during a torrential downpour. I’d decided to skip a reprise of Linderhof so that I would be sure to have enough in my budget to visit Herrenchiemsee, the only castle I’d yet to see at the time. Being by myself, it was all a mystery to me how I was actually going to get there, but my ability to hold a competent conversation in German pulled me through most of the confusion. I got on a train; I got off at the right stop; I managed to find the docks; I just barely caught the last ferry to the island; I got off the boat at the right island; I found the ticket booth and ordered a tour pass; I went on a tour in German; I even visited a special exhibit on the life of Ludwig II, called Götterdämmerung; and, somehow, I made it back in time to catch a train to Salzburg.
The Herrenchiemsee experience was monumental in my career as a German-speaker. Not only had I successfully navigated different types of public transportation, I had understood nearly every word on a full-length German tour, and read museum cards in German as well. The Götterdämmerung exhibit also helped clarify my fascination with Ludwig II. He may be a rich, white, European king–quite different from the American women I study now–but he had a few traits I consistently find attractive in male historical figures. If you look at my track record, you’ll see this quite clearly.
1) He was a child. At the very entrance of the Götterdämmerung exhibit, there was an amazing quote from him that literally gave me chills. It went something like this: I am as sensitive as photo paper–every image, every experience leaves an impression that will last a lifetime…* When his father died, he was five years younger than I am now, still only discovering himself. He was wrenched out of this world of safety and experimentation and unexpectedly made king of Bavaria. I guess the peoples’ reaction to their new king was a little like how the US felt when JFK was elected. Here was this youthful, bashful, handsome, intelligent boy being crowned your leader–like any teenager, the nation begins to feel invincible and anything seems possible. And that, I guess, fit in with Ludwig’s image of himself as well. It was all a fantasy–where heroes triumph and evil is left to dust. He hated, despised, abhorred warfare because it interrupted these fantasies–it was cruel, expensive, and deflated morale. I think that’s what Wagner meant to Ludwig. Through his operas, Ludwig was able to escape to the murals of his mother’s castle at Hohenschwangau, where heroes existed and damsels in distress awaited rescuing. Everyone has fantasies. The only difference is that not everyone has the luxury of living them even after they’re older.
*the German word he used was ‘das Innere’ and I didn’t translate it well–it has so much more of an internal quality than simply being–maybe “my soul” would have been better than “I am…”
2) He was a paradox, and historians love a good contradiction. Here was a young boy, tossed into a situation beyond his years, in an age of increasing republicanism, who desperately wanted to be a divine, absolutist ruler like Louis XIV. In an age of technology, he wanted to believe in magic. “I don’t want to know how it works,” he said of technology, “I just want to see it work.” He had outdated beliefs about kingship, yet he remained popular with his people for a surprisingly long time. He had some of the most technologically advanced castles in the world with electricity, multi-colored lights, heating, running water, and yet he didn’t seem really to care how it functioned. Torn between two worlds and aging (in an older man such eccentric, childish delusions are no longer accepted by society), he tried to keep his world united and remain forever young. And, as if we needed one more piece of irony to complete this point, two months after his death, his noble family made the decision to open the castles to the public against his last wishes in the hope that it would further convince the Bavarian public that their king had been a total nutjob. In fact, it did quite the opposite, and he remains beloved–if even more so now than before.
3) He was an artist. So many kings and princes want to seem cultured, and they pour their treasuries into commissions and parties, to which they will try to entice the leading artists of the day. Ludwig II poured a great deal of his funds, impressively, into his own art. Everything he created was a symbol, a work of genius. He wrote poetry, designed buildings, made drawings… He seemed to do it all. His fascination with art was an escape for his imagination that, rather than fading with age, only increased. Near the end of the exhibit, there was a satire played out between Ludwig II and Wagner, where two actors argued the question of whether either of them could have existed without the other. Ludwig starts by talking about the opera house he wanted to build, which pops up as a bubble above his head. But then he gets distracted and more and more bubbles begin to pop up until the screen is full of his ideas. And then, just like that, they all shatter. When the people walked through the glittering sanctuaries of their king ,they of course saw an eccentric, but, what’s more, they saw an artistic genius. Instead of condemning him as the nobles and wished, his castles ensured him a spot in the historical memory of Bavaria, probably forever.
Why the sudden historical musings? Well, I’ve been thinking about Ludwig II a lot lately, mostly because I saw the film Ludwig II. at the Cleveland International Film Festival last Friday. While it is most assuredly a fictional account, and somewhat dramatized, I do wonder how much drama actually had to be added. Ludwig lived in a fantasy world, and it only follows that the film would be equally fantastical. At some points, it was even so unworldly as to be off-putting, but, again, that was Ludwig’s life. His daydreams endeared him to generations of people across the globe, but they also distanced him from his family, his friends, and his people. Eventually, there could be no bridge to him–he was lost and unrelatable, even to the point of his mandating that no one could look upon his naked face nor he theirs. The film does a splendid job emphasizing this fact as the tragedy of his life.