Prelude: Letter from the Surabaya Jail
This excerpt from the Prelude opens “Imagining Gay Paradise” with the gay artist Walter Spies in jail in the Dutch East Indies, victim of a Nazi-inspired “morals scandal” that had used fears of a “triple taboo” against homosexuality, inter-racial relations, and cross-generational male friendships to politically undermine the Dutch government. Spies wondered about a world where all had to fit a single monumental template of nature dictated by tyrannical minds. He preferred to celebrate the magical realities of miniature queer patterns of life.
This is a story about hunting for home and founding paradise instead.
In July 1939, halfway through his jail time in the Dutch East Indies on charges against him inspired by Nazi sympathizers, the gay German painter Walter Spies sat in his cell writing his most remarkable letter.
He addressed it to his friend, Jane Belo, an anthropologist who had worked with Walter in that part of the Indies he had creatively turned into his own homeland — the island and, more importantly, the aesthetic paradise, of Bali.
Walter wrote in careful strokes. He made sure the salutation was twice as big as the rest of the text and followed it with an exclamation point, as if the text itself could be a shout across a room, the kind you give when you have not seen an old friend for a long time.
Sometimes with Jane it was “My dearest of all!” or “Dear Pachong!” – his nickname for her – or, one time, “Dear Tutti-frutti or any other ice cream!”
Walter seemed to find magic in almost everything — even severe topics.
It is a rather chilly evening, it’s windy and rainy and so I come to you to warm myself. Something dreadful happened darling. I began to paint again! I don’t really know why! I was so nicely translating Balinese stories and suddenly I thought: what about that special light distribution that was haunting me one day long ago, taking form in a rather boring landscape (with lots of hills and trees, which I am so sick of) and then later it was transformed into a possibility of a kris dance and barong.
Light drove Walter. Light could change from one object into another, a hill into tree. Light could roll into the sounds of dance or form the rhythmic undulating dagger that the Balinese called a kris. Light could transform into the fantastic lion-like barong that led forces of good against evil in constant tension.
Walter wrote past the first page to Jane, then halfway down a second. He apologized for a photograph he was enclosing of his latest painting. He had finished it inside the jail and had titled it Scherzo fur Blechinstrumente, which in English meant Scherzo for Brass Instruments. Unlike most paintings meant to be seen all at once, Walter wanted this one also to be heard like a concert — moment after moment, the visual images on the painted canvas passing through time like miniature chords.
A painting that was meant to be like a rhythm in a symphony. Walter knew that could not make much sense to most people. Painting claimed space. Music defined time. It was like holding opposite ways of thinking and of communicating in hand at the same time: a painting that was simultaneously music, music that was simultaneously a painting.
He told Jane he was sorry because the flattened two dimensions of the photograph did not fairly represent all the “nuances of accelerandos” that he assured her did exist within the layers of paint on the more textured canvas itself.
He had finished a page-and-a-half. That was good enough for any lazy Dutch censors who might open the letter and read the first few words.
Walter had long been careful to code his letters in metaphors. Sixteen years earlier when he had left Germany, he had warned his mother he would have to do so. He worried the letters would be opened as they moved from one colonial empire to another, in the present case traveling from Surabaya to the Dutch colonial capital in Batavia and then onward to Holland and across the border into Germany. The Spies family had already had its share of bad luck with imperial boundaries. During the Great War, the Russians had arrested Walter’s father despite his diplomatic status as the German counsel. Walter himself, although born in Moscow, had been considered a potential hostile and, at age twenty, had been exiled twelve hundred kilometers to the Ural Mountains to live among Tatar nomads.
Empires tended to sweep individuals into a monumental identity to be feared even when the miniature details of their lives carried other truths. Walter, a German now locked in a Dutch jail, was not so much a man without a homeland as a man of many spaces and times solidified – by others – into their own constant tension. Unfortunately, at that moment in 1939 all the colonial empires seemed to mistrust one another, most especially the Dutch and the Germans.
Which was the reason Walter was sitting in a jail, writing the letter.
