Nationalism indeed became the most successful controller of sex, sexual attitudes, and behaviour, expressing ideals congenial to the bourgeois lifestyle, and serving as part of larger efforts to control and discipline the nervous age of industrialization and revolution. A fruitful, strong, and beautiful nation came to depend on ideals of restraint and control, chastity, and purity as the 19th-century obsession with order strictly opposed the uncontrollable passion of the individual;
‘The beautiful body as the personification of the beautiful nation was supposed to transcend its own sexuality.’
Indeed, the role of beauty and of the (male) national stereotype was to prevent disorder. The crucial social order was menaced by a sexual abnormality which was considered to be able to disturb it as a whole, and private vice was at once to become a public concern. Sexual unconventionality and a person’s stepping beyond the boundaries of respectability was consequently not only considered a sickness dangerous to individual health but to the health of the entire nation-state.
“Nationalism indeed became the most successful controller of sex, sexual attitudes, and behaviour, expressing ideals congenial to the bourgeois lifestyle, and serving as part of larger efforts to control and discipline the nervous age of industrialization and revolution.”
Although our public understandings of sexuality have thankfully evolved since the 19th century, when the term represented little beyond than that of higher-class, heterosexual males, we are still able to recognise a solidity and continuity of the state’s aims to restraint sexuality, establish, and maintain traditional norms and denounce sexual abnormality. The ample help of nationalism in this process identifies the nation as an ideal which requires personal attitudes and behaviour to reflect its own vitality, while all of this simply serves efforts to cope with the uncertainties of the ‘nervous age’.
‘Nationalism and respectability jointly provided a reference point in an unsettling world, a piece of eternity which could be appropriated by those caught up by the vibrations of modernity.’
Despite Mosse’s grammatical use of the past tense in his statement, we might not help noticing the resemblances it bears to today’s Europe. Particularly as conservative parties declare the importance of endorsing traditionalist (and respectable) understandings of the many aspects of our sexuality and identities, through the argument of evolving liberal values intimidating our stability, our social order and our nation. In spite of encountered backlashes, we must believe that whatever may be in store for us this coming year, or decade, will support our enduring efforts towards sexual liberty, freedom of restraint and judgement, and hopefully someday of the burdening standards of respectability.
First published Online, January 2021. Volume 16, Issue 2. Image: Sappho and Erinna in the Garden Mytelene, Simeon Solomon, 1864