A deeply sensational work of art, this is a book that stimulates all your sensibilities with images and tales that are gorgeous, humorous, poignant and perverse. One of the many senses thatVoluptuous Panic excites is your sense of history. Author Mel Gordon, a professor of theater at UC Berkeley, focuses in on a single, extraordinary time and space in 20th century history: post-World War I/pre-Hitler Germany’s capital of magnificent debauchery: Weimar Berlin.
In these madcap years between the collapse of the crotchety old Kaiser’s Germany and the onslaught of the new Aryan horror, there existed a swirling world of prostitution at every economic and esthetic level of the game, freewheeling Girl-Culture, potent aphrodisiacs, exotic Table-Ladies, urbane Kontroll-Girls, transvestites of all sexes and styles, menacing dominas sporting “poisonous” green-leather boots, shifty-eyed Sugar-Lickers, urbane gay and lesbian clubs, multiple nudist societies for health-nuts and politicos, kinky theme restaurants, sardonic cabaret shows, not to mention serious sexological research and compassionate treatment for all sex-related ills.
Sex in the City was never so varied and so unfettered–unless you happened to have a fetish for fettering. Gordon is a charming guide through the radiant pleasure palaces and shadowy alleyways of this not-so longago world. He even includes a meticulously researched and frustratingly seductive (I wish I could go there now!) Directory of Erotic and Nighttime Berlin.
Not all of the sex is good, of course (sex is never always good). There are desperate, pathetic hookers, child-prostitutes, coke addicts and vicious criminals. But when the Nazis kick in the doors of culture, following Hitler’s appointment as Reichschancellor and the burning of the Reichstag in 1933, burning the books, packing off the Jews (who seem to have been the saaviest cabaret owners, if not the classiest call girls) to concentration camps and simply exterminating the “undesirables,” well, that makes the street crime of Weimar days look like the small potato latkes that it was.
Gordon’s chapter on magnanimous, visionary sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld and his prescient doctrine of “sexual relativity” is inspiring and enlightening. I don’t think many people today realize what tremendous contributions Hirschfeld made to the field of sexology. It renders the next chapter’s photos of Hitler Youth wearing expressions of sadistic glee as they tear up books and ransack exhibits of the Hirschfeld Institute especially disturbing.
The chapter on lust-mord and other forms of violent crime is too bloody for my taste, though I can appreciate Gordon’s need to include it, as rapes and “lust murders” thrived right alongside the more admirable, consensual pleasures of Weimar Berlin.
Thankfully, Gordon vehemently disagrees with the conventional Puritanical notion that the decadence of the Weimar led inexorably to the horror of the Nazis. He demonstrates that there were multiple forces, accidents and political mistakes that led to Hitler’s ascendance. Pleasure doesn’t have to lead to catastrophe (and mostly, it doesn’t).
But Voluptuous Panic reminds us that we ethical hedonists and pleasure-lovers of the 21st century must be vigilant, lest our pleasures–and our very lives–be condemned and destroyed by any of the various stripes of neo-fascists out there.