What is the classic European literature really about? According to Hans Mayer, author of the book The Misfits [Außenseiter], it is a disguised story about discrimination and exclusion told by homosexuals, women, and Jews.

Mayer, an outstanding German literary scholar (1907-2001), argued his claim using the example of the life and works of such diverse figures as Paul Verlaine and Arthur Rimbaud, Marcel Proust and Heinrich Heine, Jean Genet and Andre Gide, George Eliot, George Sand, Piotr Tchaikovsky, and many, many others. In his view, this 19th century eruption of artistic talents was not associated with the growing emancipation of societies but on the contrary—with discrimination of individuals regarded as anti-social by the society endowed with ever-increasing rights.

This was the dialectics of the Enlightenment, which, as Mayer writes, “stumbled on misfits.” Although the 19th century was an age of a remarkable development of economic freedom and political liberties, in the area of implementing the ideal of “rooting out emotional prejudices against people of different races, religions, customs or moralities” promoted by the Enlightenment philosophers, “the bourgeois society in the 19th and 20th century regressed.”

It happened because “the demolished feudal hierarchy had to be replaced with a new one, of bourgeois nature. The new hierarchy transformed the woman into a parasitic slave, who does not and should not earn money. It was opposed to the emancipation of the Jews through education and wealth. Hostile to strangers from the very start, it was becoming more and more nationalist. A distinction was introduced between dignified and worthless life. Being different in any way became a provocation.”

Consequently, the people who could have expected to gain the most from the implementation of the libertarian Enlightenment causes (meaning women, whose aspirations went beyond becoming someone’s wife and mother; homosexuals faithful to their preferences; and Jews who decided to stop being Jews) in the next 150 years fell victim to repressions incomparable to anything which had taken place before in the history of Western Europe.

The persecuted misfits had three life strategies to choose from: mimicry, rebellion, or suicide. Mayer convincingly shows, on the example of the lives of Hans Christian Andersen, Oscar Wilde, and Klaus Mann, how it ended in the case of homosexuals. As we know, for Jews in ended in Auschwitz.

Since 1975, when the book of the German literary scholar was published, Western European societies went a long way towards the implementation of the liberal model outlined by the author as one of the three possibilities. Out of the two remaining models, the Marxist one ceased to exist in 1989, but the fascist model, as defined by Mayer (“women are not equal to men, and a genuine man is only a male man, whatever that means”) is going from strength to strength. In Mayer’s perspective, fascism returns to Europe today in the shape of religious fundamentalism, Muslim or Christian.

Is this a valid diagnosis? It is definitely widespread in the West of Europe. Mayer’s book explains in a fascinating way why it happened like that. And it also makes us aware how recently, during the lifetime of one generation (the ’68 generation), this cultural change occurred. And, of course, he raises the question of its durability.

The most striking question among the ones coming to mind after reading The Misfits will obviously remain unanswered: what is the significance for the future of the European project of the fact that this liberal cultural transformation occurred neither in Poland, nor in the majority of the new EU member states (as well as in none of the countries aspiring for EU membership, such as Turkey)? And is there a chance that it will take place one day? The example of Western European societies shows that it is quite possible. Hans Mayer, writing his book in the early 1970s, underestimated the power of the market, which since that time has crushed one stronghold of tradition after another. In today’s West, the misfits are those who cannot afford to or have no desire to participate in consumption. If you can afford it, people will no longer peer at your neckline or inside your trousers.

Aleksander Kaczorowski

Aleksander Kaczorowski is an editor-in-chief of Aspen Review Central Europe, a Polish bohemist, journalist and author. His recent books include biographies of Václav Havel, Bohumil Hrabal, Ota Pavel and Isaac Babel. He won the Václav Burian Prize for cultural contribution to the Central European dialogue (2016).

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