Friendship and Philosophy
The Gay Love Letters of Johannes von Müller
and Charles Victor de Bonstetten
Excerpts from My Dear Boy: Gay Love Letters through the
Centuries (1998), Edited by Rictor Norton
The fact that Charles-Victor de Bonstetten (1745–1832) received passionate love letters from two great men (see the letters from Thomas Gray, previous selection) is ample testimony of the attractiveness of his personality. Johannes von Müller (1752–1809) met Bonstetten in Hapsburg in May 1773 at the start of his research for his magnum opus, a five-volume history of Switzerland. He was instantly bowled over by the accomplished man of the world, seven years younger than he, who seemed to possess all the graces, good taste, numerous languages and wide-ranging knowledge. The insight which Bonstetten provided into the Swiss people was invaluable to the historian, and their friendship was intimate for twelve years, and they continued writing until Müller's death. Müller's philosophical companion and servant Bonnet wrote to Bonstetten in November 1, 1774 that Müller "loves you like one loves a mistress. One would have to return to the golden age to find a parallel friendship. You are indispensable to his happiness." They travelled together on various occasions, for example in the Alps in 1777, though never as frequently as Müller wished, for they were often separated due to the former's social obligations and the latter's scholarly pursuits. Müller always travelled with young male companions, and even set up house together in the Alps with the American Francis Kinlock, though they were separated by the American War of Independence. Goethe discussed Müller's homoerotic relationships with a friend of his. Müller fulfilled his various posts as history professor and tutor with exceptional sagacity; in 1786 he became librarian to the Archbishop-Elector of Mainz, chief librarian of the Imperial Library in 1800, royal historiographer in 1804, and in 1807 the Emperor Napoleon appointed him secretary of state for Westphalia. He died two years later, still a bachelor. But for all the brilliance of his career, from the moment he met Bonstetten he realized that all the achievements of worldly ambition were sterile in comparison to the pleasures of the private life, as he explained to Bonstetten in 1775, going on to quote passages from Cicero's De Amicitia as the classical basis of the "unending love" he felt for his friend. There was a crisis in their relationship in 1793, when Bonstetten began courting Frederike Brun whom he eventually married. Müller seems to have wished to end their correspondence, but Bonstetten protested that their love need not cease: "The memory of you moves me so deeply, we have grown so intimately together that the drying up of your heart has blighted my soul. . . . As for me I cannot at all let our friendship disappear; however it may be for your soul, it is even more necessary for my sake." They now wrote much less frequently, although in the last year of his life Müller still addressed Bonstetten as "my good, my tender, my eternal friend." Bonstetten was an important member of the intellectual and literary circle of Geneva which included Mme de Stael, and he wrote studies of ancient literature and history, and philosophical studies of, for example, the imagination. His most famous work L'homme du Midi et l'homme du Nord, a study of the different temperaments of the north and the south, e.g. the melancholy of the north versus the animated passions of the south, can be seen as a paradigm of his northern friends Gray and Müller and himself. In his last years he was active in political writing regarding the Swiss confederation and republicanism.
JOHANNES VON MÜLLER TO CHARLES-VICTOR DE BONSTETTEN
26th of December, 1774
I feel very well. All my bodily maladies and maladies of soul derive from ennui when I have no work. Work is the foundation of friendship, a book in my hand. My friend, you are absolutely right. Only these two things can make me happy and useful to others. My vitality cannot wait out Fortune's slow pace. My very virtues would be my undoing, because the ill-repute of the unemployed, the ignobility that brings advantage, some of the moral weaknesses of the great would make me angry and would torment me. It seems to me that peace and happiness, pleasure and inner merit are far more easily, more surely and for me more properly achieved through scholarship. . . . I cannot tell you what peace, what cheerfulness, what intellectual pleasure I get from philosophy.
What makes contact with the circles which I have quit this last hour especially pleasant is not only that they enable me to increase the number of my acquaintances, it is also my happiness in these circles, and I am far better rewarded by the company of Trembley Polype, of Bonnet [his servant and factotum], of Clason than by the smiles of the most enchantingly beautiful women. A natural sympathy binds me to these people, these Englishmen are genuinely kind to me and give me as much of their time as I want. Trembley Polype has offered to provide me with introductions that could be useful to me in England.
What do you say? avec un bon esprit on a beaucoup de peine à être bon homme. You, who know Bonnet? Do not say "que les études donnent des défauts cu caractère," but "Eloquent spokesmen for idealist philosophy or for political chimeras make the world unbearable for young men who see it quite differently, and make these young men, for whom it has no use, unbearable to the world. The study of detailed histories and the desire to please those whom one wants as friends will save one from this."
5th April, 1776
I have as little doubt as you that I will not be happy anywhere in the world where I cannot follow my academic pursuits and cultivate friendship in absolute peace and independence, and that no one is better able than you to grant me this happiness, my dearest B. I will use all the means at my disposal so to control the circumstances of the strange destiny to which human affairs are subject that we may achieve this excellent goal. I shall not postpone anything that depends on hard work and virtue, that I may earn the independence that my heart and mind so urgently need. The rest, my dear friend, is not in my hands: economics may force me not to sell my freedom, but to go to another country. I shall deal with this matter in a manner worthy of a friend of yours; I perceive where true happiness lies: in the pleasure of the mind in observing and reasoning and in the pleasure of the heart in avowing its feelings. . . .
8th August, 1776
Any mistakes I may make in the future will be your fault; that is only if you neglect your letter-writing your friendship can never grow cold might I let myself be surprised by a passion. Tell me why I love you more as time passes. You are now incessantly in me and around me. My dearest friend, how much better it is to think of you than to live with the others! How is it possible to desecrate a heart that is consecrated to you? I need you more than ever; over and above these immutable, laudable plans for a useful life and an immortal name I have forsworn everything that is considered to be pleasant and delightful not only pleasure but love, not only revels, but good living, not only greed, but ambition. B. is everything to me, you make all my battles easy and all abstinence sweet. Thus you live in my mind and especially in my heart. You write to me often, but it does not seem enough to me; you often address only the historian, and do not embrace your friend often enough.
CHARLES-VICTOR DE BONSTETTEN TO JOHANNES VON MU¨LLER TO
May 20, 1802
Allow me still to call you by that sweet name. I wish to see you, I sigh for your friendship. Is it still alive, do you wish to keep our long-standing vow? Ah! you and my love are my consolation, my life. Do you still love me? Oh! what would I not give to embrace you! . . . I read your letters with a transport which I cannot describe to you. All my youth appears before my eyes, but with the bitter sentiment of my eternal uncertainty. I realise too late, alas, the route that I ought to have taken, the road along which your eloquence wished to lead me.
Copyright © 1997, 1998 by Rictor Norton. All
rights reserved. Reproduction for sale or profit
SOURCE: Müller to Bonstetten, from Briefe eines jungen Gelehrten an seinen Freund (Tubingen, 1802), English translation by Alexandra Trone; Bonstetten to Müller, from Marie-L. Herking, Charles-Victor de Bonstetten (Lausanne, 1921), English translation by Rictor Norton.