Before his very last public talk, Hubert Fichte was asked to introduce himself to a Viennese audience. He replaced formality with frankness: “I am a writer who in his life has hung around more with rent boys, street girls and voodoo priests than with those important personalities a writer should surround himself with.” It is January 1986. Fichte knows things will come to an end soon. He will die of Aids-related illness only two months later.
Fichte’s story both is and isn’t one of a poète maudit. It is, above all, a story of an artist who refused categories, be they theoretical, sexual or geographical. Born in 1935, just months before the enactment of the Nuremberg Laws, Fichte grew up without his father, a Jew forced to flee to Sweden a year later. During the war, Fichte lived in an orphanage in the south of Germany. Soon thereafter, he would turn displacement into a strategy of his own, at first by his attempted escapes from post-War Germany, which would take him to France, Sweden and Finland; later through his extensive stays in non-European countries. In keeping with this spirit of expatriation, Fichte went on to explore his own queer sexuality, the life of sex workers and faraway cultures, including Brazil, Bahrain, Belize, Burkina Faso, Senegal, Tanzania, Togo and Trinidad, among others. In the German literary milieu of the time, still firmly in the grip of old themes and habits, such a practice was unprecedented. It was bound to provoke; it flew in the face of so much.
Still, Fichte’s writing is animated by dialogue and exchange, not confrontation. His main work, The History of Sensitivity, was conceived as a nineteen-volume novel in the legacy of Proust, whose political horizon was a utopia of universal queerness, a world beyond hetero-normativity in which global tenderness would allow for intimacy among strangers. This politics of queer tenderness is also at play in the excerpts translated here, which are taken from a collection of interviews Fichte conducted with sex workers in Hamburg in the 1960s, published under the title Palais d’Amour in 1972. Characteristic of Fichte’s approach is the way in which he addresses their world in an ethno-poetic fashion, yet without ever laying claim to ethnographic authority. In all of his interviews, Fichte refuses the position of an objective observer and stable subject. Instead, he insists that every inquiry is framed by desire, that ethnographic description is never pure, objective and detached—an aspect of his work that acquires a particular urgency in light of ongoing discussions on the role of ethnographic methods and the place of alterity in contemporary art.
Sex work has been and remains a delicate subject for capitalist societies, as it mixes the sphere of money and work with the supposedly private domain of sexuality. The principle way to deal with it has been to hide it in darkness— Baudelaire, for one, praises “la Nuit noire,” the black night, that dark freedom beyond good and evil which the sex worker supposedly enters. If Fichte seeks to shed light on this world, his torch is of a particular kind. He brings no moral enlightenment, yet he does not romanticise the darkness either. What we encounter in these interviews is rather an art of the threshold, a game of shadows. Distant voices flare up, voices that would otherwise have fallen into oblivion. Their tone is rough, their spirit resistant. They are traces, not portraits, of life on the margins—often revolting, always running away.
Malte Fabian Rauch is an art theorist, philosopher and translator based in Berlin.
Fichte: When were you born? And where?
Sandra: On May 6, so 06.05.1949, in Bad Driburg, close to Bielefeld.
Fichte: Who was your father?
Sandra: He was a toolmaker.
Fichte: Your mother was a housewife?
Sandra: Yes, she works only four hours a day, she’s employed by the post.
Fichte: Do you have siblings?
Sandra: Yeah, three boys.
Fichte: What is your relation to your siblings?
Sandra: Oh, you know, one of them is fifteen, going on sixteen. The other one is fourteen, going on fifteen. Boys growing up. One of them, the fourteen year old, asked for drums for his confirmation, and he got them. And now he’s all set on starting a band one day and so on. And he is really very interested in that; I think that’s good, they do not at all neglect their homework because of it. The big one is pretty quiet. He does a lot for school. He speaks – though he’s only fifteen – insanely good French. I think one day he will really succeed in doing something, like crazy.
Fichte: Do your brothers know that you walk the streets?
Sandra: No, no.
Fichte: They know nothing. But your parents …
Sandra: Yes, but they don’t talk about it. I mean they would never ask me about it.
Fichte: Did you see anything remain of the war or the years of famine? Did anyone tell you about that time?
Sandra: Yeah, you know, it’s like this: my father lost a leg in the war, and so you’re naturally concerned with this at that moment. But it wasn’t at all the case that we’d understand anything about it, that we’d talk a lot about it or anything like that. Because my old man had lost his leg in the war, you don’t talk about it in order not to trigger the memory. And then, my old man came to Germany because of the war. And that’s all such a hassle, I don’t even want to go into that … My old man is from Hungary. Straight from Budapest.
Fichte: And how was your childhood?
Sandra: You know, over all it was pretty normal. I started school when I was six, got out of school when I was fifteen. Went to school for eight years, worked for half a year, then began to work in some kind of shop, not as an apprentice, but just like that. So I made pretty good money …
Fichte: As a sales assistant?
Sandra: Yes, as a sales assistant, directly as a sales assistant, in Düsseldorf. Yeah, and then I got asked whether I wouldn’t like to model. Then I went to a model school for half a year, finished that with a diploma, and worked as a runway and photo model in different cities.
Fichte: You were roughly seventeen, eighteen?
Sandra: Yes, eighteen.
Fichte: And then?
Sandra: Yeah, and then I met a guy who was insanely rich and who kind of kept me from working in fashion. I got everything from him. He was my sugar daddy, in a way. And he was jealous like hell. For half a year I was together with him, wasn’t allowed to go out on my own etc. Then I was so annoyed by it that I thought, no, it’s not possible, I can’t stand it, I’ll leave. So I packed up my stuff and left. I wanted to go back into fashion, but I had lost touch with it. Because of the anti-baby pill, I gained weight like crazy, around twenty pound or so I guess. I blew up like a balloon. And despite my height, that meant something. I could still get into the clothes, but they didn’t really look good anymore. They fit somehow, but it didn’t work anymore. Effectively, I’d missed the boat. Now if you are used to having money all the time, to be able to buy anything you like, well, I had this idea, because I got to know two or three girls in a little bar. They were quite cute, not at all the kind you’d normally expect to walk the streets. I thought they were quite entertaining, the way they walked around. They did whatever they wanted and they always had guys around them who were fun. Both of them also didn’t have longterm boyfriends but instead did whatever they liked. Seeing that, I thought, well, that’s not a bad idea. So I made friends with them, talked to them and thought to myself: why not?
Fichte: But you still lived at home at the time?
Sandra: At that time, I still lived at home with my parents. And then I thought, why not. So at eighteen – yeah, I was already eighteen by then – I turned up in that café, sat there with 50 pfennig [c. $0.30] in my pocket, and let it all happen.
Fichte: Who was your first client?
Sandra: You know, that was – how old might he have been? – forty, with moustache, a real john type, you know, exactly as you would imagine him. He walked to my table and took a seat, asking me whether he can pick up my check. Because he had never seen me before, he didn't know whether I hooked. And so, yeah, I said straight away – all cheeky – yes, why not. Now I had no idea, didn’t have any condoms in my bag either, didn’t even have the courage to walk to the next pharmacy and buy some or to ask anyone. Yeah, and so on, I said, what’s happening, 100 DM [c. $60], in which hotel are we going? I don’t know, I said; well, then come with me. So I went into the car with him and we drove to the next hotel. He gave me – no, not true, I didn't say anything about the money. Nonsense, not true. He did not speak of the money at all. Yes, I came with him, he paid for the hotel, went upstairs and pulled out the condoms. He knew I never had a client in my life, he said so afterwards. He pulled out the condoms, undressed himself, put the thing on and I lay down and had no idea of it all. And I only thought, well, let him get on with it, I put no effort in it whatsoever. Yeah, and afterwards, when he got dressed again, he placed a 100 DM bill on the table and said: girl, how are you doing this, are you crazy or what? I immediately got that you are new to this, and I also got that you have no clue. But think for a second you’d come across someone else, and he’d fuck you about. He would have fucked you nicely and wouldn’t have paid you a penny. Remember to always have one of these with you, and remember: money always first. I thought that was so nice of him.
Fichte: So he did not really let himself go, or?
Sandra: No, no …
Fichte: And that’s when you realised, that you’re able to completely detach yourself…
Sandra: Yes, that was absolutely clear. Completely disconnected. It was never the case for me that I would be concerned with anyone, intimately, I mean, that I was not crazy about.
Fichte: But in that case, you go all out?
Sandra: When I really like someone, yes, with pleasure.
Fichte: So you are not frigid.
Sandra: Not at all.
Fichte: Then why not with this first client?
Sandra: Because I was sitting in that café with the intention to hook. And because I knew, and instinctively you just know that, if you get money for it, you don’t just give yourself away like that. You know that you only let the guy get off, and that you get money for it and that afterwards it’s done with.
Fichte: And you were clear about that from the outset?
Sandra: That was clear to me from the outset. I wasn’t stupid, straight from dumbville or whatever, since I had worked in fashion and had intimate relations with several men before. That’s logical; it gives you an idea.
Fichte: So you are not for wangling then?
Sandra: Well, he fucked me, after all, but without any feeling, as I said.
Fichte: Without any feeling?
Sandra: Without any feeling, totally without feeling. The entire time I was only hoping, hopefully he’ll be done soon, that was the only thing I cared about.
Fichte: And next time, you were wiser?
Sandra: Next time I was wiser. I simply asked for the money upfront, put the condom on him and then again I was also thinking, hopefully he’ll be done soon. And so it became nicer everyday. I was already beginning to flirt a little and to approach the whole thing actively, going to the café and placing myself directly next to someone, all cheeky.
Fichte: But you were still living at home?
Sandra: Yes, yes, I was still living at home at the time.
Fichte: And why did you leave Düsseldorf?
Sandra: You know, because I didn’t want that. Because, first of all, I had my family in Düsseldorf. And then, I had my private life, my friends. You aren’t into them getting to know about it. And then I also thought it was not not quite exciting to – I don’t know – to shout it from the rooftops that I hook.
Fichte: Were you disgusted by it?
Sandra: No, no, at first you have the feeling: money, money. Then you absolutely don’t care about all of that, that only comes after a certain time. In my case, after half a year or so.
Fichte: And …
Sandra: That only happened because of the smoking, that I started to hate it all like crazy.
Fichte: From the hashish?
Sandra: Yes. So I am totally convinced that the hate comes from it. When I’ve smoked, nobody can lure me here in any way. When I’ve smoked there could be twenty guys that approach me in the yard, wanting to come with me. I’d only laugh at that. That’s so uninteresting for the moment, when I am somewhere else and have smoked, let’s say until 9 or 9.30 and I think, fuck, actually you’d have to work. Nothing on earth can drag me here.
Fichte: But when you meet a friend, with whom you like to let go, then you go with him?
Sandra: Of course, that’s fantastic, when you’re high. You are much more outgoing, you have a totally different feeling and you are much more receptive to everything. You are feeling everything in a much more sensitive way, be it a kiss or whatever, you experience that in a much nicer way. And when you get to the climax and get off, there’s such a feeling that’s totally absent when you’re sober. One has such a feeling of fully flowing out, such a relief, it’s incredible, you cannot describe it.
Fichte: You have been in Hamburg now for one and a half years?
Fichte: Did you ever get into really big trouble?
Sandra: Never. I stay away from those people here. Well, I know them, that’s logical, you simply know the people, you have to know them. They accept me, they know me; they know how I think about the whole thing. Of course, during the first three, four months they tried to hit on me, to get my money and so on. And I had such a big mouth, and I was so completely against the whole thing, that after some time they figured that it doesn’t make any sense. I came from Düsseldorf, on Friday, and that was really too much with them again. On Friday I almost went insane.
Fichte: What do you want to do?
Sandra: You know, I don’t know. I am sure that I will stop with this soon. It’s not possible overnight. But at the very latest, when I am 21, then I’ll beat it. Full on.
Fichte: When did you hear about hookers for the first time?
Sandra: Seventeen – sixteen – seventeen.
Fichte: Not earlier?
Sandra: Oh, naturally I knew of it, after all, I think; but I did not deal with that.
Fichte: Were you good in school?
Sandra: Mediocre, so I was not the best, but I wasn’t bad either; I had somewhat mediocre grades.
Fichte: Didn’t you have any interest in going to high school?
Sandra: Not at all.
Fichte: Why not?
Sandra: Oh, you know, because I had awful teachers.
Fichte: Did you hate your teachers?
Sandra: No, I didn’t hate them, I thought it’s terrible, because I was repressed by these people.
Fichte: In which way?
Sandra: Well, they are the ones who can prescribe things, and they are the ones who can decide what we should do. And I refuse any coercion, any kind of coercion.
Fichte: Do you have a strong sense of honour?
Johnny: Sense of honour, yes, a very strong one even.
Fichte: What goes against your honour?
Johnny: What goes against my honour, that’s primarily disrespect towards women. For example at the train station last week. Two young guys pushed away a forty-year-old woman from the entrance. She wanted to get in. Well those two I roughed up, trust me. Gave ’em a real smack, yelled at ’em “if you don’t pop off” and so on. I didn’t get into a real fight. Only beat them twice.
Fichte: Are you vengeful?
Johnny: No, not at all. I’m quickly outraged and say: fuck, if I meet him again, I’ll beat the shit out of him. After a couple of hours it’s all gone.
Fichte: So the people from the approved school, wouldn’t you like to rough them up a little again?
Fichte: And neither the raiding party?
Johnny: Only one of them. One of them I would like to have all to myself now. He was a kind of building manager.
Fichte: And what would you like to do with him, if you could?
Johnny: I would give him a couple of slaps, only to humiliate him. Only give him a couple of slaps.
Fichte: You wouldn’t like to take revenge on any of your clients, none of them?
Johnny: Well yes, also one of them.
Johnny: He promised me 50 DM [c. $30] and he also gave me the money. And then he stole 40 bucks again. He looked all serious, well-off and so, and I thought: he has money, if he says so, he’ll also give it to me. And he really had given me 50 DM in 10 DM bills. And then he walked away from me. I didn’t realise it, I was completely hammered and I still don’t understand it today. Usually I always wake up if someone gets up next to me; and then I did not. He left and stole 40 DM from my wallet.
Fichte: Yes, and what would you like to do with him?
Johnny: What I would do with him? I’d pack him a punch and take 40 DM from his wallet.
Fichte: Are there a lot of things that you find inappropriate or improper or indecent?
Johnny: Nope, practically none. Well there’s the obvious, as I’ve said. Improper, what’s improper: to leave a girl when she’s having a child, and that sorta stuff. I mean here in Germany now. I mean, I see matters differently, since up there in Finland I have a child. And I mean, she understood that perhaps, that I won’t come up there. But you know, if I’d be fucking a girl here, well, if she’d get a child, I think I’d even marry her and get a job.
Fichte: Do you lie a lot?
Johnny: Only white lies, almost only white lies. Sometimes I show off a little as well.
Fichte: Did you lie a lot in this interview?
Johnny: Nope, that’s all true.
Fichte: Do you think one should honour one’s parents?
Johnny: Not always.
Fichte: When shouldn’t one?
Johnny: Well, for example in the case of my parents, in particular my mother. I’d never honour her. I would not even – ok, well that sounds a little brutal now – I would not even go to her funeral.
Fichte: Would you go to your father’s funeral?
Johnny: To my father, yes. Because I know exactly that he always shows understanding for me.
Fichte: Is there anyone besides your father that you respect a lot?
Johnny: That I respect a lot. If I should say that, well I mean, if I’d meet my fiancée today, so my last fiancée, the young one – she’s eighteen now – I’d immediately start something with her again.
Fichte: But none of your teachers or mates?
Johnny: Nope. Well, I had a mate, yes. The one in the approved school. That was the best mate I ever had. I’d still accept him as a friend any time.
Fichte: Is your father a role model for you?
Fichte: Don’t have a role model?
Johnny: I have an athletic role model. Cassius Clay [Muhammad Ali]. And as a sportsman, I consider him a role model. That’s practically the only sportsman I know. Who’s now a real sportsman through and through, that’s this Finnish guy, Nurmi [Paavo Johannes Nurmi]. Nurmi, the long-distance runner. Because I once read that he made a run, and he would’t have been beaten; but then his adversary fell down. And he stopped on the track and helped his adversary back on his feet again. And then they ran together through the finishing line. Well, and in my opinion, there’s nothing better in sport.
Fichte: Do you have feelings of guilt? Or a bad conscience?
Johnny: At the moment, nope, not at all.
Fichte: Do you feel slightly ashamed?
Johnny: Yes, that I have to say after all. I still have … it’s just that I’m still embarrassed. Embarrassed I still am. If I only go out with men, well then I do feel embarrassed.
Fichte: Do you feel embarrassed on the street that you go with clients or do you feel embarrassed in bed?
Johnny: In the room, in bed, on the streets. It’s known, after all, that if I’m walking around on St. Pauli and there is, let’s say, there is a man with me who looks older than me or who also is older than me. Well then most people who know me, they know what’s going on.
Hubert Fichte (1935 -1986) was a German novelist. His life and work is currently the subject of a research project at Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin.
Hubert Fichte’s interviews with sex workers were first broadcasted on the national radio stations WDR and NDR and then published as a book. The excerpts translated here are taken from the first edition: Hubert Fichte, Interviews aus dem Palais d’Amour etc. (Hamburg Rowohlt, 1972), 170–175 and 134–136. An expanded version – including several interviews with the brothel owner Wolfgang Köhler that did not appear in the first edition – was published six years later unter the title Wolli Indienfahrer (Hamburg: Rowohlt, 1978).
Reprinted with the permission of S. Fischer Verlag, Frankfurt.
Hubert Fichte, Wolli Indienfahrer. © S. Fischer Verlag, Frankfurt am Main 1978.
1 Hubert Fichte, “Hubert Fichte warnt vor sich,” in Homosexualität und Literatur, vol. 1, ed. Torsten Teichert (Frankfurt/Main: Fischer, 1987), 7. For a recent overview of Fichte’s life and work, see Dietrich Diederichsen, “The Price of Intimacy,” Artforum, vol. 57, n° 3 (November 2018).
2 Hal Foster locates an “ethnographic turn” in the 1960s and traces its development into the 1990s, carefully highlighting the potential and pitfalls of this paradigm. See his “The Artist as Ethnographer,” in The Return of the Real (Cambridge, MA and London: MIT Press, 1996).
3 Charles Baudelaire, “Allégorie” (Fleurs du mal), in Œuvres Complètes, ed. Claude Pichois (Paris: Gallimard, 1975), 116.
4 [Earlier in the interview, Johnny tells Fichte about his time in prison. According to his account, the raiding party (Rollkommando) was a group of particularly brutal prison guards that used to beat up prisoners who had violated the rules or completely refused to accept orders. See Fichte, Palais d’Amour, 120–121. – Translator’s note.]