After that first page-and-a-half, Walter abruptly changed topics and started underlining phrases for emphasis. He had arrived at the real subject of the letter — a coded commentary on the odd people who had put him where he was and on the story of the world they wanted to impose:
Dear, you know, I am always so astonished at how different people are! A man who is here and who is not at all conventional in all his ideas and actions — has suddenly a complex of neatness and orderliness and a rather agonizing cleanliness. His room looks always as an “operation room” or a modern kitchen, all white and shiny, and one imagines white tiles, aprons and chrome-nickel polished instruments everywhere! . . . All his pencils, pens or whatever are lying in rows like soldiers. Cups and pots with an even distance between each other, and arranged by their height. In the whole room there is not a single thing which is not forced to behave . . . I can’t imagine how one can have so little respect for nature! He must be absolutely blind and deaf to any harmony of the universe!
For Walter, pleasure lay in a life surprising and infinitely divided into miniature objects and, of course, both uncertain and magical:
For me it is one of the most exciting and fascinating experiences to watch all the things in the world of my little home here move and live their own life in accordance with each other. How books and cigarettes, or a piece of bread pile on each other and then suddenly fall into a lovely pose on the ground, finding there some torn envelope from Berlin; what a joy that must be for them! From there they can see quite different things … Sometimes a bottle of tomato catsup after having performed all kind of stunts up and down the table finishes this table life and with a large leap flies into the paper basket, where it finds herself bedded softly between a torn manuscript or some sketches to a painting.
Don’t you think that the letters on the bottles are happy to find their brothers and sisters there?
It was a rather queered way of looking at things, emphasizing not the vast difference that might seem to exist between certain monumental categories — mundane catsup bottle and discarded drafts of art — but the sibling relationship between the small letters on the bottle and the tiny marks on the manuscripts and sketches.
Walter then turned to the role of those — like himself — who were considered either disposable or dangerous:
One of the most lovely lives has the role of toilet paper. It stands up and lies down and unrolls, and pieces of it fly off and crumble, and they clean cups and spoons and rub themselves on the table, get all wet and dirty and jump one by one into the waste basket. Sometimes is the way a box of matches is moving on, during a few days or hour, even a most interesting one. From the table to the bed, then into a pocket, out of the room, into the room again . . . sending off some of its children, igniting them, seeing them lighting a cigarette higher up, and then being thrown away without [a] head! O, o, o!
I always seemed to have had a special attraction for them. Sometimes, coming home, I find a whole gathering of them in my pockets! What is it, I wonder, what they like in me?”
Walter conceded that often the relentless effort to secure order triumphed: “There are days where something has to be done to the things! Everything is re-placed somewhere, where one thinks they have to be!”
But the “objects” would always challenge order and seek their own fluid companionship:
Already a few hours later, every object can be seen moving again! They don’t like to be commanded like that I am sure! They don’t feel happy where one puts them – they want companionship with other objects and they know better than we do in what distance and what relation, what equilibry they have to be with the other things and with the world they are in and live for.
He reflected again upon the other male who supposedly occupied the same “jail” – the same world — with him:
The wretched orderly neat man, of whom I spoke, is afraid to come into my room! He says that he would die if he had to live in such a mess. Isn’t that funny? . . . I am sure he must be a tyrannei kind of person who has to order round, and everyone has to follow all his wishes.
Walter finished the main section of his letter:
“O, o, o! What funny people there are in the world.”
He signed with another shout:
Many, many kisses.
The pages that follow recount the saga of a king, an artist, a mastermind, and an entrepreneur. All lived during the past century in those islands and peninsulas we call Southeast Asia, and all created small geographies — their own islands — where orderly, neat stabilizations that are supposed to tell us about the male body, male desires, and male gendering were instead disturbed and set free into miniature “mismatches,” rather like Walter’s catsup bottles and discarded drafts.
Mostly the story centers on their search for a homeland to call their own, but it also considers the contest between two metaphoric constructions of body, desire, and gender in the times in which these men created. One such construction, which I refer to as the “triple supremacy,” came to be considered a marker of the civilization that colonial empires insisted upon in Southeast Asia. The other, which I call the “triple taboo,” formed its flip side of evil.
What unites the four men is that each sought a home that could not be contained within the triple supremacy, and so each had to create something new, something that those around them would consider quite queered – a different definition of manhood.
The story unfolds over an entire century for it can take a long time for new homelands to be imagined.
Buy Imagining Gay Paradise from Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble, Columbia University Press, Hong Kong University Press, Silkworm Books, Kinokuniya Thailand, Kinokuniya Singapore, University of British Columbia Press, Eurospan
Add Imagining Gay Paradise to your Goodreads: