REVIEW OF WALT WHITMAN’S MYSTICAL ETHICS OF COMRADESHIP BY JUAN A. HERERRO BRASAS
Walt Whitman's Mystical Ethics of Comradeship: Homosexuality and the Marginality of Friendship at the Crossroads of Modernity was published by State University of New York Press in 2010.
The subversively anti-gay Whitman *****
I don't usually resort to hyperbole, but, quite frankly, this is a staggeringly good book. It is one of those academic books that is so illuminating that one finds oneself repeatedly going back to reread sections over again. Brasas, whilst always scholarly, is never obscure or obfuscating. Indeed, he has a remarkably lucid prose style. The book begins, quite properly, by setting the discussion of Whitman's ethic of comradeship within the context of his philosophy as a whole. The fact was that neither Whitman nor his disciples regarded his "Leaves of Grass" as simply a book of pretty poems, an addition to the literary canon, the way his work tends to be regarded today. Instead, Whitman saw himself as something like a prophet of a new religion, one which sought to celebrate the body, especially the male body, as divine, to reassert the classical ideal of identifying the good and the beautiful, and to replace a Christian morality of self-denial with a religion of sensuality, and affection between men. However - and this is crucial - Brasas shows how Whitman would not have approved of modern gay politics or of "sexual identity" as constructed by the modern gay movement. His object was not to assert rights for a minority - he did not think of himself as belonging to a minority. What he wanted was affectionate behaviour between males to become more widespread in society in general.
The whole notion of "sexual identity", therefore, would have been utter anathema to him. For the effect of the gay movement has been to narrow, rather than widen, the affective and erotic possibilities for the majority of males. Males are much less likely to explore close and affectionate relationships with other males if they view this as characterising a minority with which they cannot identify. Kinsey showed how teenage boys were essentially bisexual in their behaviour and psychology up until the 1950s. The emergence of the gay movement, and the construction of rigid sexual identities since then, has probably robbed boys of this side of their emotional life. Nothing could have been more antithetical to Whitman's hopes.
In addition to this, the gay movement has constructed the gay identity rather narrowly and has itself become intolerant of the diversity that used to characterise the early gay movement. For example, despite the protests of an earlier generation of activists, such as Harry Hay (now quietly forgotten), the gay movement in the 1970s and 1980s threw pederasts to the dogs in its indecent scramble towards respectability. On this point, it is interesting to note that Whitman himself would hardly have fitted into modern notions of gay identity. His lovers were all a generation (or more) younger than himself and this was clearly his preferred relationship. Indeed, it is now known that Whitman himself, when he was a schoolteacher, had sexual relations with some of the boys he taught. This happened in Southold on Long Island. There is no reason to think that these relations were anything other than consenting, but this was irrelevant then (as it would be now) and Whitman was tarred and feathered by a mob after he was denounced by a local Presbyterian clergyman (This incident is described on pp. 90-1 of this volume). Naturally this "scandal" is something he preferred to bury in the past, particularly after he acquired a degree of fame. Fearful though tarring and feathering could be (Whitman took a month to recover from his injuries and trauma), it is, frankly, almost benign compared to what he would suffer at the hands of the media, public opinion and the law in our own times.
So one thing this volume does is show how different to any modern notion of gay politics was Whitman's ethics of comradeship. Indeed, it is interesting to note that, generally speaking, Whitman would not have supported modern leftist causes. For example, he would have been utterly opposed to modern feminism as undermining the complementarity of male and female roles. The true Walt Whitman, then, would be far more out of step with our society than he was with his own. And the corollary of this is that he is potentially a lot more subversive now than he was in his own time. This is precisely why it is important to resist the crass appropriation of Walt Whitman by the modern gay movement. Who knows? Maybe one day, as Brasas speculates at the end of his book, in the centuries to come, Whitman's dream of true liberation, of comradeship, might yet be revived.
Reviewed by John Hamilton on Amazon.com, 16 July 2015